Actor Gil Birmingham travels to the depths of ‘Wind River’

by Andrew Parker

You probably know actor Gil Birmingham as one of those performers with an immediately identifiable face and image. He’s definitely one of those “Oh, it’s that guy” types of character actors, appearing on the big and small screen in a startlingly wide array of shows and films: Into the West, Veronica Mars, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Banshee, The Lone Ranger, The Space Between Us, and perhaps most notably in the Twilight films. It was more recently, however, that Birmingham made his biggest impact yet with his scene stealing supporting role opposite Jeff Bridges in the Oscar nominated Hell or High Water. Birmingham reteams with Hell or High Water screenwriter Taylor Sheridan for the scribe’s directorial debut Wind River (opening in Toronto and Vancouver this Friday and expanding across Canada throughout August), and while the partnership yields another great role for the actor, it’s knowledge of the performer’s early years that might turn just as many heads.

Gil Birmingham’s life off screen matches his eclectic taste in roles. Born in San Antonio, Texas into a military family, the Comanche actor dreamt of being a musician, a passion that continues to this day. He graduated from USC in the early 1980s and became a petrochemical engineer. He also became a world class competitive body builder. His physique led to appearances in music videos and even a stint playing Conan the Barbarian at Universal Studios Hollywood. From there, Birmingham started bodybuilding less and acting more on television. Somewhat improbably, Birmingham didn’t have a major speaking role in a theatrically released film until 2001. To say that Birmingham brings an unparalleled amount of varied experiences to every role he takes on would be a bit of an understatement.

For Sheridan’s suspenseful and socially conscious Wind River, Birmingham takes on the role of Martin, a grieving father trying to come to terms with the disappearance and murder of his daughter on one of the coldest, harshest, and most impoverished First Nations reservations in the United States. The murder of Martin’s daughter is investigated by a local wildlife official and masterful tracker (Jeremy Renner), a rookie FBI agent out of her element (Elizabeth Olsen), and a local reservation sheriff (Graham Greene). It’s a smaller role than the one Birmingham had in David Mackenzie’s Hell or High Water, but arguably a more important and dramatically fulfilling one.

We caught up with Birmingham earlier this week on the phone from Vancouver where he’s currently shooting another series and before he teams up with Sheridan again on Yellowstone, an upcoming series that will find him acting opposite Kevin Costner, Wes Bentley, and Kelly Reilly. We talked about what Wind River hopes to say about the tragically high number of missing and murdered indigenous women around the world, portraying grief on screen, and his spiritual and working relationship to Sheridan.

As an actor who comes from an indigenous background, it must be hard finding roles that don’t fall into either modern or historical stereotypes about Native Americans that a lot of white filmmakers tend to traffic in, but for two films in a row now, Taylor Sheridan has provided you with great roles. What’s it like working with someone like Taylor Sheridan who has a sense of who you are as a performer and not just a person aware of your cultural background?

Gil Birmingham: That’s a really great question. It’s true what you say: it’s so easy to pigeonhole people into their ethnic groups, particularly for Native Americans. It would always be nice to cross over into roles that are more representational of how Native Americans really do operate in real life, real time, and right now. We do have Native Americans who are doctors, judges, lawyers, and every other occupation you could imagine, but you rarely see us in those roles on screen. We would love to cross over out of this pigeonholed realm where we only get a role that’s been specifically written as a Native American role and move into parts that are less ethnic specific.

But I have been very blessed in getting to work with Taylor. Hell or High Water was more of a confidence vote from David Mackenzie, who did all of the casting for that one, so I was blessed to be asked to participate in such a phenomenal writer’s project by a phenomenal director. From that point on, Taylor was very generous and invited me to Wind River, affirming that confidence vote.

In both films, you kind of act as the audience surrogate: this person who’s caught between two opposing forces that are kind of out of their control. What’s it like portraying these kinds of characters across both films of Taylor’s?

Gil Birmingham: (laughs) You mean, “What’s it like to be the soul of the movie?” (laughs)

You said it, not me!

Gil Birmingham: That’s the way Taylor explained it to me when I was trying to get a different role in the film. (laughs) It’s an honour, and I hope that I can live up to it. I hope that I can satisfy the needs of this kind of role the best way that I can.

I’m a firm believer in vibrational energies and what draws people together to formulate projects, so I’ve been really blessed and grateful to get these observational kinds of roles form these specific points of view and to wonder what it has to feel like to work within these cycles of dysfunction. These characters in both films are a part of what’s going on, but also keen observers of what everyone is doing at any given moment. I don’t even know that these connections are happening at any given time. (laughs)

When I first read Wind River, initially, I actually wanted to do Graham Greene’s role because it required me to work more. (laughs) Taylor said, “No, trust me. You’re the only guy who could do this role.” I think he said that because this part scared the hell out of me. You go to these emotional depths and these kinds of roles take a piece out of you. Little by little you notice that the pain and suffering that you’re experiencing in this particular movie is going to be multiplied several thousand times. It hits you that this is just one man’s experience, and for as devastating as it is, these are our mothers, sisters, daughters that are suffering these things within the native community every single day. It’s daunting and very challenging, but I’m grateful that Taylor had that faith in me, and hopefully this sheds some light on a very tragic epidemic and challenging situations that people rarely get to hear about. I can get choked up just thinking about imagining and thinking about how many families have endured this and how it collapses communities. It’s still going on everywhere in native communities, and I just hope that I can live up to what the character represents.

Actor Gil Birmingham poses at the Sundance premiere of Wind River (Photo by Arthur Mola/Invision/AP)

Were you surprised that Taylor, who’s a white man, had this much passion for the underlying subject at hand and was keen on delivering a message and not just another action thriller about cops hunting a killer?

Gil Birmingham: I would have to say that I am. Taylor comes across as a man’s man; a cowboy; a real Marlboro man. He’s got that background, and we’re both actually from Texas, but as I got to know him I think one of the best revelations that came to the forefront came from us discussing our spiritual journeys. Taylor described himself in terms of philosophy and religion and looking for some kind of spiritual backbone that he could rest his beliefs on, and he said that he studied many different religions. He said that the only thing that he found that resonated with him was native culture. He spent a considerable amount of time out on reservations and among native peoples, probably about six or seven years. He had an amazing sensitivity and knowledge of the situations on reservations and within the native community. Beyond that, to even formulate something like this into a storyline means to do something that most production companies wouldn’t even touch. For him to do it so eloquently is just really amazing and we’re blessed to all be a part of it.

I assume that being from Texas that something like Hell or High Water might come a bit more naturally for you than trying to get an immediate handle on what it’s like living in a very different and harsh environment like the one in Wind River. Was there a learning curve for you as an actor in this respect?

Gil Birmingham: I think across the board native communities have suffered on some level, so in those terms it’s not much a stretch to get inside that headspace. Wind River has some of the worst conditions of any reservations in the United States. They’ve got an unemployment rate of 80%. The occurrences of abuse and domestic violence is high, and a lot of that is tied to a lack of opportunities among the Shoshone and Northern Arapaho who have been placed upon a piece of land that in the times of their freedom would have been a place they never would have stayed. They would have travelled to other spaces, but now they’re forced to stay in this brutal landscape. It’s all specific to region, I guess, in terms of the nuts and bolts elements of daily life, but the atrocities and prejudice and force lack of opportunity and isolation is across the board.

Your character doesn’t show up for more than a few scenes in Wind River, but you make a major impact in the scene where we first meet this grieving father and again in the last scene of the film. Both times you have to tap into a sort of anger towards the people around you that’s hard to play because this father doesn’t know exactly how to channel that rage and loss. What was it like coming up with how this character handles this unfathomable situation?

Gil Birmingham: Oh, man, you’re making me think here! (laughs) You’re making me think and feel all of it all over again. You know, the process for me as an artist and after the experiences that I’ve had in doing this over the years requires me to make things as authentic as they can be. The process of putting yourself empathetically into the shoes of that character is something that I hold dear. I had to make everything true to Martin’s experiences and this loss of almost his entire family to this point to the conditions of his environment. That really forced me, as a discipline, to remove any other thoughts from my mind and just trust. I think that’s what I did. I trusted a lot.

Not to get too spiritual or anything, but the creator will guide me and if I let myself get out of the way, the channelling of what’s necessary to portray these emotions will take root in an authentic way. It was going to have to be isolating. There was not another way I could think about doing it outside of thinking about and developing backstories with each of these characters that Martin comes in contact with and just trusting that it would feel real, maybe with the exception of Jane.

The interaction between my character and the FBI agent is an interesting interaction, though. Jane [Olsen’s character] really stands as a symbol to Martin of what all law enforcement is to a reservation. They come in. They want to make assumptions about what they think is behind something or who they think is responsible. Martin has a hard time giving Jane credit at first because this is how he sees law enforcement. There’s never a feeling that there’s an intention to help on their part. They’re really only there to do a job without having any significant knowledge of culture or understanding or sensitivity towards it. It’s just a little off putting to him that they’re sending this still relatively young officer into this world that she’s really inept towards at first, but her youth really strikes Martin as just a further extension of a failed system and not so much his feelings of her as a person. You never really know what these people are going to leave with, what they’re going to bring, or what kind of heart they’re truly operating with. You can only base a relationship with past experiences that this kind of character might have had with government authorities for many, many years.

Sometimes these scenes play out and you don’t even really know what you did, and that was kind of the case here in terms of how natural it felt to me. You just put trust in your director, and thankfully here it all turned out! (laughs) A lot of the process is taking in all the information that you can, do all the research from there, and trusting the presence of the dynamics within a given scene.

Wind River opens in Toronto and Vancouver on Friday, August 11. It opens in major Canadian cities on August 18 and expands nationwide on August 25.

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