Stepping out of his comfort zone is something that Jeremiah Bitsui does on a daily basis.
As a father and husband, he navigates the day and the many surprises each one brings.
When the actor steps on set, he’s ready to transform himself once again into someone he will navigate into knowing.
The challenge draws him in, the hard work helps him shine on screen.
With his recent roles on “Better Call Saul” and “Dark Winds,” Bitsui found himself in familiar territory, as he felt he knew the characters.
In the case of arriving on set for “Better Call Saul,” Bitsui was reprising his role as Victor – a role that originated with “Breaking Bad.”
Victor is Gus Fring’s loyal henchman.
Bitsui began to reprise his role in “Better Call Saul” during season three when Fring’s character was reintroduced.
“I know Victor,” Bitsui says. “This time, we’re showing a different side of Victor. He’s a fairly young guy and hasn’t been with Gus’s empire for years. Like anyone who starts a job, Victor wants to make a good impression on Gus. He wants to go the extra mile. He takes the job with Gus and runs with it.”
Bitsui was challenged because audiences know how and when Victor has his downfall. Despite the challenge, Bitsui treated the role with a lot of respect because it felt like a new start.
“Victor is a lot like Icarus. He flew too close to the sun,” Bitsui says. “Victor really wanted to take the reins. Stepping back into Victor’s boots, I tried to find something new. Basically, I wasn’t stepping into old shoes, I was finding a way to step into new shoes. What the writers did was write this amazing tapestry for Victor to not only thrive but peel back the layers on who he is.”
Bitsui’s journey in film and TV has been full of celebratory moments.
He and his family currently live in New Mexico and Atlanta.
“I think I burnt out of Los Angeles a little bit,” he says with a laugh. “I go back often because of the scenery.”
Though he was born in Chinle, Arizona, Bitsui spent the majority of his upbringing in Albuquerque.
Bitsui worked his way through Valley, Del Norte, Cibola and West Mesa high schools before he graduated from Albuquerque High.
He says he wasn’t the prize student.
“I tell young people when I get a chance that in retrospect, if I played my cards right, I would have taken it all more seriously,” he says of his education. “I later enrolled at Santa Monica College. I was hopeful; instead I lost motivation in it. This industry is hard and some people don’t understand that. The average person goes on a couple dozen interviews in their lifetime. I do more than a dozen auditions and face the rejection immediately.”
Bitsui finds the film industry fruitful, yet mind-boggling at times.
Like many others, he’s still learning as he navigates the process.
“Being a local actor, I’ve read out of New Mexico and I’ve read out of L.A.,” he says. “I’ve been passed on in New Mexico and get the job when I read out of L.A. The thing I could offer is that if anyone wants to get into this business, they need to know it’s tough. Because of work, there are weeks where I don’t see my family.”
Bitsui continues to search for roles that have meaning for him as well.
This is the reason he felt blessed to play the young Diné priest, Hoski, in AMC’s “Dark Winds.”
The series follows Navajo Tribal Police officers Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee. The original book series was written by Tony Hillerman.
The TV series is set in 1971 on a remote outpost of the Navajo Nation near Monument Valley, Utah, and follows the duo through a series of seemingly unrelated crimes.
Bitsui describes Hoski as “very complex in terms of being intellectual and having trauma.”
This gave Bitsui the opportunity to explore the character.
“Having the baseline of knowing where he grew up, I could understand more,” he says. “Denzel (Washington) says something like ‘you can play a character, but it’s the culture’ that matters. With Hoski, I know his upbringing. I know what Spam and eggs smells like.”
Bitsui says Hoski’s childhood trauma comes from being thrown into Catholic boarding schools and living through the abuse within that environment.
It was a situation he could relate to.
“My late father went without hearing in his ear after having his ear twisted in school,” he says. “It ruptured his eardrum. He couldn’t hear after that.”
Bitsui says through his trauma, Hoski is finding out directly his interpretation of what the outside world is and how it views him.
“He’s one that identifies more with Vietnam veterans,” he says. “Through the trauma, Hoski realizes that America is all about the money. For him, it’s not about (that). He ends up meeting face-to-face with his trauma and having to deal with it.”
Growing up on the Navajo Nation until he was 10, Bitsui looked at the parallels of his life and that of Hoski.
“I can sympathize with what happened to Hoski,” he said.
“Oftentimes, we feel unseen. With this series, it’s bringing Native stories to the front. It’s about timing and persistence. We never gave up.”
Bitsui has enjoyed the opportunity on both projects to be closer to home.
He’s also humbled as younger actors look up to him.
“I don’t want to keep it to myself,” he says. “My hope is to help carve (the space) out for other folks. The Achilles’ heel in New Mexico is that we don’t have enough to cast from. I’ve been pushing for change. It’s really investing to our community that we can help others stand on this platform.”
Bitsui got his start in independent films such as “Drunktown’s Finest,” “The Dry Land” and “Blaze You Out” – all were filmed in New Mexico.
He’s hoping to make a return to the medium in the near future.
“I want to direct and produce more of these stories,” he says. “That’s the next chapter.”