This story contains spoilers for the Season One finale of 1923.
Before Brandon Sklenar became an official Dutton™—nabbing the most sought-after family name on television today—the 1923 actor was a self-described “weird kid.” Last week over Zoom, Sklenar told me about his childhood in Northern New Jersey, and how he would create and live as different characters, just like Leonardo DiCaprio in Catch Me If You Can. “In those early years I was a lone wolf in my own head,” Sklenar says. “I’d go to school in a character for two weeks. No joke. I’d have an English accent, or I’d just make up words and languages, and entertain myself that way. I got pretty good at it.”
No surprise: Sklenar became an actor. Now 31 years old, he stars in the Yellowstone spinoff series, 1923, as Spencer Dutton. Playing a war veteran and big game hunter in Africa, Sklenar’s character spends the show’s first season on a harrowing journey back to America. Spencer’s aunt and uncle, played by Helen Mirren and Harrison Ford, are in danger of losing their Montana ranch—a perennial problem for the Dutton family. He’s heading home to join the fight when disaster strikes. Spencer falls in love and commits a crime of passion. Though claiming self-defense, Spencer’s incident is quite unusual—it’s a swordfight that ends with his opponent pulling a rifle and Spencer throwing the man overboard. Separated from his love and no closer to reaching American soil, Spencer’s heroic journey carries on. Meanwhile, his family is running out of time.
“It’s going to hurt,” Sklenar said of the finale. “Just from an audience standpoint, from a fan standpoint… Yeah, it’s agonizing. It’s going to fire people up to be counting the days till the second part airs.” If there’s anyone the fans connected with in 1923, it’s Spencer. Look at any TikTok fan edits or thirsty montages of the man and it’s not hard to see why. When Sklenar isn’t sweaty and shirtless—or rolling around on the beach with his love interest, Alexandra (Julia Schlaepfer)—he’s shooting guns and snatching your girl as the hottest cowboy on cable television. As he revealed during our talk, it’s an insane transformation—and it wasn’t easily to pull off.
ESQUIRE: Did you always want to be an actor?
BRANDON SKLENAR: Kind of, yeah. I just loved just building these characters that weren’t necessarily me. I used that as a technique in school. I had a lot of social anxiety when I was a little kid—and I had severe dyslexia and a really bad stutter. I probably used that in some way to try to fit in. And in doing so, you didn’t fit in at all, because you’re just this weird kid who’s pretending to be somebody else. No one else is really doing that for days on end. But yeah, in conjunction with just loving films and being able to be taken away by something like that? You can just disappear in a story. It’s so cathartic and therapeutic.
How did you feel when people were like, “Oh, this thing that you do—that you think is weird—is actually really cool, and we want to give you money for it?”
Yeah, this is the coolest. [Laughs.] It’s the coolest thing. It still trips me out, man. I get tripped out all the time by it. You’re just like, Fuck, this thing that I used to just… It was a technique to get by and to entertain myself! Now I do it professionally and it’s definitely a trip.
Do you see any parts of Spencer in yourself?
Oh yeah. There are so many parallels between he and I. He’s also very different for me, but there’s for sure parallels. The humor and how he deals with pain—that’s very dry wit. I can have that, but I’m like, Oh, is that on the page necessarily? Or is that just something I brought to it? That’s what I do. There’s definitive similarities, but he is a different kind of demon than I am, that’s for sure.
Are there any films you loved as a kid that ended up having a big impact on you?
Well, I just loved movies growing up. I had pretty much free reign of watching whatever I wanted, which was cool. HBO was llike my playground. I was watching Oz when I was six and The Sopranos. I remember seeing HBO film The Station Agent with Peter Dinklage, Bobby Cannavale, and Michelle Williams just two houses next to my grandmother’s house where I grew up. That was my first experience of a film set. So, I was renting all these films and deep-diving into everything. I watched a lot of westerns with my grandfather. He was a big Clint Eastwood and John Wayne fan. My grandmother would take me to the video store every Wednesday. JMD Video in Northern New Jersey.
Don’t you miss going to the video store and being able to walk around and browse for a film?
Oh yeah, it was the best. I mean, especially back in high school. You’re dating a girl and you go to Blockbuster, get the snacks, and pick out some shitty B-horror movie to watch. I definitely miss that experience. And now we do it on Netflix and we do it on Apple, but it’s not the same as picking up the box and reading the back, seeing the art on the box. Yeah, I definitely miss it.
Tell me about the process of landing Spencer’s part.
The smoothest I’ve ever experienced. I had been tracking the project for a long time, since it was 1932. I had been wanting to work with [series creator] Taylor Sheridan for years. He’s just such a brilliant writer and I love the worlds that he creates—classic, nostalgic, western Americana. It’s so timeless. It’s just such a cool world to play in. Whenever I watch his stuff as an audience member, I just wanted to be in that world. I was backpacking in Oregon and Washington for three weeks. I was out there just camping with some friends, and I got the tip to tape for 1923 in the middle of nowhere. I was in a place at the time where I wasn’t feeling great about acting in general. I wasn’t giving up or anything, but I was doing 75 self-tapes a week, and it was just too much. I was like, I’m going to go into the woods for a while and connect with nature and just forget about all this stuff for a minute. Of course, in the thick of that, I get the call. Two weeks later, they said, “Oh, you’re going to Jackson Hole tomorrow to test with Taylor.” Then he pretty much told me in the room that it was my gig. It was so smooth, man. I felt very confident about my connection to the material and to Spencer. It was the most confident I’d ever been auditioning for a role. It just felt like something that I was supposed to do.
Was Sheridan’s notorious Cowboy Camp any fun?
Yeah. I had been on a horse, but I wasn’t anywhere near the level that I needed to be and wanted to be. [Laughs.] If every film, whether you need to be on a horse or not, just took their entire cast and put them on horses for three weeks, their bond would be so strong. I mean, you got to check your ego at the door. Everyone’s neutralized, because not many actors have tons of experience on a horse. Maybe some do, but most don’t. Everyone’s on the same level and just trying to learn this new skill. You’re in nature together, and you just can’t beat waking up in the morning and trail riding in Montana. It’s gorgeous out there.
Let’s get into the finale. Do you think fans will be frustrated by where we leave off with Spencer? It must mean that your impact when you presumably get back to the Dutton ranch in Season Two must have some massive ramifications for the series.
Yeah. Structurally, going into it, we knew the story was bigger than it was originally intended to be. There’s no way they could fit it all into one season. The cliffhanger that it ends on is agonizing. It’s essentially Homer’s Odyssey and the hero’s journey. By nature of that, as those stories go, the final act is sure to be explosive, absolutely. I mean, there’s so much built into it with him getting home and he has so much to fight for and so many people to defend. It’s going to be a powerful homecoming.
Do you find yourself theorizing what you think might happen? Or do you like to be surprised once you’re finally clued in?
Oh no, out of anybody on the cast, I’m probably the one who theorizes the most about what’s going to happen. I’ve predicted a lot of stuff, which is cool. I’ve been surprised by some stuff too, but I love to think about where it’s going and what’s going to happen. I’m just excited for this arc to continue to evolve. It’s just such a sweeping character arc, and I’m just so fortunate. The man we meet in Episode One of [Season Two] is a much different man from who we see at the end of this season. So, it’s going to be exciting to get into that new version of Spencer.
Are you aware of the reaction to your character on social media—all the shirtless fan edits of you?
No, man. No. [Laughs.] I’m so old school with all that stuff. I just joined Instagram when I got the gig. I’ve been suspect of social media, so it’s just not inherently my thing. I don’t entertain it much. Healthy distance. People bring it up to me, and I mean, it’s hilarious. It’s nice that people are responding to it, I guess. But no, I wasn’t aware of it at all. [Spencer] is just a really good example of masculinity and what it can be… in terms of his emotional awareness and his ability to be loving, kind, and expressive. That’s contributing to the response for sure. Yeah, that and the mustache. The mustache is a big part of it.
Photos by: Phil Chester and Sara Byrne (@philchester and @sarakbyrne)
Styling by: Madeleine Kennedy (@madeleinekennedy)
Grooming by: Kristen Shaw (@shawnesssss)
Josh Rosenberg is an entertainment writer living in Brooklyn, keeping a steady diet of one movie a day; his past work can be found at CBR, Spin, Insider, and on his personal blog at Roseandblog.com.