Hell or High Water (2016) follows two Texas brothers (Chris Pine and Ben Foster) who go on a crime spree in order to save their family farm, while rangers Marcus (Jeff Bridges) and Alberto (Gil Birmingham), try to track them down. We spoke to Gil Birmingham about his role as a Native American and Mexican Texas Ranger, his favorite Westerns, and what Hell or High Water might be saying about the state of the union.
ScreenPrism: How did you prepare for the role of a Texas Ranger?
Gil Birmingham: I prepared for it, initially, having been originally from Texas. I was born in San Antonio. My father was a military police man for his career, so I'd already been exposed to the law enforcement side of things. We also had a wonderful technical advisor who was a former Texas Ranger, Joaquin Jackson, who had written a couple of books about his experiences. So there was a good amount of information to dig into.
SP: How would you describe your character?
GB: Alberto is a partner to the character of Marcus [Jeff Bridges] for about fifteen years. He's got a Native American background, as well as a half-Mexican background. I always felt that the character had a cultural input and resonance for that portrayal, which facilitated the ability to take the jabs and barbs from Marcus in a way that wasn't particularly personal but oftentimes very funny. I cut my hair! I hadn't my cut my hair in 20 years, so that was a biggie.
SP: What is director David Mackenzie’s style of directing? What's unique about it?
GB: That fact that he is of Scottish ancestry and was doing a Western was unique in and of itself, but he had a very clear vision about it. It always starts with a script. Taylor Sheridan had written such as brilliant script, coming off of Sicario last year. And Dave facilitated the characters and gave us a lot of leeway, a lot of freedom, to discover the core of these people and the dynamics of the relationship between Marcus and Alberto, as well as Ben Foster's and Chris Pine's characters.
SP: How would you describe the relationship between your character, Alberto, and Jeff Bridges’ character, Marcus?
GB: We got along famously outside of shooting the characters, which helped a lot at establishing the nature of the dynamics that we shared on film. There was a lot of love and trust in the characters that we do. Alberto really had compassion. If I were to incoporate Native culture values of compassion, respect, understanding, and generosity, that's what Alberto was. He had a relationship with Marcus that was really one of love, but their means of communicating was the only masculine form that they found themselves to be able to exchange.
SP: What do you think Hell or High Water says about the state of the American economy and culture?
GB: I don't know that it has a message in and of itself. I think what it does so brilliantly is provide a really moving portrayal of the motivations that make people make the choices that they do and to explore these relationships that we have with one another and with corporate America. We've all experienced this loss, and the powers beyond our control feel like they're stealing our future away because people are struggling. The moral ambiguity of two good people making bad choices for good reasons [can] make us open up and have a discussion about it, maybe have a realization about what is important in our lives. How can we change things to be more humane to one another?
SP: Hell or High Water can be compared to classic Western films. What are some of your favorite Western films, and did any inspire you in this performance?
GB: I'm a big fan of No Country For Old Men, and our film has been compared to it. I got into the Westerns back into the Spaghetti Western days, but I don't know if they relate as much to this because there's much more social commentary [in Hell or High Water] than there would be in any of those films. But the motifs and style of Westerns are the heart of this movie, and I think that the struggle that the West represented for anyone that was living there at the time is similar as it is to now. We're still having that same struggle.
SP: Which aspects of the script attracted you to the project?
GB: I loved that it was a character-driven piece, especially having it released in the middle of the summer, which is when generally the big tent-pole movies come out, the superhero things. It's quite a diversion, and we were hoping that people would be ready for a humanistic story that relates very much to our contemporary times but with a classic Western feel to it.
SP: You’ve had a long career of many strong roles in TV & movies, and then the Twilight saga brought you to a new level of widespread international recognition. What was the experience like being a part of a worldwide phenomenon like Twilight?
GB: It's pretty amazing. I'm sure most actors have a fantasy of wanting to know what that feels like, and when it happens to you you're very excited. It's a very large cast, in that particular production, and a lot of the focus was on the three leads, so I didn't experience it to the extent that they did. But it's a fascinating thing to think of how small the world is, that you can become global.
SP: You also have a part in the upcoming Transformers movie. How would you compare the experience of working on a big production like Transformers to a movie like Hell or High Water?
GB: I did a small part on Transformers. I did a couple of scenes with Mark Wahlberg. It's very different. It's highly pressured; they've got big-budget productions. Michael Bay is a very passionate man in his work; Mark is just fantastic. It's an entirely different environment.
SP: Any final words about Hell or High Water?
[There's a line in the movie:] "What don't you want?" [said by] the waitress in the cafe. Well, what I don't want is people not to see this movie. They'll be very pleased and very satisfied. We've been getting really wonderful reception to it, and it's a good alternative this year.