Gil Birmingham (Comanche) plays a leading role in the recently released thriller Wind River, written and directed by Taylor Sheridan. Wind River, which was featured at Cannes and was released in the U.S. on August 4, 2017, is set on the Wind River Indian Reservation.
The film stars Jeremy Renner (Hawkeye in Avengers franchise, Bourne Legacy) and Elizabeth Olsen (Scarlet Witch in Avengers and Captain America), and features a list of all-star Native actors, including Gil Birmingham, Graham Greene, Tantoo Cardinal and Martin Sensmeier, among others.
Gil Birmingham is an iconic actor with film credits in Hell or High Water working alongside Jeff Bridges, the Twilight movie series, Crooked Arrows, Shouting Secrets and The Lone Ranger. He also has some impressive TV credits, including House of Cards, Banshee and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.
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Chris Pine, Ben Foster, Gil Birmingham and Jeff Bridges attend a Screening Of CBS Films’ ‘Hell Or High Water’ at the ArcLight Hollywood on August 10, 2016 in Hollywood, California.
In a conversation with ICMN, Gil Birmingham talks about his role in Wind River as a Native father who loses so much, what it was like to work with a stellar cast and director and writer Taylor Sheridan.
Taylor Sheridan seemed to devote a lot of effort to get a genuine portrayal of Native reservation life. what was it like to be part of that?
We are very proud to be able to tell a story that sheds light on a very sad epidemic and challenging condition that people rarely hear about. Hopefully, this story will enter the mainstream of consciousness and some positive changes can be made.
What did you feel about your character?
He is a good strong father trying to make the best of the conditions and opportunities that he can. I particularly like the idea—and Taylor and I talked about this—of my character being not part of poverty porn.
There are Native Americans in all kinds of fields, such as doctors, lawyers, justices and anything you can imagine.
My character portrayed the difficulty in trying to provide a better life for your children and your family yet he has to watch them be swallowed up by the conditions and disillusionment and a fractured relationship between native tribes the government. This stems from the origins of trying to colonize us from the beginning.
For my character in particular, I grasped his loss synonymously with the depth of sorrow and heartbreak in the loss of our nieces, aunts, sisters and mothers, as experienced but the whole community and how they have to endure that.
Your character lives on the Wind River reservation in a nice house, debunking the Native stereotype that all rez indians are poor. Thoughts?
The Weinstein Company
Wind River poster, produced by the Weinstein Company.
Taylor Sheridan and I talked about this and I was so glad that he made that choice. It really did speak to breaking the stereotypes that so many people portray as a Native American or indigenous person’s lifestyle.
When you discover a terrible tragedy in the film, how did you process this as an actor?
These emotional things are the scariest things. The levels of vulnerability you choose to explore and then hopefully do as authentically as you can put you in a really dark place.
This was a very emotional role and the depth and the pain in trying to move forward and hold the rest of my life together was heart-wrenching.
You and Jeremy Renner’s characters share a tremendous loss in the film, can you comment on this?
You want to personalize it as much as you can for a specific character, but at the same time I could not get out of my mind the thousands of families who go through this terrible devastating experience, a loss of some of our most vulnerable people, our women.
There were times where I would be overwhelmed and it would linger with me for days, weeks and I referenced that quite a bit to imagine the numbers of people in native communities who face loss on a daily basis.
This is why I’m so proud we are shedding some light on this.
Your character makes a lighthearted remark about his face paint—how important do you feel such nuance can be in a film?
The Weinstein Company
Gil Birmingham and Jeremy Renner in Wind River (2017).
This was a statement where I imply no one is around to teach me anymore, in order for me to do this right.
That really spoke to the condition as to how Native culture is forced to survive, but only if they assimilate. The temptation in this ego-driven society is not giving credence to our elders and the old ways. If our elders are passing away and if the youth don’t pick up on it these cultural significant traditions and meanings are going to get lost as well.
What’s coming next?
My next piece coming up is Chaotic. Which has limited distribution and I play something very different, I play a girl’s father. (laughs) The film is about an incredible journey at the turn-of-the-century.
Any last words to leave us with?
I think more than anything, and what I am leaving with in terms of this film—not to mention the amazing performances by Martin Sensmeier and Kelsey Abille, is that it opens the eyes of people to a condition that has been experienced for hundreds of years and still is.
This story may not be told by us in particular, the writer is a cowboy guy, but he is a cowboy guy who can shock you in terms of his knowledge because he has spent so many years with Native people on reservations. All of these experience he writes about are personal references from his life.
My thoughts are to keep the faith, just know that there is hope and love. I just want to leave with love for my people and tell them to have love for each other. Let’s just help each other.