Native American Actor A Valued Player in Avatar and The Only Good Indian
by Brad Balfour
It was no coincidence that actor Wes Studi was cast an the tribal chief Eytukan in director James Cameron’s Golden Globe-winning 3D film Avatar or as bounty hunter Sam, the lead character in Kevin Willmott’s The Only Good Indian. From the days he was in Dances with Wolves with fellow native-American Graham Green, Studi’s been a go-to guy for authentic native-American characterizations. Though he has often played parts that had nothing to do with his heritage, his passion and total commitment has made him immediately recognizable.
For the 63-year-old Studi, being a Native American has been a driving force for his career – whether in terms of the characters he has played or the issues they have addressed. Usually his performances are charged by a strong, almost arrogant stance – as if expressed by a man who is proud to have not only survived but thrived.
Vietnam vet, sculptor, musician, author and activist, Studi caught the attention of Hollywood and the public in director Kevin Costner‘s 1990 Oscar-winning Best Picture, Dances with Wolves. He’s appeared in more than 50 film and television productions, including Last of the Mohicans (1992), Geronimo: An American Legend (1993), Streets of Laredo (1993), Mystery Men (1999), The New World (2005), Seraphim Falls (2006), Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee (2007) and Comanche Moon (2008). He recently starred as Tony Hillerman’s Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn in a series of PBS specials produced by Robert Redford: Skinwalkers, A Thief of Time and Coyote Waits. Before this opportunity to join the blue-skinned cast of Avatar, he played General Linus Abner in last year’s NBC series Kings.
Born in Norfire Hollow, Oklahoma, this fit six-footer exclusively spoke his native Cherokee language until he started kindergarten. A professional horse trainer, Studi began acting at The American Indian Theatre Company in Tulsa getting his shot in Hollywood but he and wife Maura Dhu never became Californians; they now live in Santa Fe, New Mexico and perform in the band Firecat of Discord.
In Avatar, Studi plays an idealized character that comported itself with a dignity becoming of a tribal leader that represents the values and strength of the Na’vi – the tribe that resists the human invaders who threaten to destroy his community’s way of life. In the indie-produced The Only Good Indian, he plays a very different character – a deeply conflicted Indian who stalks his own people (in this case, the young kids taken from their tribes and forced to be Christianized but run away) – and his character strives for acceptance within a White world.
Each of these films have their own little pleasures and difficulties. What were they for each?
The pleasures of course were working on a huge blockbuster – and I don’t think I’m premature in saying that’s the case with Avatar. But of course, it had many difficulties. That world’s language, for one, was fairly difficult in that it’s a made-up language. It also remind[ed me] that all these things were a very real thing to my ancestors. And then, in a way, we’re reminded that indigenous cultures many times fall under the manifest destiny of those who would gain something from our suppression. So it’s always a difficult and sad reminder that life is not as equitable as it could or should be.
By becoming a successful actor and getting to be in a movie like Avatar – where you are able to convey a message in a variety of ways – is that part of the way you turned your anger into something positive?
Right. Exactly. That’s the whole thing in that you can’t allow the anger to hold you in a state of mind that would prevent you from doing anything positive about it.
Avatar‘s native characters have some characteristics like indigenous peoples from Africa, but they seem so connected to Native American traditions – the relationship with plants and animals, especially to the horses. Did you have an opportunity to infuse some of your own experience or ideas in the process?
I think a lot of the research had been done on the part of the writers themselves already. But yes, I could certainly relate to what was on the printed page and I think they had a good understanding of the situation from a general viewpoint. The idea that Native Americans are perhaps more connected to nature is reflected in the Na’vi connectedness of the tree and the roots that expand everywhere. It’s a Native American premise to life that everything is connected and that we’re all related in one way or another and it’s a matter of cause and effect. You know the old story about the flapping of a butterfly in China has an effect on things that happen in Maine or someplace. It’s all an interconnected being that we’re a part of.
How did you get involved with Kevin Willmott, director of The Only Good Indian who had success at film festivals with C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America?
I had met a couple of his producers, Scott Richardson and Greg Hurd, earlier. Then they got in touch and said they had a script that they’d really like me to consider. I was working on Avatar at the time. I took a look at it, and sure enough, it has a story that totally piqued my interest because of the content. So we made arrangements to actually do it, and the rest is history.
How long was the shoot and how close was it to where you live?
It’s actually about a nine-hour drive from where I live, but I was commuting from Los Angeles because we were shooting Avatar at the time. I had about a nine or ten-day break from Avatar when we got started on the first part of the script in Wichita. Then I had to go back and finish up Avatar and came on back to Kansas and we finished it within a matter of, I think, it was a seven or eight-week shoot.
What were the challenges with The Only Good Indian?
I’m at a loss to see it from the outside. I’m a product of those kinds of policies that led to the kinds of physical and emotional abuses that occurred during the transition from the 1800s into the 1900s. It’s always been a reality to me; it exists at all times, it didn’t just go away. I’m at a loss to see it from the perpetrator’s side of the whole thing. I can only see it from our side of the fence.
In The Only Good Indian, you had a more direct influence by being the Executive Producer. At what stage did you decide to do that?
The intriguing part of the whole story to me, which I was part of bringing forth, was the idea of the vampire and how it spreads itself and continues to just grow and grow and grow when it’s either accepted and/or adhered to. When we first see me, I am totally working toward becoming that which is the oppressor. [I have] decided that the old ways are of no use – so why not, if you can’t beat them, join them. I have known many people like that throughout my life, and I wanted to be able to show that this kind of effect can be rampant. It’s like that Stockholm syndrome thing, in that we become one with our enemies, our oppressors. That is a reminder that we need to stick with the strength of that which we at one point believed in.
You’ve been a carrier for your culture and other times had roles that were not necessarily reflective of that culture. Is it still hard not to be typed? Do you feel that it’s important to be able to play those characters rather than let somebody else who didn’t come from that culture?
It’s [important] to me to be able to play those other characters, because even then I’ve continued to carry the banner. That’s not just with American Indians. Actually, what it comes down to is that it’s brown people; it’s the fact that we see some brown people on screen. It’s a matter of people of color is what it really comes down to, and anytime a guy like me winds up in a film like this, it’s very good for people of color.
Good thing you mentioned color because they were blue in Avatar.
It’s still a color, isn’t it?
So when you saw Avatar completed, were you amazed, were you glad, or did you have a whole different emotional experience?
I was overwhelmed by the technology. I really was overwhelmed by the amazing 3D of it all. The story, yes, absolutely – I think it’s a very old story, but this time told in a technologically new way that makes it even more acceptable for audiences. It’s a great pleasure to be a part of something that is not only technologically advanced to the point of amazement, but also one that carries a message that it does and acceptance of one group by another.
How is it to have all those things stuck on you? And were you able to play that character while playing with the other actors, or do you do that individually?
No, you play with other characters. The only thing that you have to be careful of is the camera that sits right in front of your face and the light. But once you become accustomed to that, it’s acting in the grand old fashion.
Are you upset when your character dies in movies?
Well, of course I’m upset when he dies. I would rather have lived to see a sequel. Many times it’s a matter of providing the drama of a death that adds to the film. I’ve died many times in film and television.
At least you get to play the leader; that’s something. You have been the sage, or the great father, a warrior or whatever.
But in The Only Good Indian, I live. And live gloriously, at that.
It must astound you when you look at it from the other point of view, the incredible arrogance. Is there ever a point when you can understand what were they thinking? Or is it just that you can only be angry about it?
No. It’s actually a curse to be able to understand that our people were somewhat imperial in their movements at times. I’m Cherokee, and there were times when social expansion was something that is needed by a cultural group or a national group. I can understand that to a certain extent, but the arrogance of it is something that amazes me. And to use the use of religion or belief systems that contribute to the attitudes that came up with manifest destiny, that kind of thing, as well as the need for fuel that is apparent in Avatar. All of these things come to mind. While it’s amazing, it’s also a very sad thing that we actually can allow ourselves to become a part of something that is destructive to others.
When you work on movies like these, do you get angry? Or do they make you feel that now you’re at a point where you’re able to get the message out?
In a way, that was the case with the story of The Only Good Indian as well. Anyone in other places who gave a shit probably didn’t know what was going on in the West at the time. Just as we may be a planet removed from what was happening on Pandora, anyone who was of any social conscience probably was unaware of what was going on out West as we portrayed in The Only Good Indian.
Do you find that this movie was raising the consciousness of people that might not be aware of it?
I like to be able to raise people’s consciousness, yes. And to remind that those of us involved in the receiving end of the oppression, we have a duty. What they really make up is a prophecy of, “Why should we continue to do what we’ve always done? Can’t we do it in different ways?” Like the characters that Sigourney and Zoe play, in that research is one thing, and perhaps that would lead to a better kind of conciliation between the two groups if it wasn’t just the out-and-out use of “might is right.” It’s something that, unfortunately, we as a human race haven’t really learned up to this point.
What was the best experience that came out of each movie? I guess you didn’t have to shoot Avatar on location.
All the locations were in the computers. One day before we started work, the actors were standing around there waiting, and James Cameron came walking up. I saw his shirt and I thought, “Boy, I like that shirt he’s wearing.” I said, “James, wow, that’s a great looking shirt, I really like that,” and he just took it right off his back and said, “Here, have it.” And I still have the shirt.
And working on The Only Good Indian?
I think it was learning to ride the vintage bike. It really is just a bicycle with a motor installed and a leather drive. We had to find a real one we could use for long-shots, but the one that I rode was actually built to the specs of the original bike. Its drive was a leather belt, and you know how leather reacts to heat, it stretches out. It was very hard to always be able to take off on, so we had to have another one built that worked off a different principle. I don’t remember any funny anecdotes about the whole thing, but it was a pleasure to work on throughout.
That subtle hit to Hollywood in The Only Good Indian when Sam says, “Now I’m going to move to Hollywood and play a cowboy.” One of the great pleasures of making this film seems to be that irony.
Absolutely. Irony is one of my favorite aspects of life.
You’ve been able to play a Native American in a lot of different contexts. Do you feel that there are still other kinds of roles that you want to do and stories that you want to tell?
There are more – perhaps more to the point, the kind of stories I would like to be able to tell. What I’d really like to say is that these, if you will, Indian Wars have never ended. They’ve been a continuation ever since we first met, ever since the creation of the United States. It’s been a continual warfare and a struggle to exist for most of the nations here in the United States, and it continues to this day. I don’t really see an end to it because it’s always a clash of cultures and interests here in this wonderful nation that we live in.
Were you surprised to find somebody like Kevin wanting to make a movie like this?
Kevin surprised me a little bit, but no, I think he has a mindset that agrees with my own outlook on life. Sometimes it’s a matter of the better alliances to make in terms of what kind of story you want to tell. I think it was a great meeting of the minds and I think we both learned a few things from one another that can help us with our individual struggles in life.
It seems you’ve worked with every major director that has touched onto the subject in one way or another in the last twenty years, so you must have probably one of the best surveys of directors. Who has inspired you?
I don’t know about inspiration, but I’ve taken away something positive from each and every one that I’ve ever worked with, I believe. I think one of the great pieces of advice I ever got from a director was from Walter Hill. He [told] me, “Talent is a wonderful thing, and it’s something to be used and abused in every effort of storytelling. However, one of the things that we all need, those of us that are making movies, what we really need is stamina – emotional, physical, and stamina of the soul as well.”
You’ve had a chance to work with some of these directors more than once?
Oh yeah, I’ve worked with a number of them several times. I’ve worked twice with Walter Hill on Geronimo and Undisputed. Michael Mann with [The Last of the] Mohicans and Heat. In fact, I saw Michael at the premiere; he’s wild about the film. Yeah, it’s a business of creating relationships, you know. I’d like to work with James Cameron again, and of course we practically plan on working on something with Kevin again. It’s good to work with people that you know how they work and they know how you work. It’s mutually beneficial.
You – and, I would say, Graham Greene – are probably the two best known Native Americans actors working regularly. Both of you are in the two biggest blockbusters of this season – he is in New Moon, and you’re in Avatar. Both films in some way draw on the value, or the importance, of being connected to this cultural heritage. Has that had some larger resonance, or did you even think about that?
I’m glad that Graham and I made it into a couple of films in 2009. It’s kind of indicative, I guess, of the amount of interest and influence we have in contemporary and futuristic endeavors in Hollywood.
That is a good thing. To think at one time they were having non-Native American actors playing Native American characters and making them villains, and 50 years later the most heroic figures in two of the biggest films of all time are Native Americans.
Yeah, I think it’s definitely a positive move; it’s a move in the right direction. And hey, I’m catching some optimism.
There’s been an effort to have an activist African American actors community. Do you feel that the same thing is needed with the Native American community of actors?
Yes, there is an American Indian community of actors, and fortunately we’re getting to the point where we don’t all know each other on a first name basis anymore. I would probably be referred to as the old guard at this point. A lot of younger people are coming along these days that are beginning to make waves and that’s a great thing. The doors have been opened and more and more people are deciding that they would like to step through the threshold. The activism I would leave to those who are younger than myself and have more energy to devote to that endeavor, and I applaud them for it. It’s something that’s needed.
Are there stories that you feel still need to be told from the Native American experience, and are there stories you want to be a part of that don’t necessarily involve it?
One of the things that I would work toward is telling a contemporary Native American story that is of real consequence in contemporary times. It’s always going to be a matter of connecting with the past and thinking about the future, but we also have to work on the really great contemporary Native American story. We haven’t found it yet but that’s what we’re looking for.
Are there particular Native American stories or books that you hope to see made or that you want to make?
Yeah, I would like the story about a bicoastal Indian, maybe one who lives and works and functions in places like New York City or Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles – perhaps Tokyo; the world. Because that is the fact. The fact is that we are citizens of the world as much as anyone else. A story that reflects that, I think, is something that we’re really looking forward to being able to produce and throw up on the screen. And eventually, an Academy Award for Wes Studi.
Was it inevitable that the Native Americans were going to lose, or do you think there was a point when they could have defeated the invaders?
Tecumseh had a really good idea, to tell the truth. A unified front at that point maybe could have stopped expansion at the Ohio River Valley or at the Mississippi River, something like that. As a matter of fact, I read a book a number of years ago that was called, The Indians Won, [by Martin Cruz Smith] which was a science-fiction at that point and time, but would probably put us at just where we are now. It was that coalition of Native nations had been able to stop the westward expansion and claimed an area within the confines of North America. It was a nation divided; they were on the coasts, and then the Native Americans occupied an area in between, and we were on the point of shooting for the moon with rockets. It was an interesting story that I’d like to find again and maybe find the rights to it.
Do people expect you to be able to use all these Native American weapons and ride? Are you a good rider?
The first job I ever got out of Los Angeles was dependent on the fact that I could ride a horse, shoot a bow and a gun, and speak a language other than English, simultaneously. So I got the job.
Are there other Native American languages that you speak?
Not fluently, no. Just un poquito Español.
The Only Good Indian has appeared in festivals, but this is an unusual effort that you’re self-distributing it to a degree. Was there any frustration about getting it out there, or you just wanted to control it?
It’s really a matter of control. We don’t want to bend over as much as distributors would like to have us do. I think it’s a better choice to contain control of it on our part at this point.
Did you think of writing a book based on your experiences?
I’m probably working on my memoirs as we speak, yes.
Make sure you add in this interview once it gets posted.
I would like to be referred to as the 20th-Century Electric Indian.
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Copyright ©2010 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: January 21, 2010.