Throughout his acting career, Taylor Kitsch has played all manner of machismo-laden characters in projects like Friday Night Lights, Lone Survivor, True Detective and more. But for Paramount Network's Waco, he took on a completely different portrayal as the notorious sect leader David Koresh, and it's instantly obvious that this was a carefully conceived performance. When CinemaBlend spoke with Waco developers John Erick and Drew Dowdle, they explained to me just how deep into preparation Kitsch got for the role. According to Drew:
I can't rave enough about Taylor, just as a human being and as an artist. We started talking to him like a year before we shot...and he trained for the role like an athlete would train. I think he lost 30 lbs, he studied scripture, he learned to play guitar, he took vocal lessons. He would call us [and say], 'Oh my God, I just saw the transcript [where] David Koresh has been shot, and what does he do? He goes back in the room and calls his mom.' You know, David Koresh was born Vernon Howell, and he's like, 'I see Vernon in that moment. Please tell me that scene's somewhere in the series.' And we're like, 'You know, actually it wasn't, and we're gonna put it in right now!' But he was that guy who's doing the research.
The very first time future audiences laid eyes on Taylor Kitsch with his Waco appearance, the transformation was an impressive one. I wouldn't have guessed the actor lost as much as 30 lbs, but as David Koresh, Kitsch definitely looks far more fragile and wispy than he did as John Carter. (Which is good, since no one would buy some jacked-up muscle-head as the leader of the Branch Davidians.) And when that weight loss is combined with the glasses and distinct hair, Kitsch is fairly easy to lose in his role while watching Waco.
All the things that Drew Dowdle said Taylor Kitsch learned are on display throughout Waco. We get to watch him quote from scripture, we get to see him play the guitar, and we get to hear him once again adopt a Texas accent on TV. One of the most important aspects of this role is showing viewers that David Koresh wasn't some lunatic zealot who leapt before he looked. For that, Kitsch was able to draw from all manner of references in developing his humanizing performance, including conversations with surviving Branch Davidian member David Thibodeau, whose book A Place Called Waco was half of the miniseries' source material.
All that isn't to say that Taylor Kitsch's cult leader is portrayed as a hero or a protagonist in any way. Waco does aim to show all the angles of the epically mishandled situation at Mount Carmel, but in a way that doesn't glorify or condemn the parties involved, so while Koresh's charismatic side may be on display, so is the fact that he sired children with different wives, some of them of the underage variety. And Drew Dowdle lauded Kitsch for taking on such a stigmatizing part.
You know, it takes an incredible amount of bravery to take on a role like this, where if you don't seem to like the guy, that'll be commented on. And if you're doing a caricature of the guy, that'll get commented on, too. Doing a real person that people remember is a real high-wire act. And it's a complicated character who has a lot of dark stuff. I think his courage, he was like, 'Let's swing for the fences. Let's just see.' I can't rave about him enough. his first day of shooting was the Joy Sermon. He showed up and he was so good and we were like, 'Oh my God, this is gonna be awesome.'
If Taylor Kitsch's performance would be the only visual or audio evidence we have of David Koresh's persona, it'd still be easy to understand why people followed him, especially when his messianic talents are on full display for the sermon. Starting off with such a gigantic moment might have flustered some actors, but according to John Erick and Drew Dowdle, Kitsch was beyond ready for it.
Drew: The first take of the Joy Sermon, that was his first day of shooting, and the first take, you could look around and everyone on the crew and cast was looking at each other like, 'Oh! All right then.' And he put in a ton of effort and time.
John: He said he'd probably run that speech thousands of times. When he was out jogging, and when he was out riding his motorcycle, he was just doing that speech constantly. And it shows. You really feel it.
Drew: It was important for us to capture that. The people who knew him: how did they feel about him? How did they view him, and what was their experience of him versus what was our experience of him on the news and what we were told. We really wanted to try and differentiate the two.