Gil Birmingham discusses his role as Chairman Rainwater in Yellowstone and working with Kevin Costner

Birmingham: 'One of the highlights is a prominent Native American character in a contemporary piece that's empowered...'

Native actor Gil Birmingham, Comanche, as one of the lead cast members in the Paramount Studios production of Yellowstone—created by director, writer, and producer Taylor Sheridan—has joined in celebrating the release of the show’s second season.

Yellowstone tells the dramatic tale of the many times violent interactions and political maneuverings of land holdings and property battles between the billionaire Dutton family and Native community members of the Broken Rock Reservation.   

Gil Birmingham plays Chairman Tom Rainwater of the Confederated Tribe of Broken Rock Reservation, while Kevin Costner plays John Dutton, the billionaire family figurehead and owner of the formidable Yellowstone Ranch. 

Other notable actors in the show include Luke Grimes, Kelly Reilly, Wes Bentley and more. Notable Native actors include Kelsey Asbille, Mo Brings Plenty, Tokala Black Elk, Tanaya Beatty, Savonna Spracklin, and others,

The show has been a wildly popular television cable show and was recently slotted to produce episodes for its second season. At the height of the press event, Gil Birmingham spoke to Indian Country Today via telephone.

Gil Birmingham has been an iconic actor in film and television for over three decades and his impressive body of work includes work in such productions as the co-star alongside Jeremy Renner and Elizabeth Olsen in Taylor Sheridan's Wind River and as co-star alongside Academy Award-winning actor Jeff Bridges in Hell or High Water.

Birmingham has also portrayed such characters as Billy Black in The Twilight Saga: New Moon, Eclipse and Breaking Dawn; Love Ranch with Helen Mirren and Joe Pesci. Birmingham has also appeared in such films as Shouting Secrets, End of the Spear, DreamKeeper, Gentle Ben, The Doe Boy, Love's Long Journey, Te Ata, Crooked Arrows and The Lone Ranger.

In an interview with Birmingham and Indian Country Today’s Vincent Schilling, the Comanche actor discussed his current role as Chairman Tom Rainwater and how his roles' tough exterior and unapologetic nature is a portrayal he truly loves.

Vincent Schilling: I've been watching your latest role in Yellowstone, and it's an interesting portrayal for you. How have you been experiencing this role?

Gil Birmingham: I love it, personally. One of the highlights is to have a prominent Native American character in a contemporary piece that's empowered and not playing a victimization portrayal, you know?

Vincent Schilling: Yes, true. As the leader of the reservation, you're in jail in one scene, and you're still like, "Yeah, so?"

Gil Birmingham: Yeah. Essentially, that's it, and that's what I try to bring to the character. Extortion, everything they try to do to us is not anything that's new. We're going to survive this, but we're getting leverage and we're getting in a position where we can do something about it.

Vincent Schilling: So many changes are coming in the world of content in film and television, with the Native flavor of things. We haven't been seeing this type of contemporary content with so many Native actors and Native allies. You've seen every aspect of the industry, so to speak, and now here you are as one the lead actors.

Gil Birmingham: I've been in the business for, I don't know, close to 30 years, and I've seen this wave and it rarely happened. We had this wave when Dances with Wolves came out for a bit, and then we had Last of the Mohicans, and it looked like there was going to be a bunch of projects that got onboard with the Westerns at that point, and I think it's a little bit what's happening now. There seems to be a resurgence of the Westerns, which automatically incorporates the Native aspect.

So we just ride it as best we can and try to make the good choices. But yeah, you're absolutely right. Actors like Zahn McClarnon and Michael Greyeyes and all these projects. It might have a lot to do with so many platforms that are out and so much content that's getting done.

We hope for consistent good content and we just count our lucky stars.

Vincent Schilling: Do you think Native actors feel a little more included? I mean, there's been a resurgence, but now it seems as though the industry has a bit of a conscience.

Gil Birmingham: Hopefully, yeah. And I go back to Hell or High Water with Taylor Sheridan and then of course Wind River, and I know he has a definite sensitivity about it and experience with it. It would be nice if we could get some more Native writers included, but getting work for as many people as we can is a good start.

Vincent Schilling: How much have you had a say in the matter as to how things are done throughout your career?

Gil Birmingham: I definitely have collaborated. I'm trying to think of instances where I thought that if there was anything ... and this goes back to Hell or High Water days, if there was nothing written for the character to respond to, then I would say, "I can't let somebody say that and not respond to it," and he'd (Taylor Sheridan) say, "Well then come up with something."

Vincent Schilling: You've been in this industry for 30 years, three decades. That's a wonderful career. Have you ever thought of putting on a director hat or producer hat and having your own projects?

Gil Birmingham: Vince, it's so funny because I get so consumed with portraying characters and just immersing myself into that, and then the psychological aspects and the pressure. I don't really have the ambition to take on something that's a 24-hour a day thing, like directing.

Vincent Schilling: You don't want to throw 12 more hours into your day?

Gil Birmingham:(Laughs)

Vincent Schilling: So how's it working with Kevin Costner?

Gil Birmingham: I love working with Kevin Costner. The few scenes that I've had ... I haven't had that many scenes with Kevin, but he's really a lot of fun to work with. He's a very intense individual. He's very prepared and he loves to rehearse. But carrying the lead of a show, where you're working practically every single day is so exhausting. I just try to give the actors that got that kind of workload the space they need.

Vincent Schilling: You do play a pretty intense character, and in some ways, you're not always likable in terms of the choices you make. How is that for you?

Gil Birmingham: Yeah, but that's the drama. That's the ambiguity of how Taylor writes his characters, same as Kevin Costner's character, you can say the same thing. He's not always a good guy.

I think the moral ambiguity is the way that Taylor writes, which makes it interesting because it leaves it to the audience to determine, based on their own perspective of what they think the moral judgment is.

Vincent Schilling: Do you feel empowered with this character? There are choices you make that are so unapologetic as you said. Does it feel good just to be in this role?

Gil Birmingham: I feel a responsibility to represent a Native character who has that strength and determination that all of our ancestors, that survived what they have survived, and then to put in the context of a contemporary piece with that soul to come to it, and based on trying to do everything that he can for his people, for his rez.

Yellowstone episodes are available on the Paramount network or app. 

Yellowstone season 2 premieres on June 19 on Paramount Network at 10 PM ET/PT. 

For more information visit https://www.paramountnetwork.com/shows/yellowstone

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Follow Indian Country Today’s associate editor Vincent Schilling (Akwesasne Mohawk) on Twitter - @VinceSchilling

Email - vschilling@indiancountrytoday.com

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