(KGET) — Gil Birmingham only has agreed to play one role that he wishes he had passed on during the nearly 35 years he’s been working as a professional actor. There are plenty that he takes great pride in having played including his current work on the Paramount Network series “Yellowstone.”
The third season of cable TV’s top-rated original series for the past two summers launches at 9 p.m. June 21.
“Yellowstone” revolves around the Dutton family, especially patriarch John Dutton (Kevin Costner). The sixth-generation homesteader and devoted father must juggle running the largest contiguous ranch in the United States and dealing with a family full of problems.
Birmingham plays Thomas Rainwater, the chief of the nearby Native American reservation who wants to take the land from the Dutton family to expand the reservation. The third season brings even more complications to Rainwater’s life.
“There are some profound issues that Thomas Rainwater is going to be dealing with,” Birmingham, the Texas born Native American says. “There are new advisories. Bigger gain. More fire power. The competing parties will deal with their own agendas either through alliances or betrayals or the dysfunctional relationships that come out of the Dutton family.”
The third season of “Yellowstone” will feature 10 episodes. Along with Birmingham and Costner, the cast of “Yellowstone” includes Josh Holloway, Luke Grimes, Kelly Reilly, Wes Bentley, Cole Hauser, Kelsey Asbille, Brecken Merrill, Jefferson White, Forrie Smith and Denim Richards.
Birmingham stresses one of the big pluses of being on the cable series is the chance to work with the strong group of actors.
All of the complications the cast gets to face in “Yellowstone” come from creator and writer, Academy-Award nominee Taylor Sheridan. Birmingham was in the cast of the feature films “Wind River” and “Hell or High Water” from Sheridan. He saw “Yellowstone” as being very similar to those projects.
“Those were revisionist westerns for a contemporary time. I couldn’t be happier that there’s a Native American that’s betrayed in an educated and powerful way. That’s more realistic of what our community does have and to offer,” Birmingham says. “I knew Taylor would have a sensitivity with the Native world because he had a lot of interaction with them in his younger life.”
Birmingham has seen all kinds of representations of Native Americans during his time as an actor. Although best known for playing Billy Black in “The Twilight” film series, his credits also include recurring roles as George Hunter in “Banshee” and as Virgil White in “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.” He portrayed Dogstar in Steven Spielberg’s six-part 2005 miniseries “Into the West.”
He would have never had the chance to play any of those roles if he had continued on his original career path. Immediately after graduating from USC, Birmingham took a job as an engineer. He knew after five years that he was on the wrong career path and moved to the acting world through working on a music video with Diana Ross.
Birmingham has always been aware of how Native Americans are being portrayed when he looks at doing a project. But, he will not judge others on the acting decisions they make.
“I don’t judge anyone who is trying to break into the business. In the beginning all you want to do is work. At the start, I did a bunch of period pieces and that usually was all that was available,” Birmingham says. “It isn’t that some of them weren’t great but we were missing the boat on representing contemporary characters in a culture that is still here.
“That was a big goal for me – to align myself with roles that were more contemporary.”
Along the way, Birmingham has been cast in roles where his heritage was important as in the case of “Yellowstone.” There have also been jobs where his background didn’t matter. Roles where his ethnicity is not a factor are some of the best for Birmingham.
What Birmingham has observed is that many feel an actor can only play a character within their own heritage. In his case that would mean the implication is there aren’t any Native American doctors or lawyers or policemen.
“We are always excited when we are seen as actors and not just native actors,” Birmingham says. “I have recently been watching world events and trying to figure out how we are changing so much and so fast.
“This is reminiscent for my community in terms of Black Lives Matter because these are the same battles that the Natives have been fighting since 1492.”