Next up in our 1883 press day activities comes a round table conversation critics had with Faith Hill and Isabel May, who play mother and daughter, Margaret and Elsa Dutton.
Get to know a little bit about their characters and work on the show before it premieres on Sunday, December 19, on Paramount+.
Please note that reporters’ questions are in italics, and Faith and Isabel’s answers follow.
Isabel, Elsa brings such a unique perspective to 1883 as an independent young woman who can see everything without a jaded past. She sees both the joy and the horrors of making this trip and what it really means to be taking this trip with her family and all of these people.
Can you talk a little bit about that and what it was like bringing that to life?
Isabel: I was brought into that. Taylor told me about the character and gave me some sense of what to expect.
But then I remember when he sent the first episode, and it really dawned on me who he was creating and what I would be able to portray, and that was kind of mind-boggling because I don’t think I’ve ever heard or seen a young woman portrayed like this at this time in such a way. I mean, it’s truly remarkable.
And, and not only that, but just the fact that she’s speaking poetry over this rather horrifying, brutal experience, because that journey was so treacherous, but she never loses sight of the beauty of everything around her. She’s so captivated by and so that juxtaposition, that contrast is just really unique, a joy to play.
This question is for Isabel, what’s it like having Faith as your mom on the show? And what’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned from her?
Isabel: Oh my goodness. It’s probably my favorite part of being a part of this project, and there are a lot of things that I’m doing; there are so many positives to this experience, but that’s up there. This woman is one of the loveliest human beings. She’s so poised and generous and compassionate, and I’m pretending she’s not right next to me right now, but I truly love her.
It’s hard not to fall in love with her, and I’ve just the way that she carries herself and interacts with others has truly been such an incredible learning experience for me just to observe. It’s something that I will carry with me, for sure, and my interactions with others in the future.
I really, really, there’s a reason why everyone loves Faith across the board, and people came up to me before I started the project before I even met her, and said, please tell her I said hi, please tell her. I mean, constantly. And eventually, I was like, okay, what is with this woman? Like why is everyone so telling me and I get it now.
Faith: You’re going to make me cry, stop.
Isabel: I get it now. No, it’s true.
Faith: Sure, Lord. Okay.
Can you talk a little bit about your relationship as your character’s relationship because that is very interesting and unique in westerns and also how these characters blaze trails for a Beth Dutton to exist in the future.
Faith: Ooh. Yeah, I think the women of that time, I say this time because we’re still in it, we’re still working and filming. When you decide to take a journey across a land that you have possibly read about, and of course, the newspapers did not come every day back in that time period.
But when you’re going and following a dream across a land that you really don’t know that much about, you learn to do things quickly because most decisions that are made, the things that happen along the trail, along this journey. Yes, there’s beauty, there’s love, but there is great, great loss as well.
And there is so much danger and more ways than you can possibly imagine. So the lessons that you have to learn, in real time, it’s about survival, and I think that just kind of breeds into a family, characters, and just a generation of survival. It would be the equivalent of my parents growing up in the Depression. There are certain things.
I always say this about my mom, she could take a penny and make a dollar, and that’s because of the way that she grew up in the Depression. So I think as Dutton women, and we love Beth, my God, one of the greatest female characters ever, and she plays it.
Isabel: I try to view my life as Beth.
Faith: I mean, I just want to say everything she says. Right?
Isabel: And I also think that the Dutton women are constantly sacrificing. But they handle it with a lot of grace, in my opinion. I don’t know how I would get through that, just as Isabel. So yeah.
Faith: You mess with the family, and yeah, we will kill you. I will do that now with my own children. You hurt my kids, and yeah.
Isabel: A world of pain coming your way.
Faith, I got to ask Tim what it was like doing this project with you, and he had to say a lot of beautiful things about doing it, but just out of my curiosity cause I just don’t know when it came to being approached about this, were you guys approached together to do this or was he approached first or you, I was kind of wondering what the process was like.
Faith: I don’t recall exactly. I would imagine he was probably approached first because he had a relationship with Taylor. We had met Taylor, spent a little time with him. Tim had spoken to him more, and I think we received the first episode at the same time, but in terms of your question, I’m pretty sure he probably knew first about it.
And then I was asked if I would be interested in and the first thing I said was, which was a stupid thing to say for a Taylor Sheraton show is, can I read it? It’s like, duh, it’s going to be amazing, but you’re committing to something pretty… I mean, this has been a whirlwind.
To say yes to something that for, especially after we’ve been doing this for so long and Tim and I have been approached to do things together on film before, so it needed to be many things after reading the script, it was just like, there’s no way that we could ever pass this up.
It was just, the writing is just so remarkable and the strength, the character that Isabel plays Elsa in the show. She’s our daughter, and wow. Just to have never, ever read a female character so strong at such a young age in that period, any period, really.
Yeah, we said yes and were so glad for it. We knew it was going to be hard. We were warned multiple times by Taylor, all of us were, but it has most definitely been worth it.
My question for you is both of you play such strong women, and during a period where we don’t really see a lot of strong women portrayed, whether it be television or film. So for you, both, you guys feel a lot of pressure knowing that you’re portraying two characters that we don’t often see on television or film?
Isabel: Hmm. I didn’t feel any pressure because the thing is, it’s not often portrayed, but I did some research, and I read some journals of young women who did a similar or had a similar journey. And there are so few accounts, real, true, honest accounts of that experience from the perspective of a woman of that time, especially a young woman.
And they were real darn tough, and so it’s a very true, honest thing. It’s not like we’re trying to portray a woman of that time in a different light. No, that’s genuinely how they were.
Faith: How they were, that’s right.
Isabel: Which is what I love, so I was greatly honored to portray someone like that, but not pressured to, because I also feel like we’re pretty darn tough. It’s exactly…
Faith: It’s exactly. That’s a great way to describe it is that it’s no pressure to portray because that’s exactly how they were; they had to be that way. It was a matter of life and death and the things that they saw. The blessing is the fact that something is written so it can be portrayed so we can bring these characters to life.
But women back then, let me tell you. Wow. Woo. Another level. Another level. And I will say too, and the people that we’ve, that have helped train us for this, the Wranglers, are a couple of female stuntwomen and Wranglers that can just put the man to shame.
Isabel: They’re badass.
Faith: Well, and any cowboy will tell you that a cowgirl is tougher.
Faith, you talked about the rewards of something like this. I mean, it’s this grandiose and big ass 1883. I wanted to kind of look at the flip side of that and the challenges of it because obviously, you’ve done so much in your career going on these massive world tours and stuff, but as an actress, this is certainly the biggest thing you’ve done.
And Isabel, I know you’ve done sitcoms and some dramadies, but this is such a huge scale. Can you talk about like the challenges of doing something this big and then how it has been rewarding on the other side of it?
Faith: I’ll say this very quickly — the challenge. I haven’t really thought about it as being the biggest thing I’ve ever done. It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done.
Tim will say the same thing, just because physically, mentally Taylor made it very clear to all of us that it, we will be depicting this, this will be filmed, and we will be depicting this as if we are really living this life.
And that’s the only way to bring this incredible story to life, so that’s the only, I felt that’s no pressure. It’s just been physically challenging and mentally challenging. But all the other aside, honestly, it’s just, we’ve just been in the present, and I’ll let you take it after that.
Isabel: Oh, I just don’t get into it. And I’m just experiencing it along with the character. And it’s strange how things just kind of happen the way that it’s meant to. I know I’m supposed to play this character. I know I’m supposed to be here with Faith right now, and I’m just staying present.
So yes, it’s bigger than anything that I’ve done, but yeah, and not really. I mean, it’s still as intimate as anything else.
I know it’s a big budget, there’s a lot going on, but at the end of the day, we just walk on a set, and we’re looking into each other’s eyes, and that’s all that matters. Same thing you do with anything else.
Carissa Pavlica is the managing editor and a staff writer and critic for TV Fanatic. She’s a member of the Critic’s Choice Association, enjoys mentoring writers, conversing with cats, and passionately discussing the nuances of television and film with anyone who will listen. Follow her on Twitter and email her here at TV Fanatic.