Taylor Kitsch and Michael Shannon on what the 1993-set ‘Waco’ tells us about today

Michael Shannon, left, and Taylor Kitsch starred as FBI negotiator Gary Noesner and religious leader David Koresh, respectively, in the limited series “Waco” about the Branch Davidian/U.S. government standoff.
(Michael Nagle / for The Times)

It would be easy to dismiss Paramount Network’s “Waco” miniseries as old news: After all, what could a 1993 standoff between FBI agents and religious leader David Koresh tell us about today? Turns out, quite a lot, particularly with Michael Shannon (as FBI negotiator Gary Noesner) and Taylor Kitsch (Koresh) starring. The Envelope sat down with both actors to revisit the scene of the crime, talk about the concept of “bad guys” and consider who would win in a battle between General Zod and one of the X-Men.

Back in 1993, when the David Koresh/FBI standoff story broke, Michael was appearing in “Groundhog Day” and Taylor was about 12. What drew you to this story today?

Michael Shannon: The art of negotiation is a very beautiful art. It’s one of the more noble things that human beings do, try and negotiate with each other to find common ground. Gary tried to save lives, and I found it was a noble endeavor.


Taylor Kitsch: A lot of the research I did before meeting with [creators Drew and John] the Dowdles turned out to be false. It was fascinating trying to understand Koresh’s mindset, and the event itself is fascinating.

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You two are the stars, but you have basically no scenes together; when you’re on the phone together, the actual person on the other end was often one of the Dowdles, right?

Kitsch: Yeah, Drew was so nervous; he’d be pacing around more than I would before a call.

Shannon: It was a big reveal when we actually got to see each other’s stuff. I don’t think I’d even met Taylor yet, and I definitely hadn’t seen him in costume, but he’d just finished a scene where [Koresh’s] band was playing at a bar, and [Taylor, in costume] was walking down the road alone, and I looked out the window and thought, “Holy moly, that’s David Koresh.” Took my breath away.

It’s nice to see you playing a heroic role, Michael; you’re often playing a villain.


Shannon: I don’t choose to look at it that way. Every character I play is a unique human being in their own regard. It’s not like in prison where I’m putting hashtag marks on the wall: “I played five bad guys, one medium guy, two pretty nice guys.” Anyway, Gary’s a nice guy — but he’s not a saint. He’d be the first to admit that.

Kitsch: You can’t brush [the characters] in black and white strokes. There are so many variables that came into this — emotion and ego on both sides, both people answering to higher-ups.

It’s impossible to watch “Waco” and not see how it’s relevant today — from the militarization of policing forces to the ideological fracture in American society.

Shannon: Yeah, it’s super relevant. There are a lot of disenfranchised people in our country who feel they are not being heard; they feel they’re not being taken care of, that no one cares about them. It’s definitely a cautionary tale.

Kitsch: One of the most beautiful things I saw was how 24 years later, while we were shooting, I got to witness Noesner and [David] Thibodeau, Koresh’s right-hand man, have lunch and chat. They still agree to disagree, but that’s OK, you know? You can take a lot from that.


On a lighter note: You’ve both made superhero movie appearances; in a fight between “X-Men’s” Gambit/Remy LeBeau (Kitsch) and “Man of Steel’s” General Zod (Shannon), who would triumph?

Shannon: Oh, jeez. General Zod, well, he fought Superman for quite a long time. He made Superman crack his neck.

Kitsch: That’s pretty legit.

Shannon: General Zod would not quit.

Kitsch: He’s not a quitter. All I’d have is kinetic energy.

It sounds like you both had a good experience working on “Waco,” but what was the most ridiculous note you’ve ever gotten from a director?

Kitsch: I’m not going to tell you what movie, but it was an early one. Literally, the only direction I got on the movie: “

Shannon: First job I ever got, I don’t even think it was SAG, was this show “Early Edition.”

Kitsch: Of course! Kyle Chandler, a dear friend of mine! [Kitsch and Chandler costarred on “Friday Night Lights.”]

Shannon: So I got a day player part, some punk kid drug dealer, some miscreant. And I think Kyle was there. The director turns to me and goes, “You! Don’t do anything! Know all that stuff you were doing? Don’t do it! None of it! Just don’t do anything, OK?” That was when I realized, when you’re on camera, you just don’t do anything.


Kitsch: The best and the worst note you ever got.

Shannon: And I’m still here. Still here and not doing anything.