Waco takes viewers to a place few have seen: inside the Branch Davidian compound during a 51-day standoff with federal agents in 1993.
The six-part miniseries (Wednesday, 9 p.m. CST), the first for the new Paramount Network (formerly Spike), tells the story of the religious sect members' standoff with ATF and FBI agents, ending with a fire that consumed the compound. Four federal agents and 82 Davidians, including messianic leader David Koresh, died.
Taylor Kitsch, who plays Koresh, says the story most people know comes primarily from the government, through the media, and is incomplete because the Branch Davidians' communications were cut off during the siege.
The portrait of Koresh is "way more complex than just a broad stroke of calling him crazy," Kitsch says.
"It doesn't mean he wasn't incredibly flawed and manipulative at times — there are things I completely disagree with — but there were also other parts: a sense of humor, a good ol' Texas boy, a talented guitarist. He could make people feel like they were the only person on the planet."
Canadian actor Kitsch, 36, has appeared in acclaimed projects, including NBC's Friday Night Lights, HBO's The Normal Heart and 2013's Lone Survivor, but also some box-office duds, including Battleship and 2012 Disney debacle John Carter.
His motivation for playing Koresh was "being more scared than I ever have been. He's someone that's further away from me than I've ever played," he says. "The more you uncovered (about real events and people), the more the injustice of it all, the more motivated I was."
In depicting the standoff, executive producers John Erick Dowdle and Drew Dowdle leaned on insider books written by Davidian survivor David Thibodeau (played by Rory Culkin in the series) and FBI negotiator Gary Noesner (played by Michael Shannon), who serve as consultants.
"Reading David's book, it was just learning who these people really were, putting names and faces to a lot of the people who perished, that was very eye-opening to us. … The public didn't seem to recognize this as the tragedy it was," Drew Dowdle says. "And you read Gary's book (and) realize how difficult (the FBI's) challenge was in this situation."
The Dowdles want to tell a "no bad guys" version of the story that seeks to understand both sides, but they acknowledge Koresh's transgressions, including allegations of statutory rape involving underage girls.
"We wanted to show some of that from the victims' point of view, because it felt wrong to show that ugliness directly," John Erick Dowdle says.
Waco opens with a gunfight between the Davidians and ATF agents that extends to a long siege when Koresh reneges on a promise to surrender to the FBI.
Kitsch, who lost 30 pounds to portray a man wounded from a gunshot and starved from limited food supplies, says he tried to get an overall picture of Koresh.
"He needed (the Davidians) as much as they needed him. He created a stable, controlled environment, (which) he never had growing up," he says.
On the religious front, Koresh really believed he was a messenger of God, the actor says. "If you were ready for what he was bringing, he would let you in."
Others left on their own: Some rejected the charismatic Koresh's demand for celibacy and his decision to take on the "burden of sex" with followers' wives. He had multiple wives, including sisters Rachel (Melissa Benoist) and Michelle (Julia Garner).
"One of his right-hand men and best friends left and he was absolutely heartbroken by it," he says.
Sadly, Kitsch thinks all the death and destruction could have been "1000%" avoided.
"I think it's an amalgamation of egos" on both sides, he says. "One wrong choice led to another."