Taylor Kitsch on Learning From ‘Friday Night Lights’ and ‘Humanizing’ David Koresh in ‘Waco’

Taylor Kitsch Variety Facetime Interview
Michael Lewis for Variety

Taylor Kitsch rose to fame on NBC’s football drama “Friday Night Lights” but since hanging up his jersey, he has taken care to diversify the roles he has played so he wouldn’t be typecast. From soldier Michael Murphy in “Lone Survivor” to firefighter Christopher MacKenzie in “Only the Brave” and now to leader of the Branch Davidians, David Koresh, in Paramount Network’s “Waco,” Kitsch has become the go-to guy for playing real larger than life personalities. “I always want to do something different,” he says.

You’ve been able to move back and forth pretty effortlessly between film and TV. Is there something you like more about one than the other?

It depends on the material, but I think you’re a bit more spoiled in television. To use “Waco” or “True Detective” as examples, you have six or seven episodes to show more colors and to dive deeper and to have a crazier arc. I love that part of it. And TV shoots quicker!

“Friday Night Lights” was a learning experience for you as an actor. When you look back on that experience now, what strikes you about what you learned most about the business there?

It was misleading! Just in the sense of we had so much creative control, and the process was f—ing amazing. No marks, no rehearsal. You do or don’t want to say it, then do or don’t. It was so much fun, and not every project is going to be like that. I wasn’t naive, expecting that either, but I was super green and allowed to make mistakes without being stepped all over. Sometimes the mistakes were celebrated, and I loved that. Kyle [Chandler] was a great leader through his work ethic, and Connie [Britton], and they’re still really close friends. That’s rare.

Is there still a concern about getting offered roles too close to Tim Riggins?

No, I’m over that. I’m very proud of that part of the career. Being a small town Canadian kid going to play Riggins, there were some parallels for sure — lack of father, sports figure. I think in the beginning when I was coming out of it, sure, but now I feel to be 36 and to have played such a crazy range, I’m very proud.

David Koresh is not the first real person you’ve played but he was larger than life than many. How do you juggle the facts with still wanting to put your stamp on the character?

Through research, and I’m going to anyways! If you let people have that kind of impression — especially if you’re playing someone who’s lived, no matter if it’s Dave or Mike Murphy or anybody — you have to bring in the facts. And obviously you have a script that you have to follow. There were certain beats in there that rocked me that weren’t in the script but I begged to put in there because they rocked me. I loved that creative process with the Dowdles.

What is an example of one of those beats that you wanted to make sure made it in?

I wanted to see this guy and what it means to be Dave and what he tells his kids. What are the repercussions to his beliefs? Because we know everything else of having all the women and having your own band — it’s great to be Dave in a lot of ways. It really is. Before the siege, he’s in control, he’s created this bubble where he knows everything that’s going to happen — which is quite the opposite from his childhood. But what does it mean to a seven year-old when you’re sitting on this man’s lap when he’s dying, and Dave tells him, “You will be king. When the Kingdom of Heaven comes down, you are the eldest of 24. You have this responsibility.” That to me is fascinating. That’s what I wanted this series to be about — humanizing.

How do you keep the judgement from creeping in to just play the man?

Selfishly to tackle Dave, you want to show every light you can. To tackle any character, really, but especially someone so sensationalized. The tapes, the phone calls, the letters, they helped immensely. The abuse he came from was huge. It kind of opened a lot of doors for me in understanding the why. He left the house at 14, his mom was 14 when she had him, and he was raised in a tiny community as well. When you’re 16 or 17 and at that point you’re living by yourself and you memorized the bible, there’s some kind of identity you’re searching for. He changed his name, went to Jerusalem, and he starts to find control and power through this knowledge and this scripture. So when you sign on, you go into the Book of Revelations and you try and start drawing some parallels because you have to marry yourself emotionally until the death. And now it goes back into what control means to Koresh, which is everything. That’s his purpose. Because he didn’t have it — he had nothing growing up — but he creates this world where he controls the food, the diet, the sex, the kids.

How do you then shed such a character after filming is over?

I need time. Dave was a bunch of therapy and then motorcycle rides. I went on a motorcycle ride through Utah, Montana, Idaho, and you just rest. You just slowly integrate back into reality. I had gone through it with Kevin Carter and “Bang Bang Club” and it rocked me. I didn’t have enough experience then to understand what it was I was dealing with. Now I know I’m going down this path, and I know I’m going to have these repercussions, and it will be the same process and it will sting but I’ll be OK. But I wasn’t. It kind of blindsided me, even though I thought I was ready for it. So I just kept telling my team, “I need time.”

Are you at a point in your career where you want to develop something for yourself yet?

I wrote a movie. We have it financed, and hopefully we’ll do it at the end of this year. I’ve seen enough where I’m excited to take my own swing. I think creative control is big. And this story just won’t leave my brain, to be honest with you. I spent awhile writing it, and I’m really proud of it, and I sent it out and had amazing actors attached so hopefully they still want to hang out. You just have to do it right. Pete Berg’s producing, Taylor Sheridan’s had his hand in it, and he’s amazing.

If you could talk to the younger you, maybe that was just about to book “Friday Night Lights,” what would be your advice?

I think to just not be so hard on yourself. To take more of a breath. Now I’m starting to enjoy the process more, but I can be super hard on myself. So take more vacation time and don’t kill yourself over this stuff. Put the time and the work in, but when there is time to laugh, take it.