Helen Mirren as Cara Dutton in 1923, streaming on Paramount+
James Minchin III/Paramount+

'1923' Star Helen Mirren on 'Yellowstone's Strong Dutton Women: 'It's a Gift For Actresses' [Interview]

Twelve years ago, Taylor Sheridan was just another actor, struggling as the lowest-paid cast member on the set of FX biker drama Sons of Anarchy. Now, with numerous successful screenplays on his resume? — including an Oscar nod for Hell or High Water — he's a household name thanks to Yellowstone. The modern Western has gained so many passionate fans that the Paramount Network has greenlit multiple spinoffs to continue expanding the universe Sheridan has built surrounding the fictional ranching family, the Duttons. As Sheridan's star power has continued to rise through his ever-expanding catalog of shows, so has the caliber of actors he's been able to bring on board. What started with Kevin Costner leading Yellowstone has led to the likes of Harrison Ford and Dame Helen Mirren starring in his latest prequel series, 1923.

Sheridan has earned a reputation over five seasons of Yellowstone and his first prequel series, 1883, for writing strong female characters. Kelly Reilly's Beth Dutton is a force to be reckoned with, and her ancestors in 1883, Elsa and Margaret, proved to be just as tough and capable as they risked their lives on the trail from Texas to Montana for a better future. Oscar-winner Mirren effortlessly fits into the narrative of the Dutton lineage, bringing to life the no-nonsense Cara Dutton in 1923. Cara and her husband, Jacob (Ford), followed in his late brother James' footsteps to build the Yellowstone Ranch into a powerful empire over the course of a few decades. With no children of their own, they have raised James and Margaret's surviving children, John and Spencer, as their own, so it's an interesting dynamic watching their relationships as grown adults in 1923.

Joining the strong lineage of Dutton women

Mirren plays Cara as Irish, with a scrappy accent and fiery personality that makes her stand out among the rest of the women in the series. Though she reveals to Wide Open Country that she personally thinks that Cara is a Catholic, it's unclear at this point if her Irish heritage will come into play in the season or if this was simply a character choice. Either way, she's establishing Cara as one of the most memorable new additions to the greater Yellowstone universe.

Nearly every actor on a Sheridan set will sing his praises, as he's consistently regarded as one of the greatest writers of his time. But Mirren explained that she's particularly excited about his affinity for writing strong females, which she describes as "an incredible gift" he's given to actresses. While many women in a Western may sit on the sidelines and don't get their hands dirty, that is certainly not the case in a Sheridan narrative. That's especially since he's also passionate about accurately portraying the history surrounding the Dutton family. In fact, this was particularly appealing for Mirren to join the project in general, which she described as an examination of "American history through the eyes of the Dutton family."

"I watched some of Yellowstone, but mostly I watched 1883," she explained.

"I think because, for me, the fascinating side of this is the history of it, and that extraordinary march west across America was so full of courage and pain and suffering and desperation and creativity. It always fascinated me, that part of American history, and so I watched 1883 with great, great interest and fascination and thought that journey was revealed so viscerally."

An appreciation for American history

As a British native, Mirren didn't necessarily grow up reading about America's westward expansion in history books the way some of her co-stars did, but she had her own appreciation of the time period based on a cross-country train ride she took back in the '60s. While overseas working in theater, she took a train from San Francisco to Detroit and really got to take in some of the less-glamorous landscapes American pioneers had to cross in order to fulfill their dreams of a new start. Seeing what people saw over a century ago really gave Mirren an appreciation for Americans in general and how our country was built by immigrants and people just looking for that "American dream."

"It took three days, we traveled really slowly," Mirren explained of the journey. "I would advise every American to do that because it reveals to you the landscape that these people walked across. I remember there was one plain we went across, either before or after Salt Lake City, where the train traveled for a whole day, and you didn't see a single blade of grass or a tree or a bush or a river or a rock to hide from the sun. It was just a flat plain, and I thought, 'Oh my God, people walked across this carrying their food, carrying their water. Women and men and children walked across this.' And it was like a huge lightbulb going off in my head of an understanding, the beginnings of an understanding, of who the Americans are. That was partly why I really wanted to do this work, because I love the way it's really a study of American history as much as anything."

Unlike Beth, Cara Dutton is definitely actively involved in the daily operations of the ranch and is frequently left alone with the other women while her husband, nephews and the rest of the Yellowstone Ranch hands are off with the cattle. While Mirren doesn't necessarily have experience working the land, she has an appreciation for the hard work that goes into maintaining a ranch, whether it's 1923 or 2022.

"I'm not a farmer's daughter, and I've never worked on a farm, but I know that when you work on any kind of farm you're a slave to the environment. To the climate, whether it rains or not or whether it's too sunny."

She's just as in the dark about Cara's future as fans

It's no secret that Sheridan is one of the busiest guys in Hollywood. He has various additional Yellowstone spinoffs in the works, a second half of season 5 coming, and multiple non-Yellowstone shows on the air or in production. So it shouldn't be surprising that the 1923 cast wasn't given access to scripts for the entire first season when they first signed on. Mirren said that's actually one of the best parts about joining the show, as "it's like real life; we don't know what's coming up." She has no idea what's in store for her character and onscreen husband, but she knows they have one heck of a struggle ahead of them.

"When we started the process, when we started filming, I think we had the first three episodes in our hands. We had no idea what was going to happen after that. So it's been an unfolding adventure for us. I don't know what's in the future for Jacob and Cara; certainly, dark clouds are gathering around them."

If you've watched Yellowstone, you know that the Duttons have their fair share of problems. Their family dynamics are complicated (ahem, Beth and Jamie). But despite the fact that they may not always look like the happiest family, they are fiercely loyal and support patriarch John Dutton in all of his lofty goals to maintain their family's legacy. 1923 looks to share some similarities, as the cast is full of amazing actors, young and seasoned, who are already captivating in their own ways.

"The whole family tree of the Dutton family is very complicated, as all family trees actually are," Mirren said. "I think Taylor Sheridan is very good at creating very individual characters. One of the things I love about this series is we have a lot of young actors in it and a lot of young characters, but each character is very clearly defined."

New episodes of 1923 are available for streaming on Paramount+ every Sunday. Following an initial eight-episode first season, a second season will be released down the line to fully wrap up this new generation of Duttons and all of the obstacles they faced in the '20s.

READ MORE: 'Yellowstone' Creator Taylor Sheridan Reveals the Unexpected Way '1923' Was Born