SPOILER ALERT: This post contains spoilers for “Yellowstone” Season 5.
“Yellowstone” is filled with characters who have strong convictions, and no character has challenged their worldviews quite like Summer Higgins. Played by Golden Globe-nominated actor Piper Perabo, Summer first arrived as a foil to John Dutton (Kevin Costner) in Season 4, an environmental activist whose frequent protests were an annoyance to the then-livestock commissioner. Yet the pair soon became romantically linked, but their romance was cut short when her activism landed her a stiff prison sentence from an unsympathetic judge. Cut to Season 5, and now-Governor Dutton has granted her clemency. But now she’s stuck on house arrest at the ranch, where she’s been at the heart of much of the recent drama at the Yellowstone.
Perabo, who also starred in series such as “Covert Affairs” and films like “Looper,” “The Prestige” and the cult classic “Coyote Ugly,” spoke with Variety about learning the political and social issues facing the American West, her showstopping brawl with Beth (Kelly Reilly) and an update on a potential “Coyote Ugly” sequel.
Summer is a fascinating character because even though a lot of her core values align with the Duttons once you peel back the layers, they all see the world from such different vantages. Coming onto the show when you did, were you initially worried that Summer could come across as a stereotype of a “latte liberal”?
I was concerned a little, because that’s how Beth views Summer at the beginning, and the audience is so in love with Beth that her view of someone tends to sway them. But I know [“Yellowstone” creator] Taylor [Sheridan], and I know Taylor loves a fighter, a complicated fighter. That’s what he writes about over and over and over again. So I knew he wouldn’t write me something flat because that’s just not what comes out of his typewriter, but it requires trust because it takes time to build a smaller character. I think if I hadn’t known Taylor Sheridan, it would have been a different story, but I know him pretty well, so I can walk into moving traffic for him.
You’re outspoken on Twitter politically in a way that would probably not align with the Duttons. As an actor, is it challenging to play on a program that celebrates a lot of characters who might not agree with you?
It’s a fun part of the process. I mean, nobody’s saying every character on “Yellowstone” is an angel, or even correct. There’s a lot that Taylor Sheridan and the “Yellowstone” universe believes in that I really believe in, like the representation of Native American values and the different tribes, and the struggle and internal politics of family life. There’s just so much there that I really align with, and also when you peel back the layers, land conservation is something that, when you get to the zoom out picture, we really agree on. I think it’s cool to have a show that has very different values that are in conversation — and sometimes in physical altercation.
What kinds of conversations are fans coming to you with? Do you notice certain questions that get asked about your character or the show?
There are people in activism that have said to me, just like in real life, “Is it weird to be on that show? How did you make that decision?” And then I say, “Do you watch the show?” “Oh no, I haven’t watched it yet.” The perception of the show and what it really is are not totally the same. Also, obviously on social media because I’m so politically outspoken there are some fans that are not super excited about my character and want to tell me about that. But that’s fine, that’s the lot you’ve signed up for, and I don’t engage with people that are rude.
But I am curious to hear when people have real ideas about, now that John’s governor, what he should prioritize, and what land conservation looks like from different sides of the political spectrum. That’s fascinating to me. If you’re a rancher in Montana, your idea of the land is really different than if you’re a water activist. I think that’s all a really important conversation for how we move forward.
Through working on the show, is there an element of your political beliefs or activism that you’ve learned more about or seen from a different perspective?
So much. First of all, I didn’t know anything about Montana politics. You can’t really know the ins and outs of a state until you really live there and work there, so that you understand like…What are the tax concerns? What are the ecological concerns? What are the histories of these people? That’s all really important for understanding state politics, but also I would say Native American issues are something that, because of Chief Rainwater (Gil Birmingham) and what’s going on within the tribe, you watch the soap opera of tribal politics. But then also Mo Brings Plenty is Lakota. There are people on the show who come from tribes in America, and not all the same tribe, and so that conversation is really interesting to me. Growing up in New Jersey, I just didn’t have relationships with any Native American people in my community, and now I do, and I think that’s really how you learn about community and issues is relationships, so that’s really amazing.
It seems like three key events — the Beth fight, the branding and the chat with John at the carnival — have brought Summer into the Dutton family, and earned mutual respect between her, Beth and John. How does her relationship with the family grow from here?
One thing I realized at the beginning of the season was when Summer gets out of prison, the only one there is John, and it’s not like John brings her to his house and she calls her folks or her friends. She doesn’t call anybody, she just starts living there on that ranch. And because of that, I went with this idea of the loneliness of Summer’s character. And so that really helped inform the scenes I have with Monica (Kelsey Asbille). Even why she kind of puts up with Beth as much as she does, Summer doesn’t really seem to have anybody else. John respects her, and so that gives her some standing, and she’s sort of friends with Gator (Gabriel Guilbeau). That’s about it. And so I think there’s a real desire for family that Summer can see. As fucked up as the Duttons are, everybody’s family is kind of fucked up, and families are still the rock of a lot of things, even if it’s your chosen family and not your family of origin. So I don’t think Summer wants to let go of what she’s found, because I’m not sure she has it anywhere else.
Speaking of the Beth fight, that scene had the internet buzzing. Was it written to be such an epic brawl? What was the most difficult part of filming it?
Our stunt doubles choreographed with stunt coordinator. Then Kelly and I started to learn the fight — this is more than a month before we’re filming. As we learn it, our stunt coordinator will watch us to see what parts we would do well. If there was a part that he didn’t like, he would take it out and then he would re-choreograph. So even just learning it, and him creating a long fight that we can do — except for the hip toss, Kelly and I could do the whole fight.
So the rehearsal process is always the hardest part. It was such a victory to get to the night where we’re like, “I don’t care if it’s cold. I’m sorry you’re in a sundress, but we’re finally here.” It felt like such a victory. And she and I had been rehearsing it for so long and knew it so well that it was kind of fun to do it for people. As you can imagine, the crew of “Yellowstone” loves a fight, and certainly Summer and Beth.
It was still September, so with the lights up out on the cranes outside the big house where we fought there were bats in the lights and stuff like that. It’s very rural, so it was really fun. Gator’s cooking this jalapeno fried chicken thing he makes. Cole [Hauser] was there through most of it because Rip has to come out in the middle and tell us how stupid we look, so he’s sitting inside at the fireplace on John’s couch, living on the high hog while we’re out there working. But he’s always good for a laugh, and it’s nice to have him around. So in the end, although we’re kicking the living hell out of each other, it was so fun.
Your husband (Stephen Kay) is a director on “Yellowstone,” and your stepdaughter (Lilli Kay) joined the cast this season as Clara. What’s the best part about working with them, and are there ever times that are more stressful because of it?
It’s really a dream come true to have your family working together. I’ve seen photos of Anjelica Huston on John Huston’s sets, and Lilli was growing up on sets of Stephen’s, but to have her at work with us… She’s so good as Clara. And when we did the vaccination scene, it’s Lilli and I in the scene and Stephen filming, and that was a great day for our family and so fun. Lilli is such a good horseback rider and so good with horses that it’s one thing you don’t have to worry about. She’s much better than me, that’s for sure, so I’m never worried about her on set.
You were also part of the recent episode that had fans talking, when Clara shares a kiss with her date. Given that the show has fans all over the country and different beliefs, what were your thoughts being there for that scene?
It’s so funny when it got some traction, because I’m such an advocate of everybody getting to love whoever they love. And I had to kiss Kevin Costner that day in front of 1,500 people, so I had my own thing. So honestly, on the day it wasn’t registering to me at all. I was thinking about Kevin, frankly, even though…I don’t know, all actors are just thinking about themselves. (Laughs)
What I remember most from that day is the crew riding all the rides at the lunch break because we bought a whole fair, so we were allowed to ride the rides for free.
You mentioned you were psyching yourself up for kissing Kevin that day. Do those scenes take a different level of focus and dedication than normal days?
I actually thought a lot about it, only because John never gets a fuckin’ break. John has got to save his grandson, he’s got to save the ranch, he’s got to save all Montana, he’s got to save the horse — can’t somebody get John Dutton a beer, you know? This guy is constantly on the offense, he’s got enemies coming in from all sides. So when Taylor wrote the fair scene, I almost wanted to call him and ask, “Are you having a great summer or what?”
When you watch that scene, it’s almost nostalgic even when it’s happening. There’s something about a summer night, when everything’s fine — It’s almost like a dream of “Yellowstone.” It doesn’t even seem real to me. Mostly what I was thinking about was like making sure of holding the tone of “Yellowstone,” but also holding this special moment because you know the other shoe’s going to drop in one second. Being a fan of the show, I just hadn’t seen that full joy before, where everything’s OK for a minute. We’re all listening to music outside. When does that happen on “Yellowstone”?
One “Coyote Ugly” question: A few years ago you spoke with Variety and said you had been DM’ing with your co-star Tyra Banks about a potential sequel. Any updates?
We hit a roadblock. I can’t say what it is. But there’s an alternate idea. I also can’t say what that is, but I like the alternate better than the original idea. I also have a lot of faith in Tyra Banks. I mean, if you don’t trust Tyra to get something done, you’re missing the boat.