Skip to main content
#
The Independent Critic

 Interview with Gil Birmingham (Continued) 

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

Obviously, the music is very important to you. Can you talk about that a bit? What are you doing with music these days?

GIL BIRMINGHAM

You know, I'm not really sure how to speak of it. It's been such a personal and an intimate thing. I have some fear of it because of that. Oddly enough, I can get in front of a camera and portray characters and not have that concern or anxiety about it. When I play my music, it's so personal that if someone didn't accept it I would feel crushed by it. My logical mind tells me "Everybody has different tastes. They're not all going to like it." It's just important for me to have this emotional vibration that I have when I play, because it just transports me. So, I'm not really "doing" anything in a public sense with my music. I have friends who have bands and I love sitting in with them, but I've been asked to do that. I've played for conventions and people would ask for me to put a CD out. <big sigh> I don't know.

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

Well, we know you did a film with Johnny Depp and he's got his band.

GIL BIRMINGHAM

Yeah, he's like the exact same thing. I found out his story. He wanted to be a rock star, then the acting presented itself. He was darn good at it. Now, he's come full circle with it. He's doing the dream that he always wanted to do.

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

I love that. I think that's great.

GIL BIRMINGHAM

I do, too.

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

There are other actors who've been able to do that same thing. Jeff Bridges...I mean, I love Crazy Heart. I think it's probably my favorite Jeff Bridges film, though I have to be honest it may be this one now. I really love this one, too. I love Jeff Bridges, though.

GIL BIRMINGHAM

He's a very likable guy. He's a one-of-a-kind original and just a big-hearted guy.

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

Do you like coming out on the road? Do you get to do the festival circuit very often?

GIL BIRMINGHAM

I do. I especially appreciate it this time. We did it on Twilight. As much as Twilight was a lovely experience, it wasn't Shakespeare. <big laugh>

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

I like your honesty.

GIL BIRMINGHAM

So, to be part of something like this. This is really a meaningful, well scripted, well cast and just so many layers to it that I'm really proud to be part of it. So, yeah. I'm enjoying this very much.

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

Had you been around the Midwest much? Quite honestly, I've completely forgotten where you're from.

GIL BIRMINGHAM

I'm from Texas. San Antonio.

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

Yeah, I do remember that. I did look that up.

GIL BIRMINGHAM

Well, I should say I was born there. My father was in the Service and we moved every 3-5 years. I was born in Texas, but then we went to live in Kentucky. We lived in Hawaii, San Francisco. Then, I landed in Los Angeles and I've been there ever since. I've traveled a bit in the Midwest, but haven't spent a whole lot of time there.

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

I'm really hoping you have a positive experience here, but I'm also really hoping you get a great crowd for tonight's screening. I've heard that it's supposed to be a good crowd.

GIL BIRMINGHAM

I'm amazed all the stuff I've seen just in the one day I've been here. I mean, the Children's Museum. This Museum of Art. Of course, your cuisine and now the film festival. You guys are just becoming very expansive in all the stuff that you offer.

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

We're growing. We're kind of becoming a great place for foodies, I think. Film is definitely important here. Now, I've got a question for you. I'm not sure if it's a question I should ask, but one of the things I couldn't help but notice on your website is that the name of Hell or High Water was changed from its original title of Comancheria.

GIL BIRMINGHAM

Yeah, well it's not a secret. Comancheria was the original title. I'm not sure what came behind the change. It might have something to do with the fact that every time I would talk to friends and they would ask me what movie I was doing, and I would say Comancheria. They would come back with Comancherrrr? Comancha something. I think maybe the studio thought it's too difficult. I understand they had the same problem with Sicario. It was a word they didn't think that people would remember. So, somehow it became Hell or High Water which kind of changed...

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

It's a different tone.

GIL BIRMINGHAM

It is.

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

It's funny. Even in my review, I make a comment about the title because it just doesn't give me the vibe that the film itself gives me. I don't really like it.

GIL BIRMINGHAM

Oh, you're not alone. It's almost like it went the other direction. I've heard many critics say, oh the funniest one said "It might have been better if they'd named it Battle of the Mustaches. Because, you know, Chris has a mustache. Ben has a mustache. Jeff has a mustache. Honestly, I had a mustache. It was written in the script and David Mackenzie, the director, had asked me about it. I told him "I just don't think this character would have a mustache," especially when I did some of the research with the Texas Rangers. They have very strict codes about how they dress. He said "Just grow it out for me, then we'll make a decision." This was about a month before the shoot. I grew it out. I wasn't too fond of it. I thought that same thing. It was like the mustache war. He comes to me the day before we start shooting, I was in the studio, and he goes "They can't have all you guys have mustaches. They would like you to shave yours, but I will fight for you if you want it." I said "I never thought the mustache was right for this character from the beginning. So, yes, please let me."

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

How did you prepare for this kind of role? I've heard that you are definitely one to study and prepare in advance. You're a researcher.

GIL BIRMINGHAM

Yeah. Yeah. That's so much fun, because you get to educate yourself about characters and things. For this one, there was kind of a synchronicity because my father was a lawman. He was a policeman in the Service for 30 years. Then, of course, I was born in Texas which is where this whole story plays out. Those things already fell into place. Funny story. When I put on the costume, my costume? My wardrobe. I'm a clown now! I sent a picture to my brother and he texts me back and he goes "Dad?" That's exactly how I felt when I looked in the mirror...like I was looking at my dad. He passed away about ten years ago, but it touched me and I said "I'm going to dedicate this to you" and just kind of prayed that his spirit would guide me through with this. Then, we had Joaquin Jackson, a very iconic Texas Ranger whose written two books about his experiences. The whole history is fascinating beginning all the way back in 1823 and formally constituted in 1835.

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

It's kind of timely, in a way, if you think about where we are as a society and that sort of questioning of law enforcement and even the issues with immigration. It's kind of a weird, difficult time in our society.

GIL BIRMINGHAM

It is. Even with the recent incident in Dallas, but you know this movie was scripted, produced and screened in Cannes to quite a positive review. Even the critics were presenting how the material was presented in terms of firearms in a very grounded and somber way. There's a definite message of how you can be in a desperate situation and make choices and bring violence down on innocent victims, but you're going to pay a price. There are very severe consequences for those who choose that route. With my character, as you were saying, I guess you could say I tolerate a bit of politically incorrect jabbing from Jeff's character. As we had mentioned before, it's really kind of a family type of dynamic like how brothers and family members do that to one another. Part of that, I derive from my own culture and the tenets that are anchored there and help us stay anchored in our ancestry like tolerance, compassion and understanding. When somebody comes out of this film, my best hope would be that these characters would represent how we need to get back in touch with our own humanity. The genie's out of the bottle in terms of people owning guns, but the people who are behind it is the shift that needs to be made. We need to connect and respect each other and mother Earth and those things that sustain life.

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

So, really that's what you're hoping people take away from this film?

GIL BIRMINGHAM

In some way, even if it's a subconscious thing.

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

I mean, obviously there's violence in the film. Yet, I never felt like it was violence for the sake of being violence. It didn't feel like exploitation, really. Maybe it was the authenticity of the story that struck me.

GIL BIRMINGHAM

Even with Ben's character. He's kind of this ill-tempered, trigger happy guy that just gets off on the adrenaline. It was so beautifully incorporated about his relationship with his mother and that's where the disconnect happened for him. He's kind of gone through his life feeling very disconnected because he hadn't found a way to reconnect with himself or relatives or any other thing that might have led him to a different path.

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

There's a scene in the film that struck me as particularly powerful involving Ben's character and what had been his mother's room in the house. I thought that scene was just aching. It could have been really awkward happening in the middle of what is basically an action film, but instead I think it was perfectly placed and gave the film such a deepened emotional honesty. Ben's chemistry with Chris was another thing. It was just very real. They felt like brothers. Somewhat estranged, but they felt like brothers.

GIL BIRMINGHAM

They did. They were both effected profoundly with the passing of their mother. Chris has family. He's got children of his own and he's dealing with how he's failed as a father to provide for them. The passing of the mother triggered different things in both brothers. It's a darn good movie, isn't it?

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

It's a darn good movie.Do you have any other projects coming up that we can plug?

GIL BIRMINGHAM

I did another Taylor Sheridan movie shortly after this one called Wind River. It'll come out next year and it'll be his directorial debut. It's another awesomely great written story with Jeremy Renner and Elizabeth Olsen playing the leads. He's addressing the situation of a young Native woman, my daughter, who gets raped and dies and the difficulty of being on a reservation and trying to get justice because of the limitations and the structure and the lack of resources to really make justice happen. There's that. I wanted to work with Michael Bay and Mark Wahlberg, so I did a little work on Transformers, this new one coming out next Summer. I've got another show I did a couple years ago that's a really great film, but it's such a small independent thing that the only way it's being seen is through the film festivals. That's why I'm a big supporter of the film festivals. People get to see films that are just phenomenal films and you're probably not going to get a chance to see them if they don't get some kind of distribution. Then, I just have some things out there and I'm kind of waiting to see how things unfold. Sometimes, they take awhile.

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

(About this time, I became acutely aware that our planned 10 minute interview had become a 30 minute interview. This is incredibly rare, especially when it comes to studio films. While I hadn't actually "planned" for much beyond possibly squeezing out 15-20 minutes, the conversation was flowing easily but I was also wanting to remain cognizant of Birmingham's obligations to the festival before and after the "Hell or High Water" screening. It was during this last little bit of conversation that I experienced the only time when Birmingham would bristle at a conversation/question. We briefly began talking again about Native culture and I casually mentioned by own Native American background with a full-blooded Choctaw great-grandmother. You could tell that Birmingham, as a man of Comanche ancestry who has long identified with and fully honored his responsibilities to Native culture, was uncomfortable with what could be identified as a sort of trendiness of identifying oneself as Native American yet never really living into one's ancestry. Rather than becoming uncomfortable, this conversation thread became yet another way I grew to admire Birmingham over the course of our 40-minute conversation).

Well, I don't know what happened but they've given us 30 minutes together. I was expecting 10!

GIL BIRMINGHAM

Lucky you!

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

It was funny. I kept telling them "I don't do well with 10 minute interviews."

GIL BIRMINGHAM

They go by so fast.

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

They do. I like conversations more than I like interviews. Now, you're doing a Q&A after this screening. Correct?

GIL BIRMINGHAM

I am.

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

Are you leaving Indy tonight? Tomorrow?

GIL BIRMINGHAM

Tomorrow. 6am. We're going down to Austin and San Antonio...gonna' go to Texas land with open carry!

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

Have you gotten any feedback from folks in Texas? There's such an affection in the film for the way the Texans are portrayed. There's some humor there, of course. You kind of have to see it to understand it. I'm not sure I can communicate it accurately in this interview, but Sheridan's script really gets the dialogue and uniqueness of culture in a way that's funny yet sincere and honest...like with the gun thing and playing around with the idea that every Texan carries a gun. There's a scene with an elderly man in a bank that just plays out perfectly.

GIL BIRMINGHAM

"You got a gun, old man?" "You're damn right I got a gun on me." It was just the best.

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

I love that.

GIL BIRMINGHAM

Or that bank teller in the beginning..."Right now, you're just guilty of stupidity. If you just leave..." Or the best one..."What don'tcha want?" from that rattlesnake waitress.

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

I really liked her.

GIL BIRMINGHAM

She was a spitfire. It was so hot that day. We had fans for ourselves and, you know, she's an elderly lady. She was sweatin'. She came in and we said "How are you?" She said "Hot, and not in a good way." (big laughs) A number of critics wrote about her being the scene-stealer.

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

This is an area where I think Mackenzie excelled. I love it when a director pays attention to those smaller roles. This is incredibly true in Hell or High Water. There was that first bank teller...that old man in the bank...this spitfire waitress...there was that young bank teller, I think her name was Natalie. These actors were just amazing in relatively brief appearances. They were perfectly cast.

GIL  BIRMINGHAM

And this is a Scottish guy. David Mackenzie is Scottish.

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

I actually wrote about that. If you didn't know that about him, you'd swear he was a West Texan or had some kind of first hand knowledge about how to bring this all to life. I was like "C'mon. You grew up in Texas. Just admit it." I've liked his other work, but this is probably my favorite. I've probably said that too much.

GIL BIRMINGHAM

Nah, you can never say it too much. I love it when critics say "I don't know if I should say this, but it's probably my favorite movie of the year." You don't know how many critics have said that!

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

I know you've interviewed with several Indianapolis critics while you've been here. The film has been popular with Indy's critics. It was kind of funny. I think one of them posted their interview with you earlier today, then everyone else started commenting. Matt Socey from WFYI posted a picture with you and Craig Mince from Indy Film Fest. I was like "Well, yeah. I get to talk to him in ten minutes. So there."

GIL BIRMINGHAM

But you got 35 minutes! And counting!

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

Yeah! So there! I'm not giving you up until they come in and force me!

GIL BIRMINGHAM

Yeah, I'm running on a mini-series on this interview.

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

We'll release a little bit each day until the film opens. Nah, I really should be respectful. They may want you to meet some folks before the screening actually starts. I believe I'm your only formal interview this evening.

GIL BIRMINGHAM

These things become whirlwinds at some point. This has been very pleasant and fairly moderate.

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

Have you found any good food? I don't think you're supposed to ask someone to compliment the city, but we've already broken all the rules anyway. You want to plug anything?

GIL BIRMINGHAM

I think I'm going to St. Elmo's or the place adjacent to St. Elmo's tonight. I hear their shrimp cocktail is something to be had. I've only eaten at the hotel, The Alexander, but their food is fantastic, too. They like the pork. They do their own smokin' right there in the place. If you're a pork fan, you need to go there. I had the shank last night. You'll have to try it.

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

Anything else you want to say before we wrap it up?

GIL BIRMINGHAM

Go see the movie! It's full of action and drama and wit and emotion.

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

And it's okay if you call it Comancherr...

GIL BIRMINGHAM

Comancheria! See, it's hard to say.

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

I'm a hoosier. We're not meant to say words like that. That's a hard word. I'd remember it, but I'm not sure I'd ever use it in a conversation. I still think it fits the film, though.

GIL BIRMINGHAM

There's a whole region that was referred to as Comancheria in Western Texas and crosses over into Mexico. Then, the character being half Comanche, right. I did that research, which is fascinating, of how the Texas Rangers really kind of came to be because nobody could contain the Comanches over there. They were partly responsible for the Texas Rangers being formed. Now, I'm a Texas Ranger! I'm Comanche...I've infiltrated!

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

You're half Comanche yourself, correct?

GIL BIRMINGHAM

I'm part Comanche. I've also got the English, some Italian, some Spanish.

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

I think I'd read that somewhere, then I got all caught up in the Comanche. I have a little bit of Choctaw. I have a great-grandmother who is full-blooded Choctaw. I think that makes it 1/8.

GIL BIRMINGHAM

We'll do that ancestor DNA test and find out what we all are.

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

I've kind of always wanted to do that.

GIL BIRMINGHAM

That's the whole other thing with it where everybody wants to identify with the culture. Then, you talk about the poverty and the alcoholism and the many difficult challenges that the tribes have. You're talking about people who have embedded, rock hard culture that saw them through thousands of years when they lived in harmony with planet Earth and this culture being ripped out from them and trying to kill the Indian in them. Now, everyone wants to be part of it. Everybody wants to understand and have some compassion. We still have the situation. John McCain went down there and gave away the mining rights to a foreign company to go into San Carlos Apache to mine without consulting the Apache and without making them part of it or giving anything back to them. It's the same land grabbing that happened in the Black Hills and during the gold rush back in the 1800's. You want to be part Indian, you have to go into this part of the culture and deal with the battles they're still trying to fight.

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

We could go into that for a LONG time. You've got a film in a few minutes, but I do get your point. When I was researching you, I saw your name mentioned on a lot of Native American websites. You've made staying connected with your ancestry a fundamental part of who  you are and not just in comfortable, fun ways.

GIL BIRMINGHAM

I try to be honorable in my representation. I feel that responsibility. If I've been tasked by whatever forces to say "This is a line we want you to follow," then I try to honor it. There's a lot to it. If nothing else, if I can at least change or help change this ridiculous portrayal of the last 100 years then I'll be happy.

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

That's the perfect place to end our conversation. I truly thank you for your time and I wish you the best with Hell or High Water and your upcoming projects. This has been a privilege.

"Hell or High Water" opens in select markets on 8/12 and nationwide, including Indianapolis, on 8/19/16 via CBS Films. The film is Rated R. For more information on "Hell or High Water," visit the film's official website.

© Interview by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic

    our twitterour facebook page pintrestlinkdin

    The Independent Critic © 2008 - 2021