Gil Birmingham on Yellowstone season 5's 'maze' and the western's 'slow burn'

Gil Birmingham in Yellowstone
Gil Birmingham in Yellowstone (Image credit: Paramount Network)

Gil Birmingham always knew that Yellowstone was a quality show, it just took viewers a little bit to catch up. While the neo-western, created by Taylor Sheridan, arrived a bit under the radar on Paramount Network in 2018, it has picked up a larger audience and acclaim with each passing season. As Yellowstone season 5 premieres on Sunday, November 13, anticipation for the show has never been higher.

On Yellowstone, Birmingham plays Thomas Rainwater, the chairman of the Confederated Tribes of Broken Rock and the leader of the Broken Rock Indian Reservation in Montana. With the show from the very first episode, Rainwater has often clashed with the Duttons as they both fight for the land they believe rightfully belongs to them, but in recent seasons have forged uneasy alliances as outsiders begin to encroach. Many viewers may also know Birmingham from roles in Under the Banner of Heaven, Animal Kingdom, The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt and Wind River.

What to Watch had the chance to speak with Birmingham about some of the key things that are going to define Yellowstone season 5.

WTW: What has it been like to see the show's fanbase grow from season 1 to where it has reached now, where it is one of the most popular shows on TV?

Gil Birmingham: Well, I mean, it's nothing but all good. The experience though is kind of interesting because we've always known we've had a quality product, a quality show, incredible actors and, you know, phenomenal writing and just one of the best backdrops and landscapes you could dream about working in. But the numbers increasing the way they have been in viewership is only noticeable to us in terms of fans that come up to us, the rest of them are just stats. But we've been so thrilled just to have the experience with each other and doing quality material and just actually ecstatic that the public is embracing it the way it did. It was a little bit of a slow burn, but it's a joyous occasion.

WTW: What has it been like when those fans have come up to you to share their reactions?

GB: Yeah, yeah. You really have a sense that it's a visceral experience for them, you know, when they share that. It varies in its degrees of appreciation and the demographic is pretty wide-ranging. I get a sense that people that come up would not normally approach somebody, an artist, they would just admire it from afar, but they feel compelled to come up and actually share that and express that with us and it's really nice.

WTW: One of the big things for Thomas Rainwater is his relationship with the Duttons. How do you believe that relationship has evolved?

GB: Well I'm not really privy to the dynamics internally of the Dutton family outside of maybe Kacee and Monica, so the relationship is specifically with John and Rainwater. That goes in terms of the mutual respect they have for each other and the reverence that they have for the land. So it presents opportunities to kind of build somewhat of an alliance to counter all other opponents trying to come in. So it gives us a little level ground, but also a mutual respect that we have.

WTW: But it’s fair to assume that there still is that rivalry of Rainwater wanting to get the land back for his people and the Duttons wanting to preserve it for themselves?

GB: Oh definitely. I mean the reasons for wanting the land are quite different, but it's the same objective. The Duttons have a legacy of family ownership and Rainwater sees it as a much bigger picture of reclaiming land that was basically stolen from them and the importance of having that. Because that's the identity that indigenous people have, their connection with mother earth and the responsibility they have to provide the stewardship for that for seven generations down the road and honoring the ancestors that came before us; to take that responsibility seriously and how important it is for us to even have the assurance of being able to continue living in a world that's been basically trying to exterminate us since the colonists have come here. So we need that land to be able to have our own tribal sovereignty and our own self government, and protect it for clean water and child care and … hold the US government to treaties that were made with us from back in the 1800s.

Kevin Costner, Kelly Reilly and Wes Bentley in Yellowstone

John Dutton as governor changes the dynamics for everyone in Yellowstone, says Gil Birmingham (Image credit: Paramount Network)

WTW: Now that John Dutton is governor, how does that change the dynamic between the two?

GB: I think it changes the dynamic with everybody involved within that circle of people that want that land. It's a real curveball that John has set up because it's fracturing the paradigm that had been built since season 4 between Market Equities, Rainwater and John. So it feels like a structure that had been built has just basically crumbled and there's a lot of ambiguity. We don't know what the ramifications are going to be. Rainwater hasn't quite figured that out yet because it's a very self-motivated initiative that John's taking. He doesn’t want to be a politician, he just wants to be in a power position to be able to control policy so he can keep his land.

WTW: Why is this season going to be different than previous seasons?

GB: It’s a bigger maze, you know, at an elevated level. I think there's a little bit more desperation in many of the parties involved and the struggles are more difficult, I think even personally and storyline-wise for the characters and all the components that are involved. We’re bringing in Angela Bluethunder again, that's going to be somewhat of a vulnerable situation for Rainwater. And then, you know, what are the moral and ethical considerations that have to be made in terms of the way you go forward.

Yellowstone season 5 premieres November 13, with new episodes every Sunday at 8 pm ET/PT on Paramount Network in the US. The latest episodes are available on Paramount Plus in the UK on Mondays starting November 14.

Michael Balderston is a DC-based entertainment and assistant managing editor for What to Watch, who has previously written about the TV and movies with TV Technology, Awards Circuit and regional publications. Spending most of his time watching new movies at the theater or classics on TCM, some of Michael's favorite movies include Casablanca, Moulin Rouge!, Silence of the Lambs, Children of Men, One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest and Star Wars. On the TV side he enjoys Peaky Blinders, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, Saturday Night Live, Only Murders in the Building and is always up for a Seinfeld rerun. Follow on Letterboxd (opens in new tab).