Gil Birmingham’s Hell or High Water costar, Jeff Bridges, speaks of the true kinship formed on the set.
According to Jeff Bridges, it helps a lot to work with someone as open and amiable as his Hell or High Water costar Gil Birmingham. In that acclaimed 2016 drama, Bridges plays Marcus Hamilton, a grizzled Texas Ranger on the eve of retirement, and Birmingham is Alberto Parker, Hamilton’s half-Comanche, half-Mexican partner. After years of working together, the two men had developed a distinctively prickly relationship, often swapping the sort of insults that usually lead to fisticuffs when exchanged by fellows who don’t deep-down like each other.Film actors often face a unique challenge when they’re cast as the best buddy or longtime acquaintance of someone who’s more or less a total stranger: How do you make the audience believe your characters actually have close ties and a shared past? How do you manufacture a friendship when you have little or no rehearsal time before shooting starts?
Trouble is, Bridges and Birmingham had only days to develop the necessary rhythms for such knowing give-and-take.
“There’s different ways to approach acting,” Bridges says. “Some actors like you to call them by their character’s name and don’t want to know too much about you other than your character. Then there’s another group of actors — that I’m a part of, and I think Gil is, too — where you want to know the people that you’re gonna be playing with as well as you can. Especially if you’re gonna be playing partners for 10 or 15 years, you know? How are you gonna work together to achieve that illusion?
“Well, I guess the best illusion is when it’s not illusion — when it’s real, you know? As real as possible. So, I reached out to Gil and he reached out to me and said, ‘Hey, let’s get to know each other. Let’s go out and have some meals together.’”
And when they weren’t breaking bread, they were strumming guitars.
“One of the greatest ways that we got to know each other was through our music, playing guitar together,” Bridges says. “Because, you know, finally, when you get down to it, that’s what making movies is all about as far as actors are concerned: harmonizing with each other, playing with each other, making good music together, you know? It’s a jam, really. Gil is a wonderful guitarist and we just played any chance that we had. We brought our guitars to the set, and before and after work, any time we were together, we jammed.”
Birmingham jokes that their shared love of music actually proved to be a great equalizer: “Jeff’s a great songwriter and stuff — but I’m a better guitar player.” A good thing, too, because “otherwise you could get intimidated by an icon like Jeff Bridges. In this case, the two of you are doing a movie, but you’re basically being yourselves together.”
Both men laugh at the suggestion that they might cut an album together. On the other hand, neither dismisses the possibility. After all, they’re already in sync.
“At the end of each week,” Birmingham says, “we were invited to this house that [director David Mackenzie] was renting out and we would look at the dailies — and afterward, we would party.”
After an especially grueling week of filming, however, “I was really beat. It was about 1 in the morning, and I was going to sneak out. But right before I was going to get out the door, Jeff was like, ‘Gil! Where you going?’ And I said, ‘Ah, I’m going to go back to the hotel.’ And he said, ‘No, you’re not! We’re gonna jam!’ And I was so glad that we did, because I got rejuvenated with it. It’s like Jeff always says — and I agree with him: ‘You do the work, but it’s the experience you carry away with you.’”
From the August/September 2018 issue.