We spoke with the star of the new INSP series about the legendary frontiersman.
It’s a long way from the fashion capitals of Europe to the frontiers of Montana, but Rib Hillis has made the transition smoothly and authoritatively to play the title role in The Tall Tales of Jim Bridger, the new series premiering Thursday on INSP.
Along the way from modeling Aramani, Versace and other designers for such publications as GQ, Esquire and Esquire, Hillis honed his acting chops with featured roles in movies and TV series (Kill Shot, Ugly Betty, Two and a Half Men, CSI, Bull and others), and evinced attention-grabbing screen presence in shows like Extreme Makeover: Home Edition and $100 Makeover.
With Tall Tales of Jim Bridger, the multitalented New York native gets his big chance to display his versatility by persuasively portraying the legendary 19th-century mountain man and frontiersman who explored the entire distant West and survived countless hair-raising adventures, and became an invaluable guide for settlers in search of new homes and lives for themselves.
Of course, as the title indicates, the real Jim Bridger was known to, shall we say, exaggerate his resume. The series acknowledges his status as a not-always-reliable narrator, but shrewdly invokes dramatic license now and then to amp the entertainment value.
We recently had the opportunity to chat with Rib Hillis about the challenges and rewards of starring in The Tall Tales of Jim Bridges. Here are some highlights from our conversation, edited for brevity and clarity.
Cowboys & Indians: So do you think you’re as tough as Jim Bridger was? Or at least as tough as he claimed to be?
Rib Hillis: [Laughs] I don’t know how Jim Bridger was able to survive and deal with carrying around an arrowhead in his back for three years. Me personally, I’ve had eight surgeries. I’ve had five knee surgeries, shoulder surgery, ankle surgery, so I have had a few ailments, bumps and bruises. And yeah, I had something where every time I moved, it did bother me. Like, you get a little chafing in your shoe or you got a blister, and it just hurts. But every time Jim must have moved or laid down, that arrowhead must have cut into his skin that was wedged in his body. Yeah, I think he’s just tougher than I am.
C&I: How did you prepare for the role?
Rib: Well, I’ve been going up to Montana for 10 years. First movie I did in Montana was a movie called Cowboys vs Dinosaurs.
C&I: With Eric Roberts, right?
Rib: Yeah, Eric played my dad. So the director of that movie is a guy named Ari Novak, and he and I became best buddies. And I would go up and hang out with him, and we would make movies in the summertime and go ice climbing in the wintertime. So when the Jim Bridger role presented itself, I saw it I think on a casting breakdown, and I thought, “Oh my God, this is my role.”
See, I’ve been to those places. I had been to Bridger Bowl and Bridger Pass and run around the mountains in Montana and spent a lot of time in the winters and in the summer, and up there in Yellowstone. So I think for me, it was a case of just the right sort of lifestyle that I was living, and skill set of being outdoors, matching it with Jim Bridger’s sort of his mountain man lifestyle. So it was a perfect synergy. It’s literally the dream role for me.
C&I: In the episodes available for preview, you’re playing Jim Bridger in two different timelines You’re playing him as the wise old man, and you're playing him when — well, when he was already a pretty rugged character, but a younger rugged character. Were there days when you had to tell yourself, “OK, I’m playing the old guy now,” or, “No, wait, I’m playing the younger guy now, should I be carrying myself a little differently?”
Rib: That's a fantastic question. So I aged between 40 and 60, which is kind of how they have the Jim that I play. So yes, at 40 Jim was already quite accomplished and quite legendary. But by the time he was in his 60s, I think one of the presidents of the United States made a trip to see him. I mean, he was such a legend and sort of a rock star of his time. When I would play an older Jim Bridger, they would put on this fantastic prosthetic beard, just a big bushy beard. And as an actor, there’s something about wardrobe and makeup that really helps you while you’re playing a character.
So having that huge beard on was a great reminder of, “I'm a different guy now,” as opposed to when I’m in my forties, when I can move a little bit easier. It was fun — even though I did not like the beard at first. The first day I wore it, I was like, “Oh, it is so itchy and uncomfortable.” But I definitely found it to help me sort of become an older Jim Bridger.
C&I: What else do you think helped get you into the character?
Rib: Well, I admit, here’s this Yankee kid who grew up in Boston. But I ran around in the woods a lot while I was growing up, and was very active. But I also identify with the mountains. I love Montana, I love Colorado, I love that sort of scene. And for me, it was just sort of easy to move into this character, because I think that timeframe would’ve been… [Laughs] Well, I guess having an arrowhead in your back for three years wouldn’t have been fun. But man, running around Montana in the 1800s, that would’ve been beautiful.
C&I: Ever think about how comfortable Jim Bridger might have been in some of the Armani apparel you used to model?
Rib: You know, that’s actually hard to say, because I definitely think that these guys like Jim Bridger, they had their pride, they had their ego. I think they peacocked a little bit. Bridger famously got a suit of armor from a Scottish lord that he took around on a hunting trip. And when he got this suit of armor, he prized this thing. It was just sort of a chest plate, but still. So you can imagine that if he had the opportunity to wear some of the latest fashion, he might. But I think there was a practicality in what they had to wear.
C&I: Let’s put it this way: If you wander around the wilderness, probably an Armani suit would not lend itself to that environment.
Rib: [Laughs] Nope. It sure would not.
C&I: What was the most difficult thing about playing Jim Bridger?
Rib: I think the hardest thing was just being up there in that location. We shot in Missoula, Montana, which is a wonderful town. It’s not in the wilderness, but we would go find these locations about an hour outside of Missoula, and it was rugged. There were not a lot of amenities. We would be out on set, on location, and we didn’t have trailers and tents set up. And some days we’d go out, and we would stay out on location, and we’d have lunch brought to us. Everyone — the camera crew, the director, the other actors — we would just sit down on the ground. Now, this was not hard per se, but it was fun in that it added a ruggedness to it that really helped myself and I think all the other on-camera actors.
And like I said, everyone was there. The makeup department, the camera crew — we were all humping around the mountains, swatting mosquitoes away. But for me, that also really helped me become the character because it was really easy to imagine the scene I’m going to do when I’m sitting here, standing there, or talking to other actors with all of that going on.
Really, if I had my choice to be James Bond, Superman, Magnum P.I., or Jim Bridger, I’d pick Jim Bridger. I think drinking martinis and wearing Armani suits is nice, but I would prefer to run around the mountains of Montana, carrying a musket, riding a horse. That to me is the dream, the dream job and dream lifestyle. I can understand why Jim Bridger never left the mountains.
C&I: And just think — you got paid for that.
Rib: I know, I did. I did. Literally, every day I'd show up on set, I would be like, “I can't believe this is my job. This is the greatest job.” And we had some long days. We shot until four in the morning and it was like a 16-, 18-hour day and had to be up pretty soon. But any day on set up in Montana is a good day.