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A Chat with Rib Hillis, Star of The Tall Tales of Jim Bridger
by Jay Coffin
The more Rib Hillis researched Jim Bridger’s life, the more he was convinced that he was born to play Bridger in The Tall Tales of Jim Bridger. But it almost didn’t happen. Hillis was originally asked to audition for another role in the series before strategically finding a way to read for Bridger during casting.
In this long-ranging interview, the 53-year-old Hillis explains the details behind that story, as well as how he channeled Bridger during exhausting shoots, his time as an undersized linebacker at the University of Colorado, summer in Montana, the roles that excite him most and what’s on the horizon.
Let’s start with the early days. I know that you attended the University of Colorado. You must be excited about the football team and the headlines the team made this past year.
It was super fun. I played football three years out of high school. One was at Lehigh University. I played as a freshman, where I met a girl who went to Colorado and I transferred to Boulder, sight unseen. Had never been to the place. Ended up falling in love with the mountains. I think it’s served me well. It lends itself to what I do now.
It was back when Coach (Bill) McCartney was the coach. Darian Hagan was the quarterback, Eric Bieniemy was there. I was with the team for three-quarters of a year. Then I woke up one morning—I was 6 feet, 180 pounds and played linebacker. I went to Coach McCartney and told him I think I might be done. He said I should try to stay. I ended up leaving and that’s when my modeling career started a year later.
But it’s been fun to see (Coach Deion Sanders’) Prime Time in Boulder. He’s his own economy. He’s made millions for that program and with the sunglasses he sells. What an amazing example of what an individual can do to a culture, to a team, to an organization. They were not good, and then came out like gangbusters. Think about next year, or two years from now. You have The Rock (Dwayne Johnson) coming to your pre-games. Imagine the kids who want to be a part of that program.
You had a thriving modeling career, then abruptly decided to move to Hollywood? Explain how you made up your mind to make the jump.
I started modeling in Colorado, in Denver. Spent almost three years in Europe, two years living in Paris, and I was kind of tired of drinking cappuccinos and trying to speak French. So I moved to New York for a year and took an acting class. It’s like when you open a can of worms and throw them on the ground. Like many young men, I wasn’t emotional. Hadn’t cried since I was 6 or 7 years old. I did this acting class and I was sitting in this dark room with an audience in front of me there were tears running down my face and I was like holy cow. It took some time to process. What am I going to do now? I don’t know how I can go back to the way things were. So it was either go back to Europe to model, or let’s go to Cali. I had an agent in Los Angeles, so I drove cross country on February 5 of 1996. I drove by myself in a little two-seater Mercedes-Benz. It took me 48 hours straight and I’ve been out here ever since.
I always modeled, but I was able to get on a show. The first big thing I did was an episode of Baywatch Nights, a spinoff. Angie Harmon was the lead and she was my roommate. Then I got on a soap opera (Port Charles as Dr. Jake Marshak). Once that happens and you’re in the world, you just keep hustling.
You’ve played so many different roles over the years with many different ranges. Is there one type of role that you enjoy doing most?
Jim Bridger is the culmination of a lifelong dream. That character, he’s charming, he’s got some wit, lots of adventure, some danger. That encompasses it all. I enjoy characters that are dynamic, that are not perfect and have some flaws. We all have them. I certainly do. So it’s fun to explore and express the side of our personalities that we don’t necessarily want to show the world.
I also love being outdoors. I played a character, Jackson Hardison, in Montana for a movie that I produced and co-wrote, called Kill Shot. That was just a blast. We essentially wrote the movie that we wanted to see and make. It had ice climbing, motorcycles, fight scenes, hunting. It was a dream roll. I enjoyed being on a soap opera but being inside of a sound stage with five cameras shooting at you and tons of makeup, not at the top of my list of the characters and roles I like to play. But a bad day of acting beats an easy day of just about anything else.
Earlier, you discussed what you liked about Jim Bridger. Was there anything specific that intrigued you most about the role?
I went to Bozeman (Montana) 10 years ago and made a movie, Cowboys vs. Dinosaurs, and I had been to Montana, but that was my first time working there. The director of that, Ari Novak and I became best friends. I have been up to Montana so much over the last 10 years it sometimes feels like I live there. I shot Kill Shot there. I go up in the winter to go ice climbing. So when I saw the breakdown of Jim Bridger—that’s the guy, that’s the role that I want to have. I submitted myself for Jim Bridger and I didn’t get the casting for that role. I ended up getting casting for a French-Canadian character, Jacques DuMont, who played in the pilot episode. I said I’ll do this audition, but I really want to audition for Jim Bridger and I got that audition and the rest is history. Being in Montana was a big part of why I wanted to be Jim Bridger. And that lifestyle – being outdoors, riding horses, shooting guns, running around the woods, action adventure. I didn’t know the details of Jim’s life until I got the role and started researching it. The more I read the more I learned the more I was thrilled to play him.
Jim wasn’t a saint, he would defend himself when he had to defend himself, but you don’t read about anything scandalous. Pretty much any character in history has had bad moments, but Jim just seems to come out like a really solid, good guy. He had a lot of traits that we should all try to emulate.
How did playing Jim Bridger meet the expectations of what you thought it would be like?
I found myself being very Jim-like many times. When he was very young he wasn’t the leader but he became the leader of his brigade and he was the old man of the mountains for most of his career out there. Everyone would look to him for advice, he had to manage people.
I get to play the number one character, so I had a role in the production world where I had the opportunity to influence things. I felt like Jim sometimes, checking in with people, how is everyone, everyone good today, camera crew is killing it. It’s 3 o’clock in the morning and everybody is dog tired. There was a lot of me feeling like Jim was speaking through me with how to maintain things and keep people going and keep people safe. There were so many moments of life imitating art imitating life.
In one of the pilot episodes, Jim and (Louis) Vasquez are talking about these trappers from Ohio who unfortunately died and Vasquez was blaming himself for their death. I said it wasn’t your fault, you couldn’t tell them not to go. They came a thousand hard miles like we did to seek their fortune. I’m in the middle of this scene talking to the actor, Tyler Noble, and I had this insane epiphany, that would be like someone telling a young actor: don’t pursue your dreams, stay wherever you are. As Jim would say, and as I would say to a young actor, I can’t tell you not to do this. I can tell you how hard it’s going to be, but I can’t tell you not to do this. It’s your life to make these choices.
Are there any funny stories or memorable moments from the shoot that you can share?
We just worked hard. I love the work. But the mosquitos in June, in Montana … it’s a very short season for mosquitos to breed and do their life and apparently, it’s June. Literally, there are scenes where I’m laying on my back [supposedly] knocked out unconscious, and I look up at the sky when my eyes flutter open and I just see hundreds and hundreds of little black dots of mosquitoes that are silhouetted against the blue sky. Apparently I had dozens on my face. We were in the middle of another scene and the actor who plays the prince had a mosquito on his face sitting there the entire time. Obviously we couldn’t use that. Those moments are humorous now.
Honestly though, when I work, I like to work. I have fun, but my fun is the work. I talk to my fellow actors often about work about the characters, where we are, what we’re doing. It felt like Jim Bridger and his gang and his brigade out there doing our work.
Aside from acting, you’ve also modeled as we discussed, but you’ve also produced, directed and hosted. Which do you like most and how do you go through the process of selecting your next project?
A few years ago I came to the realization that if I want to do this I need to start doing it for myself. That’s when I started really putting my efforts into producing and creating jobs for myself. Maestro, with Bradley Cooper. Unbelievable. I feel so lucky to be living now and watch this contemporary of mine just make stuff. A Star is Born, now Maestro. I aspire to do something to that degree.
I love producing. I love being on set in a production capacity while I’m acting. All too often, actors wait in their trailer. When I was on Jim Bridger, I’d stay as close to the camera as I could at all times. Wherever the camera was that’s where I needed to be because I was in every scene. That’s where I thrive and where I love it. I’m so present and dialed in to what needs to happen, where we’re going. It’s exhausting. You never get a break. But if you’re doing what you love you’re never really working.
As for what’s next, I have a couple projects. My wife (Jessica Morris) is a writer and a very successful actor. We wrote a movie last year that got made in Atlanta, Betrayed at Home, it should be out on Lifetime in the next four or five months. That was a lot of fun. I have two other projects that we’re writing right now and producing. It’s just a matter of finding the time. I love what I do.