Welcome to the Yellowstone Age: Behind the scenes of '1883'
Picture a breathtaking expanse of Texas land, grass as high as an elephant's eye but no hint of civilization. There's plenty of livestock, lots of Lone Star sunshine, but nothing so much as a flophouse or an outhouse in sight.
Now imagine Faith Hill — one of the most successful country music stars of all time — having nowhere to answer nature's call. This is what happens when an audacious screenwriter like Taylor Sheridan creates 1883, an epic prequel to his hit Paramount Network drama Yellowstone. The Oscar-nominated Hell or High Water scribe insists on bringing his high-profile cast out to the middle of nowhere so they can pretend like it's the Old West. "That's why so many actors are drawn to Taylor's writing because he is portraying the story in a way that was lived," says Hill, who became "quite comfortable" with the cast and crew after only a few days of filming. "You learn how to pick a tree, squat down, and do your business."
Sheridan recruited Hill and her husband, Tim McGraw, to help him explore the origins of the prosperous but highly dysfunctional family at the heart of Yellowstone — which is set in present-day and features Kevin Costner as the hard-nosed patriarch, John Dutton. Launching Dec. 19 on Paramount+, 1883 stars the Grammy winners as Margaret and James Dutton, determined pioneers who wrangle their young son (Audie Rick), teenage daughter (Isabel May, the series' narrator), and a sizable herd of longhorn cattle to make the arduous trek from Texas to Montana.
"The season is the journey," says McGraw, who is as eager to tease the adventure as he is to boast about his wife's on-set mettle. Though both have film credits on their résumés (for McGraw, that includes roles in The Blind Side and Friday Night Lights, and Hill was in The Stepford Wives and Dixieland), this is their first full-time foray into series television — and first acting project together. "To see my beautiful wife on horseback, firing guns, and having dirt all over her face, I just sit in awe. She's a strong woman, anyway. Taylor said early on to me, 'Man, you'll just get on that horse. You're not scared of anything.' I said, 'I'm scared of one thing. She's right over there.'"
The Dutton clan is assisted in their journey by Shea Brennan (Tombstone alum Sam Elliott), a steely wagon master and Civil War veteran who suffers a great loss at the start of the series. "It haunts him throughout, along with the responsibility of moving these emigrants north," says Elliott, a kind and generous actor who takes care to call out even the day players (like Stephanie Nur, who played a saloon worker) who have joined the production since August. "They just pump so much life into this," he says. "You can call this a spin-off or a prequel to Yellowstone or whatever you want, but for my money, it stands on its own."
Elliott spends much of the series on a horse and in the same wool clothing. It made for a lot of steamy scenes — and not the sexy kind (though female fans who've fallen in love with the men of Yellowstone will no doubt eat 1883 up too). "The first month was brutal," Elliott admits of filming in Texas. "It was 100 degrees and not easy."
Adds McGraw, "It's super dusty and super hot. There's no way around it. At the same time, it's like every kid's fantasy to do something like this, to put your chaps on, your cowboy hat, and your gun holsters every day. Then you get on a horse and try to survive this journey."
But the real breakouts of this epic cavalcade — besides Billy Bob Thornton (Goliath) as U.S. Marshal Jim Courtright — are the realistic locales. There's a reason why Fort Worth was chosen as the primary base of production: The city, which neighbors Dallas, once served as the epicenter for the cattle business and still has many of the old stockyards.
"I don't build a world with visual effects," says Sheridan, who hadn't planned on writing a Yellowstone prequel until a Paramount executive suggested he create an origin story for the Duttons. (The former Sons of Anarchy actor is also behind Jeremy Renner's crime thriller Mayor of Kingstown, debuting Nov. 14 on Paramount+, and has other series in the works for parent company ViacomCBS.) "I go shoot these corners of the world that people haven't seen," he says. "The audience today is so experienced. They've seen so much, so to move the audience becomes more and more difficult. It's incredibly expensive and very difficult. But we can do it as John Ford did it. When you need 50 wagons, you're going to see 50 [real] wagons."
While 1883 provides Yellowstone fans some insight into how Costner's John Dutton amassed so much land in Montana, Sheridan hopes to also dispel a few myths about the American West. "The Westerns, in their heyday, followed a very simplistic storyline: You've got the white hat or the black hat — the good guy and the bad guy — and a lot of it was justifying their positions," he explains. "What I try to do is paint a true reflection of a time and a place."
Hill can surely attest to that gritty realism, and not just because of the ease with which she can now drop trou — or should we say, petticoat — in the wild. She's also expected to ride a horse western style in a corset. "Although it looks amazing, it's terrible. I think I have a few ribs floating around in my body," says the star, who's definitely humbled by the whole experience. "This is real work. I was raised by Edna Earl and Ted Perry, and they believed the best way to teach a child was to get your hands in the dirt. That's basically this in a nutshell. I think so many actors are drawn to Taylor's writing because he is portraying the story in a way that was lived. I gained so much respect for cowboys."
A version of this story appears in Entertainment Weekly's December issue, on newsstands Nov. 12 and available to order here. Don't forget to subscribe for more exclusive interviews and photos, only in EW.