Gil Birmingham, Comanche, is one of Indian country’s leading actors. with film credits in Twilight, Crooked Arrows, Shouting Secrets and The Lone Ranger. He also has some impressive TV credits, including House of Cards, Banshee and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.
Most recently, Birmingham has been one of the leading forces in the smash-hit film, Hell or High Waterworking alongside Jeff Bridges, who won an oscar for Best Actor in Crazy Heart and who was dubbed “The Dude” for his iconic comedic role in The Big Lebowski.
Hell or High Water, written by Taylor Sheridan and directed by David Mackenzie – is about bank robbers (Ben Foster and Chris Pine) and the two Texas Rangers (Birmingham and Bridges) looking for them. It has received high praise in the media and an impressive rating on Rotten Tomatoes at 98%.
Birmingham took a few minutes to talk to ICTMN about being a Native man in a tough film industry, and what it was like working with “The Dude.”
How does that feel to be in a hit movie?
You have to look long and hard for good reviews sometimes, but we are very happy about them. This is exciting.
How was it working alongside an Oscar winner like Jeff Bridges?
That guy? You mean ‘The Dude?’ (laughs) I have worked with Oscar winners in the past, but I have to say, working with Jeff is a real career highlight. He is such a gracious and giving artist and he is just about the love. He really is very similar to ‘The dude.’
When I first discovered I was cast in this role I did some research and discovered he wrote a book with a Zen master friend of his entitled The Dude and Zen, it was an analysis of how the dude was a Zen kind of guy. He just powers through life.
How does it feel to have reached your level of a claim as a Native actor?
I feel truly blessed, and I say, ‘Thank you Creator.’ I’ve worked with some great people. I try to have integrity with my work. It is a tricky business. You only need one bad step. (laughs)
Can you tell us about your character in this movie, Alberto Parker?
Alberto is a family man and a religious man and a Texas Ranger. He has a contentious relationship with Marcus Hamilton (played by Bridges) similar to an old married couple that know all the buttons to push, but you understand the love these two men have – but there is a difficulty in men expressing love to one another.
The way I approached Alberto is a combination of his Catholicism and his indigenous ways, meaning a system of tolerance, wisdom and humility.
Without giving anything away, everything builds up to really hitting you in the gut.
What do you think of the many Indigenous notables in Hollywood, including Adam Beach as Slipknot, Jason Momoa as Aquaman, Eugene Brave Rock in Wonder Woman, Martin Sensmeier in Mag #7, Taika Waititi as director of Thor Ragnarok and so many more?
It’s great to see but these movies are purely entertainment, we don’t want to lose the importance of telling human stories.
Whenever you are casting a Native person outside of some comedic role like an Adam Sandler movie or something, the portrayal and association of indigenous culture is that there needs to be some sort of connectedness. And this needs to be the respect of Mother Earth, the groundedness and connectedness that we have and the wisdom that we have grown to attain through the centuries of being here.
I have always been a huge fan of Will Sampson, Chief Dan George and was so honored to get to know Floyd Red Crow Westerman. As far as contemporary, Tantoo Cardinal is an amazing human being.
Thoughts for Native actors wanting to achieve greatness?
When I started there was the attraction of being admired by thousands or even millions of fans, but this is ego-based. Once you come to respect the craft, I think I would say search your heart. Expose yourself to whatever art form inspires your soul and learn whatever you can about it.