A New Era in the Dutton Family Saga: Meet the Key Players of ‘1923’

TV Shows

Hollywood legends Harrison Ford and Helen Mirren are used to playing straight shooters. But it’s difficult to imagine them both crouched low in the dirt behind a log in a Montana forest, aiming their rifles at a fast-approaching enemy while squibs explode all around them. Now picture them doing that during a grueling 12-hour shoot and you get an idea of what’s at stake for the duo playing ranch patriarch Jacob Dutton and his wife, Cara, in the eagerly awaited Yellowstone prequel 1923.

Creator-writer Taylor Sheridan’s second origin series bridges the gap between the hardy, big-dream pioneers of the first, 1883, and the contemporary megarich cattle ranchers led by John Dutton III (Kevin Costner) in what has become America’s favorite show.

The latest chapter, 1923, has tons of action, passion, and star wattage to complement a sweeping generational tale weaving through the prior century’s challenges — from Prohibition to a whole different pandemic, and from historic drought to a looming Great Depression. To that you can throw in a familiar Yellowstone plot point — coexisting on the land with the local Indigenous people.

If anyone can pull this off, it’s 1923’s seasoned stars. Mirren, a four-time Emmy winner, shone as uncompromising Inspector Jane Tennison on Prime Suspect, and Ford is making his debut as a television series star after 56 years in the business. “They were tireless; their commitment is off the charts,” reports actress Marley Shelton, who was squeezed between the pair during that fight-for-your-life rifle battle. Shelton plays Emma Dutton, dutiful wife of Jacob’s right-hand man, nephew John Dutton Sr. (James Badge Dale).

Harrison Ford in '1923'

(Credit: James Minchin III/Paramount+)

All four are 1923’s key Dutton family players, and in this era, the increasingly influential clan, while not yet flush with cash, is still devoted to the much newer Yellowstone ranch and the extended family living there.

Roles on the ranch are traditional, but times are changing. Emma is there to help Cara keep the estate going, but she’s a woman with the period’s modern spirit, forgoing Cara’s corsets for more fashionable drop-waist Roaring Twenties dresses. John, meanwhile, is the now-middle-aged son of Irish immigrants James and Margaret Dutton, played by Tim McGraw and Faith Hill, who settled on this Montana land in 1883. (They’re no longer in the picture, and 1923 will deal with their absence in the first episode.) John (played as a boy in 1883 by Audie Rick) has bonded with his uncle, the childless Jacob, and “looks up to and appreciates him,” Dale says.

Hard Road Ahead

That bond is important considering the challenges these Duttons face from a timeline 100 years ago, which may be more formidable than those in Yellowstone. Drought is especially cruel, spurring the clan to protect their land at all costs as food for their livestock dwindles. “We will do anything to defend this little homestead,” Dale says. “The word cutthroat comes to mind. [We’re] all pirates in some sort of strange way.” The Duttons’ prairie posse also includes John and Emma’s twentysomething son, Jack (Darren Mann), the ranch’s heir apparent (and, for those keeping track of the family tree, Costner’s character’s great-grandfather), who’s engaged to the spirited Elizabeth Strafford (Michelle Randolph); and loyal foreman Zane (Brian Geraghty).

The tough crew faces deliciously formidable enemies. “Leave it to Taylor to cast the most incredible villains. All you have to do is look at Jerome [Flynn, Game of Thrones],” Shelton says. Flynn is Banner Creighton, a Scottish shepherd leading “the sheep men,” ranchers who use the same grazing areas as the Duttons and are willing to fight tooth and claw for it. Also in the mix: Timothy Dalton’s (Penny Dreadful) rich and ruthless Donald Whitfield. “Danger is imminent and palpable,” Shelton asserts. “At any moment, you or your family can be taken out.”

Helen Mirren in '1923'

(Credit: James Minchin III/Paramount+)

While Jacob and John face unending danger driving cattle on the range, Emma and Cara hold down the fort on the ranch. “They are in the trenches together,” Shelton says of the women. “They have each other to lean on and both deal with their beloved men off in the great unknown.”

But no one is safe. In one terrifying scene, a wagon carrying Emma is attacked. “It’s a huge turning point for the family,” Shelton says, “It’s really traumatic. Everything converges in this crazy moment. We see how these characters react in that split second. Looking at it through Emma’s eyes was like, ‘Is your fight-or-flight reflex going to kick in?’ You don’t know how heroic you’re gonna be until you’re in those situations.”

It pays to be self-sufficient, although there’s now a sheriff in town: William McDowell (Robert Patrick, known for his tough-guy roles including, most recently, Peacemaker). But the Duttons’ relationship with the law, Dale says, “is precarious. At this time, the law is being written. There are a lot of gray areas, and the Duttons live in that gray area. They believe they are moral, righteous. But a lot of the story has to do with men taking what other men have had.”

James Badge Dale and Marley Shelton

James Minchin/Paramount +

Passion Plays

The constant threats that abound make each couple value their private time. “John going on these cattle drives leaves this gaping loneliness and danger that stokes the fire for [his and Emma’s] love. Every time he goes out, who knows if he’ll return?” Shelton says. So how passionate are their reunions? Shelton laughs. “It’s always sexy. Gotta keep it sexy at all times!” She goes on, “Our characters don’t talk a lot. It was a physical lifestyle that demanded stoicism and grit, and that’s very sexy. A lot of it is about longing.”

Dale calls the relationship “charged,” but it’s not as fiery as that between Yellowstone soulmates Rip (Cole Hauser) and Beth (Kelly Reilly). “Our couple is in a very different place in their lives. The fun thing to play with is, what was their past like?” Expect some intense scenes between Ford and Mirren too. Dale says, “The brilliance of what Taylor has written is that all these [couple] relationships are dealing with similar conflicts, at different levels and points of time.”

Lush romantic moments, and those magical, golden-lit glimpses of calm that we know from Yellowstone and 1883, will give viewers a break from the do-or-die battles — and remind us what the Duttons are always fighting for: the family. As Dale recalls of one such scene, “We were coming back from a cattle drive in the most beautiful locations, running these horses hard and fast, the sun is setting, and [Shelton is] running through the grass. It was epic. It was more of a life experience than an acting experience to shoot it.”

Such beauty needs protecting at all costs, and just as with Costner’s character in Yellowstone, viewers can be sure that Ford’s gritty patriarch will stop at nothing — and leave a complicated legacy behind as well. When the stakes get higher, “John watches his son Jack relate to Jacob and process this gritty, violent, selfish world. The question comes up: Are the younger generations going to learn from our mistakes?”

Don’t bet on it in the unforgiving landscape of these series. On Yellowstone, the Duttons have a nickname, “the train station,” for the place they dump their murdered enemies’ bodies. We’d lay even money that, amid all the passion and action of 1923, this family won’t get to give peace much of a chance.

1923, Series Premiere, Sunday, December 18, Paramount+

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