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[This story contains spoilers from Yellowstone‘s season five midseason finale, “A Knife and No Coin.”]
Before Summer Higgins got sentenced to 15 years in prison for civil disobedience and assault on Yellowstone, Piper Perabo had her own experience with a protest arrest.
The actress — who plays the environmental activist turned adviser to Gov. John Dutton (Kevin Costner) on the hit Paramount Network series — was among the more than 200 people who were arrested in 2018 during the confirmation hearings for Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh. The Covert Affairs and Coyote Ugly star disrupted the Sept. 4, 2018 hearing and was ejected from the courtroom.
“I told [creator Taylor Sheridan] the story, and I didn’t really know what he was going to do with it or where it was going to go,” Perabo tells The Hollywood Reporter. (Later, while already cast on Yellowstone, she also got arrested at a Jane Fonda climate change protest.)
What the prolific TV creator and Yellowstone boss did with Perabo’s story was craft an arc for Summer’s activism in season four. After being sentenced in the fourth season finale, she returned for season 5, the midseason finale of which aired this past Sunday, so she could cozy up to the Dutton family patriarch, much to the chagrin of his daughter Beth (Kelly Reilly). One of John’s early moves as newly elected Montana governor was to commute Summer’s sentence to house arrest, which moved her onto the Yellowstone ranch and under the same roof with Beth. The two women, who disagree socially and politically, hashed out their hatred for one another earlier this season, with an epic fistfight at the family home.
“It’s been a really a wild ride, because I never know where [the story is] going,” says Perabo. “For season five, Taylor called me and said, ‘I think you and Beth need to have a knock-down, drag-out fight on the front lawn.’ So all I knew about this season was, I guess I get out of prison because I get to fight Beth.”
After warming up to the cattle ranch way of life, Summer accepts an offer to become John’s environmental adviser, and she and the governor share a kiss at the county fair in a public display of their relationship. But Perabo warns that sweet moment could be fleeting, given how the midseason finale cliffhanger seems to set up a crash course between Beth and Jamie (Wes Bentley): After being clued into the “train station” dumping ground of bodies by generations of Dutton men, Beth proposes to her father that they have Jamie killed to wipe away the threat of impeachment — at the same moment Jamie explores putting out a hit on Beth.
In the chat with THR below, Perabo shares her take on Summer and John’s relationship (and the experience of having her husband direct her and Costner’s big kiss). “I always tease Kelly Reilly that I’m going to become her stepmom,” she says with a laugh. She also weighs in on the “red-state show” conversation around Yellowstone and the anticipated Dutton-off between the two most dangerous siblings when Yellowstone returns in the summer of 2023 (a specific date has yet to be announced).
When you first signed on for the role of Summer, how many episodes did you expect and when did Taylor Sheridan come to you with plans to expand the role?
Taylor is one of those writers where you really have no idea where it’s going. He and I knew each other socially, because my husband [Stephen Kay] works on Yellowstone [as a director-executive producer]. I had told Taylor over dinner this story of how I got arrested when I protested the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court. And he was really interested. Taylor’s one of those cowboy-poet styles, an old spirit who loves a good yarn. When he hears a good story that he hasn’t heard before, he wants all the details. So I told him the story, and I didn’t really know what he was going to do with it or where it was going to go.
I could guess that environmental activists are not really on the Dutton side. But once you zoom out with Summer, she is, in a way, on the Dutton side. So it’s been really a wild ride, because I never know where it’s going. Taylor will say something to me like, “I think you and Kelly [Reilly] should get in a big fight.” (Laughs.) And that’s kind of all I know! I don’t know when or why, or anything more. He has these ideas kind of rolling around in his head.
And you also got arrested in one of Jane Fonda’s climate change protests.
Yeah. I think I got arrested for Jane Fonda once I was already doing Yellowstone [in November 2019]. So one kind of kept layering on top of the other.
So, did you give any input into Summer’s protest and arrest storyline on Yellowstone?
Not really. I told Taylor all of my stories and also stories I knew of other women activists who were arrested for civil disobedience. And then he kind of goes off and rides horses and is out mending fences, or wherever he goes when he’s thinking about it. And then it all comes back at you. There isn’t really a back-and-forth, which I think is sort of exciting because it goes through his imagination and you don’t really know what’s going to happen. I remember when Kelly got the script for the [Beth and Summer] fight. I had already read it, and she came down to the hotel lobby and was like, “Did you see the fight?” And I said, “Yeah, I’m gonna kick your ass.” She’s like, “No, you’re not! Beth is gonna win!”
That fight was wild. I was going to ask if you advocated for your characters to get more punches in.
It was so much fun to do. And, it was so exhausting! I probably couldn’t have taken one more punch. That fight took sooo long to shoot.
Did you do the fighting yourselves?
We did! We do have stunt people in case, but we did [the fight]. Except for the one over-the-shoulder hip toss that I’m not strong enough to do. But everything else, we could do. Kelly is so game. Especially in that sundress. I was like, “Do you really want to wear a strappy sundress?” And she was like, “Yeah, I’ll be good.” It was totally brutal. And we loved it.
We don’t see Summer in jail. But she comes out differently after her time behind bars at the beginning of season five. How did you fill in the gaps of what her time inside was like?
I read a lot about women’s prisons in Montana, and 11 months is quite a long time. When Summer gets out, I don’t think she knows exactly why she’s being released. And I think it’s interesting that she doesn’t call anyone. You don’t see Summer call her folks to say, “I’m out.” She didn’t call any friends. The only person waiting for her is John. And that idea from the beginning of the season really meant a lot to me [in playing her], because I realized how alone Summer is and how important the Dutton family would be to her. Especially when you spend time incarcerated, you kind of realize who is there for you no matter what, and who’s not. I think Summer is pretty alone in this world. That’s why the relationship with Kelsey [Asbille]’s character, Monica, is so important. I mean, she’s becoming friends with Beth. Think about how bad it has to be when you’re becoming friends with the chick who beat you up. (Laughs.)
In the midseason finale, Summer and Beth are more amicable after the fight. But Beth gives her a few digs, like when she asks (in a more explicit way) where Summer’s father lives so she can go have sex with him so the women are even. How often do you two break in your scenes?
It’s her delivery. She says it so point-blank. Like, “Oh, how about this idea?” We do laugh. She and I kind of crack each other up. I know what to expect from Beth, but I don’t always know how Kelly is going to dish it out. Some actresses get so wound up and go so big, and Kelly can be so matter-of-fact, which I think is part of what makes Beth so strong. As dramatic as she is, she’s not histrionic. I sort of love that she’s more of a shotgun. And I think that’s cool.
It makes her more terrifying.
Totally. In this episode when I say, “I have a peanut allergy and I sleep with a knife,” I’m trying to defend myself. But I think you see Beth thinking, “Oh, that’s cool.” That’s what calms her down; she feels more at home with Summer because she sleeps with a knife. She’s like, maybe we can now be friends.
Now they have a mutual enemy with Jamie Dutton (Wes Bentley) pushing for John Dutton’s (Kevin Costner) impeachment. Will there be less time for Summer and Beth to shoot the shit in the back half of the season?
I think Beth always has time for a little bullshit. It keeps her going, in a weird way. And as long as I’m not, ya know, grinding on her dad when she’s in the living room, I think we can probably keep things pretty calm — as long as I don’t drink her fucking Tito’s. I think our common enemies are more dangerous than they have been in the past, so it’s important to set our differences aside for clear and present dangers.
Summer and John’s relationship is transactional: He gets her help as his environmental adviser, and she gets freedom from prison by living with him under house arrest. But their kiss at the fair felt like this little rom-com dropped into the middle of Yellowstone.
The whole fair made me think Taylor must have had a great summer. (Laughs.) Because all of a sudden, this scene comes — the cowboys are winning the bear [stuffed animal], we had so much fun. Forrie [J. Smith], the actor who plays Lloyd, they kept giving him the bear between takes, because everybody else had someone to lean on. You could even tell between the cast that it was this real kind of nostalgic summer scene. And that was really fun to do, because I feel like there’s never time to take a deep breath. There’s so much danger in Yellowstone. So, I love that fair. But I don’t know if it was a sign of things to come between Summer and John, or one dreamy moment that may never happen again.
Your husband, Stephen Kay, directed that episode. What was it like to have him direct you kissing Kevin Costner?
(Laughs.) The good news is there was a hat between us and the camera lens.
Did you two really kiss under the hat?
Yes. We discussed it at one point. You know when kids want to drive a car, and they hold a frisbee and go like this (miming driving left to right wildly), and it’s not actually how you drive a car? You can tell when actors are in a trailer and the car isn’t really being pulled. It’s always better to just do. I kissed Kevin before in the kitchen and a couple of other times, so we were like, “Let’s just make this right.” Also, John Dutton never gets a moment of joy. Give John Dutton the kiss — my God, the guy has to go through so much. With some guys you’re like, “You deserve the kiss.”
And Lilli Kay [John’s assistant Clara Brewer], who is also in your family, had another kiss at the fair.
Yes! She’s my step-daughter. It’s like the season of Lilli Kay right now — the new season of Your Honor, [which she’s in,] is coming out.
People really reacted to her kiss, the first gay kiss on Yellowstone. It was such a quick moment onscreen, did you anticipate that reaction?
It was a family day for us. (Laughs.) There was a big reaction. Honestly, that day was so humongous, if you’re inside that shooting day [we didn’t anticipate it]. Yellowstone bought a fair. It was such a massive day that the kiss didn’t register to me as much because there were churro vendors and funnel cake guys — real ones! When Taylor Sheridan wants a scene at the fair, they don’t just buy a merry go ‘round. They bought a whole fair — during high summer. In Montana, except for the rodeo, that’s attraction No. 2 on the list. So when the fair came to town, they cleared the rodeo grounds and put the fair in the rodeo grounds.
We broke just at magic hour for lunch, because there are scenes that happen at day and at night. They had put all these mannequins and CPR dummies with background costumes on the rides, because you can’t ask real people to ride the Tilt-a-Whirl for 14 hours. So the crew took all the dummies out at lunch and we all rode the rides. Gator [Gabriel Guilbeau], who plays [Dutton ranch cook] Gator on the show, is also our real crafty [in charge of the show’s craft services]. Gater and our COVID supervisor were on one of those Tilt-a-Whirls by themselves screaming; makeup and hair were getting funnel cakes. As fun as that scene is for the fans of Yellowstone, that day was so epic for the cast and crew. With the pandemic, at least on the sets I’ve been on, people are so joyful to be together and work together again that when you’re together and someone buys you a fair? Just imagine Gator on the ride, howling in the dark. It was really fun. There was huge joy and it was just an amazing day.
How will Summer’s role evolve in the second half of the season?
I wish I could tell you that. I don’t know anything. Taylor is the most mysterious poet; he doesn’t tell me anything. I, at one point, said, “I’ll just call Taylor and ask him.” And someone said it’s horse season and Taylor has to sell horses. As much as he is knowable, he’s also a mysterious cowboy. So I don’t know where it’s going.
You haven’t shot the back half yet?
No. We shoot in spring, pretty soon.
Do you get scripts episode-by-episode?
Sometimes he will give a chunk. It kind of depends. He’s not a schedule guy.
Then we can play some fun hypotheticals, because you don’t know the answers.
Right. I won’t be taken to the “train station” for what I tell you, because I honestly don’t know.
Who do you think is the Yellowstone ranch’s biggest threat, John or Jamie?
That’s honestly a team question: Are you Team John or Team Jamie? And as much as I love Wes Bentley and I feel like he really crushed the last episode — I really like Jamie when he’s on fire; The Jamie Dutton Show might be a new show. But, I’m Team John. If John Dutton goes down, I’m worried about Summer. And I’d like to see where the love affair goes.
So then, are you rooting for Beth to kill Jamie? Because that was the big midseason finale ending: that Beth wants to have Jamie killed, and Jamie wants to have Beth killed.
I feel like Beth got so much information about her father in this last episode, and Beth is such a loose cannon that I’m not sure that it’s so straightforward. That now that she knows, she just joins the execution squad that is the “train station” members? Beth always does things [you won’t expect]. Remember when she kidnapped that priest to marry her and Rip [Cole Hauser]? She’s very casual and never goes in a straight line. So now that she knows what’s up with the “train station,” I’m not sure it’s going to be that straightforward. And I’m hoping Beth stays on John’s side. That’s the tone I got. But she was definitely caught blindsided in those final scenes at the Governor’s mansion, and I’m not really sure what that does to her.
There’s been a lot of conversation about this being a “red-state” show. I’ve seen an argument that because Summer has been taken over to Team Dutton that the liberal has become a conservative. What are your thoughts on this conversation?
I don’t really pay attention to it, because I’m not sure it’s very useful for how to play Summer. But what I like about doing it is that Taylor and I don’t always agree politically. And through knowing each other socially and making this show, we realize that we fight for a lot more common things than we argue about. I feel like that’s happening with John and Summer, and I would hope we can have that happen in America. So to be part of the conversation where people are trying to see what common good we can work on together, and then we’ll deal with maybe the more complicated issues once we’ve got all the stuff we agree on settled? That’s pretty cool.
As a person who is politically active and an activist, I want to find that common ground. And not just, “Oh, nobody likes Daylight Saving Time.” I want to find the more complicated common ground. And I feel like Yellowstone does that. Living in Western Montana for so much of the year, I live in a very rural community, and I follow Montana politics and the issues people are really concentrating on. Even when we go to the farmer’s market in Montana in our town, there’s a Montana Republicans booth and a Montana Democrats booth. I’m really interested in where I work and what’s going on there.
Some people see the show one way, and some the other. I think there are a lot of both sides in Yellowstone. Almost no show has as many Native American leads as Yellowstone does, except for Reservation Dogs. And to me, that’s very cool and modern and diverse. So there are a lot of things where I think Yellowstone is bigger than just one color.
Is there any one issue the show tackles that you hope the audience is paying attention to?
Native American representation. I know it’s really important to Taylor and Mo [Brings Plenty], who plays Mo, the right-hand to Gil Birmingham’s character [Chief Rainwater]. He is also the liaison between tribes and the show, and the show takes that really seriously. Even in the last episode, when John goes to advocate to stop the pipeline when Rainwater is speaking. It’s not just American flags behind them, there are tribal flags behind them as well. I think the show has a real awareness of diversity of tribes and tribal issues in the United States, and I think that’s really cool.
Lastly, if you could play another character in the Taylor Sheridan-verse, who would it be?
There are a lot of them. I wish he would write another Sicario, because I would love to be in Sicario with Benecio [del Toro]. I love those movies and I think they’re so cool. If Sly needs a break, I would love to play Sylvester Stallone’s character in Tulsa King. Because I think I would look amazing in his suits and I think Tulsa King is a pretty fun world.
Interview edited and condensed for clarity.
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Robert De Niro