“I liked him right from the get-go. … I wanted him to play the part…” When Taylor Kitsch auditioned for Peter Berg’s TV adaptation of Friday Night Lights back in 2005, the director took a shine to the young actor and ended up giving him his breakout role as a high school football player.
The show attracted a small but devoted following and, even though it ended in 2011, the very mention of FNL still elicits from many of its fans the nostalgic response: “Ooh, Tim Riggins...”
Now, Kitsch is playing another kind of character who had a small but devoted following – sect leader David Koresh – in SBS’s new drama series Waco, the story of the 51-day siege of the Branch Davidian compound in 1993.
For those who only know Kitsch as the taciturn Riggins, he might seem an odd choice for the role of the talkative Koresh, but this overview of his career provides some insight into how he made his way from Dillon to Waco.
A History of Kitsch
Prior to FNL, Canadian Kitsch had modelled and played a few small roles, including in 2006 film The Covenant opposite Gossip Girl star Chace Crawford. During his run on FNL, he played Remy LeBeau (aka Gambit) in X-Men Origins: Wolverine and photojournalist Kevin Carter in The Bang Bang Club.
But it was his portrayal of Riggins – a strong, silent type with hidden depths – that made him the face of FNL. When the show ended, Kitsch seemed the actor most likely to make the George Clooney-style transition from small to big screen. Unfortunately, his first few forays into film post FNL turned out to be more Batman & Robin than Ocean’s Eleven.
The American summer of 2012 was supposed to be the summer of Kitsch but both John Carter and Battleship turned out to be major disappointments. Kitsch, however, still had his admirers, one of whom sent him an email offering support after Battleship: “With any job there is always going to be self-doubt that creeps in, but know that you are going to have a long career.”
The email was from legendary director Oliver Stone, who subsequently cast Kitsch in his film Savages as a pot dealer who shared his girlfriend O (Blake Lively) with his business partner and best mate (which was, perhaps, good preparation for the role of the polygamous Koresh). The movie was reasonably well received by critics and did well at the box office, but didn’t exactly reignite Kitsch’s career.
It was, however, an indication that serious directors like Stone were willing to look beyond Kitsch’s “sexy” image and give him meatier roles. Stone was particularly impressed that Kitsch wanted his character, a former Navy Seal, to be covered in scars: Other directors would have been, “No, I want you to look good!” but Stone agreed.
The following year saw him starring in the sweet but little seen Grand Seduction, in which a puckish Brendan Gleeson does all he can to persuade Kitsch’s doctor character to take up residence in a small Newfoundland fishing village.
He then reunited with Berg to play the late Lt Michael P. Murphy in Lone Survivor, receiving some glowing reviews and once again demonstrating that Kitsch, certified personal trainer and nutritionist, was prepared to “do whatever the role asks” of him.
This extended to sporting a very impressive blonde blowout (which took 30 minutes a day in the makeup chair to achieve) for his role in Ryan Murphy’s TV adaptation of The Normal Heart. From playing a gay rights activist in that show, Kitsch went on to play a motorcycle cop in the eagerly awaited but ultimately disappointing second season of True Detective.
Kitsch as Koresh
While Kitsch has returned to the big screen – he played a firefighter in 2017’s Only the Brave – in recent times it’s been the small screen that’s offered him the more interesting roles, the latest being that of self-proclaimed messiah Koresh in Waco.
Though there’s no doubt Kitsch is a talented actor, many of his roles haven’t required him to be much more than a) pretty b) shirtless or c) all of the above. Waco provides him with ample opportunities to show off his acting chops, portraying Koresh as the complex individual he clearly was. He’s received plaudits for the role, with one critic describing the character as “creepy… He’s warm and welcoming at times, angry and emotional at others. … there’s still a feeling of unease whenever he enters a room.”
Kitsch does appear shirtless occasionally, but he’s scrawny, rather than muscular, after dropping 30lb (13kg) for the role. He also did his homework, listening to hours of Koresh’s sermons, meeting with survivors of the siege and learning to sing and play guitar to immerse himself in the part.
He also sports a mean mullet, which he has described as a “big part of the character”. Waco co-creator John Erick Dowdle sums it up perfectly: “Taylor’s Canadian. He used to play hockey. He’s born to have a mullet. He can rock it. He makes it look cool.”
If you’ve ever wondered how David Koresh managed to persuade so many people to move into a compound with no running water, listen to his homilies about the Seven Seals and his band play covers of “My Sharona”, check out Taylor Kitsch’s charismatic performance and wonder no more.
You can see Taylor Kitsch (and his mullet) in Waco, which airs at 8:30pm on Thursday nights on SBS. Catch up or watch the entire six-part series now streaming on SBS On Demand: