Playing the complicated role of Monica Dutton on Paramount Network’s series Yellowstone requires Kelsey Asbille to gaze directly into the face of veteran actor Kevin Costner, who plays her intimidating father-in-law, John Dutton.
“It’s been four years now, and I’m still starstruck,” says Kelsey. “I don’t think that will fade. I grew up watching his movies, and, after all these years, you can see how much he still loves the job. I really enjoy our scenes together. Our relationship on screen is pretty loaded, but he’s a consummate professional, so it’s fun to spar back and forth.”
Recently, Kelsey reunited with her Yellowstone cast members in Montana to film the fourth season of Taylor Sheridan’s sweeping Western drama. She portrays a Native American teacher living on the reservation with her husband, Kayce, played by Luke Grimes, and young son, Tate, played by Brecken Merrill. They find themselves torn between their austere life on the reservation and the draw of the Dutton family’s well-appointed ranch.
“At the end of the day,” Kelsey says, “Monica is a woman fighting for her family. Given their history, she knew John would be a threat to that. When Tate was kidnapped, I knew that could go only one of two ways. Either she was going to pack up her family and leave forever, or it was going to tie her to them. I think she’s beginning to realize that maybe she and John are fighting for the same thing.”
The 29-year-old daughter of Jean and Jim Chow — and proud older sister of Forrest and Kiersten — Kelsey got her start in acting at age 11, when she joined the cast of Ragtime at Workshop Theatre. “It introduced me to the unique camaraderie of community theater,” Kelsey says. “That level of passion made a big impression on me as a kid. Seeing all these talented people show up every night after work, for weeks on end, to do something they really loved — that kind of dedication and commitment set a standard that I try to uphold in my career.”
At age 13, Kelsey was cast in her first television role in One Tree Hill, which was filmed in Wilmington, North Carolina. The Millie Lewis Agency was instrumental in making that happen. “My mom actually took a Millie Lewis class when she was in college,” Kelsey says. “And I was a very shy kid, so she thought a basic development class could be helpful to build my confidence. That’s where I met the incredible Sheilah Dixon. She really is a fierce advocate, and it’s because of her that I booked One Tree Hill.”
During her first week of high school, Kelsey learned from Sheilah that she got the role of Gigi Silveri on One Tree Hill. “My mom picked me up and drove to Hardee’s for a snack, and I saw Ms. Sheilah at the counter. Now, if you don’t know Ms. Sheilah, that woman is the epitome of elegance and grace and the last person you’d expect to see at Hardee’s, so I knew something was up.”
Her fondest memories of the experience are the drive to Wilmington with her mom and the room service breakfast she ordered. “It was my first time on a set,” Kelsey says, “and I had no clue what I was doing. Although that sense of wonder has never left me, I’m still at my happiest on set.”
Kelsey is grateful to her teachers at Hammond School for making sure she could keep up with their curriculum and ultimately graduate with her friends. She also is quick to credit her parents for her success. “They are the reason I am where I am,” Kelsey says. “This industry can be a tough one to navigate, and to have a support system like that is invaluable. These moments belong to them too.”
Now based in Brooklyn, Kelsey is pursuing a degree in human rights at Columbia University. Her many acting jobs have required her to take classes sporadically. Her work has run the gamut from the television series Pair of Kings and movie Den Brother — both produced by Disney — to the FX series Fargo with fellow South Carolinian Chris Rock. Her character on Fargo is an outlaw. “She may not be a good one,” Kelsey says, “but she’s committed. Fargo really is one of the best experiences I’ve ever had. I’m such a big fan of Chris Rock, and he’s tremendous in this.”
Because of the pandemic, Kelsey was able to resume her studies during Columbia’s summer session. “It’s definitely not a conventional education,” she says, “but I wouldn’t have it any other way. It’s hard to define what you’re going to be at 17.”
Initially, Kelsey wanted to study public health. Her grandparents worked with the World Health Organization, and her father, Dr. Jim Chow, is a well-respected surgeon with Columbia Skin Clinic. “I wanted to follow in their footsteps, and while public health isn’t offered as a major, human rights certainly encapsulates that.” Both Kelsey and her mother, Jean, who has a background in clinical psychology and law, work with the Indigenous Women’s Alliance of South Carolina.
Kelsey says her father likes to have all of his children together in the same place. During the quarantine, she says, “I came home for a few weeks to check in on my family, and I’ll probably go back after we finish this season of Yellowstone. I really miss them.”
Kelsey was cast in Yellowstone after playing a young Native American woman in the 2017 film Wind River, a murder mystery written and directed by Yellowstone’s creator, Taylor Sheridan. Wind River is particularly difficult to watch, as Kelsey plays a victimized young woman. Her serene yet vulnerable voice narrates the opening scene with a moving poem that plays into the plot. She first read it for a callback audition. Now she keeps a framed copy of the poem on her wall at home. “Indigenous women and girls face disproportionate levels of violence and murder that span generations,” Kelsey says. The film was meant to raise awareness of this human rights issue.
Kelsey’s compelling work in Wind River attracted the attention of French fashion house Louis Vuitton, which invited her to be a part of its campaign. “That part of the job was really unexpected, but it’s been a very surreal experience,” Kelsey says. “It’s been really exciting and deeply meaningful to have someone like that believe in you and your work and then empower you with this beautiful armor, so you can step out into the world and present the best version of yourself.”
Kelsey also appears with fellow actor Hero Fiennes Tiffin in an enchanting cinematic campaign for Oliver Peoples, a luxury eyewear brand. She narrates the beginning of the vignette with a line paraphrased from a poem by Walt Whitman: “We were together, I forget the rest.”
Catching up with Kelsey on the set of Yellowstone in Montana:
Q. Did you have a memorable teacher or mentor?
A. Scott Blanks, who directed Ragtime at Workshop Theatre. He is one of those rare people who comes into your life, who inspires you and changes you.
Q. What was your least favorite subject in high school?
A. My worst subject was geometry.
Q. What is your favorite restaurant in Columbia? What do you tend to order?
A. Julia’s German Stammtisch. Been going there since I was in diapers. I get the jägerschnitzel with spaetzle and a sweet tea. I’m getting hungry just thinking about it.
Q. What are some of your fondest memories of Hammond School?
A. I have to acknowledge Hammond’s music and drama department, led by Steven Hillard and Linda Khoury. In high school, I had the opportunity to sing at the Vatican with Select Ensemble and perform at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Those were experiences of a lifetime, and it’s really to their credit.
Q. Do you have a favorite movie?
A. Growing up, the only VHS at my Ma Ma’s house was My Best Friend’s Wedding, so that definitely makes the list.
Q. Have you read any good books lately?
A. Ceremony by Leslie Marmon Silko.
Q. What was your first car?
A. A used ’04 Toyota Land Cruiser. Loved that car … sold it just a few years ago when I moved back to New York.
Q. What’s your favorite comfort food?
A. Chinese food. My Ni Ni (grand-mother) lived next door and made us homemade Chinese food every Monday and Wednesday. When I was a kid, I would follow her around the kitchen and write down her recipes, which we still use, especially in quarantine!
Q. Are you an introvert or extrovert?
Q. Do you tend to be neat or messy?
A. Organized chaos.
Q. How has your family reacted to watching you on screen in various roles?
A. They are saints! They watch everything. I’d better play a doctor or a fighter pilot soon to keep my dad watching.