What You Don't Know About Isabel May

Isabel May is probably best known for her star-making role in the Paramount+ series "1883" as Elsa Dutton, the adventurous teen girl who earns the sobriquet "Lightning with the Yellow Hair" after racing a Comanche warrior on horseback and winning.

It's one of the high points Elsa experiences among the many hardships she and other members of the Dutton family face as they journey across the Great Plains — there are bandits, bouts of dysentery, tornadoes, and Native Americans who have no interest in racing the settlers crossing their land. But while May seemed to effortlessly assume the young pioneer's identity for the popular "Yellowstone" prequel, she revealed that she didn't face a lot of adversity growing up in Los Angeles. "I live a really comfortable, easy life with loving parents, and I'm a relatively happy person," she told TheWrap. Per "Awards Chatter," her parents both worked in the entertainment industry before becoming real estate investors. "I was raised by two people who never intended to have children. So I was raised like a little adult from the get-go," May said in an interview with Air Mail

Her maturity would pay off when she decided to pursue a career in Hollywood, which often requires the same qualities that helped pioneers survive their harrowing treks: perseverance, patience, and the ability to adapt to different circumstances. Now grab those reins and get as comfortable as you can on that saddle, because we're taking you along for the ride as we explore the untold truth of Isabel May.

She started acting because she wasn't a social butterfly

Isabel May was a self-professed bookworm as a kid, but she didn't exactly have a knack for bringing words on the page to life on the stage. "I was terrified of theater, and when I made the attempt to participate in a play, it was disastrous," she told "Awards Chatter." May admitted that she also found it difficult to relate to her classmates, telling Schön!, "I rarely communicated with other people and therefore had no social life."

May told "Awards Chatter" that her sixth-grade English teacher noticed that she was a bit of a loner. "He encouraged my parents to get me to socialize a little bit more," she recalled. According to May, that teacher deserves some credit for her decision to give acting another chance. As May further explained to Terroir, he also recognized that she had a creative mind and told her parents, "She has to express this in some way."

But before her acting career took off, May was forced to work on her socialization skills when she landed a job at a Brandy Melville clothing store at age 15. "It was horrible, but I lasted a year," she told KTLA 5. While acting also required her to interact with people constantly, her views on socializing didn't change after she got her dream job. "I'm very much an introvert," she told "Awards Chatter."

Isabel May's first acting role was a title character

Isabel May explained to "Awards Chatter" that she didn't fall in love with acting while she was in school because it required performing in front of judgmental classmates. However, she discovered that she felt no such lack of self-confidence during auditions in front of studio execs. So that she could better focus on her career, May switched to online learning after she finished ninth grade, and less than half a year later, she booked her first gig: a title role in the Netflix sitcom "Alexa & Katie." She played Katie, the supportive best friend of Alexa (Paris Berelc), a teen girl who has cancer. "I really enjoy that my first acting experience was portraying a genuinely kind, flawed person who just wants the best for others," May said in an interview with Bello. Per "Awards Chatter," May endured three years of unsuccessful auditions before her perseverance paid off.

May schooled herself in the art of comedy by obsessively studying classic sitcoms including "Friends" and "Frasier." But while she brought the funny on screen, behind the scenes, she was struggling to adjust to her hectic new life. "I experienced a lot of stress," she revealed. "I mean, I started losing pieces of my hair." After "Alexa & Katie" had been on for two seasons, May told KTLA 5 that a grand total of four fans had recognized her from the show, but it wouldn't be long before her profile would rise exponentially.

Being wrong for one role helped her get cast in 1883

When filmmaker Taylor Sheridan began expanding the "Yellowstone" universe for Paramount Network, Isabel May made a bid to join one of the spinoffs he was working on, "Mayor of Kingstown." The role she set her sights on was that of the seductive escort Iris, per Deadline, and she read with Sheridan himself when she auditioned for the part. "I got a call from my manager, and it was weird because she was crying," May recalled in an "Awards Chatter" interview. "She said, 'You didn't get it. But [Sheridan] has written an email for you. Please read it.'" In the email, Sheridan promised May that he would cast her in a role that she was better-suited for, and she assumed that she would be waiting a long time to hear back from again. But unbeknownst to the actor, Sheridan was creating a character just for her.

Sheridan told Deadline that he knew there was something important missing from the narrative of another series he was developing, "1883," and he immediately realized that May was it. "When I met Isabel, the whole story, all 10 episodes, went right through my head," he recalled. When he asked her to play Elsa Dutton, the free-spirited cowgirl who also serves as the series' narrator, she immediately agreed. "I just was swept away," May said of her reaction to Dutton's story. So were critics — the series earned an 88% Tomatometer rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

Isabel May attended 'cowboy camp'

Before she could properly channel her inner cowgirl, Isabel May had to learn the ropes — and by that, we mean that she actually had to master using a rope in an unconventional way. In an Instagram Live with her "1883" co-star Eric Nelsen, the two actors reminisced about the "cowboy camp" they had to attend to prepare for their roles as pioneers. One exercise required them to hold on to opposite ends of a piece of rope and navigate obstacles while on two different horses. The rest of the cast also had to perform the stunt, but according to Nelsen and May, they were the only team that mastered it. "We won every time," May recalled.

While she could boast being a bona fide wrangler after a few weeks of intense training, May told Entertainment Weekly that she had zero experience riding a horse before getting cast on "1883." Luckily, the stunt coordinator's wife was willing to give her lessons. "I picked it up very quickly. For some reason, it felt organic and natural," May revealed. Once she got comfortable in the saddle, she had to learn how to control her horse while it was moving at a brisk pace, and she even got a crash course in how to round up cattle, she told "Awards Chatter." But looking like a capable cowgirl wasn't enough; a dialect coach helped her master a Southern drawl. "I really sounded like my grandma, who's from Tennessee," said May.

She didn't know who Faith Hill and Tim McGraw were

Isabel May didn't know that Faith Hill and Tim McGraw were famous musicians when she first learned that they would be playing her parents on "1883." Speaking to "Awards Chatter," she explained that her musical genres of choice are folk and jazz, so she didn't grow up listening to country hits like "Don't Take the Girl" and "Wild One." Kelly Clarkson was incredulous when May shared this information on "The Kelly Clarkson Show," asking her guest, "What rock did you live under?" But according to May, having no preconceptions about the pair allowed her to develop a more meaningful relationship with them. "I immediately fell in love with them, and it was so genuine," she said. She also got to see Hill's silly side, revealing that she has a true talent for imitating various animal sounds. 

May and the real-life couple became like a real-life family. "I consider her my fourth child, because that's how I feel about her," Hill told ET. May returned the sentiment, saying, "They've taken such good care of me and looked out for me like they are my parents." But even before May bonded with McGraw and Hill on set, McGraw told Clarkson that he and his wife both marveled over their on-screen daughter's remarkable resemblance to their three girls. "I mean, it was just perfect casting," he stated. 

Isabel May was in a controversial movie

Isabel May's first movie tackles a tough topic. In "Run Hide Fight," she plays a student who tries to help her classmates during a school shooting. The action-thriller was distributed by the conservative media outlet the Daily Wire, which interviewed May. She expressed her belief that the film had the potential to bring people on both sides of the political spectrum together by opening up a conversation about gun violence. However, the movie's director, Kyle Rankin, admitted to Dread Central, "I guess it is pro-gun."

May learned how to handle a weapon for the role and picked one up again for "1883," but on "Awards Chatter," she confessed, "It's not something that I love. My grandfather said if I ever hunted and shot an animal, I would be taken out of the will." She also stressed that she wouldn't want to do such a thing even if her inheritance wasn't at stake.

"Run Hide Fight" wasn't just controversial because of its subject matter. According to The Daily Beast, one of the movie's producers, Adam Donaghey, had been recorded making unwanted sexual advances toward a female filmmaker in 2014. Six years later, he was arrested for allegedly raping a teen girl. Then there's the movie's distributor. Some of the racist, bigoted, and sexist remarks made by the Daily Wire's podcasters have been documented by Media Matters, including Andrew Klavan's declaration that "the future is male" while discussing mass shootings.

If you or anyone you know has been a victim of sexual assault, help is available. Visit the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network website or contact RAINN's National Helpline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673).

Filming 1883 was a rough ride

The "1883" cast got a small taste of the hardships that pioneers experienced as they journeyed across the Great Plains, and Isabel May's issues went far beyond having sore hindquarters from sitting in a hard saddle. "I have this thing called plantar fasciitis on my right foot now because of the horseback riding," May told Gold Derby. In a video on the "1883" Instagram page, she revealed that she also sprained her back during cowboy camp, which made Faith Hill's mothering instincts kick in. "She gave me a care kit. It was so cute," May recalled.

The cast also had to contend with extreme temperatures on both ends of the thermometer. The series was filmed in Montana and Texas, and in the latter, temperatures soared into the triple digits. "There was sweat pouring down parts of my body I didn't know where sweat could accumulate," May told Entertainment Weekly. "Every once in a while you feel a little faint." Filming in the bitter cold came with his own challenges. Sitting astride a speeding horse is already terrifying enough, but May had to grip her horse's reins with frigid fingers. "We were in 10-8 degree weather. I didn't have any gloves on," she recalled to "Awards Chatter."

Thankfully, May didn't have to worry about getting dysentery, that deadly fate "The Oregon Trail" players are all too familiar with. However, she did tell The Hollywood Reporter, "Dust got to my lungs and I got bronchitis the last week of shooting."

How the actor felt about her first sex scene

According to Isabel May, not getting cast as Iris in "Mayor of Kingstown" was a blessing in disguise for more than one reason. She told "Awards Chatter" that she didn't feel that she would have been comfortable filming the R-rated scenes in a strip club that the role called for, and the lead role she ended up with instead didn't require any nudity. However, May did have to film her first sex scene in "1883." For many actors, this would be nerve-racking, but May had an absolute blast.

It was something that the actor playing her love interest, Eric Nelsen, also hadn't done before. "We were trying not to laugh the whole time," May recalled. "It was kind of really funny." She also gave director Taylor Sheridan credit for making the experience easier by giving them plenty of guidance. But while a lot of effort went into ensuring that the scene would be easy and breezy for the two actors, Nelsen revealed that they had to deal with a not-so-welcome distraction: the bitingly cold weather. "Luckily, Isabel and I had a little body heat between us, but we were both just like, 'How do we pretend like we're not cold right now?'" he told Decider.

After working with May in such close quarters, Nelsen had nothing but praise for his co-star. "She's such a special individual and a real intellect," he stated. "I'm so privileged to have worked with her."

She missed her first opportunity to play a superhero

For a hot minute, it looked like "1883" star Isabel May's career was going to get supercharged with a superhero role — in April 2022, TheWrap reported that she had been cast alongside "Riverdale" actor KJ Apa in an HBO Max comedy film based on The Wonder Twins, a DC duo. As the alien Jayna, May would have traded riding a horse for the ability to turn into one. However, in an appearance on The Playlist's "Bingeworthy" podcast, May confessed that she had no idea who Jayna and her superhero sibling, Zan, were when she got the part. "I'm someone who is more of a Japanese Anime/Manga lover myself," she explained.

To prep for the project, May temporarily replaced her reading material with every Wonder Twins comic book she could get her hands on and even studied their animated iterations on the classic "Super Friends" cartoon. She distilled what she learned into the revelation, "I know they're kind of the butt of the joke," but assured DC fans that the film would offer a fresh take on the shapeshifters.

Mere weeks after the movie was announced, Variety reported that HBO Max had given it the axe, making it a possible casualty of Warner Bros.' merger with Discovery. At least there was a silver lining for May: When she spoke to "Bingeworthy," she revealed that she hadn't yet wasted any time hitting the gym in anticipation of wearing a spandex supersuit.

How she feels about being compared to Jennifer Lawrence

Many of Isabel May's interviewers have commented on the striking resemblance she bears to "The Hunger Games" star Jennifer Lawrence. "It's the biggest compliment in the world," May told ET. "I admire that woman to death." In an interview with BioBioChile, May confessed that she doesn't really see the likeness but would be totally on board with the two of them playing siblings.

"I couldn't love more having a career or achieving what she did at such a young age," May said of her doppelgänger. According to "1883" creator Taylor Sheridan, May already possesses the same star quality as Lawrence, who once enrolled in one of his acting classes. Per Deadline, he soon realized that she didn't need his help and gave her a refund.

May and Lawrence's similarities go beyond their talent, blond hair, and similar facial features — there are also parallels between their careers. Lawrence's first major role was in the sitcom "The Bill Engvall Show," and she followed it up by playing a character fighting for survival in harsh conditions in "Winter's Bone." May had a comparable trajectory with "Alexa & Katie" and "1883," and much like Lawrence, she ended up talking about her armpits in interviews. "I know I have armpit fat ... Armpit vaginas, it's awful," Lawrence memorably told E! In 2014. As for May, she grew out her armpit hair for "1883" and told Town & Country, "I'm very proud of it. ... I think it's rather nice."

She speaks a second language and plays an instrument

How magnifique is it that Isabel May can speak French? While chatting with May during an Instagram Live, Eric Nelsen informed viewers that she attended a high school where students had to speak French in every class. "It just shows us a glimpse into, yet again, how far you like to push yourself at anything in life," Nelsen said to his "1883" castmate. 

In an interview with Bello, May revealed that she possesses a few other talents, saying, "I play some piano. I love to cook and bake (when it's convenient). And I'm a marathon reader, I can go all day and all night." But the humble way she described her ivory-tickling ability might not be quite accurate. Based on what Nelsen said about her, she's possibly just as musically gifted as their co-stars, Faith Hill and Tim McGraw. On the "Dutton Rules" podcast, Nelsen recounted the moment May played Beethoven's "Moonlight Sonata" on an abandoned piano during an emotional river-crossing scene. "I'm so happy that I got to experience it firsthand, because it really was beautiful," he said. "It's a long song, and she played it from beginning to end flawlessly. It was incredible."

In her Instagram Live with Nelsen, May revealed that Taylor Sheridan just so happened to ask her to play the piece on the show one week after she'd started learning it of her own volition.

She's not your stereotypical California girl

While Isabel May was born and raised in Santa Monica, she defies Katy Perry's description of the ideal "California gurl" — she has no interest in hanging out on the beach in Daisy Dukes and sand-filled stilettos, melting popsicle in hand. "I think the Pacific Ocean is kind of gross," she told Entertainment Weekly. "I have a vendetta against it." Watching "Jaws" as a young child further convinced her that the beach must be avoided at all costs. But she came close to echoing the Beach Boys' sentiments about California girls with regard to herself. "I wish I had the characteristics of a person raised in Southern California, but no, I cannot surf," she told "Awards Chatter."

May told Jon Foss that she has no interest in hanging out at Hollywood hotspots or partying, either, but she does have one thing in common with Kim Kardashian: She loves a good contour. Just don't expect the Calabasas beauty mogul to adopt the dirty beauty trick that May learned while filming "1883." She told Entertainment Weekly, "I'm not wearing any makeup. I'm wearing dirt and sweat." The effects of this true grit technique were surprising. "It almost makes you look good. I was like, 'You know what? This has given me a bit of a contour," she recalled to "Awards Chatter." Now, May loves dirt so much that she wants to be surrounded by it — she said in Schön! that her dream residence is a secluded mountain escape.

Isabel May's net worth

At the time of this writing, Isabel May has a net worth of $400,000, according to Celebrity Net Worth, and it's safe to say that a good chunk of her wealth came from "1883." The Paramount+ drama had a larger budget than its predecessor series, "Yellowstone," per Deadline, but it's the latter's well-heeled star, Kevin Costner, who has been making out like a bandit who knows the bank stagecoach's schedule by heart. According to The Hollywood Reporter, he was getting paid $100,000 more than May's total net worth for a single episode of "Yellowstone" during its first season.

While May was denied the chance to potentially get her own super-sized paycheck for playing a superhero in the axed "Wonder Twins" movie, per Deadline, she reportedly earned a few fans over at Warner Bros., so she probably won't have to worry about wanting for work.

The actor doesn't have a single post on Instagram as of this writing, so she's clearly not supplementing her income with paid partnership posts. However, a comment she made to Terroir suggests that she might be open to working with clothing labels. "I love fashion because it's just another form of self expression," she said. But when it comes to spending her money, May seems to prefer splurging on experiences instead of filling up her closet — she told Schön! that she went on a solo trip to Costa Rica in early 2022 and stayed there for a few weeks.

The actor's dream roles

In an Instagram Live, Isabel May got emotional while talking about how hard it was to say goodbye to Elsa Dutton. "She's a special character, obviously, and a unique one," she said. But after her "1883" character's story was complete, May started looking forward to the future. "I want to work with Cameron Crowe one day, and I want to play Edie Sedgwick. That is my dream," she told "Awards Chatter." Another goal is to someday try her hand at writing, per Air Mail, and who knows? Maybe she'll pen the next "1883." In an interview with Watch, she said of the series, "It was [made by] a creator who genuinely loved and cared deeply about his work. So to find another story like this one is my dream." But she'd also like to slip into the skin of someone who is the antithesis of Elsa, a character who is filled with hope, love, and light. "I'd really love to play someone twisted. I've always been a hardcore fan of psychological thrillers and bizarre dark stories," she told Terroir.

May has already accomplished so much, including impressing a respected old-timer who surely knows talent when he sees it. "Every time she opens her mouth in a scene, she is just mesmerizing," her "1883" co-star Sam Elliot told The Hollywood Reporter. "This is going to be the beginning of a long career if that's what she wants."