There are certain empty lines that get thrown around a lot in Hollywood. “We should work together.” “I can’t wait to read this.” “I’ll get right back to you.” Which is why, in March of last year, when California-born Isabel May unsuccessfully auditioned for a lead part in the crime series Mayor of Kingstown and the show’s director, Taylor Sheridan, said he’d be in touch—that he had something else in mind for the actress—May didn’t give the comment much thought.
“I’m an optimistic person, but I don’t necessarily have a lot of faith in Hollywood,” she says. “I admired [Sheridan] greatly but had zero expectations.”
And yet, two weeks later, Sheridan called her. He told her he was creating a prequel to Yellowstone starring Tim McGraw and Faith Hill, and that there was a part he’d practically written for May. He meant it. May is the only person who ever auditioned to play Elsa Dutton, daughter to McGraw’s James and Hill’s Margaret, in 1883.
“It was surreal,” says May of the news that she’d been cast in the show, an epic Western that follows the Dutton family as they travel across the Great Plains to the untamed unknowns of Montana, America’s promised land. “Especially for an actor with a remarkably small résumé, who hasn’t been in the industry for a considerably long time.”
Surreal, perhaps, but it also resonated. “My mom’s family are all from Tennessee. So I’ve been hearing that accent for quite some time,” says May, who also provided voice-over for the show. “There’s something lyrical about the narration, so we wanted the voice to sound poetic.”
It’s one of the elements that make the show unique, groundbreaking even, telling a gritty, bootstrap pioneer story from a woman’s perspective. “I don’t think it has ever really been done before in this genre,” says May. “Not only a female but a young-female perspective of that time. It’s a voice you don’t really hear from.”
The unexpectedness and nonconformity of the show is something that resonated with the 21-year-old. “I’m very much an only child,” she says. “I was raised by two people who never intended to have children. So I was raised like a little adult from the get-go.”
When May was in the sixth grade, an English teacher proposed drama as a way for her to express her creativity. She tried classes but didn’t like them, so she just started auditioning. Three years later, she didn’t have a single acting credit to her name. For most, this would have been the moment to give up, but May did the opposite—she enrolled in an online high school, a setup that would allow her more time and flexibility to concentrate on acting.
Six months later, May was cast as Katie, one half of the duo in Alexa & Katie, an unconventional high-school drama that ran for four seasons on Netflix. In 2017, May guest-starred in the Big Bang Theory spin-off, Young Sheldon, later joining as a recurring cast member, and had roles in a few independent films, before that crucial meeting with Sheridan last year.
Having completed 1883, May is taking stock. She’s impeccably well read, and writing has always been back of mind. “I would love to try it,” says May. “Just because, how unfortunate would it be to be scared to do something and then never say that you did it?”
1883 is available to stream on Paramount+. The finale premieres February 27
Bridget Arsenault is the London Editor for AIR MAIL