Tim McGraw on his character in ‘1883’: ‘James is running from a lot of demons in his past’

Over the years there have been movies and TV series examining the trials and tribulations of settlers traveling together on wagon trains hoping to find a new life in the West such as Raoul Walsh’s 193o widescreen “The Big Trail” starring a young John Wayne; John Ford’s 1950 “Wagon Master”; and the 1957—65 series “Wagon Train,” which hit No. 1 in the ratings. And now there’s Paramount +’s rugged, gritty and bloody “1883,” which debuted last December attracting 4.9 million viewers. The series, which concludes on Feb 25, has been renewed for a second season.

“1883,” which stars Tim McGraw, his wife Faith Hill, Sam Elliott and Isabel May, is a prequel to Paramount’s uber-popular contemporary Western “Yellowstone,” starring Kevin Costner as the powerful landowner John Dutton. Just as “Yellowstone,” “1883” was created by Taylor Sheridan and follows Costner’s great-great grandfather James Dutton (McGraw) and great-great-grandmother Margaret (Hill) as they make the arduous, deadly wagon train journey from Texas to Oregon. May is James and Margaret’s feisty 18-year-old daughter Elsa, who is the narrator and heart of the series. And Elliott plays Shea Brennan, a Pinkerton Agency employee, who leads the wagon train. Before he got the job, Brennan was considering suicide because his wife and daughter had died of smallpox.

McGraw, Elliott and May recently talked about the “1883” in a Zoom interview with Dave Jorgenson, the video producer at the Washington Post. “I think my character, James, is running from a lot of demons in his past,” said McGraw. “He was a captain in the Civil War and led his men into a battle that most of all of them were killed. He ended up being in a war prison for three years and Margaret, my wife, she nursed during the Civil War and waited for me for three years while raising a child. So, I think he had a lot of PTSD, which wasn’t a thing back then.”

Their journey, he said, was “just such a traumatic and trial-by-fire sort of experience. It was just rife with danger and turmoil. I think you never knew what was going to happen.” So much so, McGraw doesn’t think James Dutton ever slept. I think he was constantly concerned and worried about what was going on and what was going to happen next. “

When asked about working with Sheridan, Elliott smiled and ran his hand through his white hair. “Oh, wow, that’s the big question isn’t it?,” he said in his famous drawl. “What’s it like to work for Taylor Sheridan? Taylor is the reason we’re all here looking at a TV screen or whatever kind of a screen we’re looking at here. That shows you what a techno-peasant I am. Taylor i, quite seriously, a brilliant man and an incredibly talented writer. I think that this lady on the screen here next to us can tell you that better than I can. I mean, the stuff Taylor writes for women and particularly here for Isabel to me is some of the best stuff in the series.”

May, who previously appeared on Netflix’s “Alexa and Katie” and was recurring on CBS’ “Young Sheldon,” found out she got the part of Elsa before he had written the script. “So, I had some time to sit with this character,” she said. And had some time to learn how to ride a horse convincingly.

Sheridan held a cowboy camp for the cast last August. “I immediately jumped on one as soon as I possibly could and have come to fall in love with horses, horseback riding and the open plains,” noted May. “If anybody has a cabin somewhere in Wyoming or Montana or away from civilization, I would like it.” May also read account teenage girls women who travelled the Oregon Trail. “There’s one who I became very invested in named Mad Anne Bailey. She had a pretty remarkable story that somewhat reflected Elsa’s story. If anyone thinks that Elsa is a bit too fictional for their taste I would disagree.”

She continued: “I think when you’re a teenager and becoming a woman, that’s probably the greatest growth one could go through in their life and is reflected on screen. I don’t think we’ve ever seen that growth during such a treacherous journey.  She gets to make mistakes along the way, be frustrating and difficult and experience all sorts of tragedies and fall in love more than once. It’s pretty beautiful, pretty epic.”

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