Taylor Sheridan directs the cast of 1883
Sam Elliott in 1883
Taylor Sheridan, on horseback, chats with 1883 star Sam Elliott during a break from shooting.
An 1883 family portrait: Tim McGraw, Faith Hill and Isabel May as James, Margaret and Elsa Dutton; Dawn Olivieri as Claire, and Emma Malouff as Mary
Kevin Costner as John Dutton in Yellowstone
Mayor of Kingstown's Kyle Chandler and Jeremy Renner as brothers Mitch and Mike McLusky
Taylor Sheridan is an old-fashioned kind of guy. He seals deals with handshakes and makes good on his word. He knows precisely what he wants and how to deliver it, and he does so in single takes.
"My ambition was to make our series look like movies, feel like movies," he says. "With a television schedule and these complicated outdoor scenes, one take is about all we're going to get. But I would love one day to have the time to do as many as I wanted."
Last season, Sheridan earned bona fide hitmaker status. Yellowstone on Paramount was the number-one cable show in 2021. His Mayor of Kingstown was the second-most-watched series on Paramount+, bested only by his 1883, Yellowstone's origin story. (The record stood until Halo.)
Yet he may be Hollywood's unlikeliest mogul. An actor turned writer, creator, director, showrunner and executive producer, he hasn't been in Los Angeles in four years. He prefers staying in Texas with his wife, actress and former model Nicole Muirbrook, and their twelve-year-old son, Gus. There, on his two ranches, Sheridan is living his childhood dream: he's a cowboy.
"It's something I've done my whole life," Sheridan says. "Go out to west Texas, you'll find fifty [cowboys] way better than me, but yeah, it's what I did for very little money a long time ago. And now I do it for free, or one could argue I recreate it for a lot of money."
In many ways, Sheridan is what we expect from a cowboy. Ten colleagues independently cite attributes rarely ascribed to Hollywood heavy hitters: decency, integrity and loyalty. No oversharing from Sheridan, though. He does precious little press and acknowledges the only time he's at a loss for words is during interviews.
"He's authentic," says David C. Glasser, CEO of 101 Studios, which produces all of Sheridan's work. "Everything that the cowboy way means, he represents."
Glasser and Sheridan met while working on 2017's Wind River. When Glasser started his production company, Yellowstone was his first project. "His superpower is in the pen," the producer explains. "My job is to execute that vision in the day-to-day."
Sheridan's day-to-day includes getting up before dawn and branding cattle. He's a cowboy poet at heart. Just a single line from each of his series this past season proves this:
"I knew nothing of the horror that hides in freedom's shadow."
"I think today, maybe, we'll talk about evolution or the lack of it."
—Mariam, Mayor of Kingstown
"You will realize that your time on this planet has been an utter waste and failure, and you will know in your heart that the world would have been a better place without you."
Sheridan cites writers Cormac McCarthy and Pablo Neruda among his influences. His writing is precise, powerful, poignant.
"Taylor has a lot of certainty," says Kevin Costner, the star and an executive producer of Yellowstone. "And it is right there in the writing. He doesn't overtalk."
"Spare dialogue just seems somehow so real," says 1883 star Sam Elliott, who's played more than a few cowboys in his time. "Taylor's brilliant at it."
Oscar-nominated for best original screenplay for 2016's Hell or High Water, Sheridan works without a committee or endless notes. He exudes an unshakable confidence that some may see as swagger. Still, when your job requires you to ride a horse, swagger comes with the territory.
Costner, Sheridan and Elliott stress that the life depicted on these shows is not a dusty page from history. "I don't think of it as a Western," Costner explains. "I think of it as exactly what it is — the way work was done in this country for over 200 years and is still done, on horseback."
"He understands the cowboy way and the mythic part of that," Elliott adds. "But he understands the modern cowboy way that's alive and well in a great portion of the United States. A lot of people don't recognize that, but Taylor's execution of it is flawless."
Elliott recalls Sheridan piqued his interest as an actor long before they worked together. "But then when I figured out that guy is that guy," meaning the writer, Elliott says, "I thought, 'Jesus, why was this guy wasting his time acting when he could be creating these brilliant pieces?'"
Sheridan taught himself screenwriting after twenty years of acting. Although he had done theater in college, "I didn't see that as a profession, in the middle of central Texas," he says. "California seemed like worlds away."
A talent scout discovered him in a Texas mall and bought him a plane ticket to Chicago. Sheridan cashed it in and drove there instead. New York followed, then L.A. Eventually, he would rack up twenty-four acting credits, including Walker, Texas Ranger; Sons of Anarchy and Veronica Mars.
He brings that background to each set, and actors appreciate it.
"Filmmakers and writers and producers don't necessarily know how to communicate with actors," says LaMonica Garrett, who plays Thomas, the Buffalo Soldier, on 1883. "Taylor knows that language."
Garrett appreciates that Sheridan won't ask actors to do anything he wouldn't do. However, as Garrett (Arrow, Designated Survivor) learned in Sheridan's Cowboy Camp — a preproduction training period when the actors learn riding, roping, wrangling and related skills — that's tough when the boss competes in reining and cutting challenges.
Sheridan uses his own animals in his productions. "Horses — well, like everything else in the business — folks are trying to rent the cheapest they can," he explains. "And that makes it a real challenge for actors and even for the stunt guys. I knew I could never convince the network to get the kind of horses I wanted. So I just bought them myself."
Elliott respects Sheridan's horse sense. Still, he mentions offhandedly that he turned down a role on Yellowstone because he found it a little soapy. "It reminded me of Dallas in Montana," Elliott says. "Granted, it's several notches above that, but it just didn't speak to me."
Six months later, Sheridan offered Elliott a part in 1883 as Shea, a brokenhearted man leading a ragtag group on the Oregon Trail. Isabel May, Elsa on the series, is another actor Sheridan returned to after a different role hadn't worked.
"It's the greatest thing I've ever done," May (Young Sheldon) says of playing a teen discovering love and death on the range. "And sometimes it feels like it's the greatest thing I'll ever do — I don't see a lot of roles like this being written for young actresses, or actresses in general."
Elsa is fierce. For a fifty-two-year-old man, Sheridan taps flawlessly into the essence of courageous women of different generations and in different eras. His powerful female characters attracted country music star Faith Hill. She and her husband, country star Tim McGraw, play Elsa's parents, Margaret and James Dutton. They had never acted together before.
"We would get two or three  scripts at a time and lay in bed at night and read them out loud to each other," McGraw says. "She would read one episode. Then I would take the next. That was our process throughout, and then when she was reading [episode] nine, I fell apart. I was just a blubbering idiot."
Hill ponders Margaret Dutton's steel core — formerly a nurse in the Civil War, she later crosses the country in a covered wagon, a vehicle Hill learned to handle. "I was pretty dang good at it," she says, laughing. "My God, the responsibility to bring these characters to life and not screw this up is freaking enormous."
Sheridan says 1883 was intended as one season, but additional episodes have been announced. Though many characters came to shocking ends, he saved a hopeful ending for the Buffalo Soldier.
"Thomas's story is unique to every Western I've ever seen," Garrett says. "Not only does he get the girl, he has the happy ending. And the depth to his character — he has integrity, he has humility. He makes the choice to see the good in people and the bright side of what tomorrow could be. And that's expressed through his dialogue."
The dialogue for each series has its own cadence, Glasser notes. "Mayor was 'I'm going to be unpolished, unapologetic. I'm not going to candy-coat this.' Yellowstone, the core of this show is about family and what you would do to protect your family. 1883 is a continuation of that saga in a completely different period."
And, he adds, it's all Sheridan. "There's no writers' room," Glasser says. "There's no outlines. You get a script from him, and when it comes, there's no blue pages. There's no pink pages. There are no rewrites."
The shows tackle love, death, greed, corruption, murder and loyalty. At the core of each series is a story about family — whatever messy shape that takes. "I have a traditional sort of family," Sheridan says. "But family is whatever you claim it to be. It's protecting those you love and them doing the same for you."
That connection was hard to find when he first moved to L.A., Sheridan admits. It can be "an incredibly lonely place, with a whole lot of people from all these other places, who have sort of forsaken family for fortune,"he says. "I was one of them for a while. But I couldn't really embrace that. I missed that sense of community. Whatever you call family — whether that structure is nuclear or close friends who tough it out together — everyone needs one."
In L.A., Sheridan was working as an acting coach when Hugh Dillon sought his advice. Then a punk rocker kicking a heroin habit and pushing forty, Dillon has since acted on Yellowstone and on Mayor of Kingstown, which he cocreated with Sheridan. He credits Sheridan for making his dreams reality.
"I had done a couple of movies, and I was kind of cleaning up my act," says Dillon, who always knew there was a story about growing up in Kingston, Ontario, when it had nine prisons. "And Taylor was just a lightsaber, just this no-bullshit, down-to- Earth dude who saw I knew how to perform but knew I had a kind of rougher background and didn't understand the business. He had a profound effect on my life."
After fifteen years of friendship, Dillon says what makes Sheridan so intriguing is "his fearlessness, but also his empathy. And that's why his characters pop."
They're not what people expect. For example, Mariam, the matriarch of the McLusky family on Mayor of Kingstown, is not exactly a font of motherly love. She's fed up with her sons, says actress Dianne Wiest, who won an Emmy for In Treatment and Oscars for Hannah and Her Sisters and Bullets Over Broadway.
When Sheridan phoned her, Wiest recalls, "He'd driven cattle that day. And you just figure, 'Well, I guess he was not shooting anything then.' I didn't realize at the time that he was going to be doing not one, not two, but three series — crazy."
Sheridan writes a lot and works on more than one script at a time. He calls it going underground. "I don't really have a pattern that I stick to," he says. "There've been times that I've been writing Yellowstone while I've been rewriting something else, and it's refreshing to take a break from one and go dive into this other world. I'm a 3-D stream-of-consciousness writer. I don't outline. I try to kind of metaphorically close my eyes and go on the journey with the characters."
And that is precisely what actors want.
Kelly Reilly had wanted to work on a Sheridan project since seeing Sicario, a 2015 action thriller Sheridan had written, so when the opportunity came to play Costner's daughter, Beth, on Yellowstone and ride horses around Montana, this lifelong equestrian was elated, if a little nervous. Four seasons in, she is still thrilled when Sheridan's scripts pop up in her email.
"His work is so exciting to read, and it just comes off the page visually as well," she says. "And I love the way he writes powerful women like Beth. Since the beginning of time, women have been weaponized by their sexuality. He weaponizes her intelligence."
Sheridan's tough men and even tougher women are nuanced. And he knows the characters better than they know themselves. "Taylor can take you back ten years on a character," Glasser says. "You could talk to him about [Yellowstone's] John Dutton back to the 1800s. That's how  came about. Like, he's only writing modern-day John Dutton for Kevin Costner, but he knew the lineage of that character before he ever put pen to paper."
Seeing the thread that weaves these generations into a family tapestry requires a particular vision, and in Sheridan's case, it's a definitive one. "He really, really has a great vision and a great eye," McGraw says. "You learn to trust him. He listens when you want to have a conversation about your ideas, but he's completely certain about the way he wants the scene to go."
That includes taking the directorial reins. Elliott says Sheridan "finds it very difficult, or almost impossible, not to intervene when he comes on the set with his directors."
Sheridan says he simply jumps in when needed. On a series as ambitious as 1883, several units had to keep going simultaneously. The actors "weren't being dishonest when they said I directed on every episode," Sheridan explains. "But it's not accurate to say I directed everything."
He does, however, oversee everything. And with multiple projects, that means ceaseless demands. "It's like when a bird goes back to its nest and six babies are there with their mouths open," Costner says. "Taylor has taken this on because he can. I just hope he can still find the joy in it. I would not caution him on what he already knows how to do. I would caution him to find the joy in all this responsibility — this is a good time for him right now."
Naturally, Sheridan recognizes that he's in a wonderful place. Just as he prompted Dillon to assess his dreams years ago, the cowboy poet takes a moment to consider his own today.
"Dreams evolve," he says. "I've achieved one of them, telling the stories that matter to me the way I want to tell them, and working with actors I've admired for decades — people like Kevin Costner and Dianne Wiest. I mean, I had dinner with Helen Mirren the other night about a project. And you just sit there and pinch yourself that they took your phone call in the first place. Making my heroes my peers — that was another dream I was able to achieve. But my other dreams? They're not even fully formed."
Taylor Sheridan has the following shows in various stages of development and production as part of his deal with ViacomCBS, which runs through 2028 and is worth a reported nine figures:
1883: Some additional episodes of Yellowstone's origin story are planned, rather than an entire second season. (No cast yet, no date set)
1923: Starring Harrison Ford and Helen Mirren, this chapter of the Dutton saga follows another generation through the end of World War I, the beginning of Prohibition and beyond. (No date yet)
6666: The famed Four Sixes Ranch in Texas is the setting for this drama; one family owned the property for 150 years — until Sheridan and other investors bought it last year. (In development)
Bass Reeves: David Oyelowo stars as the lawman said to be the basis for the Lone Ranger. (In development)
Land Man: Billy Bob Thornton plays a crisis manager for an oil company in this drama about billionaires and roughnecks. (2023)
Lioness: Zoe Saldaña stars in this drama based on a CIA program that trains female CIA agents. (2023)
Mayor of Kingstown: A prison riot left dozens dead. All systems have broken down, keeping fixer Mike McLusky (Jeremy Renner) busy in the show's second season. (Later 2022)
Tulsa King: Sylvester Stallone plays a mob boss newly sprung from prison. Sheridan created the series and Terence Winter (Boardwalk Empire) serves as showrunner, executive producer and writer. (Fall 2022)
Yellowstone: As season five picks up, patriarch John Dutton (Kevin Costner) is running for governor and fighting to hang on to the largest ranch in Montana. (Fall 2022) —J.C.
Seasons one through four of Yellowstone are available on Peacock; 1883 and Mayor of Kingstown are streaming on Paramount+.
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine issue #6, 2022, under the title, "His Cowboy Way."