Dawn Olivieri can’t ignore the signs that led her to joining Taylor Sheridan’s universe.
The House of Lies actress, who has appeared in roles on the big (American Hustle, Bright) and small screens (The Vampire Diaries, Heroes, SEAL Team) decided to leave city life behind and adopted a rural life in Arkansas back when the pandemic hit.
“It’s a little bit woo-woo,” she tells The Hollywood Reporter of life ultimately imitating art. “The second I moved here, I got all of this Western world work, which I had never gotten before. No period pieces, none of that. So, it’s pretty trippy.”
Soon after her lifestyle change (“I run a goat herd and goat babies, horse and mules. I’m picking up hay bales,” she describes), she got cast in the second season of Nat Geo’s anthology hit The Hot Zone. “I got a call, and they offered that to me. That was really out of the blue because I wasn’t so active. I decided, ‘I’m changing my life. Acting isn’t coming along. I’m not [in L.A.] anymore, so I must not be able to work.’ Then there was this offer and I thought, ‘That’s never happened in my whole career.’”
While filming Hot Zone: Anthrax, Olivieri did an audition tape for 1883, the first prequel show from Sheridan for his mega-hit series Yellowstone. “It just kept happening, which was confusing,” she says of ultimately landing the role of Claire Dutton, the tragic sister to Tim McGraw’s James Dutton and a member of the oldest generation in the expanding Dutton family tree (the great-great aunt to Kevin Costner’s character). That role then brought her to Yellowstone. “I thought I had to be there and present and willing, and it’s almost like the second you let it go is when it comes.”
Below, in a chat with THR, Olivieri shares the story of why Sheridan cast her in her current role of Sarah Atwood, the fixer brought in to take down the Dutton family who has estranged son Jamie Dutton (Wes Bentley) wrapped around her finger. After her impactful two-episode role on 1883, the Yellowstone casting makes her a franchise crossover star, playing two distinct parts in the neo-Western saga’s world. She also shares her predictions after the game-changing midseason finale for when Yellowstone‘s fifth season returns in the summer.
You left L.A. behind for life in Arkansas. So after you traveled out to location in Texas and Montana to film both 1883 and now, Yellowstone, you returned home for your own ranch way of life. Why the lifestyle change?
I grew up in cities. I grew up in New York, Miami, L.A. I traveled everywhere for a long time. Right before COVID hit, I had this feeling like I had to move again. I had this beautiful guest house in Topanga that I loved, but circumstances shifted and I felt like I kept doing the same thing. I had lived in every quadrant of Los Angeles and I hadn’t bought anything, because I wasn’t sure where I wanted to be. I was 40 years old, looking at available houses with tiny yards and close neighbors, and I wanted to flip the table. I wanted acres. That was my keyword search when I started to move away from the city limits.
Then COVID happened and we were free to go anywhere. I could send an audition tape in, and now everyone was doing that. So once that leveled the field, I no longer felt that phantom shackle that an actor may feel to either be in close vicinity to New York or to L.A. Then my mom said to me, “You don’t have to live in L.A. to be an actress,” and a lightbulb went off. How could I have the life I want and the career I want? I didn’t think that was possible. And that’s why I just did it. I was also really OK with the circumstance of my career not following my life dream, and I left because my well-being mattered to me so much. What I wanted was animals, space and the forest. Los Angeles doesn’t have that, so I just went and got it.
After you got the role of Claire Dutton in 1883, did creator Taylor Sheridan come to you with this Yellowstone role, or did you have to audition?
It’s a funny story. When filming 1883, I didn’t get to say goodbye to anybody because I got COVID the night before my final day of filming and wasn’t able to go to set — it was just going to be me in the background for a scene. But I didn’t get that farewell time with anyone I had just went to deep with; I just disappeared. For the 1883 premiere in Las Vegas, I got all dolled up. I told hair and makeup that I wanted them to make me real bombshell-y — the complete opposite of Claire.
In the back room before you do the carpet, I was saying hi to people I had spent a short amount of time with, directors and different people, and they greeted me with zero recognition. I had to say, “It’s Dawn. I play Claire.” They were like, “Oh, my God!” No one recognized me, it’s like I had a costume on or something. And right as I was coming off the red carpet, Taylor and his wife Nic [Nicole Sheridan] are about to come onto the carpet and I walked directly up to him and stood there. And he had no recognition on his face at all. There’s a part of me that just loved that. It was such a transformation that even the person who sat there for every single minute of the performance that I gave didn’t recognize me in that moment.
Nic goes, “It’s Dawn.” And it was like a semi truck hit Taylor, and he went, “Oh, shit!” All the hair and makeup was just for that moment, because he was so blown away that there I was, completely different. He said, “You’re coming to work for me now.” I was real cool about it, but after I went into the corner and screamed like a little girl! Because it’s like your dream offering.
And then he goes and casts you in this very opposite role to Claire Dutton. Sarah Atwood is a bombshell vixen. How do you describe Sarah?
I like your perspective! Sarah, to me, is like a snake-charmer. I see her offering up the melody of whatever is needed. She’s pretty gentle right now. And it’s kind of bothering me a little bit! Because I think that kind of a [gentle] charcter is kinda boring! But in playing her right now, I feel like one of those barrel racing horses that are at the gate that you’re trying to hold back, and they’re just pushing, pushing, pushing. And when I watch it, I just want to ring the bell. I know there’s an intention there so there’s a line that I drew for myself. And I feel like, however Taylor writes it now coming back for our second half [of the season], I’m ringing the bell either way (laughs). So I hope he’s writing that, because I can’t hold the line.
I could have guessed that he thought of you for this part after watching you in House of Lies, squaring off with Don Cheadle.
Taylor knows strong women really, really well. I think he was raised by a strong woman. He writes us in a way that only someone who really knows our quirks could write us. And it’s a real compliment to me, because he’s putting us in these characters that are the strongest characters he’s writing for females. Beth was always supposed to be Kelly Reilly, and she’s killing it. Every scene. I’m watching myself compared to her and I can’t wait to go at her. I have real jealousy I’m going to be using to take her down (laughs) and steal her powers, whatever her powers are.
Sarah and Beth’s confrontation in the midseason finale was something viewers were waiting to see. Was that a taste of what’s to come between them?
The reason I set Sarah up this way is because I’m betting on the fact that Taylor knows how far I can take something. He’s already tasted it. Knowing that, I can’t imagine he’d miss the chance to take it even farther. So my goal with building Sarah was that I start as far from that place as I possibly could. Right now, Sarah’s kept her balance and her cool, and I look forward to the parts where he unravels even her, unraveling Beth. I want to see what that looks like. I know he wouldn’t miss that opportunity, it’s too good.
Do you think Sarah was brought in as a one-season vehicle to spark this Jamie-Beth war, or do you think she could take on the family long term?
So far, I think she’s got the greatest opportunity. I’m a bit biased, but I’m not just saying it because it’s me. The timing is very crucial. The timing of the Duttons’ positioning as land owners. They’re flailing a bit. And when you’re flailing, that’s when the predator swoops in. So even the writing lends itself to a bit of a pivot, and I just happen to be that bird of prey. But I don’t know, Taylor writes how he writes — and he’s already killed me after two episodes of a show before!
When you were doing 1883, did you imagine you could make such an impact with Claire Dutton in only two episodes?
I had two episodes to tell the whole story of this woman, which I really liked. I took it on as a challenge. At first I thought, “Should I even do this?” What a dork for even thinking that! I dropped the ego; I thought, “You are literally living in the woods, go do your two episodes.” And so I flipped it and tried to take it on as a challenge: “How far can I go?” I have this lady’s full life, and it worked out because I was able to create the biggest arc I could in the tiniest amount of time with the most extreme experience and nailed it, in whatever way I did.
Your Yellowstone scene partner Wes Bentley said he didn’t watch your final scene of 1883 until you finished filming the first half of season five, and he said he was blown away. 1883‘s Isabel May has continued on as the same character in narrating 1923, but you are playing two separate characters in different time periods. Did you and Sheridan ever worry, what if it doesn’t work when Claire Dutton shows up as Sarah on Yellowstone?
No, never. You don’t think of it like that. It will work because it’s Taylor’s idea, because he gets to call the shots. And it kind of sends the message that he can do whatever the fuck he wants, and he deosn’t care. Because it’s his creative genius. He’s created this entire world, it’s his magic. So if he thinks that’s fine, then guess what? That’s fine. And I’m in full support.
What about Sarah and Jamie (Bentley): Is there any ounce of real in this relationship, or is she totally using him?
I think that’s what’s so scary about a woman like this: It’s all real, even when it’s an illusion. When I do any of the work that I do, it has to be as real as it can be. That’s why as an actor, you substitute people and situations you are working opposite so that it can be real. Something has to be real, otherwise we’re lying to you, and it’s not interesting to watch liars all day long. It’s more compelling when the emotion is there, and I take it very seriously because it’s a really hard job in that respect. You have to trick yourself while at the same time staying true to some level of authenticity that’s emotionally present in your experience. With Wes, it’s been both. I’m using him and I’m falling in love with him at the same time. So that line is very interesting to me. How do you walk that line? That’s the trickery. And I think whatever he needs, I’ll facilitate. That’s my role here. I’m the kingmaker. There are no rules, you do what needs to be done in order to win.
When do you go back to film for the second half of the season (which releases summer 2023)?
Someone had thrown out March. But that could also be March for the Texas-related things, where all the cowboys are going out to move the cattle. You don’t know the week before sometimes. “OK, we’re moving?” You’re like an on-call physician or something. I think COVID had a lot to do with the scheduling for this first segment, which was very wild. They would fly me into Montana for a couple of days, and then I would fly back home. I don’t know how it will be next. It was tough to get into that character because it was a lot of stop and go, and I don’t feel like I really caught my stride until the end when I stayed there for a couple episodes in a row. I like to be immersed in that space, so my head can get right. It’s hard when you have to keep going home and then putting on your hat to say, “OK, now I’m a rancher.” She’s this high-powered executive where all she cares about is power and money. But when I go home and, I’m not that at all!
Sarah doesn’t step foot on the ranch. Anything in the cowboy world you would want to see her do?
I’d actually love to go backwards and play more Claire-type characters. Women who are on the edge of a wild world. I know that. I lived that. I know what it is to be on that cusp of life and death. I think that’s why my performance was so deep on that one, because I could touch it in my real life. I love no makeup; I don’t want to be the beautiful character. There’s too much work and insecurity around it. Please, mess me up somehow. Because for me, there’s so much more freedom in that. And maybe that’s my challenge, maybe I have to find the freedom within these other characters that I am bucking right now. But I’d love to play more characters like that. More period pieces. More Westerns. I’d love to play a robber in a Western on horseback. But that’s what I think is cool about the characters that I’m playing. I think work is going to be even more prevalent for me in the future because as I age — and get scarier looking, as we do — I think I’m just touching on the future of the antagonistic characters that I’ll get to play.
What did you tap into for that darkness and sadness for Claire in the end?
You know, that’s what’s so beautiful about that space. Because death is the ultimate darkness. It’s the ultimate unknown. It’s not evil, but it can be, depending on how you perceive it. Any character I get to play that gets to brush against that darkness, that unknown, I can tweak in a way that if I blame the world and everyone around me, there’s your darkness. It’s the opposite of gratitude. If you can exist in any of those spaces and then add death into the picture, it’s so powerful. It’s almost like I can just sit back and let it tell its own story. Because it’s everything we try to hide from and everything that comes for you in the night.
And it affects everyone. If you’ve had a love one that’s passed or if some piece of you has passed, it’s coming for you. That looming inevitability, is all I want to play. Because I think it’s the most powerful character in any story. And I feel like that’s what Claire became: death walking. Because she was already dead. She was descending actively into the bowels of hell, because that’s where it takes you when you blame the world. That demon is so interesting and beautiful to play because it’s so real, and I don’t know why I can touch it but I can.
If Sheridan reads this interview, I can’t imagine how far he will push Sarah, particularly when going up against the formidable Beth Dutton (Kelly Reilly).
That force of darkness is on Sarah’s side, because that’s what she’s conjuring. And, that’s what’s interesting. Nobody wants to see a bunch of flowers on screen. It’s the pieces that we hide that we want to see come to light on screen. And that’s why we love Beth, because she’s touching it, too. She’s stirring her finger in that [darkness]. And as Sarah, I want to bring the tidal wave of the thing that she’s mixing her drink with. So, now we’re gonna play for real. Put your drink down, Beth, and let’s dance with the devil.
Interview edited for length.