Waco, the six-part Paramount Network TV event, tells the story of David Koresh (brilliantly played by Taylor Kitsch), the Branch Davidians, and the 51-day stand-off that resulted in the deaths of nearly 80 men, women and children. Government recklessness, religious fanaticism, conspiracy theories and cover-ups all muddied the waters, when it came to understanding what really happened on Mount Carmel in Waco, Texas, between a small religious community, the ATF and the FBI. From creators John and Drew Dowdle, the series also stars Michael Shannon, John Leguizamo, Melissa Benoist, Paul Sparks, Julia Garner, Shea Whigham, Andrea Riseborough, Rory Culkin and Camryn Manheim, among others.
While at the TCA Press Tour presentation for the Paramount Network, Collider got the opportunity to sit down with actor Taylor Kitsch for this 1-on-1 interview about the experience of playing David Koresh, whether he ever doubted the decision to take on the role, how he needed the help of a therapist to leave the role behind, getting the scripture and sermons right, his view of Koresh, the challenging physical transformation that he went through, and the toughest day on set. He also talked about whether he’d do more television, what he looks for in a character, and working on his feature directorial debut.
Collider: How was the experience of making Waco in living in the shoes of David Koresh?
TAYLOR KITSCH: I loved doing it. I loved exploring these relationships, with one wife to another, and hearing how good it was going with [Michael] Shannon. It was an awesome experience.
Did you ever have a moment where you just wanted to run for the hills, as far as you could get from this role?
KITSCH: Before I hit camera, yeah. Three weeks out, I had a small panic attack. I was three months and a week into prep, so I was just starting to be like, “I need an outlet for all this energy and information I’m taking in.” The month before, I was like, “I’ve just gotta fucking take a day off from not reading about 79 people dying.” It’s heavy when you read it, day in and day out, so I decided to take a couple of days off. That helped, but I don’t know if it cured it. I didn’t want to run. I just had to take deep breaths. I needed one big one, right before we’d go.
How hard was this to leave behind when you were done?
KITSCH: It was no joke. I have a great therapist, and she helped me a lot. I had to get therapy to come out of a movie I did, called The Bang Bang Club, and I knew I was going down that same route, but I didn’t know it was going to be worse than that one, especially because you’re prepping for four months, and then you’re shooting for three. That’s seven plus months that you’re in that mind-set, or formulating that mind-set. It took awhile to situate myself back into whatever normalcy is and back into the public. You live in this bubble. All my weekends consisted of was learning scripture and sermons, and running lines.
How challenging was it to make the scripture and the sermons seems so natural?
KITSCH: You have to have a foundation under it, for sure. It was just repetition and research, and four months prep of feeling grounded in it, so there’s not an ounce of second-guessing or self-doubt, which I’m very proud of. I don’t come from that. It’s what we do [as actors], but this is an extreme. There’s not many guys, if ever, that existed like David Koresh. It was an undertaking. This is a once in a lifetime role for me. So many people know of the story, but don’t know the story. Once you start to humanize these people that were actually in that house, and on the ATF/FBI side, it starts to really get ingrained within you.
How did you feel about David Koresh, at the end of the shoot, compared to when you went into it? Did you think of him very differently?
KITSCH: Yeah, because I had this whole process. I still have a relationship with David Thibodeau and Gary Noesner, and the other actors. Personally, you’re balling your eyes out when you’ve gotta go do that death scene. It’s an end to a huge chapter in your life. This beautiful thing that you got to be a part of is coming to an end and there’s just so much emotion in all of that, and that this actually happened and it ended this way. Even seeing the kid actors that are playing the kids, those are really grounding moments when you’re doing a scene where they’re gone. There’s 21 kids under the age of 15 that passed. I’m sympathetic to those families and those kids. You get waves of anger, too, of the injustice of it all.
How challenging was it to go through such a physical transformation for this role?
KITSCH: It’s no fun, at all. It was huge for me. The look was huge, as an actor. I love to change it up. I love that challenge, with the walk, the cadence, the clothing, and everything. He was a small guy. During the siege, they couldn’t eat, and there was no water or electricity. It would just look so silly, if I looked super-healthy or really fit, walking around on what’s supposed to be day 50 and looking great. It was a no-brainer for me to do it, but what sucks is that you need the energy to do two to three hours a day of guitar, singing lessons, scripture writing and character breakdown. It was tough because I didn’t have a ton of energy. I was at 600 to 800 calories a day, so your brain just starts to shut down. That was a hurdle.
What would you say the toughest day was, on set?
KITSCH: His death scene sucked. It was tough. It was just so emotional and it became so real. There were moments, during the whole thing, where you’d be like, “I can’t believe this fuckin’ went down.” We would talk it to death. No one knows what happened, in those last beats. He was shot in the head, at close range. The way the gun was positioned, people were convinced that it was someone else, and Steve was right next to him. You try to talk it out and marry yourself, emotionally, to what it was. It turned out beautifully and heavily. That was one of the heaviest days. When Dave calls his mom was also a big moment for me. That’s Vernon Howell. That’s a kid. That’s a guy who’s totally stripped away and thinks he’s gonna die. What prophet calls his mom?