James Parks, who plays Niles Gilbert on The Son, discusses his character’s backstory and the insights that author Philipp Meyer shared with him.
Q: Niles is unapologetic in his views. Where do you think that comes from?
A: There was other material that was provided to me as background to who Niles is as a person and who he thinks of himself as. He’s not from Texas; he comes from the South. His family, I always assumed, were slaveowners, as were a lot of wealthier families before and during the Civil War. And after the Civil War, their land was taken, and a lot of them had to become sharecroppers. They lost their land, and they lost a lot of self-respect, and that’s sort of where Niles comes from. He doesn’t feel sorry for himself, and he’s not re-fighting the Civil War. He’s moved on from the loss that his family took and the kind of humiliation that he feels they were put through, and he still has great pride in what they did in the defense of the South.
But he has now come to the West in search of a new chance to begin again, as a lot of people did. And he sees the threat of the Mexican population in Texas as a real and immediate threat. There was a point of view about Mexican people at the time that even was not associated with black people at the time. They were really looked down on. They were really thought to be less than. And this all just comes once again from that innate sense of fear of the other. But the Mexican people had been there; the Spanish had been in Texas for 300 years before white people came. As the white migration started happening, not only did the Indians lose, but the Mexicans lost. They were robbed of all their rights and their land. But, you know the thing about Niles — and this is a theme in the show and this is a repetitive theme, I believe, in the world — he believes that land is given to someone and then it’s taken from someone else and adopted as theirs and then it’s taken from someone else and adopted as theirs.
Q: How did you prepare to play such a dark role?
A: I suppose I try not to look at it as dark. If I were playing someone who only was so dark that they enjoyed and reveled in their darkness, then I would say they were a psychopath. Niles does not get joy from killing people. He is fervent about it. He is adamant that it needs to be done. But, given his day off, he’s not out torturing people to death. He’d rather have a family. He’d like to raise kids. He would like to have a business and be successful. His joy is not to kill and to butcher, but his idea of defending what he has gotten for himself, what he has worked hard to get and the defense of that, he will lay down his life and kill and do what he needs to do to defend that. And that’s totally different. That’s coming from a place of not something that I would necessarily agree with, but it’s something, as an actor, that I can latch onto. It’s truth, and it’s not a sociopath.
Q: What is Niles’s relationship with Eli and the McCulloughs?
A: I think he sees in Eli somebody that he admires and respects. Eli is someone who came from very humble beginnings, lived a desperate childhood and grew to become one of, if not the most, powerful and wealthy men in Texas and definitely the most influential. And Eli believes the same thing that Niles thinks, that the world is there for the taking and, when you take it, you have to defend it — and it’s not wrong to take it. Eli had a childhood and a family and a mother and a father, a house, a sister and a brother, and all of it was taken. Now, Eli doesn’t harbor a hatred for Indians. He understands them, was raised by them, knows the greater poetry of their lives, but that the wheel of life turns and that is the way that life is, and it’s the ability to adapt and overcome that carries you on, to move forward, to conquer. That’s what Niles respects about Eli above all else. Also, he would love to be a man of station. He would love to have money and be respected.
There was something Philipp Meyer [author of The Son and Executive Producer of The Son] told me after we’d shot the pilot. He was very sweet. He wrote me a long e-mail, and he gave me this breakdown of Niles, and it changed my point of view about the character, and it changed the way I play him. I was so thankful for it. Niles is not angry at people. He doesn’t harbor a hatred in a way that distorts his world view. He just sees it in the simple terms that Eli sees it in — that if you take something, you have to keep it or it will be taken away from you.
A: Ramon is merely another thing that must be removed from the equation. Taking Ramon and hanging him is an atrocity and a terrible act, but Niles is not a sociopath. To Niles, there is something offensive about the proximity of Ramon at the funeral of a white man, and there is something offensive to him about giggling and laughing.
Making Charles think that he is part of this gains Charles’s trust is, and — although I was never told this — the way I thought of it is that Niles knows he has to protect himself from the McCulloughs. Niles is not a fool. The McCulloughs will kill him as easily as they would kill anybody else, and, so by having Charles there — even though Charles doesn’t pull the rope, in fact Charles begs for the guy’s life — protects Niles from the McCulloughs because the McCulloughs have some culpability. He just needs Charles at the scene. It’s good to have a little insurance.
Q: Despite the brutality of your character, he always seems to be having a good time. Would you say that’s true?
A: That was something that was in the e-mail that Philipp Meyer wrote me about the character, that Niles doesn’t feel sorry for himself, so to have anger or be dour is not really part of his nature. We talked about this, Philipp and I. I think Niles enjoys music and he likes to dance, and he is, by nature, a jovial person in general, and I think that’s the way he would raise his kids. It would be really hard to watch somebody every week if they were just twisted and bent for no reason. And I think that’s part of that moving forward, that’s part of not looking behind you and feeling sorry for yourself. That’s part of being honest with yourself, about humility.
There was a great scene in Episode 4 that is smaller now, where Neptune and I have a discussion around a camp. There was a great long speech in that where Niles really talks about humility and how he, through his experiences in life, has learned humility. And his friend Louis says, “No, no. That’s not true, Niles.” And I reprimand him. And we always did that line, believed that line as truth. Humility is a virtue. I’m not ashamed of my humility, and I’m not ashamed of where I’ve come from, what I’ve lost. That’s why I do it with laughter. Niles just chooses to keep walking forward and trying to smile. Even in the scene the way it is now, which was a really great scene to play, I tried to do a lot of laughing in that scene and the stitching of the pocket of my coat was a humble act. That was something I wanted to do. Because in exchange of being able to say all of the lines that they cut, I wanted him to sit there simply and humbly, not like a king amongst his men and a ruler of bad guys, but as a humble man who would stitch his own pocket. And he does it with laughter and a smile. And he’s impressed with Neptune. That’s another thing about that scene. I’m not trying to re-hash the Civil War. Niles is past that. But the Mexicans, to Niles, are a kind of infestation and because of the porousness of the border and the way that they can cross, how they can get in at any time, it just creates a feeling of unsafety and insecurity, and so that’s why he starts the Law & Order League.
Read a Q&A with Carlos Bardem, who plays Pedro García.
To stay up-to-date with the latest news, join the The Son Insiders Club.