Movies & TV

Strong First Nations presence in ‘Yellowstone’

Pete Sands, far left, Mo Brings Plenty, Gil Birmingham, Cole Hauser, Kevin Costner and Wes Bentley in a scene from "Yellowstone." Photo by Emerson Miller/Paramount Network via AP

LOS ANGELES: “Yellowstone” has everything a Western should – breathtaking vistas, land battles and Kevin Costner. There’s also something rare in the Paramount Network series: prominent First Nations storylines and parts. Take Gil Birmingham. He plays Thomas Rainwater, a tribal chief and casino owner who’s ready and able to oppose those whose interests conflict with the well-being of the people he represents, like Costner’s ranch owner.

Comanche on his father’s side, Birmingham has played Native Americans and others in such titles as “Hell or High Water” and “Wind River,” both written by “Yellowstone” creator Taylor Sheridan.

“Through my career ... I’ve been asked, ‘What would be your dream character?’ This is it,” Birmingham said of his role on Paramount Network’s first drama series since its rebranding from Spike TV in January.

Playing a fully realized, modern Indian character is an opportunity that doesn’t come often enough and one that counts beyond entertainment, the actor said.

“Many people don’t even think that [Native Americans] still exist, that we’re just historical artifacts that once upon a time existed,” he said, crediting Sheridan with a “great leap forward” in the 10-part series and on the big screen.

Birmingham also tips his hat to Costner and his 1990 Oscar-winning period drama “Dances with Wolves,” which “really did open the door for people for maybe the first time ... to see the beauty and the depths of the native culture.”

An executive producer on “Yellowstone,” Costner said authenticity is his goal with any project. That’s particularly important in the show’s portrayal of First Nations people, he said, for whom “a terrible wrong” has occurred and not been remedied.

Sheridan got the balance “letter perfect,” he said, with the nuance and imperfection that characters of every ethnicity warrant.

The series, set in Montana, was filmed there and in Utah.

Costner stars as John Dutton, a die-hard Westerner determined to keep his family’s holdings intact.

There are pressures from without – land developers, oil and lumber interests and the adjacent Indian reservation and Yellowstone National Park – and from within.

Dutton’s offspring include Kayce (Luke Grimes), estranged and living on the reservation with his First Nations wife, Monica (Kelsey Asbille); lawyer Jamie (Wes Bentley), eager to please his dad, and heir apparent Lee (Dave Annable), who’s running the family operation with Dutton. A cutthroat business negotiator, Dutton’s daughter Beth (Kelly Reilly) fills in for her late mother.

A trained petrochemical engineer, Birmingham was propelled into acting after a foray into bodybuilding landed him a part in Diana Ross’ music video “Muscles.”

Birmingham’s turns in “Wind River” and “Hell or High Water” earned him the Thomas Rainwater role. The actor couples technical proficiency with artistic expression in his work, Sheridan said, and Rainwater’s character required particular deftness.

“It’s the ability to be cunning without it being misconstrued as evil,” said Sheridan, who recalled advising Birmingham that Rainwater needed to be seen as “an equal force to people who have a real disregard for the rule of law and yet never lose his goodness.”

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on June 21, 2018, on page 12.

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