Taylor Kitsch Gets in Touch With His Inner David Koresh in ‘Waco’
Texas football made the former ’Friday Night Lights’ actor a heartthrob. Will a Texas tragedy make him a bona fide star?
This story originally appeared in the January 2018 issue with the headline “Kitsch Goes Waco.”
Taylor Kitsch loves being Taylor Kitsch, and one of the charms of the 36-year-old actor is that if you meet him, you’ll love that Taylor Kitsch loves being Taylor Kitsch too. It was a crisp afternoon in late October, and Kitsch was sitting at a picnic table on the patio of the Mean-Eyed Cat, a Johnny Cash–themed bar on West Fifth Street in Austin. Kitsch was enjoying the sunshine. (“The weather’s been insane. It’s why you live in Texas, you know?”) Kitsch was enjoying his barbecued pork ribs. (“Eating a plate of meat is rare for me, but it’s fun right now.”) Kitsch was enjoying his sleek and very expensive-looking BMW GS Rallye motorcycle, which he’d parked in front of the bar’s entrance. (“That bike’s spanking new. It’s like my child. I love it.”)
Over the past few months, Kitsch had gone on a two-thousand-mile motorcycle trip through the mountain west, riding up Glacier National Park’s Going-to-the-Sun Road, winding along Idaho’s Salmon River. He’d visited Africa, “because I didn’t know what the fuck was going on with all the poaching, and I wanted to know.” He’d traveled to San Diego to skydive with a bunch of Navy SEALs and his friend and mentor, the macho-man director Peter Berg. He’d gone to the “Harvey Can’t Mess With Texas” benefit show at the Frank Erwin Center in Austin—“a really great concert, like top five for me”—and afterward “tipped, like, 48 beers” with his friend country music star Ryan Bingham.
Now Kitsch was preparing to leave the South Austin apartment where he has lived for the past decade and move into his dream house, a 6,500-square-foot bachelor pad on Lake Austin. His whole family—mom, brothers, sisters, nieces, nephews—was coming down from British Columbia for Christmas, and Kitsch couldn’t wait to show off his new place.
“My mom’s going to lose her mind,” Kitsch said. “We grew up in a single-wide mobile home, then moved to a double-wide—she’ll lose it.”
Kitsch was going “full Griswold” on yuletide decorations. He’d already purchased a ten-foot-tall blow-up polar bear to put on his front porch, and he and his oldest brother, Daman, were planning to install an elaborate light display before the rest of the family arrived. “It’ll hurt your eyes,” Kitsch said. “Literally, I hope we get fined by the HOA. That’s our goal, so we’ll do it.”
Kitsch became famous for playing the Dillon Panthers’ bad-boy fullback Tim Riggins on the TV show Friday Night Lights, and over the course of five seasons, he made the character irresistible to watch—a teenage jumble of empathy, anger, machismo, and freewheeling fun. When the show ended, Kitsch appeared to be on a rocket path to superstardom, but he still hasn’t quite gotten there. Instead, his career since Friday Night Lights has been defined by soaring expectations, big-budget disappointments, and consistently good acting.
When Kitsch and I met in Austin, he had just finished back-to-back press tours for two fall movies in which he plays supporting roles—the espionage thriller American Assassin and the wilderness-firefighter drama Only the Brave. But we were there to talk about Kitsch’s latest part—“the best work of my career, for sure”—which forced the actor to command the screen as never before and might just turn him into a bona fide Hollywood leading man.
On January 24, the first episode of this project, Waco, a six-part miniseries about the 1993 standoff at the Branch Davidian compound in Central Texas, will premiere on the newly renamed Paramount Network (formerly Spike). The show stars Michael Shannon, John Leguizamo, Rory Culkin, and Melissa Benoist, but Kitsch has the plum role. Kitsch is playing David Koresh.
The Waco siege has been the subject of a dozen or so documentaries that range from serious-minded to crackpot, but the new series is improbably the first dramatic re-creation of the entire event: 51 days of stalled negotiations and rising tensions that ended in an inferno that killed Koresh and 75 of his followers. The project’s genesis is unexpected: it was written, directed, and produced by brothers John and Drew Dowdle, whose handful of career credits includes low-budget horror films like Devil and Quarantine and the poorly reviewed Owen Wilson–Pierce Brosnan thriller No Escape. (Harvey Weinstein was an executive producer on the series, but his name has been removed from the credits.)
The Dowdles may not have had much experience, but they had a plan: though the Waco siege has been a political and cultural lightning rod for the past 25 years, the brothers decided that their film wouldn’t dwell on the controversies. They wanted to tell the tragic, human, “no-bad-guys version of the story.” To do that, they knew that their single most important decision would be casting someone who could bring tragic humanity to Koresh.
“We thought Koresh as a character is a deeply flawed individual, but there’s something a bit everyman about him, there’s something about him that people liked,” Drew Dowdle said. “The Taylor Kitsch version of David Koresh is inherently someone you would enjoy being around.”
When Kitsch first heard about the part, he had only a hazy memory of news coverage of the Waco siege. But the more he read, the more fascinated he became. After meeting with the Dowdles, he reached out to his agent and said, “If they want me to do it, I’ll swing. I just need prep time.”
Shooting was set to start in Santa Fe in April 2017, and as 2016 was coming to a close, Kitsch steeled himself for the next half year of preparation and production. “I went to Telluride for New Year’s and just blew it out—like, pizza, anything you could drink, ski, just go all out, don’t even worry about anything,” Kitsch said. On January 2, he arrived back in Austin, ready to begin his transformation.
When Kitsch first came to Austin, in 2006, to film the pilot for Friday Night Lights, he was 24 years old, “green and raw” and mostly in the dark about acting and the entertainment business. “I genuinely didn’t know what a critic was,” he told me. Kitsch had grown up four hours east of Vancouver in the city of Kelowna, British Columbia, with his mother and two older brothers—his dad was mostly absent—and until he was 20, he dreamed about playing professional ice hockey. When back-to-back knee injuries ended his career, he moved to New York to try to make it as an actor, beginning a scrappy period in which he took classes, modeled, and, for a several-week stretch, spent his nights sleeping on the subway.
Kitsch had almost missed his screen test for Friday Night Lights due to visa issues, and when he arrived, Berg, the series’ creator, first made him improvise in character for thirty minutes. Berg was suitably impressed. “What you did in there, make sure you do in this screen test with all the execs, and I think we’ll be just fine,” he told Kitsch.
Friday Night Lights never had a big audience, but to the people who watched it week after week, it might as well have been War and Peace, except about high school football, and way more fun. Kitsch was the heartthrob, and even while the show was in the middle of its run, he was getting movie work, playing Gambit in an X-Men movie and the war photographer Kevin Carter in The Bang Bang Club. After Friday Night Lights ended, in 2011, Kitsch was primed to really make it big. Going into 2012, he had starring roles in two massively hyped movies with enormous budgets, John Carter and Battleship, both of which seemed like good bets to turn into franchises.
“I had two ten-year contracts,” Kitsch said. “I would have been going Carter, Battleship, Carter, Battleship, and maybe an indie somewhere in there if I could.”
But both films fizzled at the box office, and Kitsch’s career was forced to become more interesting. “I still have my journal from when I was in acting class in New York where it’s like, ‘All I want to do is indies and these characters and Sean Penn, Sean Penn, Sean Penn,’ ” Kitsch told me. He got his wish. He’s spent the past four years bringing a coiled-up intensity to men as varied as Navy SEAL Lieutenant Michael P. Murphy in Lone Survivor, Gay Men’s Health Crisis president Bruce Niles in HBO’s The Normal Heart, and patrolman Paul Woodrugh in the much-maligned second season of True Detective. Instead of conquering the world as an above-the-title star, Kitsch became our most finely featured character actor.
When Kitsch arrived back in Austin after his Telluride bacchanal, he got down to studying. He read the memoirs of Branch Davidian survivor David Thibodeau, watched home videos of Koresh preaching, and made a stab at grasping the Branch Davidians’ end-times theology. “I literally had a beginner’s-Bible-study version of the Book of Revelation,” Kitsch said.
Koresh was an enthusiastic rock guitarist and singer (followers wore “David Koresh: God Rocks” T-shirts), so Kitsch took guitar and voice lessons to pull off the on-screen performances. To physically transform into Koresh—who did not have movie-star muscles—Kitsch dropped thirty pounds, limiting himself to eight hundred calories a day and running around Lady Bird Lake while listening to Koresh’s sermons.
As Kitsch dug into his research, he saw a clear path to playing the public persona of the Branch Davidian leader. “Before the siege, it’s his birthday every day,” Kitsch said. “It’s all about him. He’s got a go-cart track and a shooting range, and he’s a rock star—obviously the lead singer, obviously the lead guitarist.”
In Waco, Koresh, as played by Kitsch, oozes charm and bravado and knows just how to manipulate the people around him. That’s not a stretch. The 33-year-old self-proclaimed “Lamb of God” was in the habit of waking up his followers in the middle of the night so that they could listen to him show off his savant-like recall of the Bible. He had about two dozen “spiritual wives,” including some who were already married to other Branch Davidians. After a claimed revelation from God, he commanded all men in the compound to be celibate, with the singular exception of David Koresh. (“I’ve assumed the burden of sex for us all, but not for my own kicks,” Kitsch as Koresh says in the show’s first episode.) He was good at a drawling, tough-guy act too: he drove a ’68 Camaro, loved his firearms, and famously sent a message to the FBI saying, “You come pointing guns in the direction of my wife and my kids, dammit, I’ll meet you at the door any time.”
But Kitsch also had to reckon with Koresh’s darkness. Among Koresh’s wives were women whom he had married when they were as young as twelve years old, and even if you think the federal government acted disastrously at Waco, it’s hard to see Koresh as blameless in the deaths of the 86 people who perished in the initial raid and the final fire. “Taylor and I had long talks: ‘How do you play this guy in a human way?’ ” John Dowdle said. “That was a big part of the preparation, just trying to get through the ugly stuff so he’s not a monster from the get-go.”
Kitsch seized on Koresh’s childhood to understand him, trying to find that part of the Branch Davidian leader that was still Vernon Wayne Howell, Koresh’s given name. During his research, Kitsch read about a phone call that Koresh placed to his mother during the ATF raid on the compound. Koresh had been shot twice, was bleeding profusely, and thought that he was minutes from the end. His mother didn’t pick up, but he left a message, telling her he was dying, asking her to “tell Grandma hello for me,” and saying, “I’ll see y’all in the skies.”
“I broke reading it,” Kitsch said. “I was crushed. And after that, I was like, ‘I’m dialed in now and I’m ready to go.’ ” The call hadn’t been in the script, but Kitsch emailed the Dowdles and urged them to add it: “I’m like, ‘This will take fifteen, twenty minutes to shoot, guys, we’ve got to have this in there. This is not Koresh—this is Vernon calling his mom.’ ” The Dowdles agreed.
When Kitsch arrived on set, cast and crew who were wondering what he’d bring to the role didn’t have to wait long. On the first day, the Dowdles had scheduled a scene in which Kitsch delivered a nine-page sermon on divine joy to his congregants.
“It was pretty remarkable to see him get up and do that,” Paul Sparks, who plays Koresh’s deputy, Steve Schneider, told me. “I had heard some of Koresh on the internet, but to be in the room and listen to this person talk about these complex, different ways of looking at Scripture—it was like, ‘Right, that’s what it was like.’ ”
Regardless of whether Waco is a hit, Kitsch has his next project lined up. He’s planning to go to a friend’s San Saba ranch in February to shoot a movie currently titled Pieces. It will be his debut as a screenwriter and feature-film director. Pieces tells the story of “three best friends who take an opportunity to change their lives.” In this case, that opportunity is to intercept a drug drop on the Texas-Mexico border, after which, as you might assume, “all hell breaks loose.” Kitsch wrote the script over the course of several motorcycle road trips, and he used the journeys not only to clear his mind for writing but as an opportunity to conduct research.
“I remember being in Idaho and there’s this truck-stop hooker, basically, and I had a coffee with her,” Kitsch told me. “Don’t read into that, it was—literally, it was a coffee—and I just bombed questions at her, and she was just super cool. I put a character based on her in the movie.”
Kitsch seems to have exactly the kind of fame that he wants. He can build a dream house and get a dream role, but he can drop by a truck stop in Idaho and bomb questions at people who don’t recognize him. He has famous friends and wild adventures, but every interaction he has doesn’t have to be about his celebrity.
As we were sitting at Mean-Eyed Cat, Kitsch told me about turning down a role recently. It was a “little rom-com for five days’ work,” he said, and it was “stupid money.” He would have made more on that movie than he did on Waco, Only the Brave, and three Normal Hearts combined—“for five days’ work,” he said again.
I asked him why he’d said no. He did the voice-over work for Ram Trucks commercials, after all.
First he answered like an actor. “It’s just not where I want to be, it’s not the story I want to tell,” he said.
Then he added a caveat that was pure Taylor Kitsch. “I mean, I’m for sale,” he said, a big smile breaking out over his face. “If you want to give me $20 million for something and my mom never has to work again and my family’s good for the rest of their life, yes, I’m going to do it—don’t care who you are. I come from nothing, so to give my mom that call would just be awesome. I mean, I wouldn’t do porn, but, you know?”
*Correction: A previous version of this article said that Kitsch grew up four hours west of Vancouver. He grew up four hours east of Vancouver. We regret the error.