isabel may

Isabel May as Elsa, of the Paramount+ original series 1883, with her horse Lightning.

Photo credit: Emerson Miller/Paramount+

By Mara Reinstein

In the very first scene of the very first episode of 1883, you watch Isabel May’s character, Elsa Dutton, get shot by an arrow.

For the rest of the harrowing Paramount+ Western that serves as a prequel for the smash drama Yellowstone, you sit in suspense, waiting to learn her fate. While you know things probably aren’t going to turn out so well for Elsa, the wily and wild teen daughter of James and Margaret (Tim McGraw and Faith Hill) who narrates the journey of a wagon caravan traveling westward in search of land and freedom, May is so compelling in the role that you convince yourself that frontier medicine just might be much better than you remember from Little House on the Prairie. This girl has to make it.

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Old soul

Actress Isabel May rides a pale horse across a dry prairie.

Isabel May as Elsa, of the Paramount+ original series 1883, with her horse Lightning.

Photo credit: Emerson Miller/Paramount+

Before hitting the plains, the 21-year-old Santa Monica, California, native made her debut in Alexa & Katie, the tween favorite 2018–20 Netflix sitcom in which two BFFs band together after one of them receives a cancer diagnosis. (May’s character shaves her head in support.) She also popped up in two seasons of Young Sheldon as the girlfriend of the kid genius’s older brother, Georgie.

Befitting her 1883 character, May exudes an old soul, no-B.S. vibe. She says she enjoys bouncing between the East and West Coasts and doesn’t know where she lives right now because “I’m 21, and it’s fun to be nomadic with no ties, even though it’ll get old shortly, I assume.” Asked about her weekend plans on this late Friday afternoon, she replies, “I’m doing stuff with my family. I’m not cool enough to have a cool response, but maybe one day.” Until then, she talks 1883 and beyond.

Inspiration

Actress Isabel May wears a skirt and a lacy top while reclining on a couch.

“I felt very fortunate with 1883 because it was [made by] a creator who genuinely loved and cared deeply about his work,” says May.

Photo Credit: Kristin Gallegos/KINTZING

[1883 creator] Taylor Sheridan has said that he wrote the role for you after you impressed him in your audition for The Mayor of Kingstown.

IM: I mean, it’s rather strange to think about that, let alone say it aloud. But yeah, I guess he did.

Did he ever say why you inspired him?

IM: He told me, “When I watched you, I saw hope.” That’s what this story in 1883 needed because it’s so bleak. We’re seeing this story through this girl’s eyes, and she needed to be full of optimism and spirit. That made me happy because I’d rather seem like a hopeful person than a cynical one.

An optimist

Actors Faith Hill, Isabel May, and Tim McGraw on the red carpet at an 1883 premiere.

Faith Hill, Isabel May, and Tim McGraw at the world premiere of 1883 in Las Vegas in December 2021

Photo credit: Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Was he right? Are you a hopeful person?

IM: Oh, very. Very. I can feel like a cynic, sure, but it’s easy to be cynical. I prefer to be an optimist. It’s a lot harder to be an optimist, and I like to take the harder route.

How important is that trait when you’re a young actress and constantly trying out for that next part?

IM: Sometimes you just have to walk with faith and not sight, you know? Someone said that to me recently. I’m not necessarily a religious person, but I just found that to be a nice way to think, and I trust in that. Something will happen as long as I stay focused and work hard. You have to be hopeful, but so much is out of your hands.

Relationship building

Actress Isabel May wears a white prairie dress as she stands looking aghast in front of a blazing wagon.

Elsa near the end of the long journey west

Photo credit: Emerson Miller/Paramount+

What kind of relationship did you build with Tim and Faith on location?

IM: It’s almost like they became my mom and dad. I looked up to them quite a bit because they worked really, really hard and had a smile on their faces the whole time. No matter what, they expressed gratitude and respect. And when they were on the set, they weren’t husband and wife—just co-workers who were in this with everybody else. They also have three wicked smart and talented daughters around my age, and I look up to each one of them.

Acting advice

Actress Isabel May stands on the red carpet.

May on the red carpet

Photo credit: Axelle/Bauer-Griffin/FilmMagic

They’ve both been successful in several fields for decades. Did they offer you any advice?

IM: They did, but not about acting. Faith is a businesswoman, and she handles herself very well and is extremely eloquent. She gave me some advice about how to operate and carry myself as a young woman in Hollywood. She’s been working in the entertainment industry for 30 years, and the industry is tough!

Moral conundrums

Actress Isabel May wears a colorblock mod mini dress and boots\u200b against a white backdrop.

May channeling the Carnaby Street vibe in a colorblock mod mini dress and boots

Photo credit: Bryan Rodner Carr

With 1883, you had to present and deal with some heady themes yourself. What were your takeaways?

IM: You know, it’s so complicated. There are all these moral conundrums between right and wrong. And as a young person, I think about that quite a lot and I’m not really sure what to make of so much that’s happening in the world. It’s so confusing. And when you find yourself as an actor and as an artist playing those things out in a different era, it feels very real and relevant even though it’s fiction. Every day I’d ponder my character’s conversations and interactions on a bigger playing field. I still think about it.

Personal and professional life

The Dutton party from 1883 stands in their period clothing in front of a saloon.

McGraw, Hill, May, Dawn Olivieri, and Emma Malouff as the Dutton party in 1883.

Photo credit: Emerson Miller/Paramount+

Where do you go from here personally and professionally?

IM: Well, look, it’s always about trying to find a project and work that has meaning and value. That’s particularly difficult as a young actor. I felt very fortunate with 1883 because it was [made by] a creator who genuinely loved and cared deeply about his work. So to find another story like this one is my dream. I feel like there are a lot of things being made with no passion behind it. The motivation is off. It’s going to be an interesting ride!

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Isabel May as Elsa Dutton in the Paramount+ original series 1883.

Emerson Miller/Paramount+ (C) 2022 MTV Entertainment Studios. All Rights Reserved.

By Kathy Passero

Kudos to Yellowstone prequel 1883 and Taylor Sheridan for giving us a new take on the Old West—one with fierce, fearless female characters. Elsa Dutton (Isabel May) and Margaret Dutton (Faith Hill) might be fiction, but they capture a fact macho Hollywood Westerns often overlook: Women, too, shaped the American West. And the frontier set the stage for them to reinvent themselves just like their male counterparts.

Women of many backgrounds defied conventional 19th-century gender roles to serve as everything from ranchers to saloon owners, stagecoach drivers to the bandits who robbed them, Buffalo Soldiers to Pinkerton detectives. Like Elsa, some found it exhilarating. Others saw taking on traditionally male jobs and responsibilities as a grueling necessity on the backbreaking overland trail. (Looking at you, Margaret.)

In honor of Women’s History Month, here are six important, historic facts about women in the West that the hit series 1883 successfully weaves into its storyline.

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They Were Cowgirls

Elsa on the prairie astride her palomino Lightning dressed in yellow chaps and the bodice of the dress she made into a shirt

Elsa and Lightning on the prairie

Emerson Miller/Paramount+ (C) 2022 MTV Entertainment Studios. All Rights Reserved.

Cattle-herding women like Elsa Dutton started showing up on the American frontier in the mid-1800s, though the term didn’t appear in print til the 1890s, when a new generation of ranchers’ daughters was growing up in the saddle alongside their brothers, herding and roping cattle because families needed all hands on deck to preserve their livelihood. But unlike Elsa, most had no fringed chaps or homemade breeches: Cowgirls wore skirts and rode sidesaddle because it was deemed more ladylike.

By the turn of the century, a number of women had made a name for themselves in rodeos. Among the most famous was Martha "Calamity Jane" Canary, said to handle a horse better than most men and shoot straighter than most cowboys. Before touring with Buffalo Bill Cody and Sitting Bull in the Wild West Show, Calamity Jane traveled West with her parents as a 13-year-old, where she soon started dressing like a man, participating in hunting parties, and joining battles.

They Were Gunslingers

Margaret in brimmed hat and brown leather gloves peers through the telescopic sight of her rifle and takes aim

Margaret takes aim

Emerson Miller/Paramount+ (C) 2022 MTV Entertainment Studios. All Rights Reserved.

As 1883’s wagon train passengers learned, having a firearm—and knowing how to use it—was a matter of self-preservation in the frontier wilderness, regardless of your gender. Women could use a rifle or a Colt six-shooter (“the gun that won the West”) as protection from wild animals—or to kill one for dinner. It also came in handy to keep two-legged attackers at bay.

As frontierswoman Ellen Elliott “Captain” Jack put it, “A .44 equalizes frail women and brute men, and all women ought to be able to protect themselves against such ruffians.” Like the early Dutton women, Captain Jack could handle a gun. The female prospector, who made a fortune in silver mining, was arrested repeatedly for shooting men who tried to rob, cheat, or murder her, but the charges never stuck.

Remember when Elsa pulled her gun on a guy who gawked at her as she rode into the trading post? He pulled a gun in return...then James Dutton (Tim McGraw) pulled a gun to settle the dispute. Fans might be surprised to learn that most frontier towns had laws against carrying weapons. Despite Western mythology—never mind the body count in 1883—homicides were rare.

Most towns had less than one murder per year. At its peak in 1881, Tombstone set a record with five murders, three of which happened in the famous gunfight at the O.K. Corral. By the way, that fabled shootout lasted a grand total of 30 seconds.

They Drove Wagons

Margaret sits on the buck board of the covered wagon as she drives the team of horses with mountains in the background

Margaret proves a deft hand at wagon driving on the trail

Emerson Miller/Paramount+ (C) 2022 MTV Entertainment Studios. All Rights Reserved.

In the mid-19th century, about 400,000 people crossed the treacherous 2,000-mile Oregon Trail, many in covered wagons. Some 20,000 died along the way. With wagons traveling no more than 20 miles a day, the “Overland Trail” usually took six months.

Just like Margaret Dutton, many female travelers found themselves challenging traditional gender roles by tackling “men’s work” like driving wagons and repairing tack. (Women’s journals from the time suggest that men were a lot less likely to pitch in with “women’s work” like cooking dinner and doing laundry.)

In 19th-century America, a woman’s sense of self-worth was supposed to come from excelling in domestic tasks like keeping house, so it was necessity—not liberation—that blurred the lines between men’s and women’s chores. The average woman was apt to feel more shame than pride in, say, steering horses across a river. But there were exceptions.

Stagecoach Mary” Fields got so good at driving a coach that she ran a dangerous mail delivery route through northern Montana for eight years. Fields, who began life in slavery, was by historic accounts a formidable woman who gambled in saloons, fended off a pack of wolves, got into at least one gunfight, and ran her own restaurants. She was also generous, letting anyone who couldn’t afford to pay eat for free.

They Ran Businesses

\u200bRita Wilson as Carolyn stands behind the counter of her trading post smiling next to supplies including bottles and candles

Rita Wilson as trading post shopkeeper Carolyn

Emerson Miller/Paramount+ (C) 2022 MTV Entertainment Studios. All Rights Reserved.

Like Doan’s Crossing storekeeper Carolyn (Rita Wilson), women channeled their entrepreneurial spirit into running successful stores, trading posts, saloons, hotels, and other businesses in the Old West. Among the best remembered is Nellie Cashman, who fled the Irish Potato Famine as a child.

She reinvented herself in the American West, running restaurants and boarding houses in Arizona before heading to the Yukon to become a prospector. There, she opened a boarding house for miners and led a daring mission to rescue dozens of them trapped in the Cassiar Mountains.

Owl Woman, another famous female entrepreneur in the early 1800s, was a member of the Cheyenne and married trader Colonel William Bent, a white settler. Together they ran the remarkable Bent’s Fort on the Santa Fe Trail, a 500-mile-wide multi-cultural, multilingual hub with 100 employees, as well as permanent residents and visitors, including members of at least six native tribes and pioneers in wagons traveling west.

They Protected Their Families

Margaret wears a cowboy hat and stands next to a lake holding son John in her arms protectively

Margaret cradles John ( Audie Rick) protectively during a stop on the way West

Emerson Miller/Paramount+ (C) 2022 MTV Entertainment Studios. All Rights Reserved.

Like Margaret and Elsa Dutton, many pioneer women learned how to hunt, kill, and skin (not to mention cook and cure) game to keep their families fed. They took turns standing guard on wagon trains, made bullets, and did whatever else was necessary to keep their loved ones safe.

Some took the role of protector a step further. Take, Biddy Mason, for example. Mason had traveled to southern California as the slave of a Mormon convert, but in 1856, she sued for and won freedom for herself and her daughters. For decades after that, her home served as a center for the African American community in L.A.

After real estate investments made entrepreneur Mary Ellen Pleasant the first Black self-made millionaire during the California Gold Rush, she used her money and influence to fight for abolition. Some historians believe she actually may have established California’s Underground Railroad.

They Gained Ground, Literally and Figuratively

Gratiela Brancusi as Noemi sits on horseback smiling, wearing a heavy silver necklace with an embroidered vest and shirt with ruffled sleeves

Gratiela Brancusi as Noemi in a rare happy moment on the trail

Emerson Miller/Paramount+ (C) 2022 MTV Entertainment Studios. All Rights Reserved.

Women like 1883’s Noemi (Gratiela Brancusi) who survived the hardships of the trail West to reach their dream homesteads tended to be more empowered than those who stayed back East. They shared responsibility for their farms with their husbands or sometimes took over management if they were widowed.

The Homestead Act, passed in 1862, let any person who was the head of a family or had reached age 21—including single, divorced, and widowed women; immigrants who pledged to become citizens; and African Americans—claim land of their own. By one estimate, in the 50 years after the act passed, women accounted for one third of all homestead claims.

The West also led the suffrage movement, with Wyoming becoming the first American territory or state to grant women the right to vote in 1869.

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