Isabel May On Being The Catalyst For Taylor Sheridan’s Epic ‘1883’ — Deadline Disruptors

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The emergence of Isabel May as the lead in Taylor Sheridan’s frontier epic series 1883 is such an unlikely discovery story that it still has the actress trying to come to grips with a star-making turn that should factor in the Emmy race.

. - Credit: Emerson Miller/Paramount+
. - Credit: Emerson Miller/Paramount+

Emerson Miller/Paramount+

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It was in a casting meeting with May for another project that Sheridan discovered she was exactly the actress he needed for the origin story of Yellowstone’s Dutton clan. He was under great pressure to find the handle for the origin story that consists of a harrowing wagon train caravan from Texas to Montana. Something was missing, though. That was, until he met May for the female lead opposite Jeremy Renner in another of his Paramount+ series, Mayor of Kingstown.

Both he and May felt she wasn’t right for that role (Emma Laird played the troubled Iris), but during that meeting Sheridan found the handle for his period epic, a fresh face that could convey innocence that is slowly replaced by a young woman’s love for the rough frontier not seen since Madeleine Stowe’s turn as Cora in Michael Mann’s The Last of the Mohicans. Sheridan put all his chips on the table, getting Paramount to sign the actress on faith, to pull her out of other pilot season opportunities, and getting May. And get May and her reps to trust him that she would want to keep herself available for the role of Elsa Dutton. This was before Sheridan decided to not only make her the catalyst of the limited series, but also its narrator.

“I saw she could represent innocence and hope,” Sheridan says. “At that point I had not figured out how to tell this story and I had Sam Elliott over here, and I had Tim McGraw there, and Faith Hill, and I had not found the bridge between them all. When I met Isabel, the whole story, all 10 episodes, went right through my head.”

While she had co-starred in the Netflix YA series Alexa & Katie, and appeared in Young Sheldon, May acknowledges that what happened in 1883 is the dream of any young actress.

It is something she still can’t believe happened to her.

Read the digital edition of Deadline’s Cannes/Disruptors magazine for 2022 here.
Read the digital edition of Deadline’s Cannes/Disruptors magazine for 2022 here.

“I played potentially the greatest role I might ever have the opportunity of playing, and I still don’t know how to take it,” she says. “I don’t understand what I did or what it is about myself that may have influenced Taylor in that moment, when this character sparked to life in his head.”

May plunged herself into frontier life. She recalls how, in the middle of a scene on a ranch in Guthrie, Texas, a cow in the background suddenly gave birth. “The baby just stood up and started walking around, and we were just trying to digest this beautiful moment.”

There was hardship too, like when May tried to hide her shivering as she filmed on horseback in the 18-degree Montana cold, or when she lost feeling in her feet after stepping into frigid water. “The second they said, ‘Cut,’ a lot of explicit words came out of my mouth, and I hauled butt out of there as fast as I could,” she says. “Not my proudest moment. Sure, it was challenging, but I came to feel that if it wasn’t, what’s the point?”

May had expected to next do a feature, signing on to play one half of the DC Wonder Twins alongside Riverdale‘s KJ Apa, but the movie was unplugged by new Warner Bros management. Sheridan calls May a “generational talent” that reminded him of the time he taught acting classes and in walked a young Jennifer Lawrence. Before long, Sheridan returned her money  and told her there was nothing he could teach her that Lawrence  didn’t already have, this before she made her breakthrough in Winter’s Bone. He feels the same way about May, and top Warner Bros executives are high on the actress despite the Wonder Twins setback.

So whether she decides on TV or features, May will have her next adventure soon.

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