Forty million album sales; a string of timeless country-pop ballads such as “This Kiss” and “There You’ll Be”; and an impressive haul of Grammy awards: Faith Hill’s achievements over a three-decade career have made her one of country music’s biggest crossover stars on both sides of the Atlantic. But within 10 seconds of our meeting, the 54-year-old from Mississippi has given me a tight hug and told me that my neon yellow nails make me “look just like sunshine”. It’s hard not to blush in the face of such disarming sweetness from a superstar.
Still, we’re not in a London hotel room to talk about style, or even her music. Today’s topic is Hill’s role in Paramount Plus’s 10-part western, 1883. A prequel to the Kevin Costner-led drama Yellowstone (also on Paramount Plus), the show follows a group of 19th-century hopefuls, “going out west” from Fort Worth, Texas, in search of new opportunities for their families. Hill plays Margaret Dutton: wife to group leader James and a stern but loving mother of two. As much as the journey begins with hope, it proves to be anything but easy – smallpox threatens to ravage all who come into contact with it, and the extreme cold, heat, wind and rain across the land are unforgiving. Plus, there’s the significant matter of Native Americans being wary of a large group of armed white people boldly making their way through their territories. “Things get real, real fast,” says Hill.
Her on-screen spouse is her real-life husband, and fellow staple of the country music genre, Tim McGraw. 1883 marks the first time that the couple have acted on a major scale together, despite their years travelling the States singing Grammy-winning romantic duets such as “Let’s Make Love” and “Like We Never Loved at All”. When Taylor Sheridan, the co-creator of Yellowstone, approached the pair to lead a spin-off series, it didn’t take much convincing for them to sign up.
“It was going to be physically challenging, and it was going to be authentic,” Hill says. “That’s the type of thing that we wanted to get involved in.”
Any quick online search of Hill and McGraw will reveal them to be a proudly devoted couple – an often-repeated “secret” of their nearly 26-year marriage is that they never spend more than three days apart. Despite this, Hill made a clear decision not to use any of their time together as preparation for the show – their house was not to become a rehearsal zone. “Tim would walk into the house, and he’d shout out a line from the show and I’m like, ‘Ah ah,’ and close my ears,” she says, shaking her head, hooped earrings swinging. “I felt that in order for it to be as authentic as it needed to be, we needed to really meet one another on set as Margaret and James.”
Their genuine closeness, although magical for their characters’ chemistry on screen, was something she felt would get in the way of truly feeling the role of Margaret, who is much more austere than herself. “We’d never run lines together, until they said ‘action’, and that was the first time,” she says. “For me, it was off-limits, and it had to be that way. When you’re with someone for so long, and know him so well and vice versa… I wanted to know James, and he needed to know Margaret.”
Before 1883, Hill’s on-screen appearances have mostly been for musical performances. She has had some high-profile roles, but did not enjoy her experience on the 2004 adaptation of The Stepford Wives, and felt much happier on the 2017 indie drama Dixieland. But she downplays her acting experience compared with her husband’s, whose leading performances in films such as Friday Night Lights and The Blind Side have long-established him as a Hollywood actor. Hill’s work as Margaret feels grounded and believable, though. It’s a stark difference from the A-list air she has in person; in place of a blow-dry and designer pastel yellow jumpsuit, her character is tightly corseted and practical. Margaret’s first scene shows her berating an older man when she catches him flirting with her teenage daughter, Elsa (Isabel May). This sense of familial protection at all costs spoke to Hill.
“She believed in her husband, stood by her husband, and her family was the most important thing,” Hill says. “A tough woman. She’d seen a lot, having been a nurse in the Civil War. And, being pregnant with Elsa while James is a prisoner of war – I didn’t know if I’d ever see him again!” This switch between “her” and “I” when referring to Margaret is one that Hill does often. The connection’s palpable. “I’m taking care of our home, farming, gardening. I was doing it all, pregnant with our daughter. She’s tough. She reminds me a lot of my mom, to be honest, when I think about all that she did for us, growing up.”
Soon after her birth in September 1967, Hill was adopted by Ted and Edna Perry and was raised alongside their elder biological sons in the small town of Star, about 200 miles up from New Orleans. Having known about her adoption from a young age, she credits her parents for her devout Christian upbringing. Now, Hill is a mother to three twentysomething daughters with McGraw. It’s an experience that she drew from to bring her character to life. “Once you’re a mom, you’re always a mom,” she says. “Everything I think about in my life, I think about it as a mom, period. Not as an artist or whatever, I’m a mom first.” However, stepping into a woman’s world of nearly 150 years ago came with adjustments; she wasn’t able to groom her underarm hair, as that wasn’t realistic for the time, and it also meant layers of uncomfortable clothing (“It was torture!”).
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But the thing she found most surprising about being a woman in the late 1800s was how social conventions fell to the wayside in such rough circumstances. “When you’re on a trail, on a wagon and horse, you’re all on the same page. Man or woman, it didn’t matter. You had to survive. So there are skills you’d have to learn that you wouldn’t imagine you’d ever need in your life.”
With authenticity being a large part of the show’s appeal, there was no faking when it came to learning the skills that would be necessary for such a trip: “cowboy school”, which the cast took part in ahead of filming, consisted of brushing up on her horse-riding skills, learning how to control a wagon and herding cattle. “Oh, that was so much fun. I don’t know if you’ve ever done that – have you ever done that?” I have not. Hill laughs. “I highly recommend it! There’s nothing like being on the back of a horse with wide-open space, with the wind blowing through your hair… you’re just free. As free as you possibly can be.”
As fun as the new terrain was, Hill counts the experience as the biggest physical challenge of her life: “The elements! It was scorching in Texas, the coldest in Montana… The wind, and the big streamin’ weather, that was really difficult to deal with.” When the shoot was over, Hill couldn’t get home and back to normality fast enough. But a few weeks later, when the fact that she’d said goodbye to Margaret settled in, she was surprised by just how much she missed her. “I actually went through a little bit of a depression,” she says, softly. “I’ve never quite experienced something like it before. Because when you invest in someone, and something in such a way… I became Margaret, and I just missed her, and everything about it.”
Soon, it’s time to wrap up, and Hill apologises: a change in her schedule means that she has to leave sooner than planned. But before she goes, she shares that along with the soaring musical score and the beauty of the landscape, 1883’s appeal lies in its universal message: we’d all be willing to take big risks for a better life for our families. “It made us feel like we’re so much more alike than we are different. You know what I’m saying? I hope people feel that. We’re all exactly the same, we want the same thing. So let’s embrace that and see what happens. It warms your heart.” It’s a very sweet note to end on – but I for one wouldn’t expect anything less.
‘1883’ is streaming on Paramount Plus now