[This story contains major spoilers to the third episode of 1923, “The War Has Come Home,” along with spoilers to 1883.]
With each Yellowstone prequel, creator Taylor Sheridan fills in more of the Dutton family tree.
On Yellowstone, John Dutton III, played by Kevin Costner, sat atop his tree. But with 1883, the prequel starring Tim McGraw and Faith Hill as elder Duttons to John — James and Evelyn Dutton — the branches grew and now, with the second prequel 1923, a universe was born. Search out the “Dutton family tree” and you will find endless charts attempting to track the old and new characters.
On 1923, James Badge Dale plays John Dutton Sr., the oldest nephew and right-hand man of Harrison Ford’s Jacob Dutton. He’s married to Emma Dutton (Marley Shelton) and father to Jack Dutton (Darren Mann). But even Dale had trouble keeping track beyond that.
“I don’t know the tree,” he admits to . “This was the running joke. Harrison and I would be like, ‘I think we’re related, I don’t know how.’ We all need a flow chart.”
Dale was most focused on the task at hand, which was making his mark in the first three episodes of 1923 — all leading up to his death scene in the epic and bloody gun battle that ended the Jan. 1 episode, “The War Has Come Home.” The attack came after a land dispute between Jacob and sheepherder Banner Creigton (Jerome Flynn), which prompted Banner’s gang to ambush the Dutton men and women. John Dutton Sr. died by automatic gunfire, and the attack left Jacob gravely wounded, along with injuries sustained by Jack and his fiancée, Elizabeth (Michelle Randolph). The episode ended with Jacob telling wife Cara (Helen Mirren) to write to their other nephew, Spencer (Brandon Sklenar), that he needs to return home to protect his inheritance, the Yellowstone ranch.
In the chat below, the 24, The Departed and Iron Man 3 actor confirms that the death scene was the final one he filmed on the series, and shares why it’s such a pivotal moment for 1923 and the Yellowstone universe.
So, this confirms it: John Dutton Sr. is the other Dutton who was teased to die in the opening narration for 1923 from Isabel May [who played Elsa Dutton in 1883]?
Yes, it was me. It was me.
His death feels extra tragic, after watching what he survived and lived through as a young boy in 1883. How did you feel when you learned about his fate?
I knew going in. They were very up front. Taylor was up front with me. I knew what the job was and what it entailed. It’s kind of a springboard for the story and, let’s get Spencer home. [Editor’s note: Spencer is Brandon Sklenar’s character and the younger brother to John and Elsa.]
1923 opened with Cara Dutton (Helen Mirren) killing a man with a shotgun and screaming into the wilderness. This episode revealed that moment to be a flash-forward from this attack, and it happens just after John is killed and Cara’s husband, Jacob, is wounded. Why do you think Taylor Sheridan chose to open 1923 with the fallout of your character’s death?
It’s just such a beautiful moment. That’s the way I look at it: is that the first three episodes are kind of a prologue. This is where the story starts. With the first scene you see in episode one, that’s the beginning of the story. Cara is willfully involving herself in the violence to end things. And that’s where we are now.
In the Sheridan-verse, major characters die. Lee Dutton (Dave Annable) died in the first episode of Yellowstone, and returns in flashbacks. And Elsa (May) died at the end of 1883, and returns as narrator for 1923. How do you feel about joining the ranks of these tragic characters?
That’s really sweet of you to say. No one likes dying. I don’t like dying on film. It’s hard. Every time you do it, I feel like a piece of me is taken out, and I leave it somewhere. I had to sit down long and hard and think, “Am I ready to give another piece?” Because I don’t know how many I have left. But I had this piece to give. I believed in the story. And by the way, the experience gave back to me. The experience I had with this crew and this cast, and specifically Harrison and Helen, but mostly Harrison, was once-in-a-lifetime. There aren’t many movie stars left. This is an epic piece of writing. I was proud to be a part of it. I also got to spend a lot of time with Brendan and Darren off camera. I really appreciate our relationship, and I do feel like an older brother to both my [onscreen] younger brother and my son! (Laughs.)
Will you return in flashbacks or dream sequences moving forward?
This is not a spoiler: No. Unless something else is being written that I don’t know about, which to be quite honest with you, is always possible. I’m proud to be a part of it. I think John Dutton Sr. is a huge part of this story. From 1883 to 1923, I don’t know what Taylor has in store. If he calls me? Cool, I’ll be there in a second.
So this was your final scene that you filmed?
Yes, yes. This was my job. I had done my job.
His death scene came after an epic gun battle. Tell me about the day and what it was like to film.
I think it was about three days of work, but it extended because we had to shut down twice because of the wildfires out West. The smoke was too heavy to work, and we lost about two days of work that week. That’s what I showed up for: I came out to ride horses and do a couple of gunfights with Harrison Ford. And we did it in a really safe manner, and I think that’s important. When you’re working with animals, tension and anxiety is your enemy. So you need to have a lot of bravery, but you need to also be kind of the calmest person in the room.
How long were you laying there playing dead, and was that you the whole time?
I’m there to work. I do have a stunt double, he’s an amazing dude. And Harrison has his guys. Actually, Harrison’s guys I’ve worked with before, 10 years ago. But, that was me and Harrison laying in the dirt. Harrison lays down in the dirt? I lay down in the dirt.
Harrison’s character also has a precarious ending in this gunfight. What can you say about his survival?
I’ll just say he was still breathing when I saw him (laughs). That’s a tough man, that’s a tough man.
Assuming he does survive, he’s badly wounded. And he asked Clara (Mirren) to summon Spencer home from Africa because he’s now needed to run the ranch. How does this attack and injury shift Jacob Dutton’s story?
I’m going to be incredibly honest with you. I have no idea, because Taylor told me, “You only get to read the first three episodes.” And listen, that’s the way I like it. I’m gone. I’m dead. Other guys are asking if I know about this and that. Doesn’t matter. If it ain’t on the page, it ain’t on the stage. I’m going to drive towards this ending, and I’m going to give everything to get to this ending, and I’ll see you guys later at the premiere.
Will you be watching from here on out as a fan?
I’m so proud of this show. I think it’s so beautiful and grand and heartfelt and grounded. I’m so happy for these actors: Aminah [Nieves], Darren, Brendan, Julia [Schlaepfer]. Everybody involved. Everyone is bringing it. They’re bringing the A-game from the deepest parts of their body. Yeah, I’ll be watching!
Did everyone in the cast know your fate? Was there any wrap or goodbye moment for you?
They had the scripts, yeah. They knew. You know, goodbyes are strange in the film business. I tend to think it’s like we’re working in the carnival, and I’ll see you down the road. There’s no goodbye. I’ll see you on the next one.
How do you imagine John’s widow, Emma (Shelton), and son Jack Dutton (Mann) will grieve and move forward after his death?
Oh, I think there’s a long way to go. And I hope everyone is OK. But I’ve got a feeling it’s not going to end up that way! I don’t know who is going to be the last one standing.
So, help me here: How is John Dutton’s (Kevin Costner) father related to your character?
I don’t know the tree. We all need a flow chart. I’ve seen them online, when people have tried to create them. I don’t know if those are accurate or not. And here’s the thing, this is Taylor’s universe. We could be saying one thing or thinking one thing, and Taylor can decide something else and we’ll be watching “1943” and realize it’s a little different and he’ll change it up.
Did you go back and watch your younger character on 1883 to prepare?
You know, I wish I watched it earlier. I watched it halfway through filming, everybody started getting into it. I got hooked. And then I’m watching the young man who played the same role that I did [Audie Rick] and I’m thinking, “Oh man, this kid is so much better than I am!” (Laughs.) I’m starting to realize I could have tweaked this and brought some of the stuff that he did into it. But sometimes I like to go into work with a clear state. And I’m very much about what’s written and what’s in front of me. As an actor, you have to trust your instincts and life experiences, and your own research to fill that role.
Decades pass from when we saw him in 1883 to in 1923. What did you fill in about his life that made him the man we see when 1923 begins?
I have my own stuff that I bring to it. We shot in Butte, Montana, and that has its own history. I fell in love with that town. I’ve actually been there before and was familiar with it. I have my imagination. I’ll leave it at that.
Have you given any though to how your character and Kevin Costner’s character might have gotten along, had you lived in the same time period?
That’s a good question. I didn’t think that far. Family is a funny thing. You either love each other or hate each other. You could have both of those in the same day. I think the dinners would have been loud or very quiet. (Laughs.)
Any behind-the-scenes story with Harrison Ford, Taylor Sheridan or any of your co-stars that you will always remember?
The locations and experiences were so beautiful. Every day was kind of precious in that way. And especially for me, because I knew my time was limited. I don’t want to tell other peoples’ stories and I don’t want to say too much, but I will say there was a day when Harrison turned to me and said, “I’m still amazed by how lucky we are. We’re lucky to be here.” And we carried that energy every day. We didn’t go back to trailers. We were right there, on set with that crew. And it’s a good crew. Horseback riding is a lifelong pursuit. Some of these wranglers trained me 10 years ago on Lone Ranger. I knew a lot of these stunt guys. I felt like I had rejoined an old, lost family.
To wrap, a question for everyone in the Sheridan-verse: If you could come back in any of his projects, is there a role you’d want to do? This can include a spiritual visit in a “1943” series.
Old ghost Dutton, a Christmas Carol! (Laughs.) I’m so kind of touched about where Taylor is in his career as a writer. He said it best; he said, “I’m on a nice run right now, but one day something is not going to work.” I’m excited to see what he continues to write. His work ethic and his passion is contagious. I’m grateful to be around it. It’s made me more excited to go back to work in 2023, and we’ll see what the future holds.
Interview edited for clarity.