1883 star Isabel May is still in disbelief that she serves as the audience’s eyes and ears on a Yellowstone prequel series that counts Sam Elliott, Tim McGraw and Faith Hill as co-stars. May plays 17-year-old Elsa Dutton, who’s an ancestor of Kevin Costner’s Yellowstone patriarch, John Dutton. Once Yellowstone became the biggest show on cable, ViacomCBS gave series creator Taylor Sheridan the keys to the Paramount Network and Paramount+, and he quickly began to build the “Sheridan-verse,” which is expected to include five new shows over three years. The Jeremy Renner-led Mayor of Kingstown was the first series to premiere this past November, followed by this month’s 1883. Another Yellowstone spinoff known as 6666 is also on the way, as well as the Sylvester Stallone starring vehicle, Kansas City.
May’s unusual journey to 1883 and the character of Elsa Dutton actually started with an audition for a completely different character on Mayor of Kingstown.
“I was the only person to audition for Elsa,” May tells The Hollywood Reporter. “Taylor was doing another project called Mayor of Kingstown, and in March 2021, something like that, he flew three girls out to Texas, including myself. So I auditioned for that, and I was terribly wrong for it.”
May left the audition thinking that was it for her, but shortly after she returned home, she received a life-changing call.
“I don’t know what happened or what it was about myself or our interaction that sparked something in him, but Elsa came to life after our meeting,” May recalls. “He called two weeks later and said, ‘You’re Elsa Dutton. I want you to be Elsa Dutton. Please be Elsa Dutton.’ And I said, ‘Well, of course, I’ll be Elsa Dutton because you’re Taylor Sheridan and it’s my dream to work with you.’”
In a recent conversation with THR, May also discusses the tragic moment from the show’s fifth episode, “The Fangs of Freedom.” She even explains what it’s like to have Tim McGraw and Faith Hill as her fictional parents.
So I’m enjoying your show…
Thank you! I appreciate that. I haven’t seen it yet.
You’ve been too busy living it and making it?
Yeah, I just finished about a week and a half ago. So I need a little break from 1883, but I can’t wait to check it out in due time. I got bronchitis the last week of shooting, which is just my luck. So that was a nice way to wrap it up. But I lasted five months in extreme weather without getting sick, because I refused to. So at least I made it the five months.
Did you record the final voiceover with bronchitis?
(Laughs.) Unfortunately not. That would’ve been really great. It would’ve been terrible, guttural coughs in between lines, but man, that would’ve been really amusing. I’m actually going back to Texas today to record some of the last bits of voiceover. So I’m not quite done yet, but I don’t have to be on camera at least.
Going back to the beginning, were you one of 6,000 people to audition for Elsa Dutton? How did this go down?
(Laughs.) I was the only person to audition for Elsa.
Yes, I didn’t audition for her. I auditioned for a different project. Taylor was doing another project called Mayor of Kingstown, and in March 2021, something like that, he flew three girls out to Texas, including myself. So I auditioned for that, and I was terribly wrong for it. So I don’t know what happened or what it was about myself or our interaction that sparked something in him, but Elsa came to life after our meeting. I take zero credit for it. So he called two weeks later and said, “You’re Elsa Dutton. I want you to be Elsa Dutton. Please be Elsa Dutton.” And I said, “Well, of course, I’ll be Elsa Dutton because you’re Taylor Sheridan and it’s my dream to work with you.” So that’s what we did.
While it’s an ensemble cast, Elsa is the central figure as far as I’m concerned. She’s our way into this world. Back then, did you fully understand what a significant role you would have alongside some heavy hitters?
Well, I knew that she would be narrating the story because that’s the first thing that Taylor told me. I was receiving scripts as he was writing them and once I got the first episode, I thought, “Oh, my character really is narrating the story.” But it really took until the last episode for that to really sink into my head. Personally, I’ve always been the kind of person who doesn’t trust something until it’s solid, until I can hold it in my hands and trust that it’s there. So it was a strange, surreal experience and it still is. I haven’t fully wrapped my head around it. (Laughs.) It takes a while for me to realize things are happening. They have to have happened before I can trust that they occurred. I still feel like I’m daydreaming.
Since she’s becoming a cowboy in her own words, did Taylor forewarn you that you’d be put through the wringer?
Oh yeah! I trusted that. I’ve had a very comforting, happy, loving life and existence, so I find challenging work really intriguing and interesting and gratifying. So if I wasn’t put through the wringer, I would’ve been disappointed to be honest. That’s what this is all about. I still get to walk away from it, but it’s fun to make yourself a little miserable.
Were you an outdoors type already, or was this all new to you?
All new to me. I’d never ridden a horse before. I was born and raised in Los Angeles; I’ve spent most of my life in big cities like New York City and Los Angeles. So I didn’t have much experience with the outdoors, but I have a newfound love and appreciation for the open space, solitude and as few people as possible. (Laughs.) So I’m actively seeking it out now.
How long did you have to train?
I had the summer. I didn’t get to do it every day or every week, necessarily, but I would drive out to Agua Dulce in Northern California and ride with a woman named Deidre, who is actually the wife of our stunt coordinator [Jason Rodriguez]. I’m now a member of their family by the way. (Laughs.) So I rode with her as much as I possibly could, and then Taylor brought me out to do his infamous “Cowboy Camp,” which consisted of riding with wranglers all day, basically being spoiled rotten and sweating like crazy. But waking up at 7 a.m. every day and riding through this beautiful countryside was fun and another daydream. So I did have time. I didn’t have an excessive amount of time, but I did have time to prepare.
As bad as these last couple years have been, this show further reminds me that it’s nothing compared to the Old West, which was a waking nightmare in every way.
Have you gained a lot of perspective while immersing yourself in the 19th century?
Absolutely! You can’t not have a newfound perspective on the past and the present. Everything was more challenging back then, and yes, this has also been an incredibly challenging time as most people today feel lost and confused. But you didn’t have to walk across the country and risk being bitten by a snake, killed by a bandit, getting some sort of terrible sickness, and drinking bad water and dying. It’s mind-boggling how many ways you could be harmed or killed. And you were certainly at risk to lose the vast majority of the people you loved, which I think was the hardest part of it. I can walk 2,000 steps a day and be completely fine, which is almost embarrassing. I can drive anywhere I need to go or I can order someone to get it for me. We have access to so many things and we really don’t have to do much hard labor at all. So living in this world for the last few months has been so enlightening and truly eye-opening, and it’s made me appreciate what I have. And it makes me want to take the harder path sometimes — like walk to the grocery store rather than drive there. (Laughs.) Little things like that are not that challenging, but the easiest things have become a great challenge to us.
Since Taylor is working on 14 projects at the same time, how often are you able to pick his brain about the character and the world?
(Laughs.) That’s probably the greatest thing about this project. It’s Taylor’s baby, and I don’t think people understand how much it means to him. I certainly don’t want to speak on his behalf, but he’s expressed that. So he spent pretty much the entire time on this project. He was on set almost every day. He was in constant communication. We were shooting at his house — not inside of his house, obviously — but in his backyard. He owns all of the land that we were shooting on in Texas, and then we moved to Montana and all around. But he was always accessible and he still is always accessible. He cares deeply for this project, Elsa in particular, so I got very, very lucky on that end. His attention is a precious thing because he’s the busiest man I’ve ever met in my life.
When you heard that Tom Hanks and Billy Bob Thornton were coming on board for cameos in scenes that did not include Elsa, did you find any excuse you could to show up to set those days?
(Laughs.) I would lie and say yes, but I refuse to lie. So I’m going to be honest and say no.
(Laughs.) I know, I know, I’m terrible, but I have this weird thing where if my character is not in it, I don’t want to be there. I know that sounds sad, but for some reason, there’s just something that takes me out of it. I want to pretend that it’s real life, so much so that it’s difficult for some reason. I can’t explain it, but I just can’t participate unless Elsa is actively there. I’m also very much a loner, so when I had time to myself, I soaked in it and treasured that time. But I did get to meet Billy Bob and Tom very briefly, and they’re both lovely people. I just wanted to see their performances on screen and not watch them behind a monitor. It was probably a giant mistake that I sort of regret deep down; I’m a little pissed at myself. But in the moment, you make decisions that you regret, and I can’t turn back the wheel of time.
Actors strive to create chemistry with their loved ones on screen, but you have a rare situation in that your co-stars [Tim McGraw and Faith Hill, who play Elsa’s parents] have a 25-year head start on building chemistry [McGraw and Hill have been married since 1996]. So has that aspect been an advantage in terms of creating the Dutton family?
I think it’s been an absolute advantage. The fact that they have three daughters is an advantage as well. I have a little bit of a physical resemblance, but my personality also melds with their three daughters from what Faith has expressed to me. So when you see some of the emotion that plays out, especially between Faith and Tim, it feels so real because how they feel about Elsa became so real. It became almost painfully real. She became like a real daughter to them, I think, and they kind of became real parents to me as well. So I love them dearly, and the stars aligned perfectly. It was all meant to me.
At one point, Elsa made a trade in order to get a pair of pants. Were you just as relieved as she was to no longer have to wear an uncomfortable dress while riding?
Oh hell yeah! I was looking forward to that moment so much. I can’t express my relief. It’s very uncomfortable to ride in a corset and a big, thick, heavy skirt. Between that outfit and the pants outfit, it’s a remarkable difference, to say the least, while riding. Although, when I was wearing those pants, I just felt like I was wearing a diaper because they were extraordinarily large on me. But that’s fine. It wasn’t supposed to be flattering, let’s just say. It was funny walking around in them and feeling like an Oompa-Loompa. I don’t even know what an Oompa-Loompa is, but I’m assuming that they wear uncomfortable pants. (Laughs.) So it was an interesting experience. The whole thing was great. I don’t know when I’ll ever be able to do something like this again, so I’m just savoring it as much as I can.
Did Sam Elliott ever tell any Tombstone stories?
Oh yeah! When we were in Montana and we were all staying at the same place, we had late nights where he told us really interesting stories. They were all positive, by the way, but it’s one of those strange things where you sit down and go, “I’m listening to the iconic Sam Elliott talk about an interaction he had on the iconic Tombstone.” So that was pretty damn cool; I can’t lie. And it was fun to see how intrigued Tim and Faith were while listening to him as well. They’ve had their own iconic lives and experiences, and they can casually talk about iconic people that they’re friends with as well. So watching them listen to Sam Elliott tell stories with big, wide kid eyes, googly eyes, was really amusing. It was almost more entertaining to watch Faith and Tim take it all in … Almost. (Laughs.)
[The next three questions/answers contain major spoilers for 1883‘s fifth episode.]
Episode five. Elsa’s boyfriend, Ennis [Eric Nelsen], met his end in a duel with a bandit, and Elsa’s reaction was rather interesting. First, she processed everything in silence and then the wailing started after a period of quiet. Was her reaction scripted that way, or did you explore that delayed reaction yourself?
It was somewhat scripted that way. Taylor told me his experience of watching someone process the death of someone they loved. It was something that he’s experienced. It was him seeing true, profound grief for the first time. So I just processed what he said and I tried to live it the best I could. I’ve never experienced that kind of grief myself, so the best you can do is just connect to the words that someone puts on a page and then burrow yourself into those words and hope that you can do it justice. But there was something about the way that he explained his own experience that hit me deep down. I can’t imagine seeing someone you’ve fallen in love with die just like that, before you’ve even had a future with them. And I think it would take a moment for you to actually understand that it happened, for real. Sometimes, reality doesn’t feel like reality. You feel like you can pinch yourself and wake up from a bad nightmare, but unfortunately, when someone passes, they pass and there’s no going back. So I just wanted that moment to settle and I took my time with that, as long as I needed. It almost got to the point where people were going, “Is she going to actually do something?” while we were shooting. (Laughs.) But it just felt right.
Most movies and shows cut straight to the sobbing so I liked that you let it breathe. It hit harder that way.
Thank you. That’s very kind of you to say.
And then she immediately follows that moment by killing the bandit who shot Ennis. Since this entire sequence is clearly a turning point for the character, was it hard for you to say goodbye to her youthful innocence and optimism in that moment? She now sees the world through her mother’s eyes, and we saw how hard it was for her mother to accept that foregone conclusion.
As an actor, I was very excited for her to lose her innocence and that naive perspective on life that she had. I was very excited to jump into that other half of her, and I’d been stewing in the first four episodes for a little while. I was trying to be very patient with what some people might call her annoying level of optimism, considering all of the horrors that are happening around her. So I was really excited at the prospect. Of course, I love this fictional character to death. It almost makes me emotional talking about her. I’ve genuinely fallen in love with a person that doesn’t exist and to see her in pain made me feel pain to a degree. That might sound like an annoying actor thing, but it’s weird how these people become like a family member to you. Their voice and their soul is embedded in you in a very strange way. It’s a fascinating thing that I don’t think about very often.
How much do you know about the bigger picture, such as the future event we saw in the premiere?
Oh, I know everything. (Laughs.)
Beyond season one?
I know a little beyond the first season.
I’m just curious how much Taylor has let you in on his overall plan.
I’ve been let in. (Laughs.) I haven’t poked and prodded, personally, because I’ve never been one to do that. But he’s always been very forthright with me, and it’s probably because I don’t poke and prod.
1883 is now streaming on Paramount+.
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