1883: Eric Nelsen On The Episode That Will Change Everything [Interview]

Episode 5 of the Paramount+ show "1883" is a gut punch. I'm not sure I'm going to recover any time soon, and if you're a fan, I bet you're with me on that. If you haven't watched the episode yet, go do it right now. There are absolutely humongous SPOILERS coming up for a major turning point in the series. I cannot be more clear. Turn back now! Do not cross that river unprepared! Go unpack your wagon and leave the heavy stuff behind. 

Eric Nelsen plays Ennis, a cowboy who's been hired to help a group of travelers take cattle from Fort Worth, Texas on a journey west in "1883." When we first meet Ennis, he seems a little rough around the edges, but Elsa (Isabel May) sees something in him, and they very quickly fall in love. Ennis says in the show that he's never met anyone like Elsa, and their love story has been a joy to watch. The events of this week's episode, however, have changed things forever.

"That Bright Light Throughout This"

You've made it this far, so now I can say it: Ennis was shot to death, protecting his love and the wagon train from bandits. I spoke to Eric Nelsen about Ennis' death, how it changes Elsa's life, what their relationship meant, and what he'd like to see for Elsa going forward. Of course, we also spoke about that scene, which was the sweetest.

This episode, oh my god! I'm going to save the big stuff for the end, but let's start with — I had ideas about who Ennis was going to be when I first watched and he ended up being the complete opposite. Can you tell me a little bit about your thoughts on the character progression?

Eric Nelsen: Absolutely. It's interesting: When I first read the script, I was like, "Oh wow, what an incredible opportunity to take this character and go against the grain of the show." We live in this dark, intense, gritty world in "1883," and I was like I feel like Ennis has to be that guy that pokes through and kind of is that bright light throughout this, maybe, and might hopefully bring a smile to people's faces and maybe even get a chuckle out of someone every now and again. If anyone could do it in the show, it has to be Ennis. So I took that and I ran with it, and [creator and showrunner] Taylor [Sheridan] was on board and loved the idea, so that was cool. 

But, we see this — it seems rather quickly, but this incredible arc happens for him from where he starts to kind of falling for this girl, but really just needing the father to accept him, and wants to be on good terms with him. And then we see the full circle and Ennis not care about the father and fall fully in love with Elsa, just be like, "Screw you, I'm taking her, deal with it." And then, of course, what happens at the end, where he basically sacrifices himself for the love of his life. So it's just this incredible arc and rollercoaster for him in a rather quick amount of time. It was a thrill, and just one of those things I was like, "All right, let's buckle up and just, you know, set sail."

"It's Just the Same Love We Feel Today"

I'm still not over it. He ended up being my favorite character, and I really loved it. I know we talked about this on the red carpet, about cowboy camp and how intense that was. You did a lot of training for five episodes. So what was that experience like?

Yeah, I did, and honestly, it was the greatest gift Taylor could have given us as an actor, because, it gave us the ability, when the cameras were rolling, to be out of our heads about how to ride the animals. To be out of our heads on, "Do I look like I've been cowboying my whole life?" So cowboy camp really gave us that time pre-filming to embody these roles, get as comfortable as we can on horseback — because as you see, I spent probably 98% of the show on a horse. So by the time the cameras are rolling, the last thing I'm thinking about is how to ride this animal and how to how to work with it. That gave me the freedom to fully be immersed in the other actors and stress free as far as the cowboying part goes.

It looked very authentic. I was impressed! One of the things about Elsa and Ennis is that the relationship had almost a modern feel to it. I'd love your thoughts about why that was.

We're seeing innocence and the reality of young first true love, and if there's one thing that hasn't changed in the last however many hundred years since back then, it's that love is love, right? It feels modern because it's just the same love we feel today. It's real. And the innocence of these characters and the age that they are, just really seeing a flourishing first love for somebody could look the exact same in 1883 as it does in 2022. Just because the heart is the heart, right?

There's an interesting scene where Margaret and Elsa have a discussion about how this trail is the freest Elsa is ever going to be. Do you do you think that was part of the how the romance developed?

Yes, I mean, there's a lot to that, and seeing what happens at the end of episode 5, it is a huge turning point for Elsa and the storyline as a whole. The light-hearted, free-spirited innocence that Elsa carried with her throughout the first five episodes shifts in a big, big way. So yeah, that line couldn't be more true, especially starting at the end of episode 5, and we see it when she walks up to that guy and shoots him blank for what he did. The power behind that moment, I think that strips all innocence that Elsa had left in her, and we're gonna see that unravel.

"He Saw My True Colors"

That was such a gut punch. James (Tim McGraw) didn't react in the way I expected. It felt perfect the way he did, but his reaction to this romance was not at all what one would assume would happen. What do you think it was that he saw in Ennis?

I think it takes a big shift throughout this season, especially in episode 5. In the beginning, he knows he has power and control and I just want to do right by him. And then we see the shift where I stand up to James and I'm fully immersed in love with his daughter and I give him an ultimatum. Either you're on this journey with us, or we're gonna go do our own journey with or without you. I think that, whether he shows it or not, really changes the way James views Ennis. I think it gives him respect, appreciation, and then ultimately for my last breath to be spoken to James is such a full circle moment and really profound. In James's way, without showing too much emotion through it, I think it does affect him a great deal. He really saw my true colors and knew who I was to the core. If there was any way to prove that, it was to risk my own life for his daughter. So that doesn't go unnoticed in his book and he has his way of showing his emotions which are slight, but I'd like to think that it shapes his trajectory a little bit emotionally throughout the rest of the season.

Totally. Fans would not forgive me if I did not ask about the scene where Elsa and Ennis consummate their relationship. It was actually really, really sweet. What are your thoughts about that scene?

It's awkward and it's passionate, it's all these things that first time lovers giving themselves to each other would feel and would do. It's not supposed to look perfect — it can be whatever you want it to be, but the passion is there, the love is there, and ultimately, it's two young people exploring each other for the first time and that alone in itself is such a beautiful thing. It's a big moment for their relationship. So it was crucial to the storyline, and made the ending that much more difficult.

"Someone as Special as Heart"

It was such a sweet scene. When Elsa comes to him and asks, "Are you man enough, if I have a baby, to raise it?", his reaction is such a cool thing. Did Ennis ever think this would happen for him with the lifestyle he has?

No, I think that's the beauty of this whole relationship with Elsa. Every second of it is so out of the blue and unexpected and in a million years, Ennis never would have anticipated something like this to happen to him at this point in his life. I'm pretty sure he just assumed he'd be staring at cows' butts for the rest of his life and living on the land and enjoying being a cowboy. He's a sensitive, bright-hearted spirit, so of course he had hopes about one day getting romantic, and we kind of hear that story that he tried to experience that elsewhere and it just didn't work for him because his heart wasn't in it. So at one point, I'm sure he expected it, but not by someone as special as her and not so quickly. No.

This series pulls no punches in terms of what the settlers went through. What did you learn about that, that you that you weren't aware of before?

Oh my gosh, I mean, all of it. You know, it really just gave me a whole newfound appreciation for what we have today. Seeing what these people went through. I find myself today complaining about small tasks or, you know, "Oh, it's cold today," and I'm in my nice car as I'm saying it. Then I think about what they went through and endured and suffered just to find new land, and I'm like, "Eric, you've got to get your stuff together. You have nothing to complain about." So it really just opened my eyes up to a whole newfound appreciation for life as we know it today.

Totally. So, before I watched the episode, I planned to ask you about what you saw for the future of Elsa and Ennis. Now I have to ask your thoughts on the way it ended.

It's tragic, but in my eyes, Ennis died a hero because — they had that slight discussion, they hear the bandits coming, and he basically says, "Wait here." When I'm running up over that hill on my horse, I know what's happening. I know what's over there. And I know by me going and keeping her here, she will be safe and if anything were to go wrong, I'm gonna be the one to get it. So I truly believe that if he had to do it all over again, he would do it the exact same way. But it's tough. It's hard. But we really, really got to see who Ennis was at his core through those moments, especially. At the very end, it took everything I had when we were filming that last scene where she's crying on me, not to be crying myself, honestly, because of how heartbreaking it was. The crew, while we're filming this, they're all crying and everybody's crying, so I'm of course playing dead but I'm trying everything in my power just not to be weeping while I'm doing it.

"I Want to See Her Following Her Heart"

I'm not a crier, and I will admit I absolutely did during that, so that's a big thing for me. But since you're not there anymore, which makes me very sad, what do you think this experience — I know we talked about Elsa's innocence leaving now, but what do you want to see for her character going forward?

Strength. I want to see her following her heart, wherever that may lead her, and not to let anything get in the way of that and to not regret what we had. I want her to move forward and move on, but ultimately trust in herself because her intuition and her heart is gonna guide her exactly where she's supposed to be.

There was a scene in the episode before where she's playing piano and she's crying, and your reaction shots in those scenes were really beautiful, and they said almost more than what her face was saying. What was going through Ennis's head during that moment?

It's such a powerful moment because, again, we know life as we knew it before the crossing, and then we know that life after the crossing is a whole new life. So there was a stripping away of so much emotionally, as well as physically as you saw, so that was another notch in the dropping of innocence, the dropping of naiveness throughout these characters, because there is a dark world coming. We knew that, and we saw that throughout this piano playing. And really, it's interesting because there were many takes where I was crying a lot listening to her play, just because in the moment, it's what I felt and I thought of all these things that we're shedding before we leave, and emotion was on high. But they I don't believe they chose a take where I was [crying]. I think they wanted him to be a little more grounded in that moment. But the beauty of what she portrayed, it was hard for me not to succumb to the similar emotions.

Same. Before we wrap, I know this isn't specifically about "1883," but you're the youngest producer in history (23) to win an Emmy. Even though this is going to be written in print, I can see it behind you, and I just wanted to ask about that experience.

It was a wonderful experience, and I keep it out here in my studio as just a constant reminder of where I've come from and what I want to focus on and do in my future, career-wise. It lended itself to a lot of struggle and hard work paying off in a great way, and if it did anything else, at least people are willing to take my phone calls, I guess. [laughs] I enjoy producing. My main thing is acting. I'm an actor, and I kind of produce on the side to get another creative fulfillment, and it also helps me create jobs for myself, too, which has been a lot of fun. But this is a crazy roller coaster we're going on and I'm just kind of taking it stride for stride and day by day and can't wait to see where things end up.

"1883" airs Sundays on Paramount+.