Luke Grimes on Yellowstone’s liberal critics: ‘A lot of people see a cowboy hat and think, that’s not for me’

The actor talks to Tom Murray about the politicisation of the hit western, Kevin Costner’s exit, working with Bradley Cooper and Ari Aster, and Beyoncé’s controversial arrival on the country scene

Friday 26 April 2024 13:14 BST
Luke Grimes: ‘I’m so scared that I’m gonna watch Yellowstone and not like what I did’
Luke Grimes: ‘I’m so scared that I’m gonna watch Yellowstone and not like what I did’ (Courtesy of Paramount)

I felt like an idiot for the first year of Yellowstone wearing a cowboy hat,” admits Luke Grimes, with just a touch of grit. “It takes a while before that doesn’t feel ridiculous. Now, I barely notice it.” The 40-year-old, who plays Kevin Costner’s youngest son in the hit ranch drama, is describing his early days in a Stetson from his home in Montana. He’s in a sun-bleached baseball cap today, over FaceTime, dirty blond hair spilling out, a scraggly beard accentuating the tanned face of a leading man. Behind him, a deer antler chandelier twinkles in his wood-beamed living room and large windows face out onto the boundless plains.

These days, Grimes is so comfortable in the saddle that he’s taken things a step further and begun moonlighting as a country singer. On Saturday, for a second year running, he will be bringing his diaristic brand of rootsy Americana to Stagecoach Festival, “Coachella’s country cousin”. He’s hoping the day will go smoother than last time. “When I walked on stage, there was nothing coming out of my earpieces at all. I couldn’t hear anything,” he recalls of the 2023 festival. “It took about a song and a half before I could actually hear the music. That was my fourth ever show.”

While he’s now best known as gun-slinging ranch hand Kayce Dutton in Yellowstone, Grimes grew up 1,500 miles east of Montana, in the US Midwest. The son of a Pentecostal pastor, he was raised in Dayton, Ohio – a small city of 100,000 people. Church, he says, was the “biggest part” of his life growing up, and it was drumming in youth group bands that nurtured his deep passion for music. “There’s a very musical aspect to your life if you go to church,” he says, “there’s live music every week.” Music, Grimes adds, quenched his thirst for creativity as a young person in a town without a lot of opportunities in the arts. “Before I had teeth, I always said I was gonna be a movie star but there was nothing I could do about that in Ohio and so music became this thing I could do alone in my basement and get better and better and better at.”

It’s a common trope in contemporary country to sing the praises of your hometown, with tracks named “Austin”, “Tennessee Don’t Mind” and “Tucson Too Late” all in the charts right now. In his song “Oh Ohio”, Grimes flips the cliché on its head, riffing on a more complex relationship with the gloomy Midwestern state. “Did someone steal your sunshine? Have you always been this grey?” he croons. “I don’t know if it’s me or it’s you, but one of us has changed.” Grimes compares the tune to a breakup song. “I always knew I had to leave, but there are parts of that experience in that community that will always be a huge part of who I am,” he says. “There’s kind of a bittersweetness in the way that I think about it.”

Yellowstone season 5 trailer

After leaving Ohio, Grimes made his way to New York to study acting at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts – a move his parents remortgaged their house to support. The investment took a while to reap dividends as Grimes was cast in small “heart-throb”-type parts in film and TV. He auditioned and failed to land Robert Pattinson’s role of Edward Cullen in Twilight before getting his vampire fangs for six episodes of HBO’s True Blood. His big break finally came in American Sniper in 2014. Grimes was “something like fourth on the call sheet”, he remembers, behind Bradley Cooper as the real-life Navy Seal sniper Chris Kyle. “It went all the way to get nominated for Oscars and made a kajillion dollars,” Grimes notes. “That was the first time my family realised maybe I’d be able to do this for a living.”

At the time, Cooper “had really only done The Hangovers and more comedy stuff”, Grimes recalls, “and he was going to play Chris Kyle, this absolute beefcake of a war hero? Then I showed up in Morocco [where Sniper was filmed] and saw Bradley. He was huge, dude. He was massive. He looked like a different person. And I was like, ‘Oh, he’s really doing it!’” As taken aback as Grimes was by Cooper’s bulk, he was even more impressed by his character. “Out of the people that I’ve worked with that are at the highest level – and I’ve gotten to be around a few now – Bradley is the kindest, coolest, wants-to-help-the-younger-guys-up kind of a guy that I’ve been around.”

Alter ego: Luke Grimes the country artist
Alter ego: Luke Grimes the country artist (Getty)

After a foray into the leather-strapped world of Fifty Shades (Grimes played Christian Grey’s promiscuous brother, Elliot, in all three films), Grimes landed the defining role of his career so far in 2018: Yellowstone. For the past six years, he has portrayed Kayce – a part he plays with a simmering volatility – on Taylor Sheridan’s western drama about a ranch owner (Costner) and his warring family. “If I could have figured out my dream role at the age that I got that job, it would have been Kayce,” he says. The youngest of the Dutton siblings is arguably the toughest, but he also has deep emotional trauma and a complicated relationship with his wife – a Native American whose tribe is fighting to reclaim the Dutton estate. Grimes holds the role so sacred that he refuses to watch the show. “I’m so scared that I’m gonna watch it and not like what I did,” he says.

At the heart of Yellowstone is the right to own land – lots of land, and to defend that land with a national military-level arsenal of firearms. For that reason, among others, it’s been labelled a “conservative fantasy” by liberal audiences. Grimes is frustrated by the politicisation of the series. “I think a lot of people see a cowboy hat and a horse and they think, ‘Oh, that’s not for me, those people believe differently.’ And it’s almost like they take these flawed characters in the show and chalk it up to some sort of weird belief that they’ve put on them. Meanwhile, you can have a terrible person like [Succession’s] Logan Roy, who lives in an apartment in Manhattan, and that’s fine. That guy’s a total piece of s***! But that’s OK. It’s so funny to me because…” he trails off. “I just don’t understand why that has to immediately equal some political belief. And I don’t think it does.”

Perhaps it’s the fact he’s walking around his house with me on his iPhone but our back-and-forth has an air of comfortable informality. He has an infectious “yuk yuk yuk” of a chuckle, which often follows a joke made at his own expense. The conversation is just getting political when suddenly Grimes announces: “Oh, we have a visitor.” He spins his camera round to reveal a lythe Bengal cat slinking across the dining table in front of him. His name? Buck, of course.

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Bradley Cooper (left) and Luke Grimes on the set of ‘American Sniper’
Bradley Cooper (left) and Luke Grimes on the set of ‘American Sniper’ (Warner Bros Pictures)

Like Yellowstone, country music has become a similar touchstone for political conservatism. Last summer, Oliver Anthony’s viral track “Rich Men North of Richmond”, with lyrics railing against taxes, welfare cheats and the obese, became a rallying cry for right-wing pundits. “It doesn’t concern me personally because I don’t feel the need to get super political with my own music,” Grimes says. “If listening to music was like looking at the news then I would never f***ing do it.”

At the same time, country is also having a huge cultural moment. We’re speaking the day after Beyoncé shook up the genre with her new album, Cowboy Carter. The critically acclaimed record was inspired by the backlash against her 2016 Country Music Awards performance, the “Halo” singer later revealed. Grimes has no such qualms with Queen Bey’s arrival in the country scene. “It’s music,” he says. “It’s not rocket science. People are trying to make sounds that make you have a better time. Why would you be mad at that? She’s one of the most talented people on Earth, so hell yeah, if she likes country too, that’s great.”

As Grimes’s music career is taking flight, the Yellowstone chapter of his life is drawing to a close. Amid reports of a falling out between Sheridan and Costner, the drama will end with its forthcoming fifth season, which begins filming in May. On Costner’s acrimonious exit, Grimes will only say: “Whatever happened there is unfortunate if it’s changed anything about how the show was going to unfold. I know, [Costner] got busy with his movies that were like passion projects [the newly announced Horizon: An American Saga for one]. At a certain point, you gotta do what you gotta do, man; you gotta do what you love.”

Cowpoke: Luke Grimes on horseback in ‘Yellowstone’
Cowpoke: Luke Grimes on horseback in ‘Yellowstone’ (Courtesy of Paramount)

Grimes is next set to star in the A24 black comedy Eddington. It’s the latest project from Ari Aster – the beguiling young director behind horrors Hereditary and Midsommar. As with all of Aster’s projects, details have been kept highly under wraps, but the cast of Eddington is stacked with Hollywood royalty including Joaquin Phoenix, Pedro Pascal, Emma Stone and Austin Butler. All of Grimes’s scenes, he tells me, are opposite Phoenix, “who’s been a hero of mine for years”. “He probably doesn’t want me to talk about him,” Grimes laughs.

The transition from Sheridan’s blunt-spoken cowboy drama to an esoteric Aster movie is not one many could have envisioned, but Grimes is embracing the change. “With a Taylor script, that’s what it’s gonna be,” the actor says. Sheridan has previously admitted he “doesn’t run much of a democracy” on set – “the words are the words”. “Whereas with the Ari movie, his projects are such a living organism,” Grimes says. “Clearly, he’s got the whole movie edited shot by shot in his head, but within the scenes he allows the actors to find things for themselves and I think that’s why his movies are so interesting. They’re like nothing you’ve ever seen before.”

After our call, Grimes is off to Jackson Hole, Wyoming, to play a gig, then it’s straight back down to New Mexico to finish Eddington. This leaves precious little time in Montana, where he’s lived since relocating from Los Angeles in 2022. Still, he’s not planning on moving back to the city any time soon. “When I lived in LA, you’re constantly doing all these things that require a lot of energy. Whereas here, everything just slows down for me. I’m sure there are people who would hate the isolation, but it’s been so good for me mentally to live with much more nature and much less…” He ponders. “Humans”. Well, they do say the stars shine brighter in Montana.

Stagecoach Festival will take place at the Empire Polo Club in Indio, California, from 26-28 April. The final part of ‘Yellowstone’ season five is set for release in November

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