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Long way from Dillon: How Taylor Kitsch became ‘Waco’ cult leader

In the character of troubled high school fullback Tim Riggins on “Friday Night Lights,” a Canadian actor named Taylor Kitsch managed to embody one of the most beloved fictional Texans of 21st century television. 

Now, in the miniseries “Waco,” airing Wednesdays on the new Paramount Network, Kitsch takes a swing at one of the most infamous Texans in recent memory: David Koresh, leader of the Branch Davidian religious movement.

For those perhaps not yet born when the tragedy at Waco happened, a quick summary: Koresh (born Vernon Wayne Howell in 1959) was a Branch Davidian Seventh-day Adventist who joined a group based at the Mount Carmel Center, a compound in Elk, near Waco. Koresh eventually became the group’s leader, taking multiple “spiritual” wives, many of whom were underage, and fathering at least a dozen children. 

In February 1993, the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms attempted to serve warrants on the compound as part of an investigation into the group’s possible illegal possession of firearms. Four agents and six Davidians were killed in a gunbattle that followed.

After a 51-day standoff, an FBI siege of the compound resulted in the deaths of Koresh and nearly 80 Davidians, including many children. Many Texans -- many Americans -- can tell you where they were that afternoon when they flipped on the TV to see the massive compound burn to the ground. 

The controversial raid spawned congressional hearings, several documentaries, a great episode of “Frontline” and endless hours of conversation among the conspiracy-minded.

So, Koresh is a messy, complicated man with a messy, complicated end. What does Kitsch think of the guy?

“Incredibly complex and mad brilliant,” Kitsch says. In addition to his considerable personal charisma, Koresh also claimed to have memorized the Bible, or at least large portions of it, by the age of 18.

WATCH: Taylor Kitsch is David Koresh in “Waco” trailer

“He could turn on a dime,” Kitsch continues. “Very emotional. One moment he could act like an 11-year-old child, and the next he could act like the prophet he always claimed to be. His complexity was one of the first things that drew me to the story. There’s forever going to be these questions unanswered about who he was and why he did what he did.” 

The raid on Koresh’s compound was a very American story, and Kitsch had only just turned 12 when the raid happened. Did he know much about Koresh before getting this part?

“No, to be blunt,” Kitsch says. “But I remember that compound up in flames. That was an insane visual to see on TV. This is such an extreme story.”

Taylor Kitsch in "Waco." Contributed by Paramount Network

So he dived into Koresh’s life and motives.

“I’m a myopic, envelop-yourself kind of guy,” Kitsch says. He talked to folks familiar with the man, including the FBI lead negotiator at the time, Gary Noesner (played by Michael Shannon in the series), and David Thibodeau, a former Branch Davidian whose book “A Place Called Waco,” was optioned for the series.

He listened to the extraordinary calls between Koresh and the FBI and thought long and hard about the extraordinary circumstances of Koresh’s upbringing. 

“He had a 14-year-old mother,” Kitsch says. “He left the nest as a teenager. He was raised by Seventh-day Adventists; you’ve got a guy who believed in the end of days and that he was a messenger of God.”

In 1990, as he was consolidating power in the Branch Davidian sect, Vernon Howell, who was originally from Houston, legally changed his name "for publicity and business purposes" to David Koresh. Koresh is the biblical name of the near-mythical Persian king Cyrus the Great, who founded the first Persian empire about 500 years before the birth of Christ. David, of course, was a claim to the family of King David.

“He made David Koresh up,” Kitsch says. “That was the beginning of a new chapter and a clean slate to maybe put everything that happened to him growing up behind him. That meant a lot to me.”

While the series was shot in Santa Fe, New Mexico, Kitsch made a number of trips to Waco (it is, after all only two hours or so from Kitsch’s Austin home).

“We all know I-35 as the slowest highway in Austin,” Kitsch says,  “and I remember (“Waco” creator/director John Dowdle) telling me that there was this convoy of 75 black SUVs and tanks going down I-35 to Waco. Can you imagine that?” 

Kitsch keeps coming back to Koresh’s wildly dysfunctional childhood. “I think he created this very controlled environment, this safer environment (for himself) at the compound that was the very opposite of the environment that he came from. Without the Davidians, he really had no purpose. As much purpose as he gave those people every day and tested them and manipulated them, I really think he needed them more than they needed him.”

“Waco” premieres at 9 p.m. Jan. 24 and continues Wednesdays through Feb. 28 on the Paramount Network (formerly Spike).

Taylor Kitsch, with Minka Kelley , during his "Friday Night Lights" days. (AMERICAN-STATESMAN 2007/Austin American-Statesman)

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