Taylor Kitsch is an American hero—at least that’s how we’ve come to think of the 36-year-old actor (who, funnily enough, is Canadian).
His classically handsome good looks—rugged, yet suave—are so collegiately perfect that his big break came as a model for Abercrombie & Fitch. That chiseled jawline is practically patriotic. On screen, he’s played an elite firefighter (Only the Brave), a naval lieutenant (Battleship), a patrol officer and war veteran (True Detective), and a navy S.E.A.L. (Lone Survivor). Then, of course, there’s the role that made him a star: Tim Riggins on Friday Night Lights. A football player. Does it get any more American than that?
Even his journey to Hollywood is the kind of rags-to-riches story that Americans tend to fetishize, crass and reductive as that may be. He and his two brothers were raised by his mother in a mobile home after his father left the family. He was a teenage hockey phenom with a promising career before a devastating knee injury. Twice he’s been homeless, first while looking for work as a model in New York, and then again when he moved out to Los Angeles.
What I’m saying is that we tend to root for Taylor Kitsch, and may even be conditioned to expect being saved by him—or at least that his brawn and bravery can always be counted on should we need saving. Which is why his latest role is so peculiar, in some ways unsettling and in others fascinating—maybe even a genius casting choice, considering that image we have of him.
Starting Wednesday night, Kitsch can be seen in the Paramount limited series Waco playing David Koresh, the religious cult leader at the center of the infamous 1993 raid and subsequent siege in Waco, Texas, that ended in the deaths of 79 of his Branch Davidian followers, including two pregnant women, 20 children, and Koresh himself.
“I don’t know, man. It’s the most scared I’ve ever been, I’ll tell you that,” Kitsch tells The Daily Beast, his drawn-out surfer cadence revealing shades of disbelief that he even took the role on, let alone pulled it off. “I haven’t played someone remotely close to who this guy is before, or someone so unrelatable for me.”
Kitsch spent months burying himself in homework to play Koresh. He met with the nine survivors of the siege. He read the book by survivor—and Koresh’s friend and confidant—David Thibodeau, A Place Called Waco, and spent a significant amount of time hanging out with him attempting to get to the bottom of the lure that Koresh had on his followers. He also listened to hours of Koresh’s sermons, his phone conversations with the FBI, the ATF, child protective services, and even his mom.
He spent four months learning how to sing and play guitar, dropping roughly 40 pounds in the process to better approximate Koresh’s slight physique. “There’s something about that—you kind of get a high from all that, of just seeing what you’re able to do in the face of fear, and how you tackle that,” he says.
But there’s another key element to Kitsch’s transformation into Koresh, albeit a completely superficial one: Taylor Kitsch, he of Tim Riggins and that long, lush, envy-of-the-world brown hair, stars in Waco sporting a mullet. A mullet.
It was a wig, he reassures me, laughing when I bring it up: “I mean that would’ve taken eight months-plus to grow it that long.” But when he finally had the hairstyle fashioned correctly, landed on the right pair of aviator-style eyeglasses, slinging a guitar over his shoulders and testing out Koresh’s walk, he was practically giddy: “I was really happy man, to be honest with you. You diet for four months and stress about it to no end. It just felt organic at that point.”
Of course, the hairstyle might be the least important talking point when it comes to David Koresh.
Koresh quickly rose through the ranks of the Branch Davidians, eventually declaring himself a prophet and developing his own teachings. Part of his doctrine called for marriages of “spirit” to multiple women in the sect—some of whom were married to other men, some of whom were single, and at least one was reportedly underage. Child protective services visited his compound on multiple occasions to investigate reports of child abuse and statutory rape, though no evidence was found.
The reports of child abuse, along with suspicion that the commune might be stockpiling illegal weapons, were eventually used to justify the raid on the Waco compound that took place on February, 28, 1993, initially led by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF). The shootout ended with four ATF agents and six Davidians dead. Who started the gun violence is a matter of dispute; the Waco series purports that the ATF fired first, unprompted, though spokespeople told the media that it was church members who opened fire on them first.
After 51 days, in which FBI negotiator Gary Noesner (Michael Shannon) had a direct line into Koresh, who kept stalling his surrender, the FBI was granted permission to remove the church members by force. Under circumstances still disputed, the compound caught on fire during the assault, resulting in the deaths of 80 Davidians.
It’s an ugly stain on American history, a mass casualty of that proportion by the hand of the citizens’ own government. The siege would make dramatic television in its own right, but the new context Waco gives to the event—specifically how things were mishandled by the FBI and what cover-ups were made in the media to shield the agency from blame—makes the series alarmingly timely.
The opening scenes of Wednesday night’s premiere gives voice to a number of Americans who feel like they’ve been abandoned by—and certainly not represented or protected by—the people in power, with sentiment shockwaves sent from a deadly stand-off in Ruby Ridge, Idaho. As the series progresses, we see events take place in Waco, and then see how the government flat out lies about what happened to the public.
Any of this sound familiar?
“It’s a frustration over a lack of voice,” Kitsch says. “It was very one-sided. The public knew what they wanted you to know. And that goes into a lot of sensationalism, a lot of this fabricated stuff that wasn’t true, a lot of their own cover-up on their actions. Obviously that’s very relatable to what we’re dealing with 25 years later.”
After filming the show, he completely understands not only our fascination with true crime series like The People vs. O.J. Simpson, The Assassination of Gianni Versace, Manhunt: Unabomber, or the upcoming Trust, centered on the kidnapping of J. Paul Getty’s grandson, but also the cultural value of these series.
“There’s just so many things unanswered, and the messaging was one-sided with Waco,” he says. “Twenty-one kids under the age of 15 died and no one has answers, and something was covered up. You’re using this gas that’s been outlawed since the Geneva Convention and you know there’s kids in there? You know that Dave goes to Wal-Mart on Tuesdays and runs every morning, so all of this could’ve been avoided, literally.”
The issues our country is facing are disturbingly similar to the ones depicted in Waco 25 years ago. But maybe, he suggests, we and our government have learned something from our past.
“We’re dealing with this stuff every day now: the sensationalism, and again, us knowing what they want us to know,” he says. “There are so many outlets, so many newsfeeds, it can just get tiring to go through every single one. And I get it. But you have to if you want to formulate your own educated opinion. So I don’t know, maybe it’ll turn some heads in that sense and maybe it’ll broaden and shed some light on it.”
Before we say our goodbyes, and given how often our conversation has turned to the unrest in the country right now, I mention to him something that’s been brought to my attention from a handful of friends. When culture and society reach a boiling point like this, one of the safety blankets we reach for is our pop culture comfort food. For them, that’s meant re-watching Friday Night Lights.
“I get it,” he laughs, clearly tickled by the idea. “Once that single strum comes along and that music of that opening hits…” he says, before interrupting himself. “It’s funny. It’s had three rebirths. Like, we’re on one network, and then another, and then all of a sudden eight years later Netflix picks it up, and people who never heard of it start watching it so it gets another rebirth.”
This time I interrupt him with a burning question born out of a jarring realization the last time I watched Friday Night Lights, this heartfelt drama series set in rural Dillon, Texas: Would these characters have been Trump supporters?
Kitsch guffaws. “Oh man. That’s too good. I think Riggins would be so in his own bubble and not give a shit, to be honest.”
He starts stammering a bit, thinking about the question more.
“I don’t know what his political views are,” he says. “I don’t know, but it’s funny to think about. I can see Lyla marching in defiance. I mean, they’re all pretty strong women in that show actually. So I don’t know. You’d have to ask them. I have an inkling that they might not be for him.”
Sensing my sigh of relief, he jumps back in: “If that gives you comfort, then you’re welcome.”
Like we said: American—well, Canadian—hero.