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[This story contains spoilers for 1923’s first four episodes.]
Taylor Sheridan’s first Yellowstone prequel, 1883, told the tragic story of how the Dutton family originally settled in Montana, and the series was marketed with stars Sam Elliott, Tim McGraw and Faith Hill at the forefront. But the Western show was ultimately about Isabel May’s Elsa Dutton, who served as the narrator, as well as the audience’s eyes and ears into that perilous time in the West.
Well, 1883’s follow-up, 1923, seems to be following in the footsteps of its predecessor. The Paramount+ series sold itself with Hollywood heavyweights like Harrison Ford and Helen Mirren, but the story appears to revolve around Brandon Sklenar’s Spencer Dutton, the youngest son of James (McGraw) and Margaret (Hill) Dutton, and nephew of Jacob (Ford) and Cara (Mirren) Dutton. James Badge Dale, who plays Spencer’s older brother John Dutton Sr., even told THR recently that the objective of the first four episodes was to get Spencer back to Montana after a rivalry with Jerome Flynn’s Banner Creighton cost John Sr. his life and critically injured Ford’s Jacob.
At the conclusion of season one’s fourth episode, Spencer, who was enjoying some R&R with his new fiancée Alex (Julia Schlaepfer) in Zanzibar, finally learned of the bloodshed back home, and Sklenar is now previewing what’s to come for the former soldier when the series returns Feb. 5.
“I can say that there is not only a definite shift in the story itself, but also in him as a person from this moment forward. It’s the hero’s journey, and his calling to go home does propel the story,” Sklenar tells The Hollywood Reporter. “Spencer and Alex both have a lot to overcome before he can get there. Taylor doesn’t make it easy on anybody in writing these shows.”
There remains a great deal of mystery surrounding Spencer’s true place in the Dutton family tree. Some viewers contend that he’s the grandfather of Kevin Costner’s Yellowstone patriarch, John Dutton III, while others believe that John Dutton Sr.’s (Dale) son, Jack (Darren Mann), serves that role. According to Sklenar, Sheridan isn’t revealing who’s who and what’s what quite yet.
“It’s something that Taylor is keeping very close to the vest. I have my own theories, but it’s to be told, to be written, to be seen. He’s always moving all that stuff around,” Sklenar says.
In a recent spoiler conversation with THR, Skelnar also looks back on the time he auditioned to play a younger version of Ford’s beloved Han Solo in Solo: A Star Wars Story. Then he reflects on his experience on the Vice set with Christian Bale, who inspired him to act in the first place.
So, was there anything unusual about casting for 1923?
Yeah, how fast it was. As an actor, your experience in casting can be unbelievably painful and drawn out over many months, so I was very lucky in that it was a very quick process. After sending in that initial tape, I think I flew to Jackson Hole a week later and found out pretty much on the spot. So that was unusual. It was also the first time I’d been in the room with somebody in two years because of COVID. So I appreciated that they took the time to do that. It changes the game when you can be in the room with somebody.
Well, they did a great job with casting because you actually look like you could be Harrison Ford’s nephew. Just out of curiosity, did you go out for Solo: A Star Wars Story six or seven years ago now?
Yes, I absolutely did.
The whole town went out for that one, I think.
(Laughs.) Yes, they did. When I showed up to that one, I was a little worse for wear, and there were a couple hundred guys there, if I remember correctly. It was a funny experience.
When you eventually met Harrison for the first time on 1923, did you try your best to play it cool around him?
He’s so cool that he just makes everyone around him cool. You acclimate to his frequency when you’re around him. He also doesn’t project like he’s Harrison Ford, either. He’s just a sweet guy, so it’s pretty easy to be around him.
Taylor Sheridan usually hosts a “cowboy camp” for his actors. Did you have to do that as well as some military basic training?
Yeah, we did cowboy camp for about two months, and then I did a bunch of weapons training on the side at the same time. We all did weapons, but I had the machine gun and the weapons that are specific to Spencer.
Spencer’s got demons to say the least, and they’ve kept him from returning home. But Cara (Helen Mirren) believes that his distance might be his way of punishing his family as well. What’s your take on why he hasn’t returned home?
Guilt and shame are just two of the worst human emotions that anyone can carry, and they will make you do some crazy things, like not speak to your family for five years. So I think he’s purely driven by the fact that he doesn’t know what to do. He’s dug himself into such a hole that he just keeps digging it. He doesn’t want to face the fact that he’s had to do what he’s had to do to survive during the war, which meant not riding home and existing as his own island so he could survive. So holding all of that guilt and shame on top of the guilt that comes with killing as many men as he has, it just compounds. So he just runs further and further from having to deal with those things until he’s given no choice.
He’s a big-game hunter in Africa when we meet him. Is this a way to maintain the adrenaline he’s no longer getting on the battlefield?
Yeah, when it comes to fighting, death and war, he’s been so numbed through overstimulation that he needs those interactions to feel alive. There’s a line he has in the bar about it being the most alive you’ll ever feel, and that’s true for him. His senses have been so beat down that he needs that, and he’s also not afraid if he lives or dies. He’s just doing what he has to do, day to day.
Do you think Spencer would resent what big-game hunting has turned into now?
First and foremost, I think he would want to hunt the hunters that are big-game hunting now. It was a necessity back then because those cats were killing hundreds of men. In [the nonfiction book] The Man-Eaters of Tsavo, two lions killed something like  workers around that same time, so it was a necessity. Spencer is not happy about it, but it’s a job that must be done. So he would be completely against hunting for sport. His love for animals and for the land supersedes your average wealthy guy who’s trying to score some big game. Spencer is rooted in the land and in nature.
You really did film all across Africa, so what was the most memorable day?
Yeah, we were there for a couple months. There are so many days, but filming with those elephants is definitely one. They have a mind of their own. (Laughs.) One day, in between setups, Julia [Schlaepfer] was standing with our on-set photographer, Emerson [Miller], feeding the elephants, and I was like, “Oh, I’ll walk over there.” Everything was still, quiet and easy, but once I got within 2 feet of the elephants, they just freaked out and started running all over the place. Everyone was like, “Oh no, what’s going on!?” And I was like, “Did I step on the wrong twig or something?” And when you’ve got a herd of elephants running all over the place, the instinct is to move away from them, but the last thing you want to do is move. So it’s a surreal experience to go from this very serene, placid setting to guys yelling, “Don’t run! Don’t run!” Yeah, it was wild being around those elephants for a couple days. They’re just magnificent creatures, and you realize how beautiful they are once you’re that close.
Spencer is immediately smitten with Alex (Schlaepfer). Do you think he’s had other relations during his time abroad, or is she the one exception that cracked his shell?
He hasn’t been with anybody since before the war, which is why he’s awkward with her at times. He doesn’t know what to do. He hasn’t made love in years. He hasn’t been with a woman in any capacity in years. So she is the one and only in that regard, and as romantic as his Zanzibar hideaway is, I don’t think that he’s even aware of how romantic it is. That place was just for him and nobody else. So he shares his safe place with Alex, but there’s nothing intentional about any of it. And that’s what’s great about Taylor’s writing. The Duttons carry this unintentional poeticism, and it’s a very cool family trait.
Alex is also a heck of a letter reader, as we finally see Spencer’s emotions on display at the end of episode four. How would you describe Spencer’s headspace upon hearing Cara’s fateful letter?
Well, he’s completely gutted over the fact that his brother [Dale’s John Dutton Sr.] has been murdered. I have a sister, and I can’t even imagine. So he’s profoundly wrecked, but he immediately wants to avenge those deaths and right those wrongs and protect his family. It’s so hardwired into him, and his life’s purpose is to do that. So he immediately goes, “Well, this is what I’m meant to do. I must put all my shit aside and get there as soon as possible.” There’s no question.
James Badge Dale described this first block of episodes as a prologue that’s designed to get Spencer home. What can you tease about the next phase of Spencer’s story?
I can say that there is not only a definite shift in the story itself, but also in him as a person from this moment forward. It’s the hero’s journey, and his calling to go home does propel the story. It’s not an easy journey. It’s filled with challenges. Spencer and Alex both have a lot to overcome before he can get there. Taylor doesn’t make it easy on anybody in writing these shows. (Laughs.)
Some people believe that Spencer’s nephew, Jack (Darren Mann), is the grandfather of Kevin Costner’s Yellowstone character, but Spencer and Alex could very well be his grandparents, too. Do you know Spencer’s overall significance in the Dutton family lineage?
I do not. (Laughs.) It’s something that Taylor is keeping very close to the vest. I have my own theories, but it’s to be told, to be written, to be seen. He’s always moving all that stuff around.
Taylor is juggling 37 projects at the same time, but does he make himself available if you ever need to discuss the character?
Oh yeah. He trusts you to do what he’s hired you to do. It’s your role, and you’re going to show up and do your thing. So he gives you that trust and that freedom, but certainly, if you have questions, he’s there for you to ask him. And if he has suggestions for you, you’ll get a call and he’ll tell you what he thinks of what’s going on. It’s a wonderful working relationship in that regard because you do feel the weight of that responsibility, but ultimately, it puts you in a position where you have to rise to the occasion. You have to really put your best self into it every day. The stakes are as high as they can possibly be every day.
In Vice, were you the guy who got in the bar fight with Christian Bale’s Dick Cheney?
Yes, that was such a dream. Christian was definitely the reason why I wanted to be an actor. He’s been my favorite actor since I was young, and I love that guy. So I got to work with him for a couple days, and it was such a trip to be on that set. When I got there, they thought I was an extra. (Laughs.)
I formulated this plan that the character would be really scraggly looking with yellow teeth, an underbite and a voice all the way down here, but when I got in the makeup chair, they were like, “We’ll see, we’ll see.” So we got on set, and I was smoking a cigarette, kicking rocks, thinking, “It’s not right. It’s not right.” So I went up to [director] Adam McKay and was like, “This isn’t right, right? I need more than this.” And he was like, “Yeah, I want your ear missing. I want your teeth to be more yellow. I want nicotine stains.” So they finally ended up doing all that, but I missed the [bar fight] rehearsal with Christian.
So I walked onto the set moments before cameras rolled and shook his hand before we had to hit each other in the face. And in one of the first takes, he was smoking a cigarette, and Adam told me to antagonize him as much as possible. Touch him, hit him, whatever. So I was like, “Mr. Yale, Mr. Yale,” and when I went to grab the cigarette out of his mouth, I instead hit him clear across the face. And in my mind, I was like, “Shit, I just hit Christian Bale in the face. Oh no.” (Laughs.)
So as soon as we finished the take, I was like, “Hey man, I’m so sorry.” And he was like, “Hey, do whatever you’ve got to do. It’s all good.” And then the next day, he talked to me the whole day, asking me questions and stuff. And when I went to say goodbye to him, he had his headphones in because he listens to a lot of music for his scenes. So I went up to him and I smacked the hell out of his arm because it was in the physical nature of our characters. And once again, I was like, “Ah, fuck. Why did I do that?”
So he took his headphones off, and we had a really pleasant exchange before he put his headphones back in. I then walked away about a hundred feet, and I heard him say, “Hey! How old are you?” And I was like, “27.” And then he just put his headphones back in and looked down. (Laughs.) So I’ve racked my brain ever since about why he asked me how old I was. To this day, I have no idea what he meant by that and if it was a good thing or a bad thing. So hopefully, I’ll see him again. He takes his job seriously, as do I, but he’s just a lovely guy.
1923 is now available on Paramount+. This interview was edited for clarity.
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