We talk with the multi-talented Eric Nelsen about his role as Ennis in the western series 1883.
Read senior writer Joe Leydon’s conversation from Los Angeles with 1883 star Eric Nelsen.
Cowboys & Indians: OK, Eric, we know 1883 wasn’t your first rodeo. In fact, in addition to acting opposite stars like Liam Neeson and Chris Cooper, you’ve made your mark behind the scenes: You won a Tony Award for co-producing the Broadway play The Inheritance. And while you were 23, you were the youngest producer ever to win an Emmy Award, for producing the Amazon web series The Bay. But we have to ask: When you started working on 1883 as the young cowboy Ennis — were you intimidated by Sam Elliott?
Eric Nelsen: [Laughs.] I would be lying if I didn’t say a little bit. Intimidated may be the wrong word, but he’s got this aura and this greatness to him. And his body of work just embodies everything I would ever want in a career. So that alone just kind of… Well, it’s not like they’re unapproachable. But you expect people like that to be a certain way, and you’re almost nervous. Because if you get to know them and they let you down and they’re not who you think they should be, or who you want them to be in real life, it would disappoint you.
C&I: So maybe “nervous” would be a better word?
Eric: I was cautious coming into it, kind of tiptoeing to get to know him a little bit at first. But I’m pretty sure the first day he wrapped his arms around me and gave me the biggest hug and said, “Let’s do this, buddy. We’re going to nail it.” And so, from that moment on, I was like, “You’re amazing, and you’re giving, and you’re kind, and you’re everything I wanted you to be. And I didn’t need to be nervous around you at all.” And he made that very clear from the first moment.
C&I: It was all smooth sailing after that, eh?
Eric: Actually, I have a small story I can share with you. One of our first days filming, we were in a restaurant in Granbury, Texas. It’s my first introduction scene in Episode 1. And at the top of the scene, an extra is supposed to come in, pour us water, and then leave the scene. Well, she was so nervous because, of course, I’m at the table with Sam Elliott. And she comes over, and the first take, right out the gate, she’s shaking. And she spills the water all over the table, all over us.
Eric: And I was like, “Oh man, this isn’t good. An actor like Sam Elliott, who’s focused and trying to get this done and expects professionalism and yada, yada, yada — I bet he’s not going to be happy because he got wet.” And the whole take was ruined. But before the next one, he stops everybody. He can see that this extra’s in the corner, just shaking and nervous, and can’t believe she’s got to come do this again. Well, he gets up, he gives her the biggest hug. He talks to her for about 15 minutes. I’m not sure what she says, or what he says to her, but she comes back and nails it every single time after that, with the biggest smile on her face.
And that just showed me, right away, the kind of man that he is. He made her feel so good and so welcome, and that he was just a normal person, just like she is. And there’s nothing to be nervous about, and you’ve got this, and gave her the whole pep talk. And she came back and was phenomenal from that point on. So that’s just a little look into who Sam Elliott is.
C&I: When you were first approached about 1883, what were your first thoughts? Did the name Taylor Sheridan mean much to you? Were you eager to play a cowboy? Were you already a fan of Yellowstone?
Eric: All of the above, really. But first and foremost, my entire family and I were huge fans of Yellowstone. During the pandemic, my whole family caught up and watched it from A to Z. And so, when this came across my desk and I saw Taylor’s name on it — it didn’t necessarily give away that it was the prequel to Yellowstone, but it did say it was Taylor’s project. And it was 1883, so I knew it was a western. So right then I was hooked. I knew that I had to do whatever I had to do to get this job, because I just loved his work so much. And then it didn’t take me long to piece together that it was the prequel to Yellowstone. And then that added a whole other element of, “Oh my gosh, please don’t mess this up for yourself.”
C&I: Well, you weren’t around for the whole journey. But you made every moment on screen count.
Eric: Look, I’ve been doing this now for 17 years. And this was the first project I can wholeheartedly say my entire family — and there’s a ton of us — loved. Because they’re big fans of Yellowstone.
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From our April 2022 issue
Photography: (Cover image) Paramount Plus; (Illustration) Jonathan Fehr