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Interview: Gil Birmingham Talks Hell or High Water (Exclusive)

Relentlessly wanting to protect the family, friends and colleagues they hold most dear is a powerful motivator for many people, no matter how unconventional their relationships have become. Determinedly guarding the most significant people in their lives during their most dire situations is one of the powerful motivators in the new crime drama, ‘Hell or High Water.’

The two protagonists in the action film defy conventional heroic qualities, as they break the law in the name of protecting their family. The two lawmen who are fiercely pursuing them have a close relationship that’s driven by them showing their admiration for each other through their implacable taunts towards each other.

Taylor Sheridan penned the script for ‘Hell or High Water,’ which was directed by David Mackenzie. After the Western premiered at the Cannes Film Festival this past May, it’s set to be released in select theaters tomorrow, before it expands nationwide next Friday, August 19 by CBS Films.

‘Hell Or High Water’ is a modern Western that’s set in West Texas, where the distinction between honest men and outlaws has blurred beyond recognition. Toby (Chris Pine), a straight-living, divorced father who’s trying to make a better life for his son, and his brother, Tanner (Ben Foster), a short-tempered ex-con with a loose trigger finger, decide to take whatever means necessary to stop their local bank chain from foreclosing on their family ranch. The duo decides to cleverly rob branch after branch of the bank, and vengeance seems to be theirs, as they outwit the law.

But the brothers never could have expected to find themselves being pursued by a relentless, foul-mouthed Texas Ranger, Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges), who’s looking for one last triumph on the eve of his retirement, and his partner, Alberto Parker (Birmingham), with whom he regularly scoffs with on the job. As the brothers, who have nothing to live for except their family, plot a final bank heist to complete their plan, they collide with the last honest law man in Texas during a dangerous showdown.

Birmingham generously took the time this week to talk about starring in ‘Hell or High Water’ during an exclusive phone interview. Among other things, the actor discussed how he was drawn to play Alberto in the crime drama because he felt Sheridan crafted an emotionally layered depiction of the challenges people face during times of need, particularly when they want to protect their loved ones. The actor also embraced his natural connection with Bridges on the set, which was aided by their mutual passion for music, which helped set the tone for their characters’ relationship and arcs.

The conversation began with Birmingham discussing what interested him in playing Alberto in ‘Hell or High Water.’ “It always starts with the script, and this was another brilliant script by Taylor Sheridan, who just came off of ‘Sicario’ last year,” the actor divulged. He added that he immediately felt that the script for the crime drama “was so layered, and touched on important matters that people have experienced during the economic slump. There’s also a lot of humor in this story, which overall discusses such a heavy subject matter.” Birmingham also mentioned that he met with Mackenzie to talk about the film, “and I was fortunate enough to be the one they selected.”

The performer also discussed how he prepared for his role in the crime drama after he signed on, including what kind of research he did into being a Texas Ranger. “Well, the film is set in Texas, and I already had some background with the state, since I was born there. My father was also a law enforcement man for 30 years, so I was exposed to that side of the story,” Birmingham revealed.

“We also had a great technical adviser, Joaquin Jackson, who was a Texas Ranger, and unfortunately passed away here not too long ago,” the actor sentimentally shared. “He had written a couple of books about his experiences. It was fascinating research for me,” and Birmingham appreciated being able to hear the lawman’s stories of how he worked. “I brought that research to the character.

Birmingham’s scenes in ‘Hell or High Water’ all take place with Bridges, as the partners investigate the bank robbing brothers. The performer shared what his experience of working with his main co-star was like on the set, especially since the two lawmen often mock each other. He admitted that “It’s always a challenge when you have established relationships between characters, and very little time to establish a foundation for that.

“We were both very fortunate, because we connected over music from the very start. (Jeff’s) been a musician since he was a boy, as I have been. Sp we opened the doors with that kinetic connection, and it just translated over,” Birmingham explained. “It’s a gift to be able to work with such a unique individual, and I couldn’t have asked for a better partner.”

Birmingham added that he thinks actors have different methods to connect with their characters, “but I use music a lot on my iPod. I relate songs to different aspects of scenes. But after you do the research, you have to let it go, and just be the character. It’s then about the presence of the characters, and the context of their circumstances in their scenes.”

In addition to sharing what his experience of working with Bridges on ‘Hell or High Water’ was like, Birmingham also mentioned what his collaboration with Mackenzie was also like while they were developing the overall character arc for Alberto. The performer admitted that his relationship with the director “was particularly interesting, because David is Scottish. So he had taken on a project that’s iconically Texan. It’s a blend of contemporary and classical Western motifs, and their relationship to the landscape.”

The helmer “gave us a lot of freedom to exercise improvisation, and really flesh out the characters in our scenes. But it all starts with the script. The relationship dynamics and the characters” are a mix of both the written story and the improv the actors bring to their roles, Birmingham explained.

Further speaking about improvising in his roles, Birmingham added that it’s a technique that’s important to him, especially when his character has established relationships with other people in the story, like the one between Alberto and Marcus. “I think that’s why the music was so relatable to us. I do a lot of improv, so (the music) frees up a lot of that creative center in your being. You may have researched your appropriate reactions out, but the improvised moments help you be in the space that you’re in with the person that you’re with,” the actor noted.

While ‘Hell or High Water’ is set in Texas, the drama was mainly shot on location in New Mexico. “We didn’t do any studio filming-everything was on location,” Birmingham revealed. “Originally, the movie was called ‘Comancheria,’ which is a region that still exists, and was dominated by the Comanche Indian. It stretched from West Texas into New Mexico, before the state boundaries divided them.”

The performer added that “The atmosphere and landscape was a character itself, in regards to how it was speaking about this somewhat desolate space, which people were feeling emotionally and financially. So (the locations) added a lot to the film. But the variance of the script does it in such a way that there’s a lot of wit and humor, and they’re presented in a way that I think a lot of people can relate to it.” Birmingham also stated that people will better understand the characters’ frustration through the film’s locations.

Further speaking of how the action drama focuses on serious issues as foreclosure, loyalty, morality and criminality, but also includes moments of humor, Birmingham added that he thinks it was extremely helpful to include those moments of comedy. “A lot of it was in the script. But in the relationship between Marcus and Alberto, they had a family kind of dynamic. There was a lot of ribbing back and forth, but mostly just to me,” the actor noted.

“But that’s really authentic, because family members really treat each other that way. If they don’t have the capacity to express their love and affection, they’ll do it in teasing ways. So I thought how we brought that to the characters was really original,” Birmingham also mentioned.

While Alberto and Marcus are pursing Toby and Tanner in order to apprehend the outlaws for their crimes, the story focuses on family loyalty, and brothers trying to maintain their dreams amidst their small town values. The performer added that he feels that ‘Hell or High Water’ emphasizes the importance of maintaining family legacy, and keeping the bank from foreclosing on their family land, as opposed to glorifying crime.

“I think Taylor had written a beautiful portrayal of the motivations of what makes people make the decisions they do. These are mostly good guys who are doing bad things for good reasons,” Birmingham pointed out. “There’s a moral ambiguity when you question how you can provide for your loved ones during a time when you’re feeling helpless and frustrated, because the future’s been pulled out from under you by forces beyond your control. You have to question how you regain” those morals and that control, the performer pointed out.

The movie intriguingly mixes the elements of old Western films, including police officers pursuing robbers, with contemporary American life, including race, guns, the abuses of banks, the disintegration of families and society and the urge to seek your own vengeance. Birmingham noted that he feels that combining both the traditional and modern filmmaking aspects will make the story relatable to all audiences.

“I think the struggles are similar, but you really get the feeling of what it’s like to be connected to the country and land, which the native culture has always done,” the actor explained. “For those people who have lived in that part of the country, they definitely identify with” the film’s messages.

“Going back to the glorification of violence, which the film does not do, the story does present the discussion. It opens the debate of what we would do, and what’s right and wrong,” Birmingham also emphasized. “There are major consequences to the violence in the film. There are very difficult choices the characters must make” while contending with the violence throughout the story, especially during their most desperate moments.

Birmingham added that he doesn’t think ‘Hell or High Water’ is presented as a message film, but it does encourage viewers to have a “discussion about the nature of how we treat each other, and the nature of our relationships with corporations. A generation ago, they took care of you, and you were a loyal employee, but things have changed so much. Maybe being a witness to what this experience feels like” through the film “will make banks and corporations reconsider how they’re treating people. Maybe people will also start to appreciate their family.

“It’s not usual for a small film of this sort to be released during the middle of the summer with the big tentpole movies,” the actor also pointed out. “So we were hoping that our film would offer an alternative choice to the big superhero movies.

“This film offers another option, as it has a lot of heart, humor and excitement, and we feel it’s something that people can relate to. So we’ve been enjoying going around and letting people have the chance to see and talk about it. We couldn’t be more please about its reception, and people are really identifying with it,” Birmingham also shared.

Birmingham concluded the interview by discussing how ‘Hell or High Water’ was shot independently, which is an experience that he cherishes as an actor. Independent films offer “more of a platform for actors to explore their characters, who originate in the script. But these films offer us actors more space for character exploration, as opposed to having the story told more through special effects.” While he noted that he does likes starring in both indie and studio movies, he added that “when you get a good one like this, you’re very grateful and appreciative.”

Watch the official trailer for ‘Hell or High Water’ below.

(Left to right): Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham in ‘Hell or High Water.’
Photo credit: Lorey Sebastian

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As a life-long fan of entertainment, particularly films, television and music, and an endless passion for writing, Karen Benardello decided to combine the two for a career. She graduated from New York's LIU Post with a B.F.A in Journalism, Print and Electronic. While still attending college, Karen began writing for Shockya during the summer of 2007, when she began writing horror movie reviews. Since she began writing for Shockya, Karen has been promoted to the position of Senior Movies & Television Editor. Some of her duties in the position include interviewing filmmakers and musicians, producing posts on celebrity news and contributing reviews on albums and concerts. Some of her highlights include attending such festivals and conventions as the Tribeca Film Festival, the New York Film Festival, SXSW, Toronto After Dark, the Boston Film Festival and New York Comic-Con.

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