‘1883’: Eric Nelsen Says That Ennis Shocker Is an ‘Arc-Changing Moment for Elsa’

Eric Nelsen as Ennis in 1883
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[Warning: The below contains MAJOR spoilers for 1883 Episode 5 “The Fangs of Freedom.”]

1883 just delivered a heartbreaking blow to Elsa (Isabel May), one that changes her entire trajectory.

In “The Fangs of Freedom,” Elsa was entertaining a relationship (and marriage) to cowboy Ennis (Eric Nelsen) — who was on board if she’s pregnant after they had sex for the first time and even stood up to her father, James (Tim McGraw), who was none-too-pleased with the turn of events. But when bandits attacked, Ennis was killed. Elsa then killed the man who took Ennis from her.

“I know it’s gonna hurt and it’s been so hard for me to just watch the comments roll in knowing that this week is coming,” Nelsen tells TV Insider. “But if anything, I hope people get moved by it and it does lend itself to a whole new trajectory in the story. There’s some very exciting things coming.”

Nelsen breaks down Ennis’ “sacrifice” and teases if we’ll see him again.

When you signed on, had you known your character would be killed off in Episode 5?

Eric Nelsen: Not at first. It was definitely gut-punching and I didn’t see it coming, which I think is what makes it great TV, and to see the trajectory my death pushes Elsa to become and where she goes, it’s crucial. It really does make sense in the scheme of the story, and it was pivotal for Elsa’s character, so I couldn’t be upset, as much as I was hoping Ennis would see it through. It’s a beautiful death and it’s a beautiful moment, and I’m just happy to have been the one to be able to portray it.

Eric Nelsen as Ennis in 1883

Emerson Miller/Paramount+

That entire sequence was heartbreaking, from Ennis getting shot to his “I loved her” to James to dying before Elsa got there. What stood out to you?

The power behind the entire thing. The fact that Ennis rides off knowing what’s over that hill. Keeping Elsa there, in a way, he’s basically sacrificing himself for her, so right away, we see really how this man feels about her. Then to have that last moment of his dying breath to her father, barely making out the words “I loved her,” to me, that was the most powerful moment of this whole sequence. What a beautiful turning point for James and Ennis. We really see the emotion between these two, and it’s been a lot of ups and downs for them up until that point.

He was the only one riding toward the bandit from his side, but he did get a shot off.

Proud of him for that, and obviously he’s a very experienced cowboy, so for him to get that and pull that off was great. But he knew the second he left her and went over that hill, it wasn’t gonna end well. But it was a me or her kind of situation, and he made the right choice in his heart. I think if he could go back and do it all over again, he’d do it the exact same way.

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Then Elsa kills the man who killed him. How would Ennis feel about that?

That is an extremely emotional and honestly arc-changing moment for Elsa. We see a side of her that Ennis never saw and the audience hasn’t seen yet and I think it’s a look into what’s to come. But he knows how she felt and he never took a second of what they had together for granted. For her to do that for me, speechless, I guess. It speaks volumes and I understand, especially in the world back then, the overall just revenge that she got. It just proves to me how much she really did care and I’d want her not to live her life in regret or in pain because of what happened, and if that’s her way to heal and move on for herself and deal with the circumstances, then I think Ennis would’ve been in support. And honestly, she’s getting back the guy that got me. Back then, that’s how things were handled.

It’s so sad when she lies down with him because that’s the only time we see them like that.

It’s just unfortunate that, of course, we finally see the moment when Ennis is no longer with us. But when we were filming that and the emotions and the tears and the screaming — and I’m lying there, playing dead — it took everything I had in me not to be crying. I was fighting so hard. Just lie there, dead. Don’t fall under the emotion because what she’s going through, it just was heartbreaking for me — as Ennis, but really as Eric, too. So it really did take everything I had not to not to lose it every time she had to film that.

Eric Nelsen as Ennis

There was something almost too sweet about their relationship, in this world, from his reaction to seeing a girl to his “she was flirting!” in Episode 3, then their first kiss in Episode 4.

Absolutely, and an innocence in a rather un-innocent world that they’re living in. It really goes against the darkness and the grit of the show. I think that’s what people responded to the most, and it was almost uplifting when you got to see them together and for a moment it would bring smiles to people’s faces. I’m really grateful that we had that opportunity to be the softer side of things.

Even his reaction when she brought up a possible pregnancy and they were excited about their future together. Could they have made something last in the long run?

We see them basically say to her father, accept us or we’re gone. And had he not, we would’ve been off. We would’ve lived our own world. I would’ve helped wrangle cattle and sell them and make money and maybe open up a little restaurant or something, and we’d live a happy life together. Absolutely, we could have made this work. There’s such uncertainty on the journey, if we get through it in one piece, then who’s to say? We could have conquered the world together. But it wasn’t in the plans. As to how the world was back then we just see how quickly things can change, and so you can’t take a single second or day for granted, especially on a journey such as this.

Tim McGraw as James, Eric Nelsen as Ennis in 1883

Emerson Miller/Paramount+

James made good on his word about Ennis getting handsy versus courting. So what made Ennis stand up to James? Where did that confidence come from? Love?

Yeah. Throughout the episodes though, it seems to happen quickly. Ennis has a big shift in himself. He’s kind of more innocent, sweet, try to see where this is all gonna land. And then by the time Episode 5 comes, he’s able to stand up for himself and face the music and look James in the eyes and tell him how he feels and that he doesn’t care what James thinks. Whereas in the episodes leading up, he cares so much about what he thinks. That was a turning point for Ennis’ character and the arc of him in the season. To see Ennis have that powerful moment and strength, I think, was a wonderful way to show the shift that’s happened and love can do that to somebody. When you’re really passionate and fully in love with somebody, it makes you grow up. It makes you feel things you haven’t before. Standing up to James was just a moment to prove that. … It was crucial for Ennis and it really paid off and I do think James’ respect for Ennis completely shifts in that moment.

It seemed like Ennis had some idea of what he was getting into going on this trip, but did he have any idea, really, when it came to Elsa? Meeting her was such a shock for him.

Elsa was completely unexpected. I’m out here, I’m a cowboy, I’m hanging out with cows most of my entire life. And then this drop-dead, beautiful girl comes trotting in and wants to help us on the journey, is not afraid to get her hands dirty and she’s smart and she throws me off my guard all the time and I don’t even know how to respond to her and that was unexpected. Elsa [was] the best surprise of his life.

How do you think Ennis would want to be remembered?

Loyal, honest, and big-hearted.

Is this the last that we’ll see of you? Because there are always flashbacks, dream sequences, things like that.

Ennis’ physical journey is over. I will say the memory of Ennis doesn’t disappear. We don’t just completely keep moving forward. Elsa has a moment of remembrance, and there is a bit of an alluded flashback. I’m not sure how that’s gonna cut together or how it’s gonna be seen onscreen yet ’cause I haven’t seen anything past 5. So I’ll be watching just like you in hopes, maybe they’ll throw him in there, maybe they won’t. But we’ll see. As far as I know, no, but it could happen because Elsa does have a moment.

1883, Sundays, Paramount+