Since TV series Yellowstone started in 2018, Brecken Merrill plays Tate Dutton for his first regular role, alongside a cast including Kevin Costner as his on-screen grandfather John Dutton, and Series 5 of Yellowstone is currently being released on Paramount+. At the 2022 Screen Actors Guild Awards, Brecken and his fellow cast members were nominated for Outstanding Performance by an Ensemble in a Drama Series, and Brecken’s other work includes playing Teen Nicky Jr in the finale episodes of NBC’s This Is Us earlier this year and commercials. Talking with Brecken, he spoke to us about filming as Tate Dutton for his first regular role in Yellowstone, being nominated with his fellow cast members at the 2022 Screen Actors Guild Awards and playing Teen Nicky Jr in NBC’s This Is Us.
Can you tell us about your character Tate Dutton in Yellowstone and what is he like to play?
Tate Dutton is a boy growing up with his feet in two different worlds. His mother is from the Broken Rock Reservation and his father is a Dutton and heir to the Yellowstone Dutton Ranch. The role of Tate is fun to play because he’s always getting into some kind of life-threatening trouble. As Tate, I’ve gotten to fall into a river, fight a snake, shoot a bad guy, learn to ride horses, and herd cattle – all things I’d never have done as a boy growing up in quiet suburbia.
How are you finding the experience working on your first regular role and what has it been like developing the character over the years?
Being a series regular from day one helped me immediately feel like I was a part of this film family we were building together. I recently had the honour of guest starring on the last few episodes of This Is Us and it allowed me the opportunity to see what it’s like working on a show where I wasn’t a full-fledged family member. The cast and crew were super nice and welcoming, but they all had history together and there’s no substitute for putting in the time and long days with your team.
My character has grown up from a little boy to a teenager and my role has progressed from a cute, precocious kid to a traumatised young man. Tate has had to deal with a lot of hardship in his short life and it’s challenging and rewarding to explore that and really dive into what makes him tick.
Do you remember how you felt finding out you’d booked the role?
I had gone to several call-backs and I knew the day they were supposed to give us the final answer. I was playing basketball in the driveway with my dad when my mom came out and handed me a rock she had painted yellow. I didn’t know why until she said, “You got Yellowstone”. I was shocked and excited but I was too little to understand how dramatically my life would end up changing.
What is it like working with the rest of the cast, which includes Kevin Costner as your on-screen grandfather John Dutton?
As an actor, booking any role is like winning the lottery, but booking Yellowstone and getting to work with such talented and genuine people is like winning the biggest jackpot of all time. The show is pretty dramatic, but the actors are actually very funny in real life. Everyone has a good sense of humour and we all joke around between scenes. I think being together all hours of the day and braving the elements on horseback helps bond you together.
Is there anything you enjoy most about playing Tate and what are some of your favourite memories from filming Yellowstone so far?
I love the horses! I love shooting guns as well, but the horses are the biggest draw for me. Learning how to ride and becoming comfortable on horseback was the best.
As far as favourite scenes to shoot, so far nothing has topped throwing a fish at Lee (Dave Annable) in Season 1. We did several takes and I have good aim.
At the 2022 Screen Actors Guild Awards, you were nominated for Outstanding Performance by an Ensemble in a Drama Series alongside your fellow cast members, how was it being nominated and what was the ceremony like to attend?
It was such an honour to be nominated by the Screen Actors Guild because that’s like being validated by your peers and people who understand the ins and outs of your craft. The ceremony was super fun. I got to meet so many actors I admire who inspire me and a few actors even came up to ME and said they enjoyed my work and that blew my mind.
How has it been seeing the huge success to the series and why would you recommend watching it?
I recommend watching Yellowstone because it has something for everyone – beautiful sweeping scenery, action, drama and intrigue, and forbidden love. It’s got it all. John (Linson) knew Yellowstone had the magic from day one. He called it.
Earlier this year, you played Teen Nicky Jr in the finale episodes of NBC’s This Is Us, what was the show like to be part of?
Filming This Is Us was very different for me because I’m used to filming on location, usually in the middle of nowhere, and This Is Us was filmed on the Paramount lot in Los Angeles. It was special to get to be a part of such a beautiful show in its last moments. My character, Nicky Jr, had a full storyline and I got to do a lot of great work with Justin (Hartley), Cait (Thompson) and Alex (Breckenridge), and the rest of the expansive Pearson family, but unfortunately they had to cut Nicky’s story for time. The vibe on set was bittersweet. The cast and crew seemed excited to be moving on but also sad to leave this colourful world they had created. It was surreal being at Rebecca’s funeral. Mandy (Moore) actually came by to say hi to everyone. I thought that was cool to crash your own funeral.
How much did you know about This Is Us before filming your role and how was it playing your character?
I didn’t know that much about This Is Us but my mom was a big fan and watched every episode, so she filled me in on who was who. There is a bit of confusion about who I was playing because the show jumps forward and backward in time and different actors play characters at different ages, so a lot of people thought I was Griffin Dunne’s younger self, but I was actually playing his namesake. Kevin (Justin Hartley) named his son after his uncle. My character has a bit of a chip on his shoulder and there was a running joke about the older Nicky wanting to change my character’s name.
We understand you have also filmed for commercials, can you tell us about some of the ones you’ve worked on?
I was cast in a toy commercial for Serpent Strike. It was a castle-like toy with a giant snakehead on it and if you pulled a lever the snake would eat whoever was at the door. It was fun to shoot because I just had to play with this cool toy and have a lot of enthusiasm.
Where does your love of acting come from and how did you get into it?
I love pretending to be different people. It’s fun to put myself in someone else’s shoes and imagine how they might react to certain situations. I kind of fell into acting because my older sister wanted to do it and I looked up to her. I was also motivated by crafty – still am!
What are some of your favourite films and TV shows to watch?
I just finished watching Breaking Bad. It was absolutely mind-blowing how good it was. The transformation of Walter White was perfection. Every member of that cast and writing team just knocked it out of the park. I’ve started watching Tulsa King. I’m only one episode in but so far I love it.
How do you like to spend your time away from acting?
I don’t have a lot of free time. I go to school from 8:30 until almost 5pm. On weekends and on breaks, I like to skateboard and practice Muay Thai.
What are you hoping 2023 brings for you?
I’m looking forward to getting a job. When I go back to Montana on the days I’m not filming, I’m going to help out around the stables. I’ll have to wake up super early. I’m also hoping to master a few new skateboarding tricks and maybe maaaaybe start sparring in Muay Thai.
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