The Indigenous actor returns as a Montana tribal chief on Yellowstone after playing a Utah cop in Under the Banner of Heaven.
“All actors are delusional,” Gil Birmingham asserts. Despite his own delusions — real or perceived — about a career in the arts, the performer has compiled a long and varied list of credits — including dramas, comedies, animated series and videogames.
The Indigenous actor, who is of Comanche heritage, began his career in 1982, when he was scouted at a gym and cast in the Diana Ross music video, “Muscles.” Birmingham, who was a bodybuilder at the time and working as a petrochemical engineer, caught the acting bug.
As the jobs began to roll in — Falcon Crest, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, a role as Brave #1 in Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman — he felt a growing responsibility to his community. “Representations of Native Americans have been so minimal and misrepresented,” says the actor, whose first major role was in Twilight, the first installment of the Twilight Saga film series. “It became more important to speak to my soul — to do authentic representation in a realistic way, to be more contemporary. Because it’s always a period piece, or it’s horrible, like drunk savages or villains.”
On the heels of the FX on Hulu limited series Under the Banner of Heaven — in which he played a detective investigating a murder in a small, Mormon community — Birmingham returns to television November 13 for the fifth season of Paramount’s Yellowstone.
The most watched series on cable — it drew an impressive 9.3 million viewers for the season four finale — Yellowstone stars Kevin Costner as the head of the Dutton ranching family in Montana. The neo-Western drama is one of several series in cocreator Taylor Sheridan’s ever-expanding universe, which includes prequels 1883 and 1923 (the latter set to premiere December 18 on Paramount+).
“Taylor has been pivotal in my career,” Birmingham says of the Yellowstone scribe. He first worked with Sheridan on the 2016 film Hell or High Water, about two brothers who turn to bank robbery to save their family’s ranch. “That was an important part of my journey with him. I played a character that was respectable — an equal with Jeff Bridges.” with whom he shared several scenes as Texas lawmen in pursuit of the criminal siblings. “It was during filming that Taylor approached me about Yellowstone. I said, ‘Anything you write, count me in.'”
Sheridan cast Birmingham again in the 2017 film Wind River — about a murder investigation on a Wyoming reservation — before the actor took on his current role as Chief Thomas Rainwater, a powerful, well-educated casino owner who stops at nothing to protect the land of the Confederated Tribes of Broken Rock. The character is also a worthy adversary for Costner’s John Dutton.
Yellowstone immediately struck a chord with audiences, drawing immense numbers worthy of the show’s Big Sky country backdrop. “We knew we were doing quality work from the beginning,” he says, “a slow burn that spoke to Middle American values and principles, while dealing with big corporate interests.”
The role has also been artistically rewarding for Birmingham, whose own story shares a striking similarity with his character’s. “Thomas Rainwater wasn’t knowledgeable about his heritage,” he says. “In season one they researched his adoption papers and kept him in the dark, which kind of parallels my life. [My parents] didn’t tell me until I was fourteen,” he says. Prior to the revelation, Birmingham believed himself to be of Spanish and Mexican descent, due to his father’s fear of prejudice against Indigenous people.
“We moved around a lot. My dad was in the Army as a policeman, my mom was devoutly religious, and it was quite a constraining home life and very isolating,” he says of his early years. “It wasn’t until I left home at fourteen that I explored a sense of self. I became a ward of the court, and it was somewhat abusive. I lived in a boys’ home, then was taken into a foster home. It deeply parallels Thomas Rainwater being adopted.”
The chance to play a character with a rich backstory is not lost on Birmingham, who notes the progress he’s seen in representation. “The big thing when I first started working was Dances with Wolves,” he says, recalling the Oscar-winning 1990 film starring Costner as a Civil War lieutenant who befriends a group of Lakota Natives. “Funny, now I’m doing a series with Kevin. He’s always had a deep respect for Native culture. Now we’ve got projects that are all Native,” he adds, referring to the Indigenous casts of Reservation Dogs and Dark Winds. “The talent has always been there, and now it’s being realized.”