Tim McGraw and Faith Hill tackle the old west in ‘1883’

Tim McGraw and Faith Hill, photographed at the Beverly Hills Hotel, star in Paramount +'s "1883"

Tim McGraw, left, and Faith Hill.

(Julien Sage / For the times)

Tim McGraw and Faith Hill had only one thing in mind when it came to Taylor Sheridan’s 1883: unwavering commitment. It would be the first time the married country stars would appear on screen together, let alone play characters who are husband and wife. “We knew we had a big hill to climb and people were dying to see us fail,” McGraw tells The Envelope. “The only thing we had to do was kill it on set every week.”

The couple play James and Margaret Dutton, and with their teenage daughter Elsa (Isabel May) and son John (Audie Rick), they leave their roots in Tennessee for an unpopulated western country. The journey is not going well, to say the least. The appeal behind the “Yellowstone” prequel is undeniable in part because it simmers in a sort of Western script that makes you feel like you’re traveling with them across the Great Plains.

However, the concern McGraw and Hill shared was bringing the charisma and connection they have without “Tim and Faith appearing on screen,” says Hill. “Tim and I have been married for 26 years. We’ve done everything together. We raised three daughters, we toured, we did the studio and we wrote songs. We’re together all the time,” she says with a smile. They agreed not to rehearse or discuss their characters off set. These boundaries created an opportunity for them to be in the moment when action was called. “I didn’t know how he would say his lines and he didn’t know how I would say mine,” says Hill. “It was just like that that was fresh, present, real and authentic, especially when you know someone that well.”

A man and woman in the old west sit next to a campfire in a scene from "1883"

Faith Hill as Margaret and Tim McGraw as James in the Paramount+ series 1883.

(Emerson Miller / Paramount+)

The treacherous journey unfolds as a 10-episode limited series told in part from Elsa’s perspective as she narrates her travels. Every day she discovers what love and freedom mean. Hill notes that it was “fascinating to have such a strong female character in Elsa at that age”. The mother-daughter dynamic made Margaret peel away her layers and let her character’s complexities shine through. Margaret envies her adolescent daughter but has no qualms warning the harsh truths about what’s expected of a woman: “No matter where we go. You wear clothes and raise babies and sweat over a garden and swallow every dream you’ve ever had because that’s all the world wants from you.”

Hill has seen a lot of Margaret as a mother, saying that her character “used all the knowledge she’s ever known in her life to be understanding and supportive, but also the voice of reason at times.” The courage and the hard work of that era reminded Hill of her childhood growing up in the garden with her parents not as a hobby but out of absolute necessity or they didn’t eat. “Margaret was a nurse before during the Civil War and was also incredibly involved in running the house and running the family,” she says. “It was a dream to have the opportunity to play a character like Margaret. Then have someone like Taylor confide that I can actually do it.”

McGraw envisioned James wearing “a lot of demons” and “stories about the Civil War and its aftermath.” Several scenes point to a backstory, including one in which he is a wounded Confederate soldier who survived the 1862 Battle of Antietam. “I think before anyone knew what PTSD was, they certainly suffered from it, and I think in his head even more than that, he was looking for some quiet time to raise his family,” he says.

McGraw's tattoo of Faith Hill's name on his shoulder.

McGraw’s tattoo of Hill’s first name.

(Julien Sage / For the times)

McGraw suggests that he bonded with his character during an early episode when the Duttons stay in Fort Worth and a drunk man climbs into the wrong bed and then tries to rape Elsa. James storms into the hallway and shoots him dead. “It’s at that moment that James realizes what he’s dragged his family into, and it scares him a little,” McGraw continues. “The scene was crucial for me as an actor to figure out my character’s thought process. With all the pressure and worry on his mind, I wanted you to think this guy never slept and look like this.”

The hardest part for McGraw was balancing the emotions. James is stoic and fearless and rarely shows vulnerability. These traits are called into question when his daughter faces yet another insecurity towards the end of the series. “There were a lot of scenes that were so powerful and so intimate that I broke down and said, ‘James can’t do this,'” says McGraw. “It was hard not to break down and show just enough emotion where you felt it and you could see it in the eyes but not where he broke up.”

McGraw faced those fatherly feelings early on in the prep. “We took turns reading each other the whole episodes,” says Hill. “Tim read one, then I read the next. But when we got to the last two, I had to be the one to read them because Tim cried so much he couldn’t speak at times.”

As much as he wants to protect Elsa from an uncertain world, James trusts her to find her own way: “I can’t treat you like an adult when it suits me and like a child when I’m worried. You’re one or the other.” But that doesn’t mean James doesn’t have a caring, watchful eye. When Elsa falls in love with a charming cowboy, he shares exquisite words with the Wrangler, who is willing to “steal” her to be together: “You say you love her… but you’ll never love her like I do.” . This is my heart you’re running away with. You weigh it better than an egg.”

Margaret and James demonstrate their love, strength and respect for one another throughout the journey. The two develop through their own arcs 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 to make our children feel safe. There were times when I really wanted to hit him over the head with something, but I can’t. It’s a matter of life or death out there.”

A woman in a black jacket and jeans poses in front of a salmon-colored wall

Hill has seen a lot of Margaret as a mother, and says her character has “used every knowledge she has ever known in her life to be understanding and supportive, but also the voice of reason at times.”

(Julien Sage / For the times)

https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/awards/story/2022-06-14/faith-hill-tim-mcgraw-1883-limited-series Tim McGraw and Faith Hill tackle the old west in ‘1883’

Sarah Ridley

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