NEW YORK – This is a TV event that aims to be as big as its story.
A cycle of six weekly two-hour films, "Into the West (search)" spans 65 years of U.S. history — 1825 to 1890 — embracing big events like the Gold Rush, the building of the transcontinental railroad and the Indian massacre at Wounded Knee.
With Steven Spielberg (search) as executive producer (who all by himself constitutes "big") this saga cost $50 million, took nine months to shoot, and encompasses some 250 speaking roles, including Tom Berenger, Beau Bridges, Josh Brolin, Keith Carradine, Jessica Capshaw, Matthew Modine, Keri Russell and Skeet Ulrich.
The scenery is colossal: Big skies, plains, mountains and (early on, at least) vast thundering herds of buffalo. The characters face big challenges and hardships.
But the series' big idea is its dualistic structure. "Into the West" looks at Old West life from both sides, now: from the perspectives of Easterners intent on conquering the frontier, and of American Indians struggling to hold onto their values and traditions.
The initial chapter, "Wheel to the Stars," premiered on TNT (search) Friday at 8 p.m. EDT (with encores at the same time Saturday and Sunday).
Its beginning scenes cut between two distinct worlds half a continent apart. In a Lakota tribe on the Great Plains, a young boy is about to start his journey to become a medicine man known as Loved By The Buffalo. Meanwhile, in Wheelerton, Va., where the Wheeler family prospers with the family business — they're wheelwrights — teenage son Jacob chafes at this stifling existence.
"My misfortune was to be born into a drab age," he laments in a voiceover. "I dreamed of a better life beyond the Mississippi."
These are the first strands of the twin narratives woven through the series — a storytelling technique thanks in no small part to the bond between Jacob Wheeler and Thunder Heart Woman, a Lakota tribe member he rescues from a slave trader and later marries.
"This couple is the bridge between the two stories," notes Tonantzin Carmelo, an impressive young actress who infuses Thunder Heart Woman with grace, strength and a girl-next-door quality as well.
In Manhattan a few days ago, she reunited for an interview with Matthew Settle, who plays Jacob.
"I like Westerns that delve into the characters of the time in a real way — not so much about an overblown hero and a bad guy," says Settle, whose past projects include the film "Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood" and the HBO miniseries "Band of Brothers (search)."
Himself once a restless son growing up in North Carolina, the 35-year-old Settle easily identified with Jacob's urges to head West — and made his own such odyssey (albeit after a few years' detour to New York to start his acting career).
Then, making this film, he sampled Jacob's revelations.
"What I learned was the degree of sacredness that the Lakota people had in everything they did, in every aspect of life," says Settle. "That's something we can use in our modern culture." He laughs. "Maybe a few less Humvees and a few more Priuses."
For the 27-year-old Carmelo, playing Thunder Heart Woman "was like coming come."
A California Mission Indian who counts herself a descendent of the original residents of Los Angeles, she grew up performing in an American Indian dance troupe led by her mother, Virginia Carmelo. Branching out into acting during college, she has since appeared in theater productions and independent films.
"I grew up like an urban Indian," says Carmelo, and when she won her role in "Into the West" she found "my understanding of what it is to be a Native American today helped me a lot to understand the native culture back then."
After episode three, Settle and Carmelo relinquish their characters, by then in middle age, to older actors John Terry and Sheila Tousey. Even so, they were on hand for filming (outside Calgary in Western Canada) for five grueling months. Among their first scenes together: the wagon train in episode two.
"I don't know if you've ever ridden in a wagon like that, but they're really uncomfortable," confides Settle. "Back then, people who had a choice usually chose to walk along beside it."
The wheels on those wagons — and wheelwrights like Jacob who kept them in repair — represent one side of the film's central theme. The other side: a huge religious "medicine wheel" that Loved By The Buffalo marks off with stones on the ground. It symbolizes the cycle of life.
"We had the wheel that takes you from here to there," Jacob marvels at the close of the first chapter. "But they have a wheel that takes you to the stars."
"Into the West" can't take you that far. But for the next six weeks, it's headed on a wide-open, eye-opening trip.