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Gil Birmingham Does Not Recommend Running in Cowboy Boots

Photo: Steve Granitz/FilmMagic

If you’re filming something set in the American West, you call Gil Birmingham. He’s such a staple of the genre — appearing in everything from The Lone Ranger to Wind River — you might not realize the former bodybuilder’s first onscreen appearance was a Diana Ross video (and what a video it is). He’s since built a career on projects as disparate as House of Cards and Twilight, but after David McKenzie fought to cast him opposite Jeff Bridges in Hell or High Water, his success in the role established him as central part of what makes the Taylor Sheridan–verse work so well.

Birmingham is a conscientious performer, enriching his roles with details informed by his own identity, both as an Indigenous person of Comanche ancestry and the son of a military police officer. His method makes him the perfect choice for a character like Detective Bill Taba, a veteran cop from Las Vegas who finds himself working a very white, very Mormon suburb of Salt Lake City in the FX on Hulu true-crime drama Under the Banner of Heaven. He’s something of a foil for his partner, Detective Pyre — a devout Mormon for whom the murders spur a crisis of faith — played by a soft-spoken, wide-eyed Andrew Garfield. “I’m well aware my skin is darker than most in this valley, and I’m very well aware that’s not smiled upon in a 99 percent LDS town,” Taba tells Pyre outside the station one night. “But I know cases like this a hell of a lot better than you do.”

By the end of episode two, things are not looking good for Taba, who finds himself in the middle of the woods, staring down the barrel of a religious extremist’s rifle. But this isn’t the end of the big-city cop, whose cynicism toward the colonialist white-settler establishment — not to mention a blasphemous penchant for fast food — shines a light on a dark and very insular world. Birmingham hopped on the phone with Vulture to talk about running through the woods in cowboy boots and the unabashed lovability of Andrew Garfield.

How was Detective Taba first presented to you?
Bill Taba was established to be somewhat of an audience surrogate, the outsider. There wasn’t an audience view to counterbalance the intensity of the narrative, so I thought it was a brilliant idea Lance came up with. And then to pair him, as one of the only non-Mormon investigators in this story line, with a detective who was a Mormon family man — I thought it was an interesting combination.

I read an interview where you discussed connecting with the Paiute community in preparation for this. Could you talk about that?
I had discussions with two or three members of the Paiute nation. They’re far and few between — there’s not a lot of them left. Most of that discussion was trying to get some of the Paiute language down. We incorporated some prayer in there. I had done a play in St. George at Tuacahn theater — their very first play in this gorgeous facility was called Utah! It was about the Mormons coming in and settling in that region, which was the Paiute land, so I had some exposure to the historical nature of the relationship.

I thought it was cool that Taba means “sun” in Paiute because Pyre’s name is spelled like pyre, which is also a fire reference.
I hadn’t thought about it. I knew about Taba; I didn’t make that connection with Pyre. That’s pretty good. We have a fiery dynamic.

There’s a mystery to Taba. When he’s talking to Alan Lafferty, opening up to him and saying, “I had a pretty wife who cheated”; is that a real part of his story or is he lying to get this guy to open up?
Ah, interesting question. Taba is a divorced man with two children coming from the big city of Las Vegas, which is where he garnered his experience and wisdom. I don’t necessarily know that that’s the way the divorce went, but that’s quite possible.

Taba has the task of being the audience surrogate and also representing his community. He has that jadedness you’d expect from a veteran cop, but there’s also a warmth and silliness there. Was that intentional?
I saw Taba as a cynical skeptic. He’s seen a lot and his purpose, even from his culture, is basically righting injustices and having a sense of equality for all peoples, since that’s not exactly what he’s experienced through his life — as most native people haven’t. Garnering enough knowledge and being good at what he does really facilitated a purpose and a meaning for him, especially after his recent divorce and venture to a whole other community where he’s even more of an outsider. But you don’t really get through tough times in life without a little bit of humor. I’m not sure it’s jaded, but he’s seen a lot already. He’s certainly seen more than somebody in Rockwell or any of the officers there.

Even with everything he’s been through, he still has to take orders from Detective Pyre, who’s much younger and bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. But Taba doesn’t read as bitter or angry about that.
He’s not resentful. It’s just understanding the systemic operation of the world he’s grown up with and that the native community, from the beginning of colonization, has had to deal with. Humor is an intricate part of that, in the way we see ourselves going through the world and trying to be the best human beings we can be. Gotta have some laughs.

He’s also a very fashionable guy: the shirts, the suits; he’s got these cool rings on. Did you have any say in how he looked?
A lot of it was our wardrobe costumer Joseph [La Corte], who was fantastic about it. We talked about how we wanted to present him and I loved the idea because it’s not a western genre but it’s a western region. It indicated some of that — what would I call it? “The flare of the West.” It’s distinctly different from the community he’s entering — a very stiff-shirt type of environment. It was a great idea to have this contrast and worldly incorporation of the wardrobe and culture.

Do you end up keeping any of that stuff?
It is funny, I asked. No, I didn’t. [Laughs.] They do a fantastic job going out and finding these pieces of jewelry, and they’re more specific to the project we’re working on.

The gum chewing makes him seem very approachable. How did you find that?
That was actually in the script. Lance built that into the character himself, and it’s a little daunting because you don’t want to make a choice that’s distracting. But if you can incorporate it in such a way that speaks something about the character, then it’s gonna work — I’m thinking back to old television shows like Telly Savalas in Kojak sucking on a lollipop. But it can be distracting unless you do it properly. And hopefully I did. I liked it.

There’s also the moment you’re hiding behind the shack with Andrew and you start singing a song. I know you’re a musical person. What was filming that scene like?
I was nervous about it. I had to find the vibe in the context of why Taba would be singing to him at that moment in time, and particularly Al Green: an incredible artist and not an easy song, I discovered, to sing. The process was just being in the moment and feeling what’s going on and the dynamics between characters. Andrew said it was one of his favorite scenes.

Just before that, in episode two, you’re running through the woods after this little girl in cowboy boots. That seemed arduous.
That was the first day of filming on the whole project, and we had an air-quality alert that we had to lay low for, for about an hour until it cleared up. I thought it’d be easier than it was to run in cowboy boots. It wasn’t. But it really set it up for the injury he sustained once he fell into the pit there. That was one difficult day because I was the only one shooting that day — me and the two little girls I was chasing.

When you go into a project where you’re part of a duo, how much of the dynamic is on the page and how much of it is reflective of the way you work with your partner, like Jeff Bridges in Hell or High Water or Andrew Garfield in Under the Banner?
I love the dynamics of relationships as they’re developed. Those are the most intriguing things in storytelling. And they came to me differently. With Jeff we had maybe a week and a half to get to know each other before we went to screen and portrayed two characters who had been working together for years, and it was music because we’re both musicians. We brought our guitars to set every single day and every weekend when we looked at dailies, we would jam. That really opened up that relationship for us.

With Andrew, I think it’s just being in the moment and just understanding — which is on the page — what that particular character is going through. A good man, you know, he’s essentially a pillar of his community, and he has somewhat of an indoctrination into the principles of his life. Taba understands how difficult it is, if you were to face the elements he discovers and the crises of faith he’s going into. Taba has a lot of compassion for Pyre. That really opened up the relationship to develop. And Andrew’s just a fantastic guy. He’s so easy to love, so the personal dynamics got interjected into the character work.

You also played a sheriff in Siren and a cop in Animal Kingdom. Do you have an affinity for playing police officers, or is there something about you that makes you a particularly good fit for these roles?
Oh, I have an affinity to work. [Laughs.] Most of these projects have come to me and I’m sure it has to do with this sense of authority I exude. My father was law enforcement, so I grew up with it. And maybe my sense of self-confidence and an analytical eye — I’m fascinated by the human condition to begin with, so any kind of research into character development and why people do what they do. Basically, how do we operate with each other and how do we find meaning in life? All those things become part of it.

You’ve been a staple in the Taylor Sheridan universe for a while now. Does it feel like you’re part of a community at this point?
I’m so blessed to have met Taylor back in 2016 when we did Hell or High Water. I know the production was looking to maybe hire a name actor for that role, but kudos to David McKinsey, because he held his ground. He said, “No, this is the guy.” And then Taylor said, “I didn’t know much about your work, but from this time on you’re gonna be in whatever I can put you in.” And I’m like family with the Sheridans. Last week I came back from spending five days up there at the ranch with them: his lovely wife, Nicole, and their beautiful son, Gus. He’s a creative genius with such integrity and mind-blowing, prolific writing skills. I’m grateful to be part of it.

I told my sister, who’s a huge Yellowstone fan, that I was talking to you, and she has a question. She’s curious if you think the story of 1883 is going to inform season five of Yellowstone because of how it deals with the dynamics between the Dutton family and Rainwater’s community.
That’s a good question. Every time any of us castmates are asked about what direction they think Yellowstone’s gonna go, it takes a left-hand turn when we see the scripts. I think that’s what’s so enjoyable about the show. You never know what direction Taylor’s gonna give. Just when you think it might be anticipating that, he’ll do something entirely different. I find it incredibly fascinating. I loved 1883. That was amazing.

As an actor with a very long list of credits, which role do you get recognized for the most?
That’s always a funny thing because I was part of a pop-culture film you probably know of: Twilight. That was my first experience with mass global recognition, then it waned because new projects come down the road. But I think it’s gotta be Yellowstone. We’re going into our fifth season, we’re heading up there in Montana in about a week and a half. We were very proud of the work we did but we weren’t getting the traction viewership-wise. It was increasing every year, then all of a sudden season four came out and it just exploded. The fans became avid about it.

Gil Birmingham Does Not Recommend Running in Cowboy Boots