True Grit: Taylor Sheridan for Variety

The ‘Yellowstone’ Empire: How Taylor Sheridan Struck TV Gold by Reinventing the Western

“Write what you know” are words to live by for any writer. Taylor Sheridan, showrunner and architect of the fast-expanding “Yellowstone” universe, excels at creating modern Western characters because he is exactly that.

When Variety catches up with Sheridan for an in-depth look at the narrative worlds he is crafting for Paramount TV platforms, it is at the Schmersal horse ranch near Scottsdale, Ariz. Keen-eyed viewers may recognize the location from “The Last Cowboy,” the reality series that Sheridan executive produces.

Sheridan arrives for the interview outfitted in a cowboy hat, aviator sunglasses, a denim jacket and jeans, a torn white T-shirt and boots with spurs that jangle every time he moves his feet. He has just come from an equestrian workout, riding a horse in a large covered arena where he has practiced reining, or leading, the animal through a series of spins, stops and circles.

But Sheridan’s work has a signature that is becoming clear to viewers, even in non-Westerns such as Paramount+ Jeremy Renner starrer “Mayor of Kingstown,” about a dynastic family in a town where a prison is the major industry.

Now, as Sheridan busily expands the world of the Duttons with prequel “1883,” a second prequel set some 50 years later and a spinoff on the way, the multi-hyphenate is seizing the moment to build a vibrant roster of shows. And “Yellowstone” Season 5, which picks up where the previous season left off — with John Dutton launching a bid for governor — will be the biggest yet, with Paramount splitting the 14 installments into two 7-episode offerings. Production is set to begin next month with a premiere date in late summer.

Costner was drawn in from his first read of the “Yellowstone” pilot.

“I saw that the dialogue had a fun, realistic approach to it. It was raw. It was dysfunctional,” Costner says. “And it was set against the backdrop of mountains and rivers and valleys and people on horseback, which is very appealing.”

Sheridan grew up on a ranch in Cranfills Gap, Texas — about 140 miles north of Austin — before eventually making his way to Los Angeles to become an actor. After several years of mostly bit parts (a “Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman” guest shot here, a “Party of Five” there), he graduated by the 2000s to more prominent supporting roles on series such as “Veronica Mars” and “Sons of Anarchy.”

But he was restless. About 10 years ago, Sheridan set his mind on making a big career change into writing. Yet, for all of his Texas true grit, he could not have known that he’d soon become one of the most successful creators of his time. His first screenplays — 2015’s “Sicario” and 2016’s “Hell or High Water,” the latter of which earned him an Oscar nomination — put him on the map. From there, “Yellowstone” wasn’t far behind.

“He’s the real deal,” says David Glasser, Sheridan’s producing partner and CEO of 101 Studios. “His word is his bond. Loyalty is everything, and then the handshake means something. That’s who he is. And as long as you operate in that world, it’s great. And creatively, he blows my mind every single time.”

“Yellowstone” has also finally started to get some love from the awards community, picking up its first-ever Emmy, SAG and Producers Guild Award nominations for last season’s shows.

The irony is that Sheridan’s success in the neo-Western space has paved the dusty road for him to make an honest-to-goodness horse opera: the well-received Paramount+ series “1883.” Starring Tim McGraw and Faith Hill, the “Yellowstone” prequel follows early members of the Dutton family on their journey west as they first settle in Montana. That will soon be followed by “1932,” which picks up the Duttons’ story during the Great Depression.Another 035 planned spinoff, “6666” — named after a historic Texas ranch — is set in the present.

Working on the period dramas has been a treat for Sheridan, who admits that it feels surreal at times that he can earn a living by shooting 40 real covered wagons driving across the plains.

Read more on variety.com
Photo Ryan Pflüger @ryanpfluger
Grooming Michelle Harvey @groomedbymichelleharvey

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