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[The following interview contains spoilers for the entirety of Yellowstone.]
As soon as he heard the name Taylor Sheridan during a phone call, Luke Grimes knew he had to be a part of whatever the Oscar-nominated filmmaker was working on at the time. That moment was five years ago now, and the project ended up being Yellowstone, cable’s biggest show since the glory days of The Walking Dead.
Grimes plays Kayce Dutton, the prodigal son of John Dutton (Kevin Costner), who’s also an expert horseman and former Navy SEAL. Kayce, who now serves as the livestock commissioner, continues to find himself between two fires as he’s compelled to protect his father’s Yellowstone Ranch from various threats, but in doing so, his own nuclear family is routinely put in jeopardy.
“Kayce’s vision quest at the end of season four could possibly be a sign that things are going to have to change,” Grimes tells The Hollywood Reporter.
Kayce is also a central figure in the series’ overarching storyline, which is the generational conflict between Broken Rock Reservation and the Dutton family. Reservation chief Thomas Rainwater (Gil Birmingham) strives to reclaim his people’s land from the Dutton patriarch (Costner), and since Kayce once lived on the Reservation with his Native American wife, Monica (Kelsey Asbille), many viewers believe that his dual allegiance will be a major factor in this story’s outcome.
“I know he’s central to how the story unfolds, as a lot of characters in the show are. So I really can’t wait to see how instrumental he is in bringing this thing to a close one day,” Grimes says.
As far as how much life is left in the series and its quickly expanding universe, Grimes isn’t so sure anymore.
“I know what I’ve heard firsthand from the source himself. But I also heard that before it became the biggest show on the planet, and when something becomes this big, I know there’s a lot of pressure to keep it going. But I do know that Taylor would never let it go past its due date,” Grimes shares.
In a recent conversation with THR, Grimes also looks back at the Clint Eastwood movie that first put him on Sheridan’s mind. Then he addresses some of the show’s most debated moments including Jamie’s (Wes Bentley) adoption and Kayce’s cryptic line in season four, “I saw the end of us.”
When you first went out for this role, what were things like for you at the time?
Man, it was probably 2017. I was doing a film outside L.A., in the Acton area, so I was driving back and forth every day. And then I got a call on one of my drives from John Linson, who is one of the [Yellowstone] creators. And he just said, “Got this Taylor Sheridan script.” And I was like, “Well, you have me right there. Whatever it is, I want to be in it.” I’d just seen Hell or High Water, and I obviously loved Sicario, so I was already excited. And then I got sent the script and read it and just immediately was like, “OK, what do I have to do to get this part? Kayce is my favorite character I’ve ever read.” But every character was amazing in that script. And I had already started having visions of being on horseback every day for work. So I went and made a tape and just started hoping and praying that I could be a part of this thing. And then I got a call from Taylor a couple of days later and he said, “We need to get you riding a horse immediately.” And that was that.
And American Sniper first put you on Taylor’s radar?
Yeah, I heard that he’d seen that film with John while he was writing it, which was a couple of years before it actually ended up going. So just the correlation between Kayce being a Navy SEAL and then seeing me do that on American Sniper, I think, clued him in that maybe I could play a role like that. And thank God. I don’t know if that helped my chances or got me to the top of the list or what, but I do know that he saw that movie and that he’s a big fan of Clint Eastwood, as am I.
Nobody expects that their show is going to become a ratings juggernaut, but did you feel like the odds were in your favor?
I mean, I felt like they were just hearing Taylor’s name … I already loved the world that he created in these modern-day Western films, so I knew that there’s an audience for that. Obviously, when you hear Costner is going to be involved, you’re like, “Well, he brings an audience of his own.” And being that it was my favorite script I had ever read in the 15 years I’d been doing this at that point, I thought, “Yeah, I really think that this has a chance of finding its audience.” Obviously, I didn’t expect it to become as huge as it is, but I knew there was a built-in audience, who already love Westerns. And then the coasts eventually jumped on board. So it’s just a testament to Taylor’s writing. He has a way of writing things that sort of hit home for everyone. There’s something for everybody in a show like Yellowstone, even if Westerns aren’t your thing.
Like you said, the show really took off once the coastal audiences caught up to it during the pandemic. When did that surge in popularity first become apparent to you in your day-to-day life?
From season three to season four, there was a marked difference between just walking around in my day-to-day. And who knows 100 percent the reason for that, but obviously, we had all gone through quarantine and I think people were just watching a lot more TV in general. People had more time on their hands to binge these series, and during that time, some people gave it a chance. There was a big-time jump between season three and season four airing, and when that season four premiere happened, you could just feel that something was very different. Numbers are numbers, but when I walk around and walk through an airport at this point, it’s gotten very different.
I know Taylor has a “Cowboy Camp” that he puts his actors through, so how proficient have you become at riding, roping and the rest of the cowboy stuff?
We all do our best to get as good at it as we possibly can. It just makes the production side of things go more smoothly. When we’re shooting this show up in Montana, we’re allowed to ride whenever we want on our days off. They’ve been really cool about letting the actors continue to sharpen their skills on horseback as much as they want. So it’s up to you how much work you want to put in. So it’s not only helpful for production, but it’s also become very fun at this point. We’re four years into trying to learn this stuff and you get the bug after a little while. So hats off to Paramount and all the people who let us do these cowboy camps and help us learn. At the end of the day, it really does add something onscreen when you can see an actor actually ride their horse.
Do you do a cowboy camp before every season?
Yeah, I think it’s been every season. There might have been one where we didn’t, but we did it last year and we’re doing it again this year. It’s sort of evolved over the years. The first one was a mule packing trip with some of the actors going miles into the backcountry. (Laughs.) I don’t think we could do that every time just because it proved to be such a challenge to even organize that and make sure we all made it back safe, being the city slickers that we all were at the time. And this year, I think we’re going down to Texas to Taylor’s ranch to do something. But like I said, it’s been different every year, so I don’t know what to expect other than that it’s just so great to get back in the saddle, to use a bad pun, with all of the other actors and the wranglers and get everybody on the same page. It gets everything working like a well-oiled machine, I guess.
With Taylor now working on 17 shows at the same time, how available is he to you these days?
(Laughs.) Man, you’ve got to hand it to the guy. He’s written Yellowstone single-handedly, which just doesn’t happen. And if it does, it’s not often that someone can do that. He not only wrote it, but he directed the entire first season single-handedly. So he still has his hand on it as much as he needs to in order to make the show that he wants. Obviously, he’s a busy guy and he wants to make all of his shows good. So over these past four years, what he’s done is get a team of people to work so closely with him that they’re starting to see his vision the way he sees it. He would like to get things to a place where he can give these other shows their due attention and still maintain Yellowstone’s high quality.
During this conversation, I’ve noticed that your speaking voice is not as low as Kayce’s. Did you make the choice to speak in a lower register since Kayce’s father, John Dutton (Coster), has a gravelly voice?
When I first made that tape, it was a choice I made then, so I hadn’t seen what Costner was going to do. And I actually love what he does; it’s a big choice. So it probably just came from the idea of, “I lived in L.A. for 16 years, but Kayce has been in Afghanistan and Montana.” And the world of Yellowstone is just a little harsher and a little darker, so I just felt like giving him something in his voice, even something in his physicality, that just felt heavier than my own. These scripts are dark. They’re very dramatic. What these people go through is mind-blowingly hard. So I just thought, “If Kayce’s lived this life that’s never been easy, then it should be just a little bit harder for him to spit things out.”
Protecting his father’s ranch has put Kayce’s own nuclear family in harm’s way. His son (Brecken Merrill) has not only been kidnapped, but he’s also killed someone to protect his mother (Kelsey Asbille) during a massacre. Even Kayce himself was nearly killed. So how much longer can he have a foot in both camps? Will he have to make the tough choice sooner rather than later?
Yeah, I feel like that’s been Kayce’s storyline from day one. The great thing about this show is that every character has their arc going simultaneously, and Kayce is always in this rock and a hard place kind of story where he and Monica are star-crossed lovers that weren’t meant to be. There’s a Romeo and Juliet aspect to that, with houses divided. There’s the Reservation and Yellowstone, and how they’ve always clashed with each other. So yeah, ultimately, that’s where we all want to see this story go, but I have no idea where it’s going. Kayce’s vision quest at the end of season four could possibly be a sign that things are going to have to change. He has the vision of the woman who tells him he needs to choose a path, and so you get the sense that maybe some kind of change is coming.
After his vision quest, Kayce told Monica, “I saw the end of us.” Who’s the “us” in that equation? Kayce and Monica? The Dutton family? Civilization?
So Taylor and I have this understanding that he knows how this thing ends for everyone. He knows how it ends for Kayce, and he’s known since he wrote the beginning. He actually said that he knew the end first. I’ve actually really gotten into the idea of never knowing how this ends until I get to read that last script. It’d be a great payoff as an actor to go through the journey. But Taylor and I sat down and he told me just enough about what those two paths looked like and just enough about that statement. It wasn’t enough that I know what’s going to happen or where he goes from here, but it was enough that I could say that line and have an idea of what I was talking about.
As far as the generational conflict between the Reservation and the Dutton’s Yellowstone ranch, it really seems like Kayce is going to be the key to that resolution. He’s the bridge between both worlds, and he’s accepted by people on both sides.
Yeah, I’m really interested to see how that plays out. I mean, I know he’s central to how the story unfolds, as a lot of characters in the show are. So I really can’t wait to see how instrumental he is in bringing this thing to a close one day. I think I always lean into that part of Kayce, where he’s trying to do the right thing even if he ends up doing something really strange, bad or messed up. He never really has much of a choice, or a good choice, for that matter. There’s no clear cut, “This is the right thing to do.” So that just gives you a lot of good stuff to play as an actor. There’s so much subtext to everything he does, so that’s the fun stuff, even if it’s hard to do.
There’s been some debate about whether Kayce knows Jamie (Bentley) is adopted. In season three, Jamie said, “I need some advice, brother … if I can still call you that,” and Kayce responded, “Till the day you die, you better never call me anything else.” Do you view that exchange as Kayce knowing?
Well, the way that I said that line kind of implied that even though I know what I know now, you’re still my brother. That’s how I sort of interpreted that, even though there is no scene written where Kayce discovers this. I just feel like when the entire audience discovered it, it wasn’t something that he was totally in the dark about. And it’s funny you ask because I could be completely wrong about that, but the line always felt to me like, “I know, but it doesn’t change the fact that we grew up together. I love you and you love me. This is stronger than biological stuff.”
Generally speaking, what can you say about Kayce in season five?
Honestly, I one hundred percent do not know. I haven’t read a script yet. We start in a few weeks, so I’ll probably start getting scripts right before we show up. That’s usually the drill. (Laughs.)
Hopefully, he gets to use more of his Navy SEAL skills. I quite like the moments where he has to put on a vest and pick up a weapon. I suppose it reminds me of Sicario.
(Laughs.) Yeah, because of some things going on in the world, you never want to glorify that stuff, but it’s part of movies and stories. Even Shakespeare had sword fights. So it’s just part of drama, but hopefully, no one gets the wrong idea and thinks that we’re trying to glorify that in any way.
Do you feel like the show is approaching its endgame with season five? Or could it go eight to 10 seasons?
As far as how long Taylor wants it to go, I know what I’ve heard firsthand from the source himself. But I also heard that before it became the biggest show on the planet, and when something becomes this big, I know there’s a lot of pressure to keep it going. But I do know that Taylor would never let it go past its due date. We’re never going to jump the shark. So I’m sure he could figure out a way to make it a little longer and keep its quality as good as he wants it to be. But I don’t know. I wouldn’t want it to go past its due date either. I mean, it’s fun to do. I love the cast and crew, but once any great show outlives its material, it’s no fun for anybody.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity. Yellowstone airs on the Paramount Network and streams on Peacock.
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