Texas Forever: Taylor Kitsch Is Doing Hollywood His Way (Exclusive)
By Philiana Ng
Taylor Kitsch isn’t here to impress.
“I get so bored if I play the same or look the same in every role,” Kitsch says on a pleasant January afternoon in Pasadena, Calif. The 36-year-old actor is gearing up for the most transformative role of his career in Waco, the six-part Paramount Network miniseries about the 1993 siege premiering Wednesday, Jan. 24. The Kelowna, British Columbia, native plays David Koresh, controversial leader of the Branch Davidians, who, along with 75 of his followers, perished in a deadly fire following a violent 51-day standoff with the FBI. “Maybe it’s an older school mindset,” he theorizes, leaning back in his chair in deep thought, a cool, laidback confidence radiating from him. “I love the grind.”
Kitsch first broke out onscreen in 2006, as brooding bad boy Tim Riggins on Friday Night Lights, becoming a favorite among young female fans of the NBC drama. Since the show ended in 2011, he’s largely steered away from roles akin to the character that propelled him to heartthrob status, instead leaning into parts that weren’t exactly tailor-made for him to begin with: a gay activist in The Normal Heart, a villainous operative in American Assassin, a successful weed dealer in Savages and most recently, one of the elite firefighters battling the Yarnell Hill Fire in Only the Brave. “I grew up on these guys, like the Sean Penns and the Gary Oldmans. I think there’s a high to that. I love that challenge,” he says. “When I started studying acting that was kind of what it was about: figuring out your process to create these different characters.”
As Koresh, Kitsch unlocks another hidden ability in his growing breadth as an actor, exuding a level of charm and magnetism in Waco that is both mesmerizing and mystifying, only because the man he portrays wasn’t a good man at all. “There aren’t many characters like this that exist. He’s enigmatic and crazy brilliant and crazy, period,” says Kitsch, who calls Austin, Texas home.
In order to realistically embody the sect leader, Kitsch -- who also serves as an executive producer -- grew out his hair and dropped 30 pounds in four months; his 500-calorie diet consisted of egg whites, coffee, vegetables, a tiny bit of protein and, after 4 p.m., broth. “Losing weight when you already don’t have too much to lose, it’s no fun, but it’s just part of it,” Kitsch says of his transformation, adding that it played “a huge part in the cadence” of a “mad genius” like Koresh. “The way you walk, the way you feel… It reaffirmed how smart he had to be because it was never blunt force. It couldn’t be. He couldn’t intimidate that way.”
It also required Kitsch to lose himself in Koresh’s world -- and he took it quite literally. For months leading up to filming in Santa Fe, New Mexico, last April, Kitsch devoted “eight to 10 hours a day” familiarizing himself with all facets of David Koresh’s intricate life. That included four hours of guitar and singing lessons, scripture readings, dissecting hours upon hours of Koresh’s tapes and researching his difficult upbringing. “It was almost laughable in the beginning. I would joke around about how much prep I had,” Kitsch recalls.
There were moments during the production of Waco that proved challenging. Kitsch zeroed in on the sermons as being particularly “tough” to memorize and he became obsessed with nailing the improbable task. “I’m more known for saying less is more,” Kitsch says, alluding to his famous FNL character, Riggins, “so to be as talky as Dave… But when you’re mixing in scripture, it’s just so hard to infuse into my brain. I’d be in my house in Santa Fe and I’d have all these white boards all over the house of scriptures and psalms and everything that I had to remember in episode five, six or in a monologue. Everywhere in the house I could see it, I would say it out loud, walk over there, see it and say it out loud.”
The most daunting part about playing Koresh, though, had nothing to do with memorizing nine-page sermons and everything to do with standing in front of a mic. “The singing and guitar was f**king scary man,” Kitsch confesses, a nervous laugh escaping his lips. (Koresh performed with his band in local Waco bars and church services. Survivor David Thibodeau, whose 1999 book on which Waco is based, said Koresh recruited members through music.) “I’ve never been in a f**king singing booth either, putting it on a track so we could go film it two days later. So I’d go in the studio with a real band, which is scary to begin with, and be like, ‘Hey, I’m about to sing ‘My Sharona,’ are you ready?’ and they’re like” -- he gives a knowing look -- “‘All right...?’ They were awesome and supportive, and I gained a lot of confidence from that.”
"I feel like I'm getting better and better."
There was once a time when Kitsch’s stardom was fast approaching elite status. Fresh off the success of Friday Night Lights, Hollywood came knocking with two very expensive tentpoles, Battleship and John Carter -- films that held the promise of proclaiming him the next franchise superstar. It just didn’t happen. Both films bombed at the box office and were panned by critics. “I’ll read articles, but I won’t go on Rotten Tomatoes,” Kitsch, who only recently joined Instagram, cracks. Though it didn’t seem that way at the time, in hindsight, his failures were blessings in disguise: Kitsch had the opportunity to redirect his career on a far more interesting path.
“I feel I’ve stayed the course,” Kitsch says, analyzing his ups and downs with a refreshing candor. “I’m proud of the way I reacted to John Carter. I’m proud of the way I reacted to Battleship. I still have no regrets really. At the time in your life that these opportunities present themselves, I would have done it again knowing the circumstance and knowing what was going on. What I’m proud of is my work ethic throughout. I’ve never wavered. I feel like I’m getting better and better. I think Waco is a great example of that.”
“When you have people who believe in you and give you these chances, I just won’t let go of that opportunity,” he adds, his steadfast loyalty and gratitude to those who have seen him as more than just a pretty face unwavering. “I don’t know if it’s something I’ve learned; it’s something I’m proud of -- that I’ve, in that sense, kept grinding. It’s kind of all I know now. I’ve always -- in sports, in life -- there’s a way I make it where I have to grind, you know what I mean? It’s the underdog thing. It carries me or I carry that with me, whatever that is.”
Kitsch has rarely spoken about the much-maligned second season of HBO’s True Detective, in which he portrayed closeted highway officer and ex-military man Paul Woodrugh. He acknowledges that the 2015 season was far from perfect though his experience was “really, really positive” (“Obviously, it’s not the best case that people didn’t react to it that way,” Kitsch says). While it may seem, from the outside at least, to have been a contributing factor in the long gap between TV projects, Kitsch assures that wasn’t the case. “I remember watching season one [of True Detective] -- I haven’t told anyone this -- and sitting in bed and I was like, ‘If I could f**king get on a show like that…,” he remembers. “You’re allowed to let go a lot easier when you understand you put everything you could that you had control over that you felt you knocked out. You can walk away a lot easier.”
Kitsch still keeps in touch with creator Nic Pizzolatto (“I’d go work with Nic tomorrow”) and he’s looking forward to the third installment with Oscar winner Mahershala Ali (“They got an amazing cast”). There’s an ounce of disappointment in his voice when he eventually evaluates what went wrong. “Season one was incredible and I think it’ll go down as all-time, and that says a lot because there is some amazing stuff in the last 30 years. I think the bar was crazy high, which I have no problem swinging for, but there were some constraints in the timing of it,” Kitsch says. “Sometimes you’re on a movie or you’re in a relationship and the magic just isn’t there, or you are in one and everything just seems to play out the right way. I’m sure I could speak for the other leads in it -- man, we were all proud to be there. Everyone came beyond prepared -- you have to when you’re working with Nic -- and we swung.”
Next for Kitsch is a tale that has stayed in his brain for the past several years, like an earworm that just won’t leave his head. Titled Pieces, Kitsch plans to write, direct, star and produce the feature film based on his 2014 short about three guys who grew up in the worst part of town with a sudden opportunity to change their kids’ and families’ lives. “It’s a bit savage-y. It’s a bit Western-y. It’s a grimy movie. Everything f**king goes crazy,” Kitsch says with a glint of excitement piercing through his deep green eyes.
He’s never done anything this intensive before, executing his own idea from page to screen. Could this be Kitsch’s next chapter in his career? “We’ll see how this goes,” he says with an anxious laugh. Asked if he’s nervous about jumping into something so deeply personal that will truly be his, Kitsch didn’t mince words: “You should be. Hopefully, I’m nervous about my next job too. It’s a story that won’t leave me. I want to do this and I want to do it my way.”