Fourth of July, age 17: Jeremiah Bitsui is inebriated when he arrives at a house party in Albuquerque, New Mexico. A rap battle begins in the backyard, and Bitsui decides to join in, give it a go, take some gangster head on. But it quickly gets out of hand. Bitsui and his opponent begin to trade vicious barbs. Neither will capitulate. A challenge has been presented and, yes, reputations are on the line. Suddenly, the man pulls a gun on Bitsui. Instinctively, he pulls his – a .45 Ruger P-90. The battle of words now turns to bullets. Shots ring out. Bitsui, out of his gourd from drink and hubris, soon finds himself in the clutch of his friends, rushing him from the Wild West to a waiting car. It’s only when he’s sitting in the backseat, laughing madly about the early confrontation, that Bitsui notices he can’t feel his leg. He then notices it’s drenched in blood. He’s been shot twice – once in the thigh and once in the calf. Flooring it, his friends zip in and out of traffic to the hospital. When they arrive, Bitsui tries to stand and immediately collapses. Moments later, he’s in the emergency room. …
“It won’t be long before the popo comes rolling in, asking questions,” Bitsui thought from his hospital bed. So he gathered his chums and said, “Listen. The cops will be here soon, and our stories have to match. This is what we’re going to say: fuckin' bullets punctured the ceiling of my house and landed right in my leg. Got it?"
Bitsui had read somewhere before that on the Fourth of July, wiggy gun toting drunkards will jubilantly fire shots from their pistols and rifles right into the ether in the name of Washington and Jefferson, unintentionally killing birds and bats, and once in a while, striking families in their home when Newton’s gravity sends the bullets barreling back to earth.
The cops come into Bitsui’s hospital room. They’ve got questions. Bitsui and his crew tell the badges the same story – and it sells. “Dammnit, it worked,” they thought. Not only did Bitsui escape death that brutal night, but also serious questions and accusatory tones from the boys in the blue. … So, the next day, Bitsui decided he was done with it all – the gangs and drugs and drinks and jackassery that had been his circle for so long.
“It was that night I decided I wanted to make some type of change. I remember going to bed feeling lost – shallow, a hallow being,” he told ICTMN.
He wanted to leave it all behind him, he said. Do better. Go to college. UCLA. But, first, he had to get rid of the gun, the Ruger. He said he’d carried it for so long, when he finally dumped it into a ditch, it felt like he was cutting off a limb. And around this time Bitsui was still receiving daily death threats. “Get in line,” he would tell the anonymous caller. But there was no way he was going to escape the gang, violence and drug culture if he didn’t get rid of that fucking gun, and then get out of town, to L.A., which he did following his graduation from high school.
More than a decade has gone by since that blood-soaked night. Today, Bitsui is a celebrated Diné actor and businessman. He has starred in AMC’s award-winning series Breaking Bad; he owns a construction company called Bitco (the name is a combination of ‘Bitsui’ and ‘company’); and, on Valentine’s Day of this year, Elle.com named him one of its 41 Most Eligible Bachelors.
Yet, Bitsui said he remembers what it took to change his trajectory, and he employs that life experience to inspire youth not to follow the hazardous path he once blundered. He also uses it to flesh out his characters. Bitsui said, for his role as “Victor” in Breaking Bad, he would revisit in his mind the days when he would zip around Albuquerque with that Ruger and a scowl, ready to go to the mats with any silverback who would pound his chest and challenge him.
“It’s interesting,” he said, “at some points in your life you have to visit who you were. Playing this very calculated smart criminal is something I oddly was trying to pursue [in my youth]. … Let’s say I never threw my gun away, and I committed to a life with gun in hand, and I living another few years, I could’ve been Victor.”
His current character, “Sick Boy,” in Sydney Freeland’s Drunktown’s Finest, demanded that Bitsui revisit even more of his embattled youth. The movie follows Sick Boy and several other Native Americans as they navigate urban life, reservation plight and Navajo tradition. Drunktown's Finest, which premiered at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival, will screen in New York City at Quad Cinema on February 20.
Drunktown's Finest Trailer (Official)