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TV series 'Yellowstone' showcases Native American actors

Gil Birmingham plays Thomas Rainwater in a new series that debuts Wednesday, June 20 – one of many Native American actors playing fully realized, modern native characters, a rarity in the industry. 'Many people ... think that we're just historical artifacts,' Mr. Birmingham said. 

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Native American actor Gil Birmingham as Thomas Rainwater, tribal chief and casino owner, in "Yellowstone" premières Wednesday, June 20, 2018.

Emerson Miller/Paramount Network/AP

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"Yellowstone" has everything a worthwhile western should, including breathtaking vistas, battles over land, and Kevin Costner in the lead role.

There's also something rare in the contemporary Paramount Network series debuting Wednesday: prominent Native American storylines and parts, including one filled by an actor formidable enough to stand up to Mr. Costner and his ranching baron.

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Gil Birmingham plays Thomas Rainwater, a tribal chief and casino owner who's ready and able to oppose those whose interests conflict with the well-being of the people he represents.

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Mr. Birmingham, of Comanche ancestry on his father's side, has played his share of Native Americans and others on TV and in films including "Hell or High Water" and "Wind River," both written by Taylor Sheridan, the creator of "Yellowstone."

"Through my career, a rather long career of struggling, mostly, I've been asked, 'What would be your dream character?' and this is it," Birmingham said of his role on Paramount Network's first drama series since its rebranding from Spike TV last January.

Playing a fully realized, modern Indian character is an opportunity that doesn't come often enough and one that counts beyond entertainment, the actor said.

"Many people don't even think that [Native Americans] still exist, that we're just historical artifacts that once upon a time existed," he said, crediting Mr. Sheridan with a "great leap forward" in the 10-part series and on the big screen.

Birmingham tips his hat as well to Costner and his 1990 Oscar-winning period drama "Dances with Wolves," which "really did open the door for people for maybe the first time ... to see the beauty and the depths of the native culture."

Costner, also an executive producer on "Yellowstone," said authenticity is his goal with any project. That's particularly important in the show's portrayal of Native Americans, he said, for whom "a terrible wrong" has occurred and not been remedied.

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Sheridan got the balance "letter perfect," with the nuance and imperfection that characters of every ethnicity warrant, he said.

The series, set in Montana, was filmed there and in Utah.

Costner stars as John Dutton, a die-hard westerner determined to keep his family's holdings intact. There are pressures from without – including land developers, oil and lumber interests, and the adjacent Indian reservation and Yellowstone National Park – and from within, courtesy of his family.

Dutton's offspring include Kayce (Luke Grimes), estranged and living on the reservation with his Native American wife, Monica (Kelsey Asbille); lawyer Jamie (Wes Bentley), eager to please his dad; and heir apparent Lee (Dave Annable), who's running the family operation with Dutton.

The sole daughter, Beth (Kelly Reilly), more than keeps up her end, filling in for her late mother as family matriarch and doubling as a cutthroat business negotiator.

The role of Rainwater was Birmingham's for the taking after he proved himself to Sheridan in "Wind River" and "Hell or High Water," which earned the filmmaker an Oscar bid for best screenplay.

Birmingham couples technical proficiency with artistic expression in his work, Sheridan said, and Rainwater's character required particular deftness.

"It's the ability to be cunning without it being misconstrued as evil," said Sheridan, who recalled advising Birmingham that Rainwater needed to be seen as "an equal force to people who have a real disregard for the rule of law, and yet never lose his goodness."

The actor has a personal connection with his character's story. Rainwater grew up unaware of his ancestry because his adoptive parents withheld his background from him, while Birmingham's late father downplayed his native heritage.

Birmingham left home at 14, ultimately attending the University of Southern California and working as a petrochemical engineer. A foray into bodybuilding served as an improbable wake-up call to embrace the arts.

"I was more intrigued by the aesthetic ability to form a body like a sculpture. In my creative desire, I just knew I couldn't do the engineering anymore. It didn't speak to me, to my spirit," he said.

Another unlikely step – he got a part in Diana Ross's music video "Muscles" – propelled him into acting, although the guitar had captured his imagination as a youngster and he'd hoped for a musical career.

That dream has yet to be fulfilled, but Birmingham said it allowed him to make an instant connection with fellow actor-musician Jeff Bridges when they had just a few days to rehearse their roles as longtime friends in "Hell or High Water."

Birmingham marvels at what's happened since he decided as a teenager he would rather be on the street in San Francisco (before becoming a ward of the court and entering a boys' home) and find his own path.

"The events of my life unfolded in such a way that they placed me in places I would never have imagined. And the only way that I could move forward was to trust," Birmingham said.

This story was reported by The Associated Press.