At times you’ll swear you’re hearing Tim McGraw returning as James Dutton for 1923. Close your eyes and you’ll more than swear it, you’ll bet money on it. But you’re not witnessing the return of McGraw, whose 1883 patriarch is long dead by the time 1923 rolls around. You’re experiencing the rise of his son, John Dutton Sr., through the brilliant addition of James Badge Dale.
From ‘1883’ to ‘1923’
1923‘s success as a television series may hinge on headliners Harrison Ford and Helen Mirren (alongside Taylor Sheridan’s beyond-bankable Yellowstone Universe), but 1923‘s success as a direct sequel to 1883 hinges on Dale. His John Sr., who we last saw portrayed by impossibly-cute 5-year-old Audie Rick (below) in that first Yellowstone prequel, is the only character to carry over from one show to the other. He’s our connective tissue; a Dutton who survived the horrors of the Westward Expansion into the 20th century – only for the Industrial Revolution and World War I to take hold after.
Through Dale, 1923 feels more like the second season to 1883 that Paramount originally ordered before Taylor Sheridan told studio execs that those main characters (see: Isabel May’s Elsa Dutton, Sam Elliott’s Shea Brennan) were, in fact, dead. And if Sheridan didn’t kill them in 1883, then he would go on to in Yellowstone Season 4 flashbacks (McGraw’s James Dutton) and the 1923 premiere’s narration (Faith Hill’s Margaret Dutton).
John’s only brother, Spencer, was born after 1883‘s time, and survived those Yellowstone flashbacks, at least. But the adult version, played to perfection by Brandon Sklenar, is so jet-set on becoming his own man in 1923 that he doesn’t evoke any Dutton patriarch we’ve seen elsewhere (favoring his mother, Hill’s fiery Margaret, instead).
James Badge Dale on ‘Weird’ Process of Bringing John Dutton Sr. into ‘1923’
And so we’re left with the grown-up version of 1883‘s tiny, defenseless John Dutton, who’s a rancher in his prime and an absolute dead-ringer for his late father. But this resemblance in voice, visage, and stature, as it turns out, all boils down to Sheridan’s pitch-perfect casting of Dale, and Dale’s innate talent itself, rather than the actor’s desire to “copy” anything McGraw did before him.
“We live in these weird areas. Sometimes the less self awareness you have, the better off you are, you know?” Dale told me ahead of 1923‘s premiere. “If I’m trying to copy something, or if I’m more concerned with this thing over here, then I’m missing what’s right here in front of us,” he motions to Marley Shelton, who plays his wife, Emma Dutton.
For Dale, being authentic in the moment as John Dutton was far more important than constantly trying to mimic what McGraw did as James. Yet his adult John Dutton Sr. sounds and looks so much like Tim McGraw as James Dutton that I’m almost not buying it. It’s genuinely eerie.
Some of this, however, can be chalked up to old-fashioned movie magic. Major kudos are due to 1923‘s costume designer, Janie Bryant, for utilizing James Dutton’s 1883 costume and color palette in order to create Dale’s look as adult John Dutton. It works brilliantly in the 1923 premiere (see above).
‘Every day I feel like I’m going to mess this up and they’re going to take away my Dutton status’
Outside of “getting all actory,” as Dale laughed about his prior comments, he’s got a charming edge to him that’s aided by a lively sense of humor. Which helps when an interviewer asks you if you’ve done your research.
“I’m going to be really painfully honest with you… I came in a little late. Halfway thru filming I started watching 1883,” Dale revealed with a smirk. “And I’m watching myself, this younger version played by this kid, Audie. I’m watching his work as an actor, and I’m like ‘Man, I missed it! I messed up. This kid is so good,’” he laughs. “I’m calling Taylor and I’m like, ‘Hey man, we need to reshoot all this stuff!”
Reshoots, I can confirm, are wholly unnecessary. James Badge Dale is now a Dutton to his core. His New York brogue completely disappears in 1923, replaced by the same Tennessee tilt of McGraw’s James. And it’s a legacy he’s proud to be a part of.
“You get this whole new extended family that you didn’t know you had,” Dale smiles. “But every day I feel like I’m going to mess this up and they’re going to take away my Dutton status.”