The story of the 51-day siege at Mount Carmel between the ATF, FBI and David Koresh’s spiritual sect, The Branch Davidians, continues Wednesday night on Paramount Network when the second episode of the six-part limited series Waco airs.
Waco tells the tale of the longest gun battle in U.S. law enforcement history, in which 76 men, women and children in the Branch Davidian compound were killed. It stars Taylor Kitsch as Koresh, Michael Shannon as FBI hostage negotiator Gary Noesner, and Supergirl‘s Melissa Benoist in a big departure from her heroine role as Koresh’s wife Rachel.
“It’s a cautionary tale,” Benoist tells Parade.com in this exclusive interview on the 25th anniversary of the tragedy. ‘It was something that didn’t need to happen. This shows the circumstances that created this storm with the ATF and how much they needed to prove themselves, so they showed up with tanks because of a $50 warrant, and there was an hour long shootout, and people died on the first day. It escalated so quickly to the point of no return. All it should have taken was people looking below the surface to keep the women and the children, the innocent people, out of it.”
– How much did you know about the story of Waco before you signed on to the project?
I knew as much as most of us did. I had seen news coverage. I was quite young so I don’t think the gravity of it registered with me, but I had family in Texas. I think I felt a need to know exactly what was going on. Obviously, it was just such a mesmerizing event but I only knew what the media showed, which is not even half of what actually happened.
– Do you think there’s a balance to this telling of the event? That it shows the POV of both sides?
I think that it’s a testament to the Dowdles’ [ [John Erick and Drew] storytelling that it’s all a gray area. I think they wanted to show the humanity of everyone involved. There were good people in the Davidians, and there were good people in the ATF and the FBI. It was an impossible situation that got off on the wrong foot from the get-go. Terrible miscommunications. It was a tragedy that could have been prevented and should not have happened.
– What’s your take on David Koresh? Do you think he was a megalomaniac? Do you think he was a true believer in what he was doing?
I think he was both of those things. It’s worth noting what he created of himself, what he made of himself, considering where he came from. He had a terrible upbringing and ran away from home when he was 14. He changed his name and became the leader of this church through another crazy story that involved a shootout.
The way he actually gained control of Mount Carmel, the compound, was quite aggressive and almost like the Wild West, but he had traits that were not so great. I think he just had this magnetic energy about him. He was literally the sun that everything in Mount Carmel revolved around, all of the Davidians.
– Was there a lot of research material on Rachel for you to investigate?
There wasn’t much material for me to read about her, not nearly as much as David Koresh for Taylor, but there were a lot of pictures of Rachel with David and their kids. There are some accounts of people that met her. The two lawyers that entered Mount Carmel during the siege, who she serves chicken à la king in the office, apparently thought she was very quiet. What I do know is that she was 14 when David decided he wanted to marry her. She was his first wife. He plucked her from the compound in her pajamas, and they left to go on their missions together. It’s unimaginable and hard to comprehend.
– Do you think that he let her be a part of the decision making? Do you think he respected her intelligence at all?
Absolutely. I do think so. Because of his ego, maybe not in front of people, but I think that she was one of the only women he listened to, probably behind closed doors. She was the one who primarily slept in his bed with him even though he had other wives. She was the eyes and the ears of the women and children in the compound. So I think she probably had a lot to say on how to run it, the structure of the way they lived and worked.
– Do you think she was comfortable with him having the other wives?
That was a part of his New Revelations. I think jealousy and envy, those are human emotions that you can’t control, and I can’t imagine how she didn’t feel that every now and then. I don’t know how it would be possible not to, but that was her reality. He had, I think, 12 other wives, or she was one of 12, including her sister. But an interesting fact about her is that she was the one who had the dream that God spoke to her and said that David needed to marry her younger sister, Michelle. So, that was almost her decision. I found that fascinating and something hard to reconcile.
– Do you think that she felt that things would go as far as they did when the conflict started?
I don’t know if any of them did, but I think that it was an impossible situation from the get-go, and I think that Rachel probably, from what I surmised, cared the most about the children and how to take care of them, but I don’t think she would have ever not followed David.
– Do feel sympathy for these people?
Of course, I do. I felt so much empathy for them, and I felt a perspective that I was not expecting to feel. I learned so much that I hope everyone can see.
– Waco is 180 degrees from Supergirl. This woman is not empowered in any way. Is that what made you want to play her because she is so different?
It’s not just the fact that she’s different, it’s the story was so compelling to me. I do think Rachel is empowered in her world. She was obviously in very different circumstances than Supergirl, and Supergirl quite obviously is very empowered. Rachel’s strength is internal and much more quiet, but the story was one that I really felt a draw to be a part of telling.
– Are stories like this why you love being an actor?
Well, yeah, of course. This one specifically is so special because part of what we get to do is illuminate things that people don’t necessarily know, especially when it’s something about a historical event, or something that actually happened. We get to take the magnifying glass and really look into an event that was enigmatic and confounding and that people only saw one side of.