From creator and executive producer Taylor Sheridan, Paramount+ series 1923 is a prequel that builds out more of the Dutton dynasty first established on-screen in Yellowstone. The show (which was just renewed for a Season 2) takes place after the events of the previous prequel, 1883, starring Tim McGraw as James Dutton and Faith Hill as Margaret Dutton, which chronicled the story of the family’s journey West to settle in Montana and form the beginnings of what will become the Yellowstone Ranch.
When 1923 begins, a new generation of the Dutton family has taken ownership of the Yellowstone — led by James’ brother Jacob (Harrison Ford), his wife Cara (Helen Mirren), and James’ surviving children, who are now running the ranch in his stead. That’s all before they’re confronted with the hardships of such events as Prohibition and the Great Depression — as well as competitors who are constantly looking to take over the land that the Duttons have firmly staked their claim on. The series also stars Darren Mann, Michelle Randolph, James Badge Dale, Marley Shelton, Brian Geraghty, Aminah Nieves, Brandon Sklenar, Julia Schlaepfer, Robert Patrick, Jerome Flynn, Jennifer Ehle, Sebastian Roché, and Timothy Dalton.
Ahead of the midseason premiere this Sunday, Collider was given the opportunity to chat with Schlaepfer, who plays Alexandra, a spirited British woman who encounters Spencer Dutton (Sklenar) on her travels in Africa and decides to leave her impending marriage in order to run away with the big-game hunter. Spencer and Alex’s storyline has been occurring in Africa largely apart from the events going on back in Montana on the Yellowstone Ranch — but they (and we) didn’t realize that by the time Alex started reading Spencer’s letters from his aunt, the tragedies facing his family had not happened recently, but three months prior to Cara’s last letter. Now, it’s a race against time as the newly engaged couple tries to get home to Montana, but will they reach the remaining Duttons to help in the battle to come?
JULIA SCHLAEPFER: At the beginning, I had only a couple of the scripts, I think the first two, and I loved them, but I didn’t know what Alexandra’s role would be in the show at all. I honestly thought that she wasn’t going to be around very many episodes. I hadn’t ever watched Yellowstone or 1883, but my parents were the biggest super fans, and they begged me to watch it for years. I got the audition and they freaked out.
I put the original audition on tape and then Taylor [Sheridan] came back pretty quickly. He flew me out to Jackson Hole to screen test a few weeks later. [It] all happened very fast, and there were 26 pages’ worth of audition material, and we all went in and read the first time. We waited around for a while, and then he came back out and said, “Okay, I want everyone to come in and meet again.”
I went back in the room with him, and he said, “I’m reading with you this time as Spencer, not the casting director. All I want you to do is be yourself. Drop all the research you’ve done about Alex. I don’t care about the accent. I’ve got people for that. You don’t even have to do an accent if you don’t want to. Just be you, because you have all the qualities that Alexander possesses.” I read with Taylor, and by the end of the last scene, which was the letter scene that you see in Episode 4, everyone in the room was crying together. It was just so special.
I was in the airport the early next morning on my way home, and I looked at my phone. I [was] getting a call from a Texas phone number, and I picked up. “Hi, Julia, it’s Taylor Sheridan. I know you’re in the airport. You’re in public, so keep a poker face. Play it cool. You’re Alexandra.” I was trying not to weep openly in the airport, and then I went and found a desk to crouch behind, and I FaceTimed my parents, and we were all sobbing. He sent me Episodes 5 and 6 to read on the plane ride home, which was really nice.
I’ve talked to a lot of your castmates already, and have heard about a little thing called Cowboy Camp. I wanted to ask you about your experience doing it and if there was something that you learned there that you’d never done before, either for a role or just personally.
SCHLAEPFER: Cowboy Camp was just the happiest time of our lives. We were having a ball, and we’re all so close, and it was just pretty much the young cast there at first. We’d go to Cowboy Camp super early and then get back at the end of the day and all do family dinner and grill in the backyard. It was so much fun, but we were put through the wringer. I was beaten up and bruised by the end of that. It is such a gift as an actor to have the opportunity to really immerse yourself in the world.
We haven’t seen Alexandra or Spencer on horseback yet, but just to get a taste of the Dutton Ranch lifestyle was so major, and we learned how to lasso, which was really cool. One of my favorite things to do was towards the end. When we were getting good, they’d have us race each other, so we would all have a timer, and one of us would run around and barrel race, and that was one of my favorite days. That was really fun. You learn how to get comfortable on a horse, and they’re the most sensitive, beautiful creatures, and it was really meditative and peaceful.
On the show, I really love the circumstances of how Alex and Spencer meet. Initially, it seems like she might be using him a little to escape her circumstances. When do you think she actually starts falling for him, and when do you feel like those feelings turn into love for her?
SCHLAEPFER: Taylor and I talked about this. The exact moment she starts falling in love with him is when they meet in that first scene, when he looks her in the eye after ignoring her. That whole conversation. He looks her in the eye and he says, “Dying is the closest thing to being alive that you’ll ever feel.” In that moment, she thinks, “Whoa, you are the embodiment of everything, all the freedom and adventure that I’ve ever wanted for myself.” When she looks at him and gives it back to him and is like, “You don’t see the romance in that?” That’s when it starts to happen for him.
It’s really beautiful because you get to see this love story unfold in a way where it starts as this instant chemical attraction. [But] is this real? Is this just sexy and hot and exciting for them? As the season goes on more and more, you watch their love develop into this real thing because they’re tested over and over and over again, and they have to choose each other over and over and over again. Watching their love mature and become grounded and become a real thing for both of them, there are many moments throughout the season where you’ll watch it hit them again and again in a different way and coming from a different direction. It just continues to intensify, but I think it starts from that first moment. [That’s] not to say there aren’t doubts along the way, but when she hears him say that, she’s like, “Okay, I’ve never met somebody like this in my life.”
Alex’s first real test with Spencer is finally being out in the wilderness of Africa and really getting a taste of the dangers that are out there. Are we going to see more near-death experiences for them? Or is it a more emotional rollercoaster now?
SCHLAEPFER: It’s going to be a bit of both, for sure. It just continues to escalate, I will say. But I don’t think the doubt ever comes from a place of how they feel about each other. It’s never a doubt of the love itself. She came in with this kind of naive idea of what the world is outside of her bubble, and she wants adventure, and she wants danger and all that stuff. But then that first night in that scene in the car afterward when she’s sitting with him, she’s like, “I do not want that. That is not what I want. That is not your job anymore because you cannot die because I cannot lose you.” She probably starts to doubt if she’s in over her head a little bit and if she’s going to make it through the journey. It’s all about her determining, is this worth it? I would like to think that their love is worth it, and I hope it’ll stand the test of time as we go on.
The big twist before the hiatus was that their storyline is not happening in the same span of time as what’s going on at the Yellowstone. How soon did you know that that was the case?
SCHLAEPFER: I knew it when I read that line in the script. That’s when we all found out, we were reading it, and we all had the same moment of, “Oh my gosh.” They’re on different timelines, which really even further shakes up the fate of how this is all going to play out and how long it’s going to take them to get home, and if they’re going to make it in time. That’s when the clock starts, and they’re running out of time. So it is a race to the finish line.
What can you tease for Alex and Spencer in the back half of the rest of this season?
SCHLAEPFER: We watch Alex’s innocence turn into a real strength, and she finds that strength within herself to keep pushing forward in a way that I don’t think she’s ever had to access before. Maybe she’s wanted to access [it] or knew was in there, but because of her privileged upbringing, hasn’t had to. We watch them just continue to go on this harrowing, but really beautiful love story, and anything you could dream of happening to them will happen to them. No one has it easy and no one’s safe.