Brandon Sklenar was determined to join both the Taylor Sheridan universe and the prolific creator’s Dutton dynasty when he first read the sides for 1923, and the New Jersey native wasn’t going to let his east coast upbringing keep him from chasing the rugged role of Spencer Dutton.
The son of a carpenter and a hairdresser, Sklenar set his sights on acting and music at a young age. Though some fans may look at him as an overnight success thanks to his role as Spencer, the dashing big game hunter in 1923, the truth is that Sklenar has been auditioning for a dozen or so years, and working consistently for half as long.
He has worked with directors such as Adam McKay (Vice) and Roland Emmerich (Midway), and his indie credits include Ondi Timoner‘s Mapplethorpe and last year’s Sundance sensation Emily the Criminal. Meanwhile, his TV credits include Westworld, New Girl, Truth Be Told, and Paramount+’s Godfather-themed miniseries The Offer, for which he was handpicked by casting director John Papsidera to play screen legend Burt Reynolds.
Sklenar first met Papsidera when he read for a role in The Dark Knight Rises, and that early connection has proved advantageous throughout his career, as not only did it land him a breakout role in 1923, but the Yellowstone prequel marks their fifth time working together. Only now has he become a fan favorite, though he still hasn’t worked up the nerve to tell co-star Harrison Ford about his father’s craftsmanship (Ford was famously a carpenter before he began acting).
For those who aren’t die-hard Dutton family followers, the first season, which premiered on Dec. 18, found Jacob (Ford) and Cara (Helen Mirren) Dutton doing whatever was necessary to protect their homestead from thieves and wealthy barons who wanted to take over their cherished land. Sklenar co-starred as their nephew, Spencer Dutton, who made his mark in the wilds of Africa and has been beseeched by Cara to come home and save the Yellowstone ranch. When Spencer finally gets word that his family desperately needs him, he embarks on a treacherous journey from the jungles of Africa to the mountains of Montana. He’s accompanied by the free-spirited Alexandra (Julia Schlaepfer), with whom he fell helplessly in love at first sight while protecting safari vacationers from would-be lion attacks. They forge an uncertain future together after fleeing her stuffy aristocratic fiancé.
Above the Line spoke with Brandon Sklenar via Zoom from Los Angeles, where his movie-star looks stood out in front of a simple off-white curtain. He has an easy-going, laidback conversational demeanor that obviously helped him land his role in 1923. Sklenar discussed how he related to Spencer, the similar traits that they share, and designing the character’s look, which has led to some Indiana Jones comparisons. In a way, the role of Spencer Dutton was “Taylor” made for Sklenar, who’s a natural for the adventurous part.
Above the Line: Growing up in New Jersey, did you always have your heart set on moving to Los Angeles to pursue acting?
Brandon Sklenar: You know, there are a few of us who have done it, and the ones [who] have done it have really stood the test of time, so I think I’m in good company. I was born in Dover. My folks separated when I was little, so they kind of moved all over separately, but mainly to Lake Hopatcong, Sussex County, [and] Warren County. I went to Hackettstown High School. I had a short stint at County College. Yeah, all over Northern New Jersey.
ATL: So many people think you’re this overnight success story because of your role in 1923, but that’s not really the case, is it?
Sklenar: Yeah, little do they know [laughs]. There’s a plethora of really good independent films I’ve done that everyone’s seen. No, it’s funny; it does appear that way. I can see why that’s the perception.
ATL: Take me back to the beginning when you went on your audition for 1923 with casting director John Papsidera.
Sklenar: Oh, yeah. Paps is amazing. I’d wanted to work with [creator and writer] Taylor Sheridan for a very long time, a number of years. I was tracking the show since it was originally titled 1932, and they told me they needed a huge name for the role and all this, and then I said, ‘I don’t know, let’s hold onto it.’ John’s been a champion of mine for years, and he’s cast me, I think, five times. He’s just the best.
I mean, I first read for him for a role in The Dark Knight Rises 12 years ago. I was 20 years old. I was a kid; I forget what the role was, but it was the first time I met him. So we were tracking it  for a while, and I was actually in the middle of nowhere in Washington and Oregon on a three-week backpacking trip, kind of off the grid, and my manager was able to get a hold of me. He said, ‘Hey, you got this thing for 1923.’ And as soon as I read the breakdown, I felt pretty confident about it.
ATL: Other than working with Taylor Sheridan, what was most attractive to you about the prospect of working on this series?
Sklenar: It was something that I had in my vision for months. A day didn’t go by [that] I hadn’t thought about this project. I thought 1883 was a masterpiece, and my entire family [are] huge fans of Yellowstone, and I think Taylor’s just in a class of his own in terms of his writing. When I read this, I read the first two episodes, and it just clicked. Certain things click, and certain words make sense coming out of your mouth, [so] I put it [the audition] on tape, sent it off, and it was a fast process. They flew me out to Jackson Hole pretty soon after that, and that was it.
ATL: What was it about Spencer Dutton that made you think, “this is the role for me”?
Sklenar: Just Spencer’s sensibility in the way he just read off the page and how close to the vest he kept a lot of things, and also everything he had gone through — the war, and then being alone for as long as he had. There was just this contained inner life that I just related to and understood. I just understood him. For whatever reason, I just did, and I understood where he was coming from, as well as his vibe and tone, at least as I perceived them. And it happened to be what Taylor imagined it to be; it just worked out that way.
A lot of people have brought it up, and I know it was intentional on Taylor’s part, but he feels like a character that we would’ve seen 40 or 50 years ago. That’s what I love about him from an audience standpoint [and] as someone who just loves film. You just haven’t seen an archetype like that in a long time. I was like, ‘whoever gets to play this role, it’s going to be awesome,’ because you just don’t get characters like that often.
ATL: So after you got the role, what did you have to do to prepare? Had you ever held a rifle before on camera? Did you have to read up on big game hunting?
Sklenar: I read The Man-Eaters of Tsavo (about a pair of lions, known as the Tsavo maneaters, that author John Henry Patterson killed in Kenya). I’d shot guns quite a bit throughout my life, and I was comfortable holding a weapon. Yeah, you do your reading and just sort of follow the tonal references in terms of the character.
ATL: Did you get involved with Spencer’s look? I mean, ironically, he looks just like Indiana Jones, and here you are working with Harrison Ford, which is another coincidence.
Sklenar: Yeah. You know, he’s got the browns. He wears the browns, and he’s got the boots. I don’t like snakes, and neither did he. You know, because of the adventure aspect to it that we had in those first few episodes, especially, I kind of knew that comparison would be inevitable. [chuckles]
ATL: Here’s another crazy thing, I think your dad was a carpenter and so was Harrison Ford. Did you ever mention that to Harrison?
Sklenar: I haven’t told Harrison. I mean, I grew up doing construction before I started working as an actor. That’s how I made money — by holding a hammer. I was flipping a house in Venice [California], sweating pipes and stuff, you know, four years ago. I grew up on the east coast in a blue-collar family; you know, work hard and it will happen. That’s kind of the mindset. I don’t think Harrison knows that yet. but he will! Another alignment, if you will, between the two, definitely.
ATL: So when you’re not shooting, what departments on set do you gravitate towards during your downtime?
Sklenar: You know it depends on the day. You’re in it some days and you just have to stay there and be alone. Some days I need to be really silly. I’m kind of fluid with it. It’s really hard to pick a department because — and I’m not just saying this — this entire crew just feels like a family. They’ve all worked together for years on Yellowstone. It doesn’t feel like a set. Everyone’s pretty young. Everyone’s 30 to 45. It’s a very young, tight-knit crew, and it never felt like a set despite the fact that it [has] some of the biggest sets I’ve ever worked on — 400 extras, explosions, boats, animals, the works. And you still feel like you’re just back in an acting class, trying things out, hanging with your friends [and] doing the thing. It’s a really special set, and we’re spoiled for that reason. I’ve never been on a set like it, honestly.
ATL: One of those sets included a capsized tugboat that you and Julia Schlaepfer clung to for dear life. That scene made me wonder, how are your sea legs?
Sklenar: Pretty good. I grew up sailing, and I like racing sailboats a little bit. Those scenes were some of my favorites to shoot. I love anything physical. I’m a physical guy, and any time I can get physical and just really have a visceral experience, it just adds to everything when you can actually put yourself through that.
In this case, we were cold and tired, and you don’t have to act much when you’re in that situation. We’d come off, and our director would say to me, ‘You really look like you were struggling out there; the way the waves were just beating you against the boat, it just looks so real.’ [laughs] That’s because that’s exactly what’s happening! I love how those scenes turned out.
ATL: Absolutely, and your chemistry with Julia is off the charts.
Sklenar: Yeah, it’s great. We are truly so lucky. It doesn’t always happen, and we didn’t do a chemistry read either, so I think Taylor just had an intuition and trusted it, and it worked. We hit it off from day one and got along, which just makes this a really safe working environment, especially when you’re doing a lot of intimate work, whether physically or emotionally. To be able to look across at the person and know that they’re there with you, that they’re present, and that you’re not afraid to fail. You’re not afraid to put yourself out there. We also have a good time. It’s nice to have levity on a set like this when it can be very heavy sometimes, and it’s important to remember that you’re just making a thing.
ATL: Do you work with an intimacy coordinator on those intimate scenes?
Sklenar: Yeah, which is great. It’s really good to have. It’s just good to have someone who can hold space. It’s not easy to shoot those things.
ATL: What are you looking forward to about Season 2?
Sklenar: It’s going to be great to see everybody again, really. I’m excited to be in Montana. As great as it is to travel, you know, during the period we had before we left to shoot in Africa, we shot some of my World War I stuff in Montana, and we just had so much fun out there. The community out there in Butte was really great to us, and I love shooting in small towns, and I love shooting in the west or in the south. There’s just a vibe, and it’s wholesome and real. When you’re out of a city and in nature, there’s something about it. We just had a blast. I’m excited to get back to Montana to see everybody. As much as I loved flying all over Africa, I’m excited to not be on a plane every five days. That’ll be nice!
Season 1 of 1923 is now streaming on Paramount+ and the series has been renewed for Season 2.