Photography: Lorey Sebastian
Photography: Lorey Sebastian

Native Actor Gil Birmingham partners with Jeff Bridges in a western heist story.

When we first meet Marcus Hamilton, the grizzled Texas Ranger colorfully brought to life by Jeff Bridges in director David Mackenzie’s critically acclaimed modern-day western drama, Hell or High Water, the veteran lawman is just a few weeks short of retirement. But before he hangs up his guns, he wants to track down two West Texas brothers, Toby (Chris Pine of the rebooted Star Trek franchise) and Tanner (Ben Foster, a veteran of the 3:10 to Yuma remake), who have been pulling off a series of audacious bank robberies in the hope of saving their family ranch from foreclosure.

Just as important, Marcus wants to keep needling Alberto Parker, his half-Comanche, half-Mexican partner, portrayed by Comanche actor Gil Birmingham (above right).

One minute, Marcus makes a rude comment about Alberto’s bloodlines. The next minute, Alberto responds with an observation about Marcus’ advancing decrepitude. For traditional western fans, the aggressively non-PC give-and-take often may sound like the sort of insult-swapping that usually ends with someone telling someone else, “Them’s fightin’ words, pardner.”

In this case, however, the ferocity of the back-and-forth is more playful than real. As critic David Rooney noted in his rave review for The Hollywood Reporter when Hell or High Water premiered at last spring’s Cannes Film Festival: “Their superbly played exchanges are terrific — graced with low-key humor but also poignancy as the affection and loneliness beneath the widowed older man’s teasing become evident.”

Photography: Lorey Sebastian
Photography: Lorey Sebastian

The interplay, Birmingham says with a chuckle during an exclusive interview with C&I, “really does have that kind of western flair, doesn’t it? But you know, that was the beautiful thing about it, the nature of the dynamics between these characters — between both the brothers and the partners. How, at the core level, it was really about how much they loved each other and what they would do — the extreme things they would do — to protect one another.”

Hell or High Water isn’t Birmingham’s first rodeo. Indeed, the 63-year-old San Antonio native  has a lengthy list of credits on his résumé, ranging from an early gig as Conan the Barbarian in a live show at the Universal Studios Hollywood theme park to his attention-grabbing supporting performance as Billy Black in The Twilight Saga franchise.

Chief among his other career highlights: Into the West, the epic Steven Spielberg-produced miniseries in which he played the adult iteration of the character Dog Star. “That was a very impressive program, a great combination of entertainment and education,” Birmingham says of the 2005 drama. “I mean, it offered such an accurate historical accounting that they’ve even used it in schools and libraries, which I’m quite proud of.”

Birmingham had hopes for steady employment as an occasional character, Native American tracker Don Simmons, on Vegas, the undeservedly short-lived series that ended after a single 2012 – 13 season on CBS. Unfortunately, he says, “We had the viewership — but we didn’t have the demographic that the advertisers were buying.” He has fared appreciably better with more recent projects, landing key roles in two Netflix series as casino owner Daniel Lanagin in House of Cards and Virgil White, the Lakota father of Jane Krakowski’s Jacqueline White, in Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.

“I feel very lucky,” Birmingham says, “because the demographics of many of the projects I’ve done lately cover such a wide spectrum. Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is really kind of a wacky comedy, while House of Cards was a political drama.

“I get people that approach me about different projects. And as I see them approach me, I’m already trying to size them up to guess what project they might be recognizing [me] from.”

Birmingham “absolutely” felt as though a priceless gift had been dropped into his lap when the Hell or High Water screenplay by Sicario scriptwriter Taylor Sheridan first came his way. “Aside from giving me the chance of being partnered with Jeff,” he says, “it was just some brilliant writing — and a character study that you don’t see in Hollywood very often.

“Really, it’s all about the work and the authenticity of characters that you’re portraying. What you’re really doing is asking yourself, How do I contribute the best I can to this project as a whole? Here, I was with Jeff Bridges — that’s an iconic figure — and other big heavyweights like Chris Pine and Ben Foster. I think, in my spiritual way of thinking, the universe brings the forces together for the people that are supposed to be together, to do the work that they’re meant to do.”

Another major attraction for Birmingham: Collaborating with Bridges also entailed making beautiful music together. “We had a lot of similarities, spiritually and philosophically speaking, and that kind of provided a bit of a shorthand communication that evolved between us right from the start. The other thing is, I learned how music is such a big part of Jeff’s life — and my life as well. We both started playing music from a very early age. And that’s a real gift, too, that creative connection that we could transfer from music to acting and acting to music.”

Each day on set, Birmingham recalls, “Jeff would ask me, ‘Did you bring your guitar?’ I’d say, ‘Jeff, we’re going to be shooting probably 12 hours here. When are we going to have a chance to play?’ And he’d go, ‘Hey, you never know.’ ”

And even when they had to leave their guitars behind, the two actors were able to enjoy their own unique kind of jam sessions.

Director Mackenzie “didn’t really give advice so much as he would create situations, create scenarios for us,” Birmingham says. “Like the time Jeff and I had to take a three-hour drive back to Albuquerque [New Mexico]. David mounted up a camera on the truck and had us do improv for the whole three-hour drive. We could talk about whatever we wanted [our characters] to talk about. That’s an experience I’ve never had — and I don’t think Jeff had either.

“We got to the end of it and Jeff just looked at me and said, ‘Wow. We did it, Gil.’ ”

Hell or High Water debuts in theaters August 12. For more information, visit the film's website.

From the October 2016 issue.