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Waco's Taylor Kitsch Takes Us Inside Playing Branch Dividians Leader David Koresh

No, getting you to empathize wasn't the goal

Megan Vick

In 1993, the Bureau for Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, better known as the ATF, attempted to raid the Branch Dividians Ranch in Waco, Texas. The botched first attempt led to dead officers and civilians inside the compound and kicked off a 51-day standoff between the government and the Davidians leader David Koresh.

The newly minted Paramount Network (formerly Spike TV) launched its original programming with the six-part mini-series Waco, which depicts the horrific events of the siege and the government's missteps in trying to take down Koresh. Taylor Kitsch (Friday Night Lights, True Detective) is taking on the persona of the enigmatic religious zealot that captured headlines throughout the ordeal, leading an all-star cast that includes Michael Shannon, Supergirl's Melissa Benoist and John Leguizamo.

TV Guide talked to Kitsch ahead of the show's premiere about what it was like to take on someone like Koresh, who was accused of being a cult leader and child abuser to start, and how Waco is going to shine a light on the side of the story that hasn't been widely shown since the siege went down 25 years ago.

Taylor Kitsch, Waco​

Taylor Kitsch, Waco


What made you want to take on a role of this epic proportion?

Taylor Kitsch: That's a good question. I think at first I got a call from my agent, and I didn't know much about the event. Obviously, there are just like blips in my memory. I was like 12 when it went down in '93, and then I think the biggest part is, you know, obviously you're kind of involved and flattered to be considered. Koresh was such an enigmatic guy. These roles are, quite honestly, once in a lifetime.

And honestly, I don't think I would have been ready 3 or 4 years ago to take it on. But I think a big thing for me was sitting down with the Dowdle brothers and John and Drew and kind of hearing their take on it all, how they show both sides and show the humanity of both sides. The more you learn about it, really learn about it, the more enthralling it is and the more complex it is, and that goes along with who Koresh was as well. And it was just an incredible challenge, it scared me. It was just something that was so far removed from who I am.

What was the prep like, what were you doing in those months that led up to filming?

Kitsch: Oh my God. Probably 2-4 hours plus a day on guitar and then singing lessons, and then you're losing the 30 pounds throughout that four months, and then you're going into the backstory of who Koresh was, you know?...There's some of these things that he believed and did that you just try and rationalize and justify and you try and figure out why he went that way, you know.

I think that was the biggest thing for me. You go to his upbringing and lack thereof and where he came from and how he was raised. That answered and at least helped me understand a lot more. Obviously you start learning and diving into the scripture that he believed and trying to understand that...I was kind of locked up in my apartment, you know, 10 hours a day just breaking it down. You give a couple to reading his work and watching his sermons, to listening to hundreds of hours of phone calls and his tapes. His tapes and his letters to other peoples' take on it. You had [Waco survivor David] Thibodeau's book to help me. I had Thibodeau on e-mail as well.

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How much did your years on Friday Night Lights help with David's accent? Obviously, you're no stranger to putting on a Texas accent.

Kitsch: None...David talks really differently. I don't think so. His accent was a bit different from Riggins for sure. His cadence and voice is way higher...I would learn with one of my best friends in Austin while losing the weight. I'd have [David's] sermons on my phone, and I'd run and listen to his sermons and run with my buddy and take the headphones out and kind of just spew on him what I'm thinking. One of the biggest stresses of playing Dave to me was that voice, of trying to find that. Once you find it, you can fly, but that's just a lot of hours of just doing his sermons out loud and figuring out what works, what feels right and organic. You never want to just emulate, either. His voice was a lot higher than mine, so the singing lessons worked at that time, because quite literally it's voice work. That helped me work it out.

The series focuses primarily on the siege rather than David's backstory or how he formed this group. In the later episodes, are we going to see more of how he sort of came to be the leader of this group or how much did you have to know about that before taking on this project?

Kitsch: Oh, man. You had to take in and assimilate as much as you can. The early scripts actually had Dave in L.A., where he first met Thibodeau, because he was trying to get an album going, and to get someone to come on and fund it and be a part of that and really become this musician that he really thought he was. He wasn't a great singer, but he was a killer guitarist and he was very, very hard on the band members. He made these promises to Thibodeau to come to Texas and be part of his band, and brought him to Waco. Unfortunately, this series could be 12 to 15 episodes, but the siege, really -- I think the deeper you get into this series, the deeper you're getting into the siege. You're going to really start to see these guys unfold on both sides, and not in the best way, either, you know.

We see David as obviously doing some very questionable things as the leader of this group, but at the same time he is empowering them and he is giving them what they feel is a generally better life. So, is empathy for David at the end of the series a goal that you wanted to have, and how do you want people to feel at the end of the series?

Kitsch: No, I think I leave that up to you. What I take pride in with all my roles, or especially this guy that I've played that has lived in the past, I've learned a lot through that. I think you just want to be truthful and authentic to who he was and I think the beauty of this series is that hopefully it educates to that process that went down and the justice of all that, and showed you the human side of the Davidians and the ATF and the FBI.

I mean, there were times where I'm like, "Let me go harder on the kids." I'm not really worried about like an empathetic part. You know, Dave was pretty volatile at times, no doubt. He truly, truly tested these people from his wives to the kids to his right hand man, you know? I think my goal is to show who Koresh was to the best of my ability and what the script gave in every color. I think every actor wants to show a full spectrum, no matter who they're playing.

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I found it interesting that David presents himself as just wanting to help all those that he feels are lost, but then also felt like he had some very strategic people in the group. It became very convenient that they had a lawyer within the Davidians. So, I was wondering, through your research, did you feel that he really was just reaching out to anybody that was lost, or was there some purposeful manipulation that he wanted to have a specific group of people around him in case a situation like this came up?

Kitsch: I don't know because you are dealing with a martyr. You're dealing with someone that does believe the End of Days. So, I don't think the legal part was something that he was truly, you know, putting a ton of energy into. I think it's more fascinating that you, and a lot of people think that these Davidians were just like stone-like and robotic. But you had one of the first African-American lawyers to come out of Harvard. You had these theologians, you had a lot of really, really smart people. He loved that. I think that helped his ego a lot. I think it helped the process when they got into that siege. Maybe it looks convenient, and maybe it was, but I think it was way more, and I'm talking like 95, 99 to 1 percent more about the message than anything else.

Why should everybody tune in to watch Waco when it premieres?

Kitsch: It's enthralling. I think, you know, the world we live in with press and everything, I think we give a voice to and we humanize this story. I think it's incredibly complex. I think we're all proud of the way we dealt with both sides of this as well. Obviously, even now, present day, a lot of times we know what they want us to know, you know? And Waco's really -- that's what Waco was in a nutshell. It was just one voice. They were cut off from the press, and they didn't have a voice.

It's just so intriguing and it's just on layman's terms, you have Mike Shannon, you have an incredible cast. The story is relevant...I think it puts it all out there so whoever does watch can make their own decision, maybe they go and start educating themselves on the thing, or maybe an article they read they start to realize that there are two sides to every story.

Waco airs Wednesday nights at 10/9c on Paramount.