Gil Birmingham Took the Road Less Traveled

Early in “Under the Banner of Heaven,” FX’s limited Hulu series based on the true story of two grisly murders in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Detective Bill Taba makes his stand. His partner (Andrew Garfield) on a small-town Utah police force, a church member, is getting territorial and pulling rank. Taba, a Paiute Indian played by Gil Birmingham, isn’t having it.

“I’m well aware that my skin is darker than most in this valley,” Taba, who comes from Las Vegas, tells his younger partner. “And I’m very well aware that’s not smiled upon in a 99 percent L.D.S. town. But I know cases like this a hell of a lot better than you do.”

It’s the kind of moment, with a Native character taking charge and claiming authority, that was rarely found on TV until recently. The kind of moment that excites Birmingham. Best known for playing the tribal chairman Thomas Rainwater on the hit western “Yellowstone,” Birmingham, who is of Comanche heritage, has become one of the most visible Native actors on television. That means he’s not just doing it for himself.

Birmingham (left, with Andrew Garfield) plays a detective in “Under the Banner of Heaven,” an FX series based on the true-crime book by Jon Krakauer.Credit…Michelle Faye/FX

“I think there’s a responsibility to represent all of our people truthfully,” Birmingham said from Los Angeles a few weeks before the series finale of “Banner,” which comes to Hulu on Thursday.

“Generally speaking, you might be the only Native on a set,” he added. “So you really have to have some integrity about the nature of the portrayal of the character.”

Birmingham, a tall, muscular and youthful 68, has been at this for a while, even if you’ve only noticed him recently. He’s one of those overnight success stories that took a few decades to tell.

A military brat raised around the country — San Antonio, Kentucky, San Francisco, Alaska — he trained to be a petrochemical engineer. His one-word assessment of his first career: “boring.” He preferred singing, playing guitar and body building. Then, one day in the early ’80s, a music video producer approached him as he worked out in a Los Angeles gym and offered him his first acting job, for the 1982 Diana Ross video “Muscles.” Go to YouTube and there’s a young, shirtless Birmingham, laughing and flexing.

Tell him you’ve seen the video, and you’ll get a characteristically dry response: “Well, my apologies.”

“He’s got a wicked since of humor, but you don’t know it at first,” said Dustin Lance Black, the creator of “Under the Banner of Heaven,” from his London home. (The show is based on the 2003 investigative book by Jon Krakauer.)

“I think sly is a good way to put it,” Black continued. “You’ll be sitting there, and he’ll be very quiet, and you realize he’s listening because he’ll just slip in a little barb that shows just how closely he’s observing. And that humor, it’s like a scalpel. It cuts right down into the truth.”

After “Muscles,” his physique continued to serve him. He spent several years playing Conan the Barbarian at the Universal Studios of Hollywood theme park, using his free time to go on auditions. “There’s a whole journey of sacrifices that you’re making in your life to keep following that road and be diligent with it and be persistent,” Birmingham said. “I didn’t have the same appreciation for it in the beginning as I did later.

“Then the very first pop culture exposure was with ‘Twilight.’ And I think that’s where most people came to know me.”

From left: Pete Sands, Mo Brings Plenty, Birmingham, Cole Hauser, Kevin Costner and Wes Bentley in a scene from the runaway Paramount hit “Yellowstone.”Credit…Emerson Miller/Paramount Network

An actor’s big break is rarely high art. It’s usually something with a wide enough following to cement a face in the public consciousness. That’s what Birmingham got with the role of Billy Black, father of the hunky werewolf kid Jacob, in the five-movie “Twilight” franchise (2008-2012).

More cotton candy than balanced meal, the movies, based on the megaselling vampire romance novels by Stephenie Meyer, made careers, including those of Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson. They also gave Birmingham his steadiest gig to that point.

Most important to Birmingham, it made people happy.

“Those movies give a lot of joy to a lot of people,” he said. “I know there’s some debate about whether the books are real literature. But if it speaks to people and it speaks to their heart and if it gives them some kind of joy or maybe escapism, then gosh, I think that’s such a great gift for any artist to give their audience.”

Fast forward a few years. Birmingham is reading a script so good he can barely believe it. The writer has no shortage of confidence. The role is a droll Native American Texas Ranger named Alberto Parker, on the trail of a couple of bank robbers with his partner.

The director, David Mackenzie, fights for Birmingham, and he gets the part, playing alongside Jeff Bridges in “Hell or High Water” (2016). The screenwriter, Taylor Sheridan, is floored.

“‘I didn’t know who you were before,’” Birmingham recalled Sheridan saying. “‘But after seeing your work, you’ll never have to audition for me again.’” (Sheridan was unavailable to comment for this article.) And Sheridan was already cooking up a pet project, a TV series about a stubborn Montana rancher fighting to defend his land from encroaching modernity.

That’s how Birmingham got the role of Thomas Rainwater on “Yellowstone,” the most watched show on cable. Ivy League educated, schooled in realpolitik, Rainwater is a thoroughly modern Indigenous character. He is also the savviest adversary of Kevin Costner’s rancher, John Dutton. Even as they do battle, they share a grudging, mutual respect.

Birmingham got his start in a beefcake role in the 1982 Diana Ross video “Muscles.” “Well, my apologies,” he said when a reporter mentioned having seen the video.Credit…Michelle Groskopf for The New York Times

“They share a real love for the land, and an intent to keep the land the way it is,” said Birmingham, who when we spoke was preparing to fly to Montana to shoot Season 5. The way Rainwater sees it, he is just trying to take back what was stolen from his people.

Birmingham considers himself fortunate to have Sheridan, who also cast the actor in the film “Wind River,” in his corner. He is an ally when it comes to casting Native actors, Birmingham said. On top of that, he added, he’s just a great writer.

“His work is unpredictable, and it’s so soulful,” Birmingham said. “It speaks in such a poetic language to the hearts of the characters.”

“I’ll ride with whatever he writes,” he added.

Birmingham is old enough to remember watching the likes of “Bonanza” and “Rawhide” during their first television runs in the ’60s. “They had horrible portrayals of Native people, with a lot of red facing,” he said, using a term for when white actors colored their skin to played minstrel versions of Native characters. He remembered his pleasant surprise at seeing “Dances With Wolves” in 1990, which brought dignity and several speaking roles to Native peoples. (And he appreciated the humor in its having starred and been directed by Costner, his “Yellowstone” adversary).

Now Birmingham looks around a sees a different, fuller landscape. There’s “Yellowstone,” and there’s “Under the Banner of Heaven.” There’s the FX comedy “Reservation Dogs,” about four Native teens growing up an Oklahoma reservation, and there’s “Dark Winds,” the upcoming AMC series about two Navajo police detectives, starring Zahn McClarnon and created by Graham Roland, whose is of Native heritage.

“Now we have projects and productions that are telling our story,” Birmingham said. “I think that’s the thing we’ve been waiting for, this opportunity to be able to tell our own stories from our own point of view.”

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