‘Lawmen: Bass Reeves’ Star David Oyelowo Explains How ‘Yellowstone’ Made the Show Possible

Also learn what role scared away many actors

Lawmen Bass Reeves

“Lawmen: Bass Reeves,” about the first Black deputy U.S. Marshal west of the Mississippi River and the likely inspiration for the Lone Ranger, was brought to vivid life by David Oyelowo during the show’s just-concluded first season.

In Oyelowo’s more-than-capable hands, Reeves isn’t a 2D dimensional Old West cop, but a deeply conflicted person, born into slavery, forced to do things that he might find reprehensible and on the hunt for a villain that is taking Black lives in an era when nobody thought they’d be missed. It is one of the great performances of the year and it just so happened to be in a show that everybody (with a Paramount+ subscription) watched.

TheWrap spoke to Oyelowo about developing the show and finally getting it on the air, why it was so important to have the element of Reeves’ family, and how the show resonated with contemporary audiences. Also learn how Taylor Sheridan’s “Yellowstone” influence made it possible for “Lawmen: Bass Reeves” to find its viewership (Sheridan is an executive producer).

How are you feeling being at the end of this journey – or at least the first chapter of this journey?

I feel full to the brim with joy at the fact that the show has done the thing that I hoped and anticipated it would but was constantly being told it was unlikely to do, which is resonate with a global audience. There is a mindset in our industry that anything Black, historical isn’t recognizable IP, all of those things are not worthy of big budgets and taking a big bet. And I’ve got to give it to Paramount. They took that big bet, they gave us the requisite budget and they are being rewarded by a global audience for doing it.

And a western too, which some say doesn’t travel well either.

Right, exactly. Which is so weird to me because I grew up wanting to be a cowboy living on a council state in London, born of Nigerian parents. I don’t know that it gets more global than a British kid of African descent wanting to be a cowboy in the ’80s. Do you know what I mean? I am not quite sure where they get that from.

You had been wanting to do this project for a while. What was it about meeting with Chad Feehan and his take on the material that made it finally move forward?

Well, initially the thing about Bass Reeves that became an obsession for me in terms of trying to get the story told was just how impressive a figure he was and just how unjust it felt that we didn’t know more about him from a cultural perspective. This felt like someone who, the moment you said the word cowboy or western should be in your top five figures you’re talking about along with Billy the Kid and Wyatt Earp and whoever else, and that wasn’t the case. And to my mind, people talk about him being the inspiration for the Lone Ranger. He’s way more of a badass than the Lone Ranger. The Lone Ranger did not have to deal with one iota of enslavement and go on to do what he went on to do. That’s where it began for me.

And then when we brought Chad on board of the show, the thing that made me so keen for it to be him is like me, he’s a family man and like me, he understands the challenges of the work/life balance and like me, we realized between us that making a pure western limits the potency and the possibility of the show because if we think this story is amazing and global, then we have to understand that not everyone are fans of westerns, so what makes it universal? And we both felt it’s the family. If you have a guy who’s on the road a lot of the time doing a very dangerous job, there’s a real tension within the home. And the work/life balance is a relatable aspect but there’s something really dramatic about a guy who’s constantly leaving and all he’s thinking about is getting back. And that’s tension, that is drama, but that’s also universal.

Towards the end of the season there’s this interesting dynamic where Bass comes home after these wild adventures and the kids are not interested in him.

And that’s the relatable portion of this. With westerns, we tend to have a squinty eye, raspy voiced loner, mysterious type who comes into town and is there to get revenge on the bad guy or whatever, fairly impenetrable, aspirational and heroic, but not necessarily relatable, but a guy coming home from many, many days on the road and his kids barely recognizing him. I think anyone and everyone who’s been part of a family, aspires to have a family, you know that’s bad. You know that’s not what you want. And so that again, is the way into the show.

You mentioned “The Lone Ranger.” Was it fun to play with that iconography?

So much fun. And what was even more fun about it is that those tropes, those beats were rooted in reality. He did ride a gray horse, which is white, they call them grays, like the Lone Ranger. He did MacGyver-like employ his ability to disguise himself in order to bring outlaws to justice and that’s a tipping of the hat to the mask that the Lone Ranger wears. Even the rearing of the horse, that was something I spent months learning to do so that we could get that poster. Because I was like, I loved that image as a kid and never seen a Black dude doing that on a white horse. I’m having that poster and so we got to do that as well.

There are all of these elements that reveal themselves throughout the season, whether it’s the serial killer subplot or spooky Southern Gothic overtones or the more modern commentary on race. Was it hard to find that tone?

It was hard. It is always hard. We cover 15 years, and it’s particularly hard when you’re trying to do these kinds of things in a movie, but eight hours gives you more scope and bandwidth to do that. But the hazardous thing with these kinds of stories, is it feeling like one thing after the other, it feeling episodic in that way that is not as satisfying as, Okay, let’s really get into the blood and guts of this story. But being afforded eight episodes and being afforded this very relatable entry point of the family and the love within the family was something that give us the ability to go in these different directions. Also, it’s just true.

At that time, it was an incredibly complex time in America’s history. You’re coming from the Civil War into Reconstruction, pre-Jim Crow. These things all happened within about a 15-year period, and our show is a 15-year period, so it’s an incredibly rich time in America’s history. It’s a time within which it’s the only time you could argue that someone like Bass Reeves could become who he became in the context in which he did. Because you’re not deploying someone like Bass Reeves to be arresting white people during enslavement. You’re not even doing that within Jim Crow. He really is a product of Reconstruction. All of the things you talk about there are very specific and germane to that time.

And the show gets to say things about race and policing that feels very contemporary.

I mean, for me, there’s no point telling a historical story if it doesn’t speak to the now in some way. It becomes redundant. We can watch documentaries, we can read history books, but the beauty of having these moments within Bass Reeves’s life that were true and certainly documented is true. Even those that have become legend and then getting to color between those pillars and as storytellers use it as a means of how does this reflect now, how does now reflect then? That’s the only way I think you are having this level of audience engagement that we are having, is that you are going, Wow, some of that’s still going on or We have made progress, or some of that’s coming back again, or my goodness, I cannot believe we were doing that to people in this country, or that gives context to what I hear Native Americans talk about or what I didn’t learn in the history books that focused more over there than on this. And so all of those things are things we tried to infuse into the show.

I ran into Shea Whigham a couple of weeks ago and we talked briefly about how hard it was for him to do that scene in the first episode.

Of course, it’s an enormous privilege between the legendary actors that we had in the show and some of the younger actors who are just the future, as far as I’m concerned, it was a real privilege. I’m so glad you bring up Shea Whigham because I will be grateful to him for having the bravery to step into that role. I cannot tell you how many actors expressed real trepidation, fear, and if I’m totally honest and in my opinion, cowardice, in relation to that role because it’s uncomfortable. Yes, you have to go to dark places. Yes, you have to say unconscionable things, but that’s what we do as actors.

The darkness must be present in order for you to see the light. And I just feel like what Shea did was so selfless because it took a massive toll on him. He was not in a good place for having to do those things, say those things, sit in that place. From a historical point of view, he’s antithetical to that person, obviously in real life. But boy, did he know what the cost was that he was prepared to pay in order to tell the truth of that character. And I will just forever be grateful to him for that.

Can you talk about working with Taylor Sheridan? Obviously “Bass Reeves” was a show that was announced as part of the “Yellowstone” universe and then it started its own potential franchise.

I mean, the amazing thing about what he has been able to build with “Yellowstone,” “1883,” “1923,” that audience, the tone that he’s created, it laid the groundwork for a show like “Bass Reeves” being able to exist because the idea of doing this show has been with me since the project was brought to me in 2014, and we went out with it in 2015. The entire industry – cable networks, studios, they all turned it down. Streaming didn’t even exist then. That’s how long we’ve been trying to get this done. And then in 2017, they all turned it down again. First time around they said, “We’re not doing this because no one’s doing westerns.” Second time around they said, “We’re not doing this because everyone’s doing westerns.” When you hear that, you go, “Okay, there’s some funny business going on here.”

And then along comes Taylor Sheridan and this underserved audience who love westerns, who love the tone of what he’s doing, who love the fact that he’s looking at this place in America that you could argue had become ignored in contemporaneous TV and film. And that gave us the platform, that gave us the foundation. Chad Feehan, to your point about the “Yellowstone” universe, I was always very keen that it stood apart from that, and there is such appetite for that, that people were keen for it to be another offshoot. But to me, that would be a diminishment of the fact that Bass was a real guy. And “Yellowstone,” though, I’m sure based on some truth out there in terms of what goes on in that place, is not, that emanated from Taylor’s mind.

This needed to be different, but they shared DNA, especially with “1883.” I remember seeing that and thinking, Whoa, now I have a very clear vision of what “Bass Reeves” could be. I hadn’t seen anything like that from an episodic standpoint, from a scope and scale standpoint in recent history that was so in line with my personal vision and ambition for the show. And again, I would say he laid the groundwork for us to build upon.

It’s a nice repudiation to those who suggest that Sheridan’s shows are all MAGA.

Right. I think that’s one thing that would be universally agreed is that “Lawmen: Bass Reeves” was not a MAGA show.

You can watch all of “Lawmen: Bass Reeves” on Paramount+ right now.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.