Music runs in the bloodline of actor Stephen Dorff. However, rather than follow in the songwriting family footsteps of his father Steve (“I Cross My Heart”) and late brother Andrew (“Neon Light”), he has made a name for himself in such theatrical releases as The Power of One and Somewhere. His latest project, Wheeler, allows him to combine both acting and music as never before.
The film stars Dorff as Wheeler, a Texas native who has decided to come to Nashville to try his hand at a music career. While the industry has been front and center in such films as Robert Altman’s Nashville and the Robert Duvall film Tender Mercies, what sets Wheeler apart is the fact that the film takes the viewer on a real-life stroll through the creative community of Nashville with Dorff’s character trying to get his music heard by a variety of the city’s top writers, such as Bobby Tomberlin. With a last name so recognized by many in the industry, Dorff knew that the only way to see if his songs passed the test was to try to be noticed as somebody other than himself. Donning heavy make-up and prosthetics, Dorff makes the rounds of the bars around the city. He tells Sounds Like Nashville that it was a unique process, but one that had to be taken to be authentic.
“I wanted to look different if we were going to try to infiltrate Nashville and create a buzz in the open mic scene, we had to make it real. People had to believe it, and they had to believe Wheeler and his performance. I didn’t want them going ‘Oh, that’s the guy from Blade.’ That would have ruined it for me. We could have just done a normal movie with a script and actors,” he said, “but I wanted to do one with real people. If you worked at this bar, and I was doing a scene with you, the thought would have been ‘Oh, they’re doing something for YouTube or this singer’s website.’ I think by doing that, we created a much more original-feeling film.”
Having appearances from writers like Tomberlin, as well as Country Music Hall of Famer Kris Kristofferson lent a feeling of realness to the project. “We had a movie at the end of the day, and a solid album. I thought ‘Whoa. This is like a two-part art project. It’s a movie and an album. It was really a tribute to songwriting, and where I come from with my father and my brother.”
“Pour Me Out Of This Town,” the lead single from the project was written by Stephen, along with Tomberlin and his brother Andrew, who passed away last month. Stephen said that his passing gives a bittersweet feeling to the project. “This has become a tribute to him. I hope that people will be touched by the movie. It’s kind of weird – some of the things that happen in the movie, and some of the things I’m dealing with personally right now. I don’t know what to do. I’m just trying to get through it.”
Dorff said that going incognito turned out to be a very rewarding way to approach the project. “I felt that if I [put] some sheets on my face, I could fill this character with an accent and a voice where nobody would know it was me. For about eighty percent of the movie, we got away with it, which was awesome. All of the musical performances were live. There were no playbacks. I sang and wrote everything, which was rare. I never wanted to be a singer, but I got a gift from my dad. I’m able to write music, which helps me with my performances in movies. I wanted to do a real music film where it was a character portrait, and the songs build. The music is really what is driving the story. I hope people feel something from it.”
Tomberlin believes the movie will make such an impact, in that it shows the way the town operates. “One of the scenes in the film was at the Bluebird Café. The audience had no idea it was Stephen. They thought it was just a character from Texas. They loved him. The applause was great. It was cool to have moments like that – to see if the talent was there, and to see if it really connected with people. I think they will come away from it with a story that really captures the journey of a dreamer in Nashville. I think it’s really true to form.”
Will Dorff be led to record more music as a result of Wheeler? He doesn’t know, but allows that its appeal is something he definitely feels – though he didn’t pursue it as a career. “Music, to me, is such an intense art form. I guess because I grew up with it – sitting on Ray Charles’ lap, and people around the house like Lionel Richie – all these people that my dad was working with when I was a baby. Music has always hit me. I play by ear, I don’t read music, I’m able to play piano and speak a different language through that. That always heals me. I think that creative people want to create. There are some actors who are great musicians, and some musicians that are great actors. Then, there’s a lot of fluff in between, where it gets a little cheesy, and I think it’s more ego. For me, it’s all about the music. My next music venture might be something very different. I don’t sing Country normally. I was playing a character. I found a Country sound, and a lot of people have responded to it. Who knows, maybe I’ll be playing Stagecoach as a new Country act?”
Dorff will play the Grand Ole Opry at the Ryman Auditorium on Friday, February 3 – the same day the film hits theaters and On Demand.