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 Melissa Benoist to chat for this 1-on-1 interview about the appeal of Waco, why she wanted to play Rachel Koresh, how she approached playing someone that was not always easy to understand, the biggest challenges of this project, what she hopes people take away from this story, and how jarring it was to get back into the headspace of Supergirl, for her CW series.
Collider: If you were looking for a character that’s different from Supergirl, I can’t imagine that you could find one much different than the wife of David Koresh.
MELISSA BENOIST: True!
Was that the appeal of doing this role?
BENOIST: It certainly was a part of the appeal. I was initially just fascinated by the Branch Davidians. This doesn’t really apply to Rachel Koresh because she was born into the church and that was all she had ever known, but I was fascinated by the psychology of how people get to that place – a place like Mount Carmel and an FBI stand-off for 51 days. That was the initial appeal. Of course, every actor wants to play as many roles on the Richter scale as they can, and Rachel Koresh certainly is very different from Supergirl, but she shares a lot of the strength that Supergirl has.
Just not the same level of positivity.
BENOIST: Right?! She’s not about truth, justice and the American way.
Was Rachel Koresh a woman that you found yourself able to understand, as far as her motivations and why she was okay with certain things that were happening?
BENOIST: A part of my job, when I’m playing a character and approaching a role, is to rationalize and to not judge, whatsoever. Even if there were things that I didn’t understand or couldn’t comprehend, which was a lot of this story because it’s so complicated and so much of it is a grey area, I still approached Rachel with an open mind and an empathetic heart. There’s no other way to tell her story. What she went through was very tragic. Also, the atmosphere on set was so much of a community. We really cared about shaping this world and telling this story truthfully, as to what happened at Mount Carmel, inside of the building that everyone saw on the news so much. That lent itself to allowing us to just let go and be free to tell these people’s story.
That’s really important because, up until now, we’ve only gotten to see these people as villains.
BENOIST: They’ve only been demonized, and their narrative is so important to me. For all intents and purposes, Koresh aside because what he did was wrong and there were a lot of things about him that weren’t palatable, the people in that compound were just people and a lot of them were really good people. They took care of each other. They were so isolated and sequestered, and they had established their own little society and rules for how to live, and it worked for them. That is an important story to tell, when something goes so awry. Whether you agree with every method of their way of life, what I experienced, in being around a community of people that were all very careful about the way we told the story and did a lot of research, was that there was just a lot of love there. What they took primarily from the Bible was how to be a good person and how to treat other people. What they were doing is what they thought was right. They thought the rest of the world was living the wrong way.
What were the biggest challenges for you, in playing Rachel Koresh?
BENOIST: Some of the biggest challenges were filling in a lot of the gaps because there wasn’t a lot of tangible information for me to base developing a character on. She was in a lot of pictures with David, and she was always in the background and always holding a child. There are a few accounts of her being around, but for all intents and purposes, she was sort of a mystery to me, so that was difficult. I had to really feel a lot of it, and put on the clothes, be in the building, and be around Taylor Kitsch, who underwent a massive physical transformation. He lost a lot of weight and grew his hair out and wore these aviator glasses. Also, the challenge was that the subject matter was so heavy. Spending three months with these people, the end was truly difficult and is something that I’ll carry with me, forever. It’s something I don’t think I’ll ever shake.