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‘True Detective’: Mahershala Ali and Stephen Dorff Built a Partnership By Not Talking

Living up to the electric duo of Rust Cohle and Marty Hart is no easy task, but Season 3's lead detectives won over the audience their own way.

True Detective Season 3 Episode 5 Mahershala Ali Stephen Dorff

Mahershala Ali and Stephen Dorff in “True Detective”

Warrick Page / HBO

Mahershala Ali and Stephen Dorff met at the airport. The “Moonlight” and “Somewhere” stars were on their way to Arkansas to start production on the much-anticipated, long-awaited third season of “True Detective.” Buzz was already strong; a daunting 120-day shoot was looming, cloaked in secrecy and filmed in remote Arkansas locations far removed from their respective homes. They hopped off the plane and met the drivers who escorted them to their new residence.

“It was funny,” Dorff said. “The drivers thought we were the camera guys. They’re like, ‘Where’s all your camera gear?’ We looked at each other, and we just kind of smirked.”

That, said Dorff and Ali, was when their partnership began. They understood that they weren’t in Hollywood anymore, and were about to embark on a project that could change their careers.

“[‘True Detective’] was one of my favorite shows,” Ali said. “After seeing that first season, I literally said, ‘Oh man, I would love to be on that show’ — just knowing that there was slim to no chance of that happening.”

They knew exactly the kind of partnership that “True Detective” demanded. A major aspect of the first season’s success was the addictive yin-yang dynamic between Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson. A single line — Marty’s “You are like the Michael Jordan of being a son of a bitch” — has so rarely captured the delightful dichotomy between two people, or become so popular. Rust Cohle (McConaughey) and Marty Hart (Harrelson) became part of the cultural lexicon and the actors went on to reap regular awards attention.

True Detective Season 3 Episode 3 Mahershala Ali Stephen Dorff HBO

Mahershala Ali and Stephen Dorff in “True Detective”

Warrick Page / HBO

Dorff also admitted he “didn’t connect” to Season 2 in the same way, which focused on four leads and three cops. With Wayne Hays (Ali) and Roland West (Dorff), Season 3 reintroduced the framework of two cops in a car driving through the rural South. So how did the new actors prepare for comparisons to McConaughey and Harrelson?

“I think Nic Pizzolatto does such a wonderful job of really subtly spelling out the dynamics of those character relationships throughout the piece,” Ali said. “I think on the page it’s clear that Wayne and Roland have a real friendship, a real kinship, a real brotherhood, a real bond. [They’re] two people who know how to speak together in space, but two people who obviously know how to just be quiet together. I think to have two characters be able to ride in a car and be quiet for 45 seconds straight on TV spells out for you how comfortable these two people are with one another.”

Dorff, who said he accepted the role without seeing scripts for the first time in his career, said his two audition scenes sold him on the dialogue.

“A lot of my best roles, I think, have been where I didn’t have to say much,” Dorff said. “Whether it was Sofia Coppola’s movie or [another] movie, I did a lot of acting without saying things. There are no big speeches in her movies. When we work with Nic Pizzolatto, the beauty is in the poetry of those words. So you really want to get everything right.”

As reported earlier, Ali was originally offered the supporting role in Season 3 — Roland’s part, rather than Wayne’s — but he pushed Pizzolatto to make Wayne the lead. Ali said there weren’t many changes that had to be made: racial issues were already present in the scripts, and expanding Wayne’s role was more about giving a black character more screen time and honoring the black experience.

“It wasn’t about layering in racist scenarios, but layering moments in there that lead one to question — ‘Is that going that way because of race?'” Ali said. “Maybe he’s just not getting that opportunity because he’s not well-suited for [it], but you just don’t know exactly what leads to something happening, or something not happening for Wayne — that’s how it’s experienced for black people.”

Ali was quick to say race isn’t the driving force of the show, the case, or Wayne and Roland’s relationship.

“But it’s definitely not something that’s ignored, and I think it’s a wonderful offering if you’re looking at how race has been this conversation in our content for decades,” Ali said. “This is done in way that is subtle yet unapologetic, and so therefore it feels really fresh. The whole take on race and how it’s incorporated in the story feels really authentic.”

True Detective Season 3 Episode 5 porch

“True Detective”


Dorff, meanwhile, found out that Pizzolatto saw a lot of himself in the no-nonsense good ol’ boy from the South. “When you meet Nic, he’s kind of my height, he’s a tough kind of [guy],” Dorff said. “He’s from New Orleans — from St. Charles — so there’s no LA, New York shit about him. He’s a real guy. He came into this town as a writer, wrote some novels, and he’s just a very unique, special guy.”

Dorff said he read articles in the past that cited him as a good fit for the show, but he never met Pizzolatto until auditioning for Season 3. The two collaborated closely on the backstory, down to some granular, subjective details.

“At first, he said [Roland] was from Oklahoma, but then when he started seeing me play Roland he said, ‘Roland’s too cool for this. He’s not from Oklahoma. He’s from Texas.’ And so he would change little things, and I’d be like, ‘OK.'”

With their characters in place, Ali and Dorff found the rest on set. “We found our own parts through the wardrobe, makeup, hair, all that kind of stuff,” Dorff said. “Then we came together and started just vibing. And it just kind of — we went there. When we were in the ’90s [timeline] it happened, and then as old men it really happened.”

“I think we had a blast shooting it together,” Ali said. “Look, it was difficult, emotional, work. There were no days off, and no easy scenes. But to get to wrestle and dig through that stuff with Stephen […] more times than not, I would go home at the end of the day and feel like we captured something really special.”

“I never had a partner in a movie,” Dorff said. “A guy where you explore that much tension, love, friendship, frustration, emptiness — all of it. […] It was a beautiful partnership, on and off camera.”

Season 3 has received high marks from critics, particularly for the performances. It’s too early to tell if people will speak of Wayne and Roland the way they do Rust and Marty, but the actors returned to Hollywood with more than a laugh to share between them.

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