Tristan Campbell leads the infamous Dalton Gang as Bob Dalton in Nicholas Barton’s new film Death Alley. I got to speak with Tristan about this true story, becoming an outlaw and figuring out Bob’s motivation for such a far-fetched heist.
Death Alley is based on the true story of Dalton Gang who wanted to become the most famous outlaws in the United States, but that turned out to be a nightmare. In 1892, the outlaw Dalton brothers, Bill (Justin France), Bob , Gratton (Jake Washburn) and Emmett (Joshua R. Outzen), along with the rest of their gang, have set their sights on the impossible: to simultaneously raid both banks in the allegedly ‘No-Gun Town’ of Coffeyville, Kansas during a brazen daylight heist. Already on their trail is the tenacious Marshal Heck Thomas (Mark D. Anderson), and from the beginning their plan goes awry. Nervous that the lawman is so close on their heels and fearful they would be recognized, alterations are made that result in the gang becoming hostages in their own scheme while Coffeyville’s citizens, angered at the boldness of the assault, prove their unwillingness to acquiesce to the desperado’s demands and reveal they aren’t as unarmed as the Daltons believe.
Check out my conversation with Tristan.
How did you get to be a part of Death Valley?
Tristan: Well, I was out in New York and, on one of the casting networks, I found a listing for Western, which was really interesting to me because this was something that I was interested in from when I was a young kid. So, I applied and they asked me to audition for my brother, Emmett, initially, so I submitted that and they weren’t exactly sure whether it was the perfect fit or not because I’m a little more intense. About a week later, I got another request to audition for his brother, who was Bob Dalton, the leader in the Dalton Gang. So I ended up submitting an audition for that, got the okay and got everything together to fly out to Kansas in two weeks.
Had you heard of the Dalton brothers before auditioning?
Tristan: I actually hadn’t, which is funny because when I talked to my family about it, they all had known the lore before I did. I guess it just never got down the grapevine but I did some research, not too much, because, you know, we knew we weren’t making a documentary. So, I just did some ground level research about the time period and about the events that took place that fateful day, and went from there.
What was it like playing an outlaw?
Tristan: It was amazing. I had a huge question at the forefront of my mind when I got to set and we started filming, and that was why would they take such a bold and frankly stupid risk, trying to rob two banks in the middle of the day in their hometown. Was it vanity? Are they just trying to one up Jesse James? What is it? And ultimately it came down to the fact that, during this time, it was just the pure desperation of trying to advance your status in life. The card that you pulled, you know, can really fuel a lot of crazy activity. And I think that was the best part about playing the outlaw, just finding the real Desperado nature. You always got to have one more big heist to make it out.
Did you have to go through any sort of “outlaw” training or anything to prepare for this role?
Tristan: No, that was naturally already with me (laughs). No outlaw training but we got plenty of time with our side arms and our horses, which I think was important to really embrace the outlaw nature of everything, to just sort of understand your animal and understand the tools that you’re working with. These end up becoming the tools of your trade, your gun and your knife. So, no outlaw training but I think Nick did a good job of casting people who were already outlaws in their own right.
So, since you were all outlaws in your own right, were there any shenanigans or outlawish activity going on behind the scenes?
Tristan: We all made sure to treat each other like true brothers. I think there was just an instant click between all of the Daltons. You know, there were obviously little shenanigans. Some barking spiders around the campfire, some tobacco pipes, just some late nights, you know, getting to know each other, but luckily not too many shenanigans. I know around the campfire, Bob Dalton could get a little angry and antsy, but there were nothing but good outlaws around the film sets. We didn’t go too crazy, we didn’t pull any mean pranks.
Knowing that these were real people, did that affect how you approached these characters?
Tristan: Well, I don’t think it necessarily did. I would say it gave me a sense of truth. Obviously, there’s no documented footage of them or anything, so there was nothing to sort of watch and learn from in terms of real people, but just knowing that they existed, gave it this weight of honesty and truth that you don’t get when you’re creating a completely fictional person. And you could research how they had come from a certain region and you could read about their family life and their work history and things like that. That gave you this automatic build of who this person could be if you were in those circumstances. It wasn’t like playing Winston Churchill, where you know exactly how he talked and how he walked and every single beat. But I think it definitely gave it a modicum of honesty… It was a lot of fun. I mean, I’ve always wanted to mainly play real people. I think biopics and character studies on historical figures or celebrities are always just the most interesting thing to watch. So, anytime I get the opportunity to do that I try to snatch it right up.
Do you still keep in touch with your on-screen brothers?
Tristan: Oh, all the time, all the time. We’re talking all the time and texting each other back and forth. There’s group chats and we definitely keep each other up to date with everything that’s going on in life. The past year has been pretty crazy but everybody has kept working in their career and their jobs and one of my brothers had a baby this last month, which was awesome. I felt like I was- I had a bit of an uncle thing. At one of the premieres, I actually met his wife and she was just so pregnant, and I felt joyed, like seeing my brother with a newborn on the way. That was pretty cool. But yeah, we keep up pretty consistently. It was a very quick and lasting bond.
How did the four of you create that brotherly bond?
Tristan: Well, I’m gonna be honest, I mean, obviously we spent a lot of time together. But it was all over the span of about two weeks. We all met up at the ranch, up in Lawrence, or was it Reading, I can’t remember, but we all met up at the ranch and slept at the ranch and started shooting our first scenes after the first couple days. Then after that, I mean we were just together 24 hours a day. And so, even when you don’t know people like that, once you get working and experimenting on set with each other and just seeing what other people bring to the table and playing around with that dynamic and having fun with it, it’s kind of hard to avoid growing a bond together. Especially with the quality of people that were on set and the quality of the performances that we wanted to give. We were having a lot of fun, nobody was taking it too seriously, everybody was bringing a lot of passion to the table. It was just a great time.
Did you get to visit Death Valley while filming?
Tristan: I didn’t end up getting to go down to Coffeyville just because we spent so much time in northeastern and central Kansas. The two weeks of my shooting were just so packed, 18 hour days and if I wasn’t sleeping, I was riding in the car. We were all over the place,, in the Flint Hills and Sedgwick, Lawrence, we were in Wichita a lot, but I unfortunately never made it down to Coffeyville. They had a screening down there and I heard it was really well received. I met a lot of Coffeyville natives when shooting in Wichita, which was really cool because they had made the trip up to play background or be extras. And it was really great to talk with them in the ballroom and just get some insight on what the native people are like down there. That Old West Frontier lifestyle and vibe is really cool.
Did you get to hear stories about how important this event was for them?
Tristan: Well, it was clear that the Dalton Gang was a huge part of the local lore and history. Everybody in Kansas, if you were talking about shooting a Dalton Gang picture, they automatically knew what you were talking about. The whole story and even some of the past for the Dalton brothers stretches beyond the infamous robbery, which was really cool. But, aside from that, it was all just sort of getting to know the people and getting to know how the history stretched down all the way to today.
Is there anything you’d like viewers to know when they see the movie?
Tristan: If you like action and you like rock and roll, if you like horses and you like guns and cowboys, you’re going to love this one. Don’t take it too seriously. It’s not a documentary. It’s a rock and roll Western.