ERIC RAY DAVIDSON
Taylor Kitsch has been following a white wolf for five miles through the Montana wilderness, not far from his home in Bozeman. Up the hills, around to the drainage they go. He knows she’s nearby, but not this close—just off the other side of the tree he’s crouching next to. She is right there, all 150-some-pounds of her.
They lock eyes. Five seconds. Seven seconds. A long fucking time. He’s not scared. He’s euphoric. He wants one click of the frame. He pleads with her to stay. “Listen,” he coos, “I just want to take your picture.
“You’re fucking beautiful.”
She doesn’t listen and turns back up the mountain. Gone. For now. But he sees her again. He heads out howling for her less than twenty-four hours later and finds her not far from here. This time, he’s fast enough with the phone’s camera.
ERIC RAY DAVIDSON
Three weeks later and a thousand miles away, Kitsch is showing me the video of their second run in. “Man, we can talk this shit all day,” he says. The problem is—as I watch her hind legs scatter out of frame, quizzing him about the size of a wolf’s home and how they hunt—Kitsch is not talking about himself, which is why I’m here.
Unless he is talking about himself.
For a guy who’s worked as long as Kitsch—that’d be two decades—you’ll find relatively few interviews with him on the internet. Up until a few months ago, he didn’t even have someone handling press for him. “We’re fighting for Playgirl,” Kitsch, forty-one, jokes when I ask what we should expect from his new publicist. “Right now, it’s between me and twenty other guys.” Instead, he has chugged along in the Hollywood game by flat out refusing to play it. But he’s got some big projects coming—The Terminal List on Amazon, out now; Painkiller on Netflix, later—so here we are in the restaurant of Casa del Mar hotel in Santa Monica looking at pictures of wolves, which make up what feels like a sizable portion of his iPhone photo library.
ERIC RAY DAVIDSON
He’s got no clue what time it is, but he is hungry. He was in Monte Carlo all weekend doing promo and flew thirteen hours yesterday. He can’t believe I didn’t choose to meet in Montana instead. “Why wouldn’t you go to fucking Bozeman?” he asks. Why wouldn’t I? Scheduling, of course. So rather than see the new property that he just bought way out of town, where he wants to build a nonprofit, maybe an addiction center, we’re sitting over a table littered with a chicken club sandwich and salad (for him), a burger and fries (for me), and bottomless mugs of coffee with oat milk (for both of us).
The wall of windows just a few tables away, looking right out over the beach, assaults us with views of sun, sand, and ruffling palm-tree leaves. It’s late June and exactly the sort of day that people who love Los Angeles think no visitor could refuse. “I’ve hated this place a long time,” he says, almost amused and squinting in the glare.
Born in Kelowna, British Columbia, Kitsch grew up in a trailer with his mom and two older brothers. Dad left when he was one. Eventually two much younger half-sisters joined. He played lots of hockey, until his knee got busted. Twice.
In 2002, at the encouragement of a modeling scout, he moved to New York. He booked jobs with brands like Abercrombie & Fitch and Diesel, and it went well until it didn’t. Out of work, he bounced between the couches of friends and the floors of New York City subways. With a run of acting classes under his belt, he went west and spent four months living out of his car in Los Angeles, working as a personal trainer between auditions for gigs he pretty much never got. He hauled his way back to Canada with little to show for how much that last stretch sucked. But Kitsch is not a quitter. He kept sending in tapes and small roles finally came. The Covenant. Snakes on a Plane. John Tucker Must Die. His big break arrived when Peter Berg cast him as Dillon Panthers fullback Tim Riggins on NBC’s Friday Night Lights.
He and Berg kept working together—on Battleship (2012) and Lone Survivor (2013), both for the big screen. (They team up again for Painkiller, out late 2022 or early 2023, and they’ve got something on tap about the American West’s violent beginning if a platform will bite.) “We love pushing each other,” Kitsch says of their partnership.
You know who also loves pushing Kitsch? Kitsch. If you had even the slightest pulse, Tim Riggins, a sweaty, smoldering lost puppy, did something for you. But serving as a catalyst for the sexual awakening of countless young women doesn’t guarantee a path forward, and after the series wrapped, Kitsch struggled, he felt, to be seen as a character actor. Early big-budget feature castings, like the ill-fated sci-fi circus John Carter—the film that was going to make him the biggest movie star on the planet until it didn’t—hardly helped. He got picky. Played a firefighter, a gay-rights activist, a couple SEALs. Guys with badges. A man with a cult. Except none of them that straightforward, because Kitsch doesn’t play anything straightforward. It doesn’t always work, but he’s always going for it. Searching for layers. He finds them in prep, a process to which he commits himself so fully that he has, on more than one occasion, required the help of a therapist to shed the personas when filming wraps.
He’s picked up another habit along the way: appearing in movies and TV shows that are true stories. In other words, embodying men who have scores of friends, family members, or former followers who’d quickly spot any flatness or too-smooth curves. “I want Game Seven,” he says of that extra layer of expectation. “I love the responsibility.”
Sometimes that gives back. Like the community of SEALs and their families that embraced him after Lone Survivor. Marcus Luttrell, the real-life lone survivor, is a friend. Tomorrow, he’ll meet up with the guy—a heavily decorated SEAL himself—who trained him for his role in the film. They text frequently, though it’s better if Kitsch doesn’t say about what. “The humor, man,” he teases. “It’s ridiculous.” Not everyone would get it. But he does.
Sometimes it’s harder to carry. Like the six months he spent readying himself to play the leader of the Branch Davidians in 2018’s Waco. He showed up to the first meeting with series creators John Erick and Drew Dowdle already deep in research, got the gig, and then spiraled so far into David Koresh’s psyche that he eventually couldn’t believe he’d taken the part at all. Just weeks before filming, Kitsch told his team they had to get him out. “Take a breath,” they said, trying to calm him down. It didn’t work. “I was like okay…” Big pause. “But try and get me out.” It wasn’t funny then—not even close—but he’s absolutely tickled today at the memory. Green eyes glowing, hunched forward to chuckle together, which we do, at just how crazy actors can be even though the actor in this moment is him.
It’s a perfect example of how he describes himself elsewhere during our conversation: “I chase laughs,” he says of his downtime personality. Or how Drew Dowdle does. “There’s a real mischievous nature to Taylor that I find so fun,” he says, “He has that for days.” Director Joseph Kosinski, who worked with Kitsch on Only the Brave, agrees: “He’s also got an incredible sense of humor that I think is his secret weapon.”
But it’s also an illustration of why he says no to offers far more than he says yes. “I don’t know that a lot of people would have the courage to go there so unapologetically,” says John Erick Dowdle. “It was in his bones.” The producer recalls spending several hours one evening sitting in his driveway, speaking on the phone to Kitsch, mid-spiral, about the terror of the role. The humanity of the role. “I saw no resistance in him after that point,” he adds. “He’s got a real toughness to him.”
Or, as Kitsch says, once you commit, “it’s your life now.”
Last October, Kitsch woke up in Toronto and couldn’t talk. It was day one of filming Painkiller and his face had swollen up to the size of a melon. He was completely unrecognizable. Telling me this now, his eyes widen at the memory. He moves his hands along his cheekbones, up to his ears and down to his jaw, curling his fingers to illustrate just how swollen his face had become. It hurt. Bad. And he didn’t know why.
The first doctor he spoke to told him to take some Advil. That wouldn’t cut it. He iced his face and called another, panicked. Eventually, he was waiting outside the house of a local specialist. “That’s how legit the pain was,” he says. “I was freaking out.”
It’s not the first time a health problem has flared up on set. In 2010, during filming for John Carter, he passed out from exhaustion. A doctor told him that his thyroid was basically imploding. While making Lone Survivor, there were many mornings when his assistant had to literally pull him out of bed and drive him the two hours up into the New Mexico mountains to shoot grueling war scenes. He’d trained for this, hard. It didn’t matter. “I just had to lay down,” he remembers. He spent the time between takes on the ground.
“You can drink fifty of these,” he says, gesturing to the mugs of coffee between us, “and it does nothing for you when you’re messed up. You know.”
I do know. The butterfly-shaped gland in my own neck imploded, though for different reasons. And for more than a decade now, Kitsch and I have begun our mornings the same way, with a tiny tablet of man-made thyroid hormone. It’s a system well suited to the status quo, less so to the extreme. Go too hard for too long and the scales tip, never the right way. You get tired. The kind no amount of sleep can fix. Depressed, Kitsch says, and I agree, because “you have no energy to do anything.”
The Toronto flare-up was different, a result of an aggressive new teeth-grinding habit—stress. So six months ago, he started sleeping with a night guard in his mouth. “Seventy percent of people have to,” he says, citing a stat I’ve never heard before and haven’t been able to confirm since. There goes the smile. I am picturing Kitsch popping in a spit-filled dental tray, and he knows it. “Made me feel way better,” he says.
Painkiller, based in part on Patrick Radden Keefe’s New Yorker article “The Family That Built an Empire of Pain,” will see Kitsch play Glen Kryger, a good and regular guy who loses much to an Oxy addiction. Kitsch’s attachment to the show is more personal than anything else on his résumé. Someone in his life struggled with addiction mightily, for years—opioids and amphetamines. He looked after the person. Went to “hell and back seventeen times” with them.
The first time Kitsch read the script for the series, he couldn’t get through it. Although the person he took care of is now clean, he experienced a flood of emotion. “Everything we had gone through was still right there,” he says. Scouring back alleys for someone important to him. Booking rehabs just to lose the down payments when they’d run away. Which they did. A lot. Watching them die just so they could come back to life and die again. Watching them detox. Laughing. That’s what Kitsch gets—what the SEALs get. That sometimes life is so bleak and hard and terrifying that the only natural response is to laugh in its face.
So many times stick out. Like the time this person declined admission to a sober-living facility on account of vibes. “That’s how bad the excuse was,” he says, laughing again some ten years later. Or the time when he was out on his bike when the facility—different one—called. Could he come back? The person he dropped off, they can’t stay. Brought drugs into their room. He can’t believe it, or the person’s reasoning when he arrives.
“Being sober is so fucking boring!” they choke out.
“I was like, ‘So am I fucking super boring?’” Kitsch asked.
Affirmative. “You can be kind of fucking boring.”
He laughs again.
Kitsch’s never done hard drugs. Alcohol, sure. But he hadn’t even touched weed until the set of 2012’s Savages, which he filmed at the age of thirty. It takes only two fingers to count how many times he’s touched it since. To play Glen Kryger in Painkiller, he sent the producers pages of notes and brought on an advisor. Before filming, he gained a bunch of weight—a process he did not enjoy. Still, it’s the “most fulfilling job I’ve ever done,” he says.
His next project, The Terminal List, is out now. Kitsch plays former SEAL and current CIA operative Ben Edwards opposite Chris Pratt’s James Reece, a recently shell-shocked SEAL with a need for revenge that even he’s not entirely sure he can trust. Ben’s got a distinctive look: knuckle tattoos, Baja hoodies, a beard, long hair. All Kitsch. Every SEAL is different, so he won’t play any of them the same. “I fought for that,” he says. “He stands out.”
The show moves, for the most part, with a white-knuckled grip on its mission. But watch a recent visit Pratt and Kitsch paid to James Corden’s couch and you’ll find a host—and audience—doubled over before the interview even begins due to a downright giddy dance sequence. Pratt tosses out jazz hands. Kitsch shimmies. They both run in place. Totally unrehearsed, much like a few well-placed moments in the Amazon series. While Kitsch was in talks for the role, he sent back a bunch of notes—picking up on the pattern here?—one being that they needed to add a few bust-ups. SEAL humor. Kitsch humor. Pratt, an executive producer on the series, agreed, but the zingers, which come mainly during a late-chapter road trip, were all improv.
They served a similar purpose behind the scenes for Pratt. Before the shoot, Pratt had been filming alone for about a month, his character on a (very bloody) solitary quest. “I was doing a lot—producing and acting on such a dark series,” he recalls. “Taylor would use humor to check in, make sure I wasn’t losing my mind, feel me out, give me support.” Once they were back on set together, the mood lifted: “We laughed a lot, said inappropriate shit, chewed tobacco, periodically discussed the state of our lives and the world, talked about wolves and bears and just hung out.”
Where do they go from here? Pratt says if life ever imitates art and he needs someone to take down a highly personalized revenge list, he expects Kitsch will take the call. “Fully.”
When Kitsch booked Friday Night Lights, he didn’t know where Austin was on a map. He moved for production and loved it. Built himself a big house. But Austin kept changing, and so did Kitsch. It was getting crowded, mainly with people who like a crowd. At this point in his life, “I don’t go out,” he says. Soon, “there weren’t many like-minded people for me.”
He’d spent a few Christmases in Yellowstone, chasing wolves, camera in tow. And during the pandemic, he and a buddy found themselves more than once riding their motorcycles through Big Sky. It felt like home. In 2021, he sold the “stupid house that I didn’t need” in Austin and headed north.
ERIC RAY DAVIDSON
“I live quite simply,” he says of his current setup. Four blocks from downtown in a house that sounds like it’s mainly decorated by oversized prints of his own wildlife photography, a passion he picked up prepping for The Bang Bang Club, in which he played photojournalist Kevin Carter. There’s a patio that, when the weather allows, makes for a pretty sick spot to watch hockey. A few friends nearby. What about a girlfriend? A sheepish “maybe” is all he’ll allow.
“It’s clearly important to him to remain an outsider,” says Pratt, “and foster the necessary space required for him to find his characters, to find himself.”
It might be more than that. Speak to Kitsch long enough and you start to get the feeling that it’s not just a new home he found in Montana but an old one. Bozeman reminds him of Kelowna maybe more than Kelowna these days. That little town—the one where he spent his formative years “up in the forest on adventures”—is, as he says, fucking amazing. Dad even moved back. But it’s changed. Kitsch doesn’t really say how.
Now he spends his off days coursing the hills tracking wildlife, taking pictures. Alone but out of his head. Adventuring, up in the forest. “As you get older,” he allows, “you’re going back to what you remember.”
Will you stay?
“I mean, where the fuck else am I going to go now?”
Have you ever seen a wolf puppy drink milk from a baby’s bottle? I have. It’s on a video on Kitsch’s phone. It is insanely adorable. Raven and Shiloh, two shocks of fur, one black, one white, oversized paws flailing, are being coddled by two grown men—Kitsch’s dad and brother—absolutely delighted by their snack.
Yes, his dad. The one who left when he was a baby. Growing up, Kitsch would see him once, maybe twice a year. But last week, when this clip I’m watching was recorded, was just the second time Kitsch had seen him in the last seventeen years. He came down to Montana, and Kitsch is happy he did. “It was cool to see him just in the moment,” Kitsch says. “That’s a memory he’s going to have forever.”
Kitsch never felt any hate toward his father—“You harbor that shit…it’ll just eat you up.” Still, it’s hard to picture many men with similar backgrounds speaking so gently about their own pops. “I wouldn’t be where I am today if he was around,” he says to that. According to Kitsch, his dad’s leaving made him realize he could one day get out of town on his own terms, too. But it was harder on Kitsch’s brothers. They were older, had more time with him. And now they have kids of their own. It’s complicated. “What am I going to do?” He says of his dad, who’s seventy-four and had a stroke a few years ago. “Rip him in half?”
Kitsch wants kids of his own. He came close, a long time ago. “It wouldn’t have been great,” he says. For the relationship—especially for the career. “You shut down and start doing shit for money,” he says.
ERIC RAY DAVIDSON
Ice Age 12, I float, is not on the vision board?
“Oh, I’ll do voice-over shit,” he says, having fun now. “But do I want to do Saw 9-14? Probably not.” The cheeks begin to gather, moving upward. “But I’m also for sale. If they want to give me $10 million a movie, I’ll go do Saw fucking 9-14.”
I’d do it for so much less, I tell him.
Smile widens. “Same. I just wanted to sound like I’m not that cheap.”
But Kitsch has done a lot of parenting, I feel compelled to point out. It’s an epiphany Kitsch said he’s also had recently. At a wedding, speaking with a woman who’s a mother to nine children, he realized he’s already gone through a lot of this parenting shit. He was fourteen when his first sister was born. A second followed. He’s the male figure in both their lives. He took care of someone struggling to stay sober. It’s been, at times, a lot of responsibility, and he’s enjoying this moment where everyone’s grown.
So now he spends some of this well-earned time tracking wolves. During our conversation, he shows me a handful of photos and videos of them, and shares facts about their weight, diet, and nesting. What’s your attachment to these animals? I ask him. They’re family-oriented, he says. They’re also incredibly tough to track. The reasons start coming faster. Why not the wolf? How not the wolf, his tone suggests. “They’re stunning,” he continues. Underdogs, too. Out hunting, they probably lose 70 to 80 percent of the time. “The adversity they face, it’s incredible,” he says.
“They fucking battle.”
Photos by Eric Ray Davidson
Grooming by Joanna Ford using Tom Ford
Styling by Jordan Johnson, Elson Kin Wai
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