How the Hatfields and the McCoys shot their way into American history
- Last Updated: 1:20 AM, May 27, 2012
- Posted: 9:22 PM, May 26, 2012
Revenge is a dish best served bloody in the new History Channel miniseries “Hatfields & McCoys.” A blood feud extraordinaire, the two legendary families duke it out in late 19th-century Kentucky and Virginia for 25 years. They fight over everything — timber; a stolen pig; their children falling in love — until the governors of Kentucky and Virginia have to intervene and journalists show up with pencil, pad and photographers, eager for a headline. The body count is horrific. The psychic toll on the survivors is unspeakable.
And it’s all true. “Hatfield & McCoys” draws on American folklore, but the miniseries, which airs three nights beginning tomorrow, is much more than “hillbillies killing each other,” says Bill Paxton, the “Big Love” star who plays doomed Randall McCoy. It explores themes of vengeance, honor, betrayal and obsession and once the first blow is struck, there’s no way to stop the ensuing tragedy.
“It’s important to understand the history behind the history, even if there is brutality,” says Nancy Dubuc, an executive producer with the History Channel. “A lot of our stories in America are rooted in violence. They’re killing each other on a personal level, not for love of country.”
McCoy and William Anderson “Devil Anse” Hatfield are friends until the end of the Civil War, when Anse goes back to the family timber business and McCoy accuses him of deserting.
“That was a common occurrence,” says Costner, who plays Devil Anse Hatfield and also produced the miniseries. “After three years of not being paid, you go home and take care of business.”
The seeds of mistrust continue to grow when McCoy loses a legal battle with Hatfield over timber rights and blossoms when McCoy’s cousin, Harmon, is murdered by Hatfield’s cousin, Jim Vance (a dandy Tom Berenger).
From that point on, it’s eye-for-an-eye time, and matters are impossibly complicated when Hatfield hottie, Johnse (Matt Barr), romances McCoy maiden Roseanna (Lindsay Pulsipher). Her father disowns her. The Hatfields agree to give her safe haven, but of course she ends up pregnant. Her exile is permanent.
“Every decision Randall made was based on Christian duty and honor,” Paxton says. “There was no deviation from that code. Randall is kind of broken by the Civil War. It’s about obsession. When you start coveting your neighbors’ goods and his wife. Randall becomes obsessed with this other guy’s life. How he’s been crossed.”
Paxton paid a visit to Pikeville, Ky., before traveling to Romania where “Hatfield & McCoys” was actually filmed. “A couple of historians gave me the tour. You see where the McCoy house was burned on New Year’s Day and somebody has built a new house. All there is is a plaque by the side of the road,” he says. “Where Randall McCoy’s house was has been turned into an Italian restaurant.”
The environment was very different in the Snagov forest north of Bucharest. “We went back to the old country to shoot this Gothic story,” Paxton says. “You walk around Bucharest and it’s full of deserted mansions full of cats. You see the Gypsies on the street, begging with their children. It lent a haunted vibe to the proceedings.”
Still, the cast was so far from home they had no choice to bond. “Look where we were, Look what we were doing,” says Mare Winningham, who plays Sally McCoy, Randall’s embittered and bewldered wife. “I was with five women and 75 bearded men. Each day, five or six bearded guys would get thrown off the plane. There wasn’t a whiner in the group. I brought my guitar and kept a little journal. It was as foreign a land as I’d been to.”
Costner says he cast Winningham because she’s not “a daisy.” Last seen on “Mildred Pierce” on HBO, Winningham, has played Costner’s wife before (“The War,” “Swing Vote”) but this time he gave her to Paxton.
“Sometimes you realize you’re not going to be bringing an actress to a foreign country and you’re going to have to worry if they’re happy,” Costner says. “Mare’s not a poser. She gets right in there and takes the unglamorous right out of the role. She’s hearty.”
That heartiness makes the actress the perfect choice to play the McCoy mother who sees six of her 11 children die.
“She’s such a great character for tragedy,” Winningham says. “You can’t help but hold her and follow her descent. It’s awful. What mother could survive with her wits intact? I feel Sally had the appropriate response to the situation and that is to go crazy.”
HATFIELDS & McCOYS
Mon-Wed., 9 p.m., History Channel