'Woman Walks Ahead' Lead Sees A Sea Change For Indigenous People On Film

Jul 1, 2018

In Woman Walks Ahead, a New York City activist and artist named Catherine Weldon (played by Jessica Chastain) travels across the United States to paint the great Native American chief Sitting Bull. The role of Sitting Bull is portrayed with humor and complexity by Michael Greyeyes, who is Plains Cree and hails from Muskeg Lakes First Nation in Canada.

Based on real-life events, the movie finds Sitting Bull just after he was released from penitentiary for his involvement at the Battle of the Little Bighorn. "So this is really a portrait of a man near the end of his life — disillusioned, really, by the dispossession and violence that his community had faced," Greyeyes says.

Greyeyes has had plenty of meaningful roles in an acting career that is nearing three decades. But in an interview, he explained why he considered this a "role of a lifetime."


Interview Highlights

On what drew Greyeyes to the script

It was almost, really, from the first page that Steven Knight's writing grabbed me. And of course, the first time Sitting Bull actually appears on the page immediately ... where he meets Katherine and Katherine's sort of speaking this elevated sort of language ... and immediately Sitting Bull just shoots back really, with this comfortable, easy, vernacular tone. And we realized right away at how sophisticated he is, and the audience laughs. Every screening I've been in the audience laughs heartily. And from that moment I realized we were looking at a paradigm shift in terms of how Hollywood is treating native characters.

Very often in films and scripts that, you know, deal with our community or have native content, we're often placed as foils against which some larger questions, some so-called more important question is examined. But in this film we see a Sitting Bull that is three-dimensional. We see his irony, his regret ... his brokenness. And in that way it's actually quite startling. It's quite politically startling to see a native character treated with that with that scope — scope usually reserved for other ethnicities. And of course that drew me to the project immediately.

On the film's role in telling the history of the American West

I think it's a powerful corrective, to be quite honest. When I speak to people about the role and about what happens – and, of course, where the assassination of Sitting Bull lies in terms of the political landscape, the historical landscape of that time — I'm quite stunned, often, when I realize people don't know that history. So when I encounter people that don't know these kinds of monumental historical events, you know, whether it's Indian removal or Wounded Knee, I'm often stunned. And so I know that with this film and its detailed examination of the Lakota struggle for sovereignty, for their lives even, I knew that this was timely. And with Susanna White, our director's treatment, the humanism of her work, of Steven [Knight]'s work, creates a kind of empathy that I find is desperately lacking in our discourse.

On playing such an important historical figure

Sitting Bull is a hero. He's a hero to indigenous people around the world. And for me to approach that role I too am an outsider. I'm indigenous but I'm — I come from a different community, a different culture. And so when I sought to approach this, I looked for support. I had language consultants and cultural advisers from Standing Rock and from the Lakota community who had worked in Hollywood, and we had numerous people behind the scenes, behind the camera. And it's with that support, it's with that literal love, that I felt confident I could approach this and portray him as I think we understand him. We as indigenous people understand our leaders to be that they're — that they're human, they're complex, they're sophisticated. They were grappling with huge issues at the time when — you know, we learn about them later, you know Dawes Allotment act, the violence in the West. So for me it was, and is, a role of a lifetime.

On choosing roles to perform, and the responsibility therein

Interestingly, actors of color, I think, bear a particular, an added responsibility, because dominant culture often see us as exemplars, or as sort of icons for a larger culture — not something we always assume of, you know, a Caucasian actor ... and so I kind of carry this with me. I've always been adamant about trying to expand or agitate or subvert in some way our collective notion of Indian-ness. And so for example, when I spoke English I always fought that my characters would have a really profound grasp of the language. You know, English is relatively easy, you know, compared to indigenous languages. So I said, "Why wouldn't he learn English well?" And you know, producers or directors would often wonder about that. But with Susanna [White] and these producers, that wasn't an argument I had to make. They were allies from the beginning.

On the push for indigenous (and other minority) actors to portray roles that aren't directly related to their heritage

Greyeyes: I've been fortunate in my career. I've always been incredibly proud to represent my community, whether it's as a Cree man or as an indigenous person here. So I've played Comanche characters, Lakota characters, you know, other cultures. And even though I've played these different roles, they were always a period role. But then more recently I started to get cast as police officers or lawyers and, you know, even a serial killer. But they were always native doctors, native lawyers, until just recently actually. It was only about two weeks ago that I was finally cast, after 27 years in the business, as a character whose ethnicity was not determined. They just liked me as a performer. And so that to me was actually a watershed moment.

Garcia-Navarro: Do you think it signifies something broader?

Greyeyes: I do. I do. I think there's a sea change. I've seen it for maybe the past 4-5 years, actually. I've started to see a dimensionality finally appear in the materials I was being sent, the scripts I was reading, and I started to see it in other places — in the treatment of our cultures, of our characters. For example, just recently I watched a fabulous episode on Westworld, and there was an episode that was really focused on the indigenous "hosts" in the show, and it was beautifully done — truly sophisticated, and the performances were nuanced. So it's there. It's with films like Woman Walks Ahead. It's of course in the work of indigenous filmmakers and indigenous writers — it's always been present. But I think we're on the eve of something. It gives me great hope, as I continue to work in an industry that I love, that change is on hand.

Sarah Handel and Barbara Campbell produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Patrick Jarenwattananon adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

In "Woman Walks Ahead," Oscar nominee Jessica Chastain plays New York activist and artist Catherine Weldon, who travels across the United States to paint the great Native American chief Sitting Bull.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "WOMAN WALKS AHEAD")

JESSICA CHASTAIN: (As Weldon) I've traveled many miles from the east across many rivers and hills for the honor of speaking with you.

MICHAEL GREYEYES: (As Sitting Bull) You got a train from New York, right? Did you get a Pullman?

CHASTAIN: (As Weldon) Yes.

GREYEYES: (As Sitting Bull) Nice. They gave me free cigars, too.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: As you can hear there, Sitting Bull is portrayed with humor and complexity by actor Michael Greyeyes. He joins us now from Toronto to talk about this iconic role. Welcome to the program.

GREYEYES: Thank you, Lulu.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What struck me about the way Sitting Bull is shown in this film is that he is a hero who's broken, so could you tell us about what period of Sitting Bull's life this takes place in?

GREYEYES: The narrative finds him just after he's been released from penitentiary for his involvement in Greasy Grass, which is what the Lakota people call the battle at Little Bighorn. And he had finally returned home to Standing Rock, so this is really a portrait of a man near the end of his life, disillusioned, really, by the dispossession and violence that his community had faced.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Can you just tell me a little bit about your own background?

GREYEYES: I'm Nehiyaw. That's Plains Cree from Muskeg Lake First Nation here in Canada, so we are First Nations people, Treaty 6 Territory.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You have a, you know, a considerable acting career. What was it about this group that sort of drew you to it?

GREYEYES: It was almost, really, from the first page that Steven Knight's writing grabbed me. And, of course, the first time Sitting Bull actually appears on the page, that actually was the scene that you just played where he meets Catherine. And Catherine's sort of speaking this, like, elevated sort of language, you know?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That you do when you think someone doesn't speak very good English, speaking very...

GREYEYES: That's right.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: ...Slowly and kind of very patronizingly.

GREYEYES: And immediately, Sitting Bull just shoots back really with this comfortable, easy, vernacular tone. And we realize right away how sophisticated he is. And the audience laughs. Every screening I've been in, the audience laughs heartily. And from that moment, I realized we were looking at a paradigm shift in terms of how Hollywood's treating Native characters.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Explain.

GREYEYES: Very often, in films and scripts that, you know, deal with our community or have native content, we're often placed as foils against which some larger question, some so-called more important question is examined. But in this film, we see a Sitting Bull that is three dimensional. We see his irony, his regret, as you said, his brokenness. And in that way, it's actually quite startling. It's quite politically startling to see a Native character treated with that scope - scope usually reserved for other ethnicities. And, of course, that drew me to the project immediately.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah. When you say it's quite political, I think you're referring to the fact that, you know, America in many ways is sort of reassessing its history on things like slavery but also looking back on the way sort of the West was won. That story that was so sanitized and glorified. Where does this film fit into that reassessment?

GREYEYES: I think it's a powerful corrective to be quite honest. When I speak to people about the role and about what happens and, of course, where the assassination of Sitting Bull lies in terms of the political landscape, the historical landscape of that time, I'm quite stunned often. And so I know that with this film and its detailed examination of the Lakota struggle for sovereignty, for their lives, even, I knew that this was timely. And with Susanna White - our director's treatment, the humanism of her work, of Steven's work creates a kind of empathy that I find is desperately lacking in our discourse.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: It must have been profoundly meaningful but also challenging to portray such an important historical figure.

GREYEYES: It was. Sitting Bull is a hero. He's a hero to Indigenous people around the world. And for me to approach that role, I, too, am an outsider. I'm indigenous. But I'm - I come from a different community, a different culture. And so I looked for support. I had language consultants and cultural advisers from Standing Rock and from the Lakota community. And it's with that support, it's with that literal love that I felt confident I could approach this. And for me it was and is a role of a lifetime.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I think it's so important for people to hear that you, as an Indigenous actor, had to get consultants because everyone is not the same.

GREYEYES: True. True. I think there's a certain kind of perception that we are - sort of like a pan-Indian idea that we're all the same. And, of course, there's 500-plus nations. It's like describing someone from France and saying, oh. You're European. I love that thing. And then you mention some other European culture, and they're like, well, that's not us, actually.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Windmills are wonderful. Yeah.

(LAUGHTER)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: We love tulips.

GREYEYES: We love tulips.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah. I wonder what your role has been in shifting the narratives, and how you choose the roles that you decide to take on and what you feel your responsibility is, if any?

GREYEYES: Interestingly, actors of color, I think, bear a particular - an added responsibility because dominant culture often see us as exemplars...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Right.

GREYEYES: ...Or as sort of icons for a larger culture, not something we always assume of, you know, a Caucasian actor. And so I kind of carry this with me. I've always been adamant about trying to expand or agitate or subvert in some way our collective notion of Indian-ness. And so, for example, when I spoke English, I always fought that my characters would have a really profound grasp of the language, you know? English is relatively easy, you know, compared to Indigenous languages, so I said, well, you know, why wouldn't he learn English well? And, you know, producers or directors would often wonder about that. But with Susanna and these producers, that wasn't an argument I had to make. They were allies from the beginning.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: There is a push to have Native American actors play roles that aren't directly related to their heritage now. And that is something that you see among all communities of color. Do you think that's important?

GREYEYES: Absolutely. I've been fortunate in my career. I've always been incredibly proud to represent my community, whether it's as a Cree man or as an Indigenous person, so I've played Comanche characters, Lakota characters, you know, other cultures. And even though I've played these different roles, they were always a period role. But then more recently, I started to get cast as police officers or lawyers and, you know, even a serial killer. But they were always Native. Until just recently - actually, it was only about two weeks ago that I was finally cast, after 27 years in the business, as a character whose ethnicity was not determined. They just liked me as a performer. And so that was - that to me was actually a watershed moment.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Do you think it signifies something broader?

GREYEYES: I do. I do. I think there's a sea change. I've seen it for maybe the past four or five years, actually. I've started to see a dimensionality finally appear in the materials I was being sent, the scripts I was reading. And I started to see it in other places - in the treatment of our cultures, of our characters. For example, just recently, I watched a fabulous episode on "Westworld." And there was an episode that was really focused on the Indigenous hosts in the show. And it was beautifully done, truly sophisticated. And the performances were nuanced, so it's there. It's with films like "Woman Walks Ahead." It's, of course, in the work of Indigenous filmmakers and Indigenous writers. It's always been present. But I think we're on the eve of something. It gives me great hope as I continue to work in an industry that I love that change is on hand.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Michael Greyeyes plays Sitting Bull in "Woman Walks Ahead." The film is out now. Thank you very much.

GREYEYES: Thank you, Lulu. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.