'Under the Banner of Heaven': Wyatt Russell Real-Life Experience Helped Him Play Dan Lafferty

The FX series Under the Banner of Heaven cast Wyatt Russell as Dan Lafferty. Dan and his brother Ron (Sam Worthington) were found guilty of the murders of their sister-in-law Brenda Lafferty (Daisy Edgar-Jones) and her 15-month old. The series is based on Jon Krakauer’s book about the true case. Russell said he had another real-life experience that informed his character.

Russell was part of a Television Critics Association Zoom panel for Under the Banner of Heaven on March 29. He discussed his role in the show and the personal experience he brought to it. New episodes of Under the Banner of Heaven premiere Thursdays on Hulu.

Wyatt Russell visited Zion before playing Dan Lafferty

The Laffertys belonged to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. The series portrays the investigation among the Mormon community. Russell happened to have vacationed near Zion National Park, which is a significant Utah location for the LDS Church. 

“Years ago, my wife and I would take van trips across the country,” Russell said. “We go to Colorado and drive that route three times a year. You always drive through St. George. You drive through Utah and you go right through Zion, so we’d stop in Zion a lot. And we had done a canyoneering trip where they take you into Colorado City.  They go, ‘You can’t canyoneer in Zion’ so they take you through a different route. And you go through Colorado City, where all the compounds are, where Warren Jeffs, his compound is now turned into a hotel.”

‘Under the Banner of Heaven’ reminded Wyatt Russell of the children he saw near Zion  

Russell observed the locals with curiosity. Filming Under the Banner of Heaven reminded him of them.

But I remember getting out at the trailhead and, like out of the show, a truck full of kids dressed in traditional garments, girls head to toe, got out. They started digging for gems and rocks in the stream as we were passing by and looking very modern in a harness and a helmet to go canyoneering. And I remember making eye contact with this one girl who was digging for rocks, and it struck something in me where it was just like, wow, she’s just a kid. She’s 10. And there was 11 brothers and sisters, and they were all just going out to have a good time. But it was like they were out of a completely different time. It looked like they were in the 1800s. And it just struck me as something that was this dichotomy between the world that we live in and the world that they still live in.”

‘Under the Banner of Heaven’ doesn’t vilify Mormons

There is a tragic crime at the center of Under the Banner of Heaven. The show hopes to interrogate the community in which it happened. However, Russell confirms the show does not vilify the entire community. 

“Not demonizing that person for being born into that situation was, I think, always an important part of portraying someone who ends up going down that fundamentalist route,” Russell said. “It is easy to feel like you are locked into a prison cell of your own birth when you’re in that situation. And treating those people with humanity and not putting just devil horns on them immediately was really important in the research for Dan in particular.”

Russell was able to listen to recordings of Dan Lafferty, who is still serving a life sentence. His brother Ron died of natural causes in 2019.

“It is a really hard thing because the minute you hear him speak, five minutes in you are going, ‘I like him. How is this possible? How is it possible that I’m hearing him speak and he’s speaking with love and joy and faith?’” Russell said. “You have to come back to the reality of what it was and what he had done. There’s sadness in it because it was someone who was born into this situation and led down this rabbit hole in a way that only fundamentalist, extremist views can kind of lead you down.”

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