Writer-director Taylor Sheridan has built a career telling unblinkingly stark tales of long-neglected corners and fringes of the center of America. So when he was conceiving the dark epic “Yellowstone,” set against the equally vast Modern West Montana, he turned to an equally distinctly American screen presence to stand at the center: Kevin Costner.
“Kevin’s one of the biggest movie stars of the past 40 years, and well deserved,” says Sheridan. “He’s an incredible storyteller as a director, as a writer, as an actor, and so when you have that that kind of tool in your toolbox, you can write him into some really conflicting situations.”
Costner’s inherent image as an American icon proved crucial to Sheridan’s vision for the ten-episode epic, which he wanted to “treat like a movie…even from the aspect ratio to the lenses that we used.” “Yellowstone” casts Costner as John Dutton, the flinty, tough-love-minded patriarch of the largest contiguous family-owned cattle ranch in the United States. After generations of largely unchecked land barony, Dutton finds himself beset by forces on multiple fronts: an increasingly prosperous, politically potent but still marginalized Native American reservation; ambitious land developers’ the neighboring National Park and –perhaps most dangerous of all — his own unmoored, often toxic offspring.
“I’ve always liked the notion of playing with who is a protagonist, and allowing our heroes to be flawed, and really question what they’re doing morally, ethically, and keep them really human,” says Sheridan. “I don’t like my good guys to be all that good, and I don’t like my bad guys to be all that bad, even though they may do really bad things. And I think that makes them relatable.”
As Costner sees it, Dutton was “pretty much a black-and-white guy for a long, long time.” Although the actor notes his character couldn’t be bought, he has to navigate challenges that his ancestors could never have imagined, and that forces him to play in gray areas.
“There’s a phase in my career where I will be playing characters that either have a collective wisdom or made so many mistakes — collective f—ups,” he says, putting his latest role as an embattled rancher on Sheridan’s ambitious Paramount Network series more firmly in the latter category.
Adds Sheridan: “It was the notion of a man who had inherited the seventh generation of this massive cattle ranch and reaching a place where he was aware of his own mortality, and who could he trust to shepherd this ranch into the next generation? And when you have a piece of land as big as this is, it’s almost a kingdom. And so does that make you a king? Kings, they don’t employ morality when they’re making decisions. They’re job is to preserve the kingdom. So it lends itself to some really fascinating questions about us.”
Dutton will wrangle routinely with his dysfunctional brood — who lost their mother (Gretchen Mol, in flashbacks) when they were children. His eldest son Lee (Dave Annable) is the most loyal, a capable cowboy but lacking in vision. But then there is slick, ambitious attorney Jamie (Wes Bentley), whose decidedly un-outdoorsiness makes him desperate for his father’s approval and manipulative and fiery Beth (Kelly Reilly), who fealty to her father is only outmatched by her desire to act out with booze and sex. The prodigal youngest Cory (Luke Grimes) ditched his father’s empire in favor of a simple life with his Native American wife and son, but quickly and inevitably is drawn back into the various frays.
Costner believes that “everybody understands what it’s like to want to please a father [and] to have a patriarch who’s really demanding,” so he believes the audience will identify with a number of characters within the clan.
“You’re dealing with five or six generations that have run that ranch, and never has it been under that pressure of children who’ve been making mistakes out there largely because they don’t have a mother that didn’t help guide the situation, and the forces that are pressing on issues of the land — his land in particular,” he explains.
But for as “mercurial” as Dutton can be in his dealings with his children, Costner believes he’s “getting boxed in,” which is a way in for the audience to connect with his character, as well.
With its ranch setting and plot points that deal in wealth and power, in addition to family dynamics, Sheridan is hoping to offer fresh perspective on the troubles of a specific corner of the nation — during a very fraught time.
“I think that it’s important to love the place where you live, and this is a really special, rare country,” says Sheridan. “You can love this place and still question things that take place here and scream about it, and I think that we’re supposed to. And so I think that Kevin’s work has always done that. I try to do that. And it’s screaming with love.”
“Yellowstone” premieres June 20 on the Paramount Network.