Leading followers to their doom
On April 19 1993, an FBI siege of the Branch Davidian compound in central Texas ended in a massive fire and the deaths of 74, including their leader David Koresh, a story told in a series premiering this week on the newly rechristened Paramount Network.
“Waco,” a six-part drama series debuting Wednesday, Jan. 24, recounts the tragedy that began when agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms conducted a raid on Koresh (Taylor Kitsch, “Friday Night Lights,” “X Men Origins: Wolverine”) and his devoted followers that turned into the longest gun battle in U.S. law enforcement history, resulting in the deaths of four ATF agents, six civilians and the wounding of dozens of others.
A 51-day stand-off ensued and ended with the fateful FBI raid that left scores dead, among them Koresh. Others there that day include his wife Rachel (Melissa Benoist, “Supergirl”); her sister Michelle (Julia Garner, “Ozark”), who also married Koresh and bore him a child; Steve Schneider (Paul Sparks, “House of Cards”), Koresh’s second in command; his wife Judy (Andrea Riseborough, “Bloodline”), who was also a Koresh spouse and child bearer; and Wayne Martin (Demore Barnes, “12 Monkeys”), the Davidians’ lawyer.
The series is based on the book “A Place Called Waco” by Davidian survivor David Thibodeau (played in the series by Rory Culkin, “Columbus”), and also stars Michael Shannon (“Elvis & Nixon”) as FBI negotiator Gary Noesner, and John Leguizamo (“Stealing Cars”) as ATF agent Jacob Vazquez.
For prepare for his role, Kitsch did a deep dive into the character, studying Koresh for four months, losing 30 pounds, growing his hair long, donning the clothes and learning to sing and play guitar like Koresh did. Soon, he found the voice of a guy he describes as “very enigmatic, charismatic” begin to emerge.
“I really do think how he’s incredibly smart and he was incredible at having the pulse in that compound,” the actor says. “You know, you always want to study why people would follow him, literally give their lives and families and wives … . He was a master manipulator and he would test these people and he also would put his heart on his sleeve and could be very sweet at times but also very demanding and vigilant.
“I mean, he had it all,” he continues, “in that sense of as an actor you get to go and play that full spectrum and I love that. I love that the deeper I got, the more you really try to understand, the more shades you could really show of him.”
The series’ exterior scenes were filmed at a scale replica of the Branch Davidian compound constructed outside Santa Fe, N.M. For Benoist, who grew up 200 miles away from Waco in Houston at the time the events unfolded, filming at the stark rural location proved to be an eerie and overwhelming experience.
“It kind of just looms there,” she says. “And we had already spent a couple of weeks in character filming scenes inside the compound in the room where Koresh would do his sermons, and I mean it was just a lot of emotions. And I wasn’t there the day they burned it down but they burned the entire building down and I heard it was quite moving.”
“I don’t think anyone really knows the truth and just how tragic it is,” she continues, “and how much these people suffered and how they didn’t deserve what happened to them. And seeing the building absolutely brought all those feelings to the surface.”