Stephen Dorff has a reputation for giving his all on-screen, but as MMA fighter Cash Boykins in last year’s fight flick, Embattled, he succeeded in setting the bar even higher for himself. With the critically acclaimed father-son drama, centered in the Octagon, now available on digital download, Dorff sat down with M&F and opened up on the physical and mental requirements that were needed to undertake such a heavyweight project.

“I knew, just from reading the script, that this was kind of a beast of a man, that I was about to embark on playing,” says Dorff. “I knew that I wanted to put size on, and I didn’t have a lot of time, because I was just coming off shooting True Detective and I was very skinny at that time.”

Preparation is key

Before the filming of True Detective was even wrapped, Dorff started thinking about changing his shape. He contacted his preferred personal trainer, Josh Perzow, who is experienced with training fighters and NHL hockey players. Minded that he would be working alongside MMA greats such as Tyron Woodley and Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone, Dorff started to increase his workouts. Once he was done with True Detective, the real work could begin. The star says he put on 10 pounds of muscle in four weeks, thanks to hitting the gym and loading up on clean calories from organic foods.

With a focus on protein, Dorff was given a plan that included 1g per pound of bodyweight, each day, derived mainly from chicken and turkey breast, and fish. He got his healthy fats from nuts and egg yolk, and despite the need to appear ripped under the lights, carbohydrates were never totally cut, since high energy levels would be essential for those long days of filming.

Perzow placed Dorff on a regimen that included three days per week dedicated to traditional muscle building, and two days spared for isolating specific body parts. The remaining two days were spent prioritizing rest and recovery. The aim was to broaden Dorff’s physical frame, in order to give him greater presence in the ring.

Finding balance

Having added the necessary size, Dorff soon found that the long hours of filming five-minute rounds of MMA was counterproductive for his onscreen physique. “As soon as we got to Alabama, and you’re kind or working with the UFC coaches (like Chris Connelly), then some of that size that I had put on was now shrinking off,” he recalls. Of course, there’s a lot of cardio that goes into MMA, so the actor was forced to strike a careful balance between calories in, and energy out.

All of the fight scenes in Embattled were actually shot first, much like with the Rocky movies. “It’s kind of risky,” says Dorff. “It’s like; what if me or Darren (Mann) get hurt? And then you have seven weeks of filming the rest of the movie. But I thought it would be a mistake to do the fights at the end (of the shoot), because we would have been emotionally tired instead of feeling strong and fresh from the gym. So, we did it that way, it was a hard two weeks filming those fights, but I think it really worked. That was the way to do it, because I think the other way around would have been wonky.”

But unlike Rocky, which is focused on boxing, MMA is arguably more difficult to choreograph because there are even more moving parts. “I knew a lot of the MMA moves, but I needed some help on refreshing my grappling, and certain techniques,” says Dorff. “I’m not an MMA fighter, so when you are playing a champion, you are trying to bring your character into the choreography. I thought that Fernando Chien did a great job with the fight choreography.”

Actor Stephen Dorff dramatic scene as MMA Fighter Cash Boykins in Embattled
Courtesy of IFC Films

What kind of fighter was his character?

“(Chien) read the script, and it was very clear that Cash Boykins was more of a scrapper. He’s gonna get you down on the ground, and then he’s gonna bury you. Cash wants to be in there as little as possible. He’s not a jiu-jitsu guy, whereas Darren’s character, Jett is much better with his feet. And that’s why that last fight is so strong, because you’ve got two different styles working against each other and, ultimately, they are going to combust. There’s an excitement, and an adrenaline in that cage that’s different to any boxing match that I’ve ever seen.”

Suffering for his art

“There had never been another MMA movie, that I’ve really enjoyed,” says Dorff. “There was Warrior, but that was so many years ago, and I fee like it was before the sport really exploded. To me Embattled is a far superior film. The depth that we go to, in our father and son relationship, hasn’t really been done like this.”

Watching Embattled, it is clear that Dorff is willing to make physical sacrifices to further his artistic capabilities, and he is by no means scared to rough it up. “When I go in there, I’m prepared to get hit,” says Dorff. “I did get hit a couple of times and I connected with Darren, I connected with Darren’s double. I feel bad about it, because you never want to connect.

“The thing about movie fight scenes and choreography is that it’s a dance, and a very intricate dance,” Dorff says. “Whether you are filming MMA or boxing, or a street fight, a sword fight, whatever it is, it’s a dance. But your brain can only move so fast, and you are multitasking. You are acting, and wondering what you are doing next, and you’re bound to make mistakes, and that’s where injuries can come, but we were very lucky.”

He added: “You go for it, and you’re gonna get dirty, and you’re gonna get nicked up. My back had wounds and gashes all over from being up against that fence. There are all those clinches, and being slammed down onto the mat. It ain’t fun. But at the same time, it really felt like we were in a big match, and the reality is that we were both ready to go.”

Embattled is now available on digital download.

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