It took Taylor Kitsch time to wrap his head around how to play David Koresh in “Waco,” the Paramount Network’s new six-part series about the siege of the Branch Davidian compound in 1993 that ended in fire and death.
The actor says he found there was much about the high school dropout turned leader of the Branch Davidian religious sect (or cult, depending on your point of view) hard to fathom. When Kitsch first told people he would be playing the role, he said he would hear things like, “That guy was crazy.”
“I knew I wasn’t going ‘crazy’ to play the role,” says Kitsch, who comes off as a pretty relaxed guy. “But you can’t just mimic him. I think the biggest thing was to go into it with the cleanest slate possible so you could get to his beliefs.”
John Erick Dowdle and Drew Dowdle. the executive producers of the series, say in casting someone to play Koresh they needed somebody who was likable, fun and warm to be around but who could then play the dark sides of his personality.
“Koresh was very different than Charles Manson or Jim Jones,” explains Drew. “People saw him as your cool older brother.”
For the role, Kitsch lost 30 pounds, studied guitar, learned to sing and studied Scripture. The Dowdles gave him audio and video of Koresh, of which there is plenty.
If you compare it to the tapes, you see that Kitsch nails the character. “His voice was so distinct. It’s in its way lighter than mine. So learning to sing helped me get to talk like him, and he could talk for hours about Scripture.”
Still, the key was trying to figure out how to humanize Koresh. As a child, Koresh was a victim of abuse, but that hardly explains everything about him. As Kitsch points out, Koresh had memorized the Bible by the age of 16 and would go on to publicly debate serious religious scholars. His speaking abilities attracted devoted followers who believed him to be a messiah. The Branch Davidians believed that end times were near.
Koresh told followers that a revelation instructed him to take multiple wives, so that he could father enough children to sit on the 24 heavenly thrones described in the Book of Revelation.
“You know, it’s difficult to write a character who tells everyone that they have to be celibate – but he’s going to be sleeping with their wives – and not make it sound ludicrous,” says John.
That wasn’t all. The sect leader reportedly chose multiple “wives” for himself from children as young as 11. There were also charges that Koresh physically abused children as a form of punishment.
One piece of source material for “Waco” was “A Place Called Waco” by David Thibodeau, who was one of the nine Branch Davidian members to survive the fire at the compound. Another was FBI negotiator Gary Noesner’s recounting of the 51-day siege in his book “Stalling for Time.”
“It’s hard not to read both of these books and not have empathy for both sides, no matter what your preconceptions might be,” says Drew. “We tried to tell the story from show both sides, warts and all.”
Thibodeau (played by Rory Culkin in the series) actually met Koresh at Guitar Center in Hollywood a few years before the siege, a fact that the Dawdles loved but logistically weren’t able to work into the show. The sect leader had a cover band – you see them playing The Knack’s “My Sharona” – and Thibodeau was a drummer.
February 28 will mark the 25th anniversary of the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms’ raid on the Mount Carmel compound, about 10 miles outside of Waco. The Branch Davidians had been there for years, but under Koresh they had built up a store of weapons and paramilitary gear that began to draw the attention of the government agency.
The raid turned out to be a fiasco. Four ATF agents and six Davidians were killed during the two-hour firefight, and when the agency failed to take the compound, the FBI moved in and began a siege.
“I think in a way it was a publicity stunt gone wrong,” says John. “I think the ATF thought people are going to hate them, so they wanted to make a big show of taking them down.”
Both sides were dug in by the time FBI agent Gary Noesner (played by Michael Shannon) arrived at Mount Carmel to try to negotiate a peaceful outcome. “I couldn’t get David Koresh and my on-scene commander to act reasonable at the same time,” Noesner says.
The agent adds that the reason he joined the project was “it attempts to show both sides and the humanity on both sides. There were good people inside. There were good people outside. Just a very tragic set of circumstances contributed to the negative outcome.”
A quarter of a century later, Thibodeau still expresses his admiration for Koresh, whose real name Vernon Howell
“He was definitely very complex. He had sides to him that you just wanted to know deeper, but after 25 years, you read a lot of other things,” says Thibodeau. “I think that the universe is eternal for a reason. And I think everyone is going to have to face their maker, including David Koresh.”
The 51-day siege ended on April 19 when the FBI made a final assault to remove the Branch Davidians by force. During the fight, the church building caught on fire, and 76 people inside died, including Koresh, his “wives,” and children.
The reasons for the assault and what happened exactly remain in dispute, but the tragic event was cited by Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols as a motivation for the bombing of the Federal building in Oklahoma City bombing exactly two years later.
CBS has already done a documentary about the event, and A&E is planning one that will air later this month.
The Dowdles are wondering what the reactions will be to the series after it premieres Wednesday on the Paramount Network, which had been known as Spike until last Friday, and whether it will draw debate.
“So far the people we’ve worked with on both sides say that they appreciate us telling their story, but that the other side was worse,” says Drew.
What: Six-part series about the siege of the Branch Davidians compound in 1993.
When: Premieres 10 p.m. Wednesday.
Where: The Paramount Network