This year marks the 25th anniversary of the horrific conflict that took place in Waco, TX between members of the cult known as the Branch Davidians, led by cult leader David Koresh, and the ATF (U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms). The agents were given an order by then-Attorney General, Janet Reno, to intervene at Koresh’s compound in order to seize an illegal weapons stockpile kept by the cult. As a result, a firefight and fierce 51-day standoff took place outside of the compound that ended in complete tragedy with the Davidians, at the order of Koresh, burning their entire compound with everyone inside it to the ground. So much has been said over the years, as many believe that not only were the Davidians in the wrong for what they did but that the government had also violated their rights during this siege.
It was a complete mess.
This sad moment in American history has been adapted into a brand new miniseries titled “Waco” with Taylor Kitsch portraying David Koresh. This miniseries was written and directed by the Dowdle Brothers (No Escape) and will premiere January 24th on the newly minted Paramount Network. The series also stars Michael Shannon as Gary Noesner, the FBI negotiator who tried to de-escalate the conflict at Waco, John Leguizamo as ATF agent Jacob Vazquez who went undercover with the cult before the siege, and Rory Culkin as David Thibodeau, a survivor of the Branch Davidians. I caught up with Kitsch to find out what it was like playing the infamous cult-leader.
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How much did you know about the history of Waco before signing on for this project?
“I think was, like so many people, that I’m going to say I knew like 99%. I get a call from the agency saying ‘the Dowdle brothers want to meet you and they are thinking of you playing Dave Koresh. Will you go sit down with them?’ You quickly turn to Google and Wikipedia and start reading up on it. You go through the whole gamut of everything. All of the emotions that go with that. I was flattered and then, of course, I said ‘yes’ to the meeting. We had an amazing two-hour meeting and we got along super well. The more they actually told me about what actually happened the more enthralled I was. A few weeks later, I got the role. Then the actual research started. I couldn’t have been more happy and excited to have taken on that role. The writing is really strong and obviously this a character you dream of as an actor.”
What was it like getting into character to play David Koresh?
“I started prep on January 2nd and hit camera in late April. It was beyond scary. Learning to play the guitar and sing (David Koresh played and sang in a bar band with fellow members of the Branch Davidians) and obviously diving into his whole story. Diving into David’s home videos and hundreds of hours of calls. Reading David Thibodeau and Gary Noesner’s books (‘Waco: A Survivor’s Story’ and ‘Stalling for Time: My Life as an FBI Hostage Negotiator’). You just try to take in as much information as you can. Then obviously losing the weight is just a part of it. It was scary, to be honest, but I think that gets the best out of you.”
Those scenes of Koresh playing in his bar band kind of humanized him for me in a way.
He took it so seriously! He actually recruited Thibodeau from L.A. to be in his band. Dave was really, really serious about his music. I think that the beauty of this story is that you’re going to see every side of him. I think that’s what the Dowdles did so well. I think when you’re tackling someone like this, that’s the point. You wanna show every side of Dave for who he was before, after and during the siege. It’s just so much material so you just have to get myopic on certain parts. I think every actor’s first question is: ‘why, why, why?’ You try and wrap your head around and not oversimplify it. Some of those questions will never be answered because he isn’t here anymore and because there are still so many of them. You just do your research. You lock everything else out and just get that tunnel vision. Which is why you do it, for that process. I really enjoyed it and it opened my eyes to a lot of things.
Both sides of this standoff, the Branch Davidians and the ATF, could be blamed for how horrible everything played out at Waco. The show doesn’t pull any punches on showing how both sides did not come out of the situation clean. Did you have any sympathy for Koresh while playing him?
"Yes, to be blunt. For all of the Davidians. The kids and their families. Obviously, it’s an amalgamation of ego on both sides. Just one wrong decision after another. It’s a tragedy. I truly believe that the end didn’t have to happen that way. Not that it’s about sides or anything. I think what we do in this is play it all out as matter-of-fact as much as we can and allow the viewers to make their own decisions. I think that was super important and we were really conscious of that while filming.
2018 marks the 25th anniversary of the standoff in Waco, TX. What do you think is Waco’s legacy?
"There was a huge injustice there on so many fronts... As for the legacy: I think that’s up for discussion. Which is the beauty of it as well. You take all of those things in and hopefully we can talk about it and raise awareness that one kind f*ck up after another lead to this. On both sides! You watch some of the hearings they had on capital hill and see that there were some biases in it and the political game being played at its best. That’s what’s scary as well. For David’s legacy? I feel like there is so much more to be said. I wish he was still around so we could pick his brain and talk to him, and the rest of the Davidians, so that we could learn more so that it never happens again."