"I assembled a chronological timeline of Taylor — sorry, for David Koresh," says Karyn Wagner, correcting herself, when asked about her inspiration to wardrobe Taylor Kitsch, also known as former Dillon Panthers heartbreaker Tim Riggins, as the self-proclaimed prophet in the limited-series "Waco." "He was such a good actor that I don't even think of him as the character in 'Friday Night Lights' anymore, which is where I first started working with him. I think of him as David."
The costume designer worked closely with Kitsch when designing the initial half of the seminal premiere season of "Friday Night Lights" — Alix Friedberg, now of "Big Little Lies," designed the pilot — but that wasn't how Wagner came to "Waco," which airs the third out of six episodes on Paramount Network on Wednesday. Wagner's agent actually brought her the script, which detailed the Branch Davidian church or cult leader — you decide — and the 51-day siege between American law enforcement agencies and the Branch Davidians in their compound, Mount Carmel, that led to the death of 76 people, including children, in 1993. Wagner was skeptical at first, but after falling down an internet rabbit hole, was on board and prepared a four-inch binder of materials to present to "Waco"'s creators, John Erick Dowdle and Drew Dowdle.
"One of the big driving forces in my life is fairness and justice, and I'm just a big believer in hearing both sides of the story," says Wagner, noting that her takeaway was in line with the creators' goal for the series.
Wagner, who also costume-designed "Underground" and "Preacher," nailed the interview with the Dowdles, and soon after dove even further into research — especially when it came time to turn America's boyfriend (Kitsch) into a distinctly recognizable Koresh. She read the books on which "Waco" is based: "Stalling for Time: My Life as an FBI Hostage Negotiator," by former FBI negotiator Gary Noesner (played by Michael Shannon) and "A Place Called Waco," by Branch Davidian member and Waco survivor David Thibodeau (Rory Culkin); the real-life Noesner and Thibodeau were also both consultants on the show.
Wagner also pulled from an abundance of information available online — from images and videos of Koresh and his followers to documentaries and news articles — to assemble multiple "research walls" that identified and detailed every Branch Davidian member, like Koresh's multiple wives (including "Supergirl" Melissa Benoist's character, Rachel Koresh). The meticulously prepared walls were so evocative that the real-life Thibodeau immediately fell silent upon his first visit to set.
"'Hello, old friends. It's so good to see you again after all these years,'" Wagner remembers Thibodeau saying. "I started bawling and he was bawling, and then we all were bawling."
For Kitsch's aforementioned timeline, Wagner compiled imagery beginning from when Koresh was a toddler to that deadly siege at Waco, studying not only what he wore, but how he wore it. "You could see that whomever he was going to meet or whomever he was talking to about his form of Seventh Day Adventism, he was dressing to please them," she explains. "He was adjusting his manner to please them — adjusting his smile and his facial expressions."
To create Kitsch's looks, Wagner extrapolated from Koresh's documented vintage '90s pieces, or out-of-date '80s ones, seeing as on-trend fashion wasn't exactly top of mind for the Branch Davidians living on a compound that lacked running water. For a scene in which Kitsch-as-Koresh sings The Knack's "My Sharona", for instance, she looked at a photo of Koresh in a tight, black terrycloth, "kind-of-Hang-Ten" shirt with a rainbow graphic, and deduced that Kitsch should wear a worn-in patchwork button-down.
"I was like, 'Well, if this guy wears that shirt, then he wears this shirt that I happened to find at Goodwill," explains Wagner. "Taylor was like, 'Oh my God, I love this shirt. It's amazing. There's my character.'"
Wagner also faithfully recreated some looks, like the aforementioned rainbow shirt and Kitsch's saggy, retro sweats, which he wears in running scenes. (They're a far cry from the snug football pants Kitsch wore for hungover practice at Dillon High.) "It was funny because he put 'em on — and he was used to looking hot — and basically I said, 'Try these on, they're '80s. They're backdated," laughs Wagner. "And he put them on and he started laughing. 'Whoa, dude, really? Whoa.' And he went, 'But they're right, aren't they?'"
Since Wagner and Kitsch already had an established working relationship, their collaboration was a breeze. "I think we were so on the same page because he trusted me from 'Friday Night Lights' — I had set that iconic look," she says. "I was like, 'You're going to wear these untucked cowboy shirts and these jeans that are a little too tight because you're a little insecure, and you're going to wear these great cowboy boots because they make you feel manly. It was one of his first acting roles, and that became iconic."
Wagner also introduced Kitsch to the "deep-holed tank top," which the real-life Koresh favored and wore frequently. The dedicated Kitsch, who lost 30 pounds of bulk and memorized Koresh's body language, was obviously game, but not without an initial chuckle.
"I'm making the 'icky face' as I'm handing [the tanks] to him because they're so ugly, and he just started laughing," she says. "That was the funny thing," continues Wagner, who also costume-designed another iconic tank top moment for Ryan Gosling in "The Notebook." "We could only find one that fit just the way we really wanted it to fit because even within that ugliness, there was fitting-ugliness and non-fitting-ugliness. So, we patterned it and made like, six of those tank tops."
Determining the perfect wire-framed aviators glasses for the period was a multi-person effort from Wagner, the props department, the Dowdles and even Kitsch himself. Of course, we can't talk about Kitsch's full transition into Koresh without mentioning his spectacular mullet created by hair stylist Audrey L. Anzures. The choppy business-in-the-front and shaggy party-in-the-back pièce de resistance was integral to the role.
To accurately mimic Koresh's distinctive rough-and-wild 'do, the Emmy-nominated Anzures went through "three stages of hair pieces for Taylor," she explains via email. Anzures admits that it was one of the most difficult and challenging projects she's ever encountered. "The mullet started out with a piece that was made and colored to be incorporated through his own hair. Eventually, as his hair grew, I was able to modify another piece so that it appeared to not only grow longer, but also go through the various stages of peril he experienced," says Anzures.
Upon first seeing himself in his precise Koresh extensions, Kitsch — who, at the "Waco" premiere, did admit to missing his mullet — replied, "Spot on."
Follow Karyn Wagner on Instagram at @karynwagner. "Waco"'s third episode airs on Wednesday, Feb. 7 at 10 p.m. on Paramount Network.