1883 premiere: Meet Isabel May, who plays the headstrong daughter of Tim McGraw and Faith Hill
The new Paramount+ drama 1883 may feature married couple Tim McGraw and Faith Hill in their first-ever joint project as James and Margaret Dutton, but the real breakout from the Yellowstone prequel is Isabel May—the 21–year-old actress who plays the couple's headstrong daughter Elsa. Since May doesn't have quite the same resume as her on-screen parents, EW asked the ingénue to explain how she ended up on a horse in Taylor Sheridan's western joint.
May didn't actually audition for the role of Elsa Dutton.
The young actress first met Sheridan by trying out for Mayor of Kingstown, his other drama for Paramount+. She didn't get the job, but Sheridan certainly didn't forget her. "Two weeks later, he called and said, 'I want you to be Elsa. We're gonna watch this story unfold through her eyes and her perspective. I haven't written anything and you will receive the scripts as I go along.' That's exactly what happened. It was a bit wild and surreal, but I didn't think about it too much. I don't trust anything until I see the result. Eight months later and we're actually almost done. It's just crazy."
Tim and Faith ... who?
Nope, May had no idea that McGraw and Hill were country superstars before she began shooting the series in Texas. "I've never listened to a song of theirs, so I didn't have any expectations, which I'm really glad because they're just like mom and dad on set. They're incredible people. They're not, you know, music stars, which was really nice."
This is her first series regular role in a drama series.
May's biggest role to date was co-starring in the Netflix high school comedy Alexa & Katie for three seasons. Before that, she booked small roles in Young Sheldon and the 2019 flick Let's Scare Julie. "I'm as unknown as you can possibly say," she quips.
Born and raised in Southern California, May has never ridden a horse in her life.
Though there are plenty of stables in the Los Angeles area where she grew up, May never visited one of them. And don't confuse her as the quintessential California girl, either: She neither surfed nor rode a skateboard while growing up in Santa Monica, preferring to read books when she wasn't attending a local French school. (Her high school years were spent in an online school so she could pursue acting full time). "If I'm being quite frank, I think the Pacific Ocean is kind of gross," she tells EW. "I have a vendetta against it, so that's what really prevented me from entering. That, and I also saw Jaws when I was 7 and I have been terrified of sharks ever since." Once Sheridan hired her to play Elsa—who's supposed to be her father's daughter, who is an excellent horseman—May immediately booked lessons with the wife of the drama's stunt coordinator. "I'm one of those kinds of people that when it comes to picking something up, I'm not really intimidated by it. I've been very fortunate in that I picked it up very quickly. For some reason, it felt organic and natural. And just observing the wranglers that we have, you pick up little things and then you can pretend that you actually know what you're doing."
Her pioneer training also included accent lessons and a smattering of dirt on her face.
Since the Duttons originally hail from Tennessee, May worked with dialect coach Jessica Drake (The Walking Dead) to perfect her twang. "I really wanted to get the accent right. I tried to figure out how to sound like Tim and Faith to a degree, but also sound like I'm from Tennessee and like a young girl in 1883. Our version of the Tennessee accent today doesn't sound like what it would at that time. So it's just kind of an amalgamation of things." And though her beauty is meant to stop wranglers in their tracks, production didn't go out of their way to zsush up May. "I'm not wearing any makeup. I'm wearing dirt and sweat. They spray water on our faces constantly. They weren't focused on trying to make us look good, but they weren't focused on trying to make us look bad, either. I'm just trying to look my age, like a real person. And if I have a zit on my face, then the zit is gonna show."
The location shoot for 1883 is as gritty (and hot) as it looks onscreen.
"I call it a free sauna. There was sweat pouring down parts of my body I didn't know where sweat could accumulate. Of course, it's a little challenging, but it's also the point. Every once in a while you feel a little faint and you're like, 'I think I need some electrolytes.' You're a little bit miserable, but I secretly loved it. I've really enjoyed everything. I think I could get accustomed to this 1883 life, other than, you know, the frigid and sweltering temperatures."
1883 is streaming now on Paramount+.