Stephen Dorff Embodies Title Character in 'Wheeler,' His Ode to a City and Genre That Embraced His Dad and Late Brother

Bobby Tomberlin
Stephen Dorff in Wheeler.

Disguised beneath prosthetics, makeup and a wig that collectively took more than three hours to apply daily, Hollywood actor Stephen Dorff came to Nashville in February 2015 to make a film about an aspiring country music star.

Shot in just two weeks, the movie, Wheeler, employs only three Screen Actors Guild members (Dorff and Kris Kristofferson are two of them). The rest of the cast comprises real people, including quite a few country music industry luminaries. Appearing as themselves are songwriter Bobby Tomberlin, Curb Records executive Jim Ed Norman, Nashville Songwriters Assn. International (NSAI) executive director Bart Herbison, Bluebird Cafe president/COO Erika Wollam Nichols and WSM-AM overnight host Marcia Campbell

While those people were in on the film’s premise, a group of Nashville’s A-team studio musicians were not. Told only that they were recording a few sides with a new Curb development-deal act named Wheeler Bryson (which is Dorff’s character in the movie), the musicians — including Eddie BayersJimmy NicholsJimmie Lee Sloas and Biff Watson — did their thing in the studio, then spoke glowingly about Wheeler to cameras helmed by a crew they thought was shooting behind-the-scenes footage about his recording debut. All the while, Dorff was struggling to keep his prosthetic lip in place while singing, occasionally having to pop into the studio bathroom with a crewmember to seal it back in place after it would start flapping around.

“I wasn’t trying to josh them, but what I wanted was real reaction,” says Dorff of the studio musicians. “We got brilliant stuff from them.”

The faux documentary-style film, which opens Feb. 3, tracks the troubled, 41-year-old Wheeler as he travels from his home in Kaufman, Texas, to visit Nashville for the first time and try to get a late-in-life foothold in the country music industry. “Every performance is live,” says Dorff of the filmmaking style, which included a lot of improvised dialog. “There’s no playbacks, and you either hit it or you don’t.” In a scene where Tomberlin brings Wheeler up onstage to perform a song at the Bluebird, the audience in the venue was there to see a real show with Tomberlin and other songwriters, unaware a film was being shot that night. 

In the movie, Wheeler visits many locations familiar to Nashvillians, such as the Ryman Auditorium, Bobby’s Idle Hour, Douglas Corner and Corner Music. On a bus tour of Music Row, a real-life tour guide delivers the film’s funniest line when he points out the controversial Musica statue, which features nude figures, calling it “a reminder that you might not just lose your shirt in country music, but your pants as well.” Wheeler meets Tomberlin on that tour, setting off a chain of events that — in the film’s only unrealistic note — finds Wheeler signed to Curb in a matter of days after his arrival, as opposed to the years it takes most country artists and songwriters to get that far in their careers.

Dorff doesn’t just star in the film: He also co-wrote and produced it with director Ryan Ross. Dorff borrowed the film’s marketing tagline, “It all begins with a song,” from NSAI’s slogan. “I thought it was such a cool metaphor for really what songwriting is, and life is, in a way,” he says. “I came [to Nashville] with the heart and the idea to do this the right way, not as some Hollywood guy coming in and putting a cowboy hat on and trying to sing country. That’s just boring, and anybody can do that if they have a decent voice. What I wanted to do was create a real guy and create a sound that even after this movie you remember.

“I hope [moviegoers] like Wheeler, because I think he’s the most humble, honest cowboy character that’s been created in years,” adds Dorff. “I think Ryan did a brilliant job of crafting a tortured guy with a soul, a guy that speaks from his heart, writes from his heart [and] isn’t trying to write a line to get on the radio. He’s writing songs from inside of him, and the songs healed him.”

Dorff — the son of famed songwriter-composer Steve Dorff and brother of late Nashville hitmaker Andrew Dorff — proves that musical talent runs deep in his family. In addition to (quite impressively) doing his own singing, piano and guitar playing, Dorff co-produced the film’s soundtrack, set for release Feb. 3 on Varese Sarabande Records, and co-wrote almost all of the songs, including the soundtrack’s single, “Pour Me Out of This Town,” which he penned with Andrew and Tomberlin. The song will be sent to country radio, and Dorff will promote it with upcoming visits to Country Radio Seminar and the Grand Ole Opry. He already appeared as himself at the Bluebird two days after screening the film at Nashville’s Belcourt Theatre in January.

If “Pour Me Out of This Town” were to chart, it will likely mark the first time that three members of the same family would have simultaneous country singles. Steve co-wrote Garth Brooks’ “Baby, Let’s Lay Down and Dance,” and Andrew penned Rascal Flatts’ current single, “Yours If You Want It,” in addition to co-writing “Pour Me” with Stephen.

“I love that we made something real and honest,” says Dorff, referring to both the film and its soundtrack. “I come from a songwriting family, so this [project] was my kind of payback to the world of music, and songwriting, and this town, which was amazing to my brother and has been great to my dad over the years.”

He admits it’s bittersweet to be promoting the film in the city that embraced his brother, who unexpectedly died in December 2016 after scoring big with such hits as Blake Shelton’s “Neon Light,” Kenny Chesney’s “Save It for a Rainy Day” and Hunter Hayes’ “Somebody’s Heartbreak.” (The cause of death has not been reported.)

“I lost my brother so recently, so this is strange to be in this town with a country album and a country movie,” says Dorff. “But it seems like the movie really touched a lot of his friends and a lot of the community [at the Belcourt screening]. I think he would have been happy about that. And he’ll just kind of live on through the music.”