The Wild West just lost one of its best cowboys, and 1883 just lost one its brightest stars. Episode 5 entitled “The Fangs of Freedom” featured the heart wrenching death of Eric Nelsen’s Ennis, a wrangler who won the heart of Elsa Dutton (Isabel May) before his untimely demise. Over the course of five episodes, audiences watched Ennis grow from a rascally, capable and flirtatious scamp to a self-assured and masterful cowboy, matured by love and a growing sense of duty. While they have already seen many deaths along the Oregon Trail, the settlers will no doubt continue to feel the impact of Ennis’s death going forward, especially Elsa, James (Tim McGraw) and Margaret (Faith Hill).
In a cast full of heavy hitters like McGraw, Hill, and Sam Elliott, Eric Nelsen fits right in. He’s a successful actor/producer who has won multiple Emmy awards for producing and acting in The Bay and a Tony for producing the hit Broadway play, The Inheritance. Already a Texas resident, Nelsen was able to start his cowboy training with creator Taylor Sheridan himself immediately after being cast as the charismatic Ennis. Nelsen knows he was lucky to secure some personal time with one of the busiest men in Hollywood: “That was such a blessing. We got to develop our working relationship and friendship one-on-one. When the rest of the cast got to join us, that’s when the journey really took off.”
Over a Zoom call, we had the opportunity to speak to the actor/producer about his character’s unfortunate fate, working with the tremendous cast and crew of 1883, and why he’d be happy to stay in the Sheridan universe forever.
DECIDER: First off, I’m absolutely devastated about Ennis. Were you aware of Ennis’s fate when you got the part?
ERIC NELSEN: No, actually I wasn’t. When I got cast, I had no idea. Once I was sent all the scripts, I finally started to read them. When I came to the end of Episode 5, I lost it. I was emotional and crying and just in disbelief. I ran to Taylor’s house and I said, ‘Taylor, why? Can’t we change this, please?’ [laughs] Taylor just said to me, ‘Keep reading. You’ll get it, keep reading.’
It all makes sense in the scheme of things. Although Ennis’s death is incredibly heart wrenching and sad, it is a turning point for the series and for Elsa. It had to happen this way, unfortunately for me!
Can you talk about filming Ennis’s death scene? What was the mood like on set?
It was an incredibly hard scene to shoot. I know I was just lying there dead [laughs], but hearing Isabel’s emotion as Elsa through each take… it was so hard for me not to be bawling. I’m like, ‘Eric, he’s dead. You can’t be crying. This is not good. Keep it together.’ Isabel’s performance is so raw and real; she allows the audience to feel every single emotion her character is going through. It took every ounce of my being not to completely lose it every single time.
The majority of your scenes are with Isabel May, who has an extremely promising career ahead of her. Can you talk about working with her?
At just 21, she’s one of the smartest people I’ve ever talked to in my entire life. She’s such a special individual and a real intellect. It seems like she’s read every single book on the planet 10 times, so she taught me a lot. Though, the one thing we really bonded over was music. We’d find certain songs that would kind of go with certain scenes to get us emotionally ready. We’re both really attentive to lyrics so that also helped us on our journey together. I’m so privileged to have worked with her, and God, is she talented. I’m so excited to see her career take off from here.
The scene in which Ennis and Elsa lost their virginity to each other is just perfect. It’s romantic, awkward, and tender all at the same time. Was there an intimacy coordinator on set?
Yes. It was all very calculated and structured in a way that made us comfortable. On days when you’re filming intimate scenes like that, it’s always a closed set. We went through the process of making sure everybody’s on the same page so there are no surprises for anyone. I will tell you the most unpredictable and most uncomfortable part of filming that scene was the weather. It was freezing! Luckily, Isabel and I had a little body heat between us, but we were both just like, ‘How do we pretend like we’re not cold right now?’
Another standout scene in the episode is with the confrontation between James and Ennis after James knocks him off his horse. Ennis has this great moment when he stands up to him, saying: “I’ll take your licks if you got more to give! I’m a man and I’ll take ’em. I’ll take her too.” He’s previously been intimidated by James, so it’s wonderful to see him find his voice. Why do you think Ennis finds strength at that moment?
Yeah, it’s a powerful moment. It’s one of the turning points in Ennis’s arc on the show. Up until then we see him submissive to James, but Ennis has reached his breaking point. Before that confrontation, Ennis just wants James to like him and give him his approval to be with his daughter. Ennis is unsure of everything—Is he saying the right things? Is he looking at Elsa respectfully? However, after Ennis gives his heart and soul to Elsa, the only thing that matters to him is her.
When James has him on the ground, Ennis no longer cares what James thinks of him. She loves Elsa, and James is either going to accept it and or they’re going to have to go somewhere else. That scene showed Ennis’s strength and his development in a powerful way. I hope Ennis can be an inspiration to all the young lovers out there. [laughs] Follow your heart and who cares what other people think? If you know it’s right, you know what you need to do.
Christina Alexandra Voros directed Episodes 3, 4, and 5 on 1883. Did you find it helpful to work with the same director for multiple episodes?
I love her. Christina’s a brilliant woman and just so gifted. She wore so many hats on our set. Every day I got to work with Christina was such a fun, amazing day. She’s also very collaborative with her actors. After we would do a take, she’d come over and say one word or a sentence at most that would help me think about the scene differently. With just a slight change in my approach, things would just flip completely. She really liked to capture many different emotions to play with later on in the edit room. When I’m watching each finished episode, it’s fun to see which takes she went with and how she tailored each scene. What a gift as an actor be able to work with a director like that.
Taylor Sheridan multi-tasks as writer/director/actor and has developed a unique voice. What do you love most about him as a collaborator?
Taylor’s very hands-on There was never a day on set when he wasn’t involved in some way. I never took a single second of his time for granted. He’s one of the greatest gifts to television and movies today. Plus, he’s loyal. You’ll see the same actors on all of his stuff because he forms this group of people he trusts and connects with. He knows what to expect from them as far as the work goes. I learned a lot from working with him. Probably the key thing I’ll take away from my time with him is his tendency to hold his people close, knowing that he won’t be let down.
Listen, there’s a hole in the bunkhouse on Yellowstone now that Jimmy’s gone. You live in the state where the 6666 is set. Is it possible you could pop up again in the Sheridan universe?
Honestly, I’d like to stay in the Sheridan universe forever! You know, anything is possible. Now, I’m in y’all’s boat, just kind of waiting things out from here and seeing how things unfold. Hopefully, it’s just a matter of time.