Tim McGraw and Faith Hill had one thing on their mind going into Taylor Sheridan’s “1883”: unwavering commitment. It would be the first time the married country music stars would act together on screen, let alone play characters who are husband and wife. “We knew we had a big hill to climb and there were going to be people gunning for us to fail,” McGraw tells The Envelope. “The only thing for us to do was to kill it every week on set.”
The couple play James and Margaret Dutton, and with their teenage daughter Elsa (Isabel May) and son John (Audie Rick), they leave behind their Tennessee roots for unsettled land out West. The journey does not go well, to say the least. The magnetism behind the “Yellowstone” prequel is undeniable, in part, because it stews in a kind of western scripture that makes you feel as though you’re traveling across the Great Plains with them.
The character is awash in pain and violence, but there’s a glimmer of love and tenderness too.
However, the worry McGraw and Hill shared was bringing the charisma and the connection they have without “Tim and Faith showing up on screen,” Hill says. “Tim and I have been married for what will be 26 years. We have done everything together. We’ve raised three daughters, been on tour, in the studio and written songs. We are together all the time,” she says with a smile. They agreed to not rehearse or discuss their characters away from the set. Those boundaries created an opportunity for them to be in the moment when action was called. “I didn’t know how he was going to say his lines, and he didn’t know how I was going to say mine,” says Hill. “It was the only way for it to be fresh, present, real and authentic, especially when you know someone so well.”
The treacherous trip unfolds as a 10-episode limited series, which is partly told through Elsa’s perspective as she narrates their travels. With each passing day, she discovers what love and freedom mean. Hill notes that it was “fascinating to have such a strong female character that age in Elsa.” The mother-daughter dynamic allowed the layers of Margaret to peel away and the complexity of her character to shine. Margaret envies her coming-of-age daughter but has no qualms cautioning the hard truths of what’s expected from a woman: “No matter where we go. You’re wearing dresses and raising babies and sweating over a garden and swallowing every dream you’ve ever had ’cause that’s all the world wants from you.”
Hill saw much of Margaret from being a mother herself and says her character “was pulling on every bit of knowledge that she’s ever experienced in her life just to be understanding and supportive but also the voice of reason at times.” The grit and hard work of the era reminded Hill of her childhood where she grew up gardening with her parents, not as a hobby but out of complete necessity or they didn’t eat. “Margaret had previously been a nurse in the Civil War and also incredibly involved in taking care of the home and keeping the family going,” she says. “It was a dream to be able to have the opportunity to play a character like Margaret. Then have someone like Taylor entrust that I can actually do it.”
McGraw pictured James carrying “a lot of demons” and “history dealing with the Civil War and aftermath of it.” Several scenes hint at a backstory, one in which he’s a wounded Confederate soldier who has survived the Battle of Antietam in 1862. “I think before anyone knew what PTSD was, he was certainly suffering from that, and I think in his mind, more than anything, he was looking for some peace to raise his family,” he says.
McGraw suggests he connected with his character during an early episode when the Duttons stay in Fort Worth and a drunken man climbs into the wrong bed and then tries to rape Elsa. James rushes out into the hallway and shoots him dead. “In that moment, James realizes what he’s gotten his family into, and it scares him a little,” McGraw continues. “The scene was pivotal for me as an actor in figuring out my character’s thought process. With all the pressure and all the worries he has on his mind, I wanted you to think this guy never slept and for him to look like it.”
The toughest part for McGraw was balancing the emotions. James is stoic and fearless, rarely showing any vulnerability. Those traits are challenged when his daughter faces another uncertainty near the end of the series. “There were plenty of times doing scenes that were so powerful and so intimate that I would fall apart and say, ‘James can’t do that,’” says McGraw. “It was hard to not break down and show just enough emotion where you felt it and you could see it in the eyes but not where he fell apart.”
McGraw faced those fatherly feelings even early on in prep. “We would alternate reading the entire episodes to each other,” mentions Hill. “Tim would read one, then I would read the next. But when we got to the final two, I had to be the one reading them, because Tim was crying so hard he couldn’t speak at times.”
For James, as much as he wants to protect Elsa from an uncertain world, he trusts her to find her own way: “I can’t treat you like an adult when it suits me and a child when I’m worried. You’re one or the other.” But that doesn’t mean James doesn’t keep a caring, watchful eye. When Elsa falls for a charming cowboy, he shares choice words with the wrangler who’s prepared to “steal her” away to be together: “You say you love her … but you won’t ever love her like I do. That’s my heart you’re running off with. You’d better cradle it like an egg.”
Margaret and James demonstrate their love, strength and respect for each other all along the trail. The two evolve through their own arcs, which are intertwined with Elsa. She is the beating heart, and they are the guiding and forgiving hands. Hill says, “It was important to trust James as Margaret, because it was important for our kids to feel safe. There were times I wanted to absolutely smack him over the head with something, but you can’t. It’s life or death out there.”