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Native American Actor Wes Studi on "Avatar"

For actor Wes 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.

So it was no coincidence that he was cast an the tribal leader Eytukan in director James Cameron's Golden Globe-winning Avatar or as bounty hunter Sam, the lead character in Kevin Willmott's The Only Good Indian. From his Dances With Wolves days with fellow Native American Graham Green, Studi's become a go-to guy for authentic characterizations. And though he has often played parts that had nothing to do with his heritage, his passion and commitment have made him immediately recognizable.

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, Okla., this fit six-footer exclusively spoke his native Cherokee language until beginning school at age five. A professional horse trainer, Studi began acting at The American Indian Theatre Company in Tulsa, leading to his shot in Hollywood. But Studi and his wife Maura Dhu never became Californians; they live in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and perform in the band Firecat of Discord.

In Avatar, he plays a character who comports himself with a dignity becoming of the values and strength of the Na'avi tribe he leads — the one that resists the human invaders who threaten to destroy his community's way of life. In the upcoming indie The Only Good Indian, he takes on a very different character, that of an Old West Indian who is stalking his own people — in this case, children who as being taken from their tribes and forced to be Christianized around the end of the 19th century.


Q: Each of these films have their own little pleasures and difficulties. What were they for each?

WS: 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.

Q: 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?

WS: 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.

Q: Avatar's native characters have some characteristics like those of the indigenous peoples of 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?

WS: 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.

And 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. And 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.

Q: How did you get involved with Kevin Willmott, director of The Only Good Indian?

WS: 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.

Q: How long was the shoot and how close was it to where you live?

WS: 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 10-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.

Q: What were the challenges with The Only Good Indian?

WS: 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.

And 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.

Q: In The Only Good Indian, you had a more direct influence by being the executive producer. At what stage did you do that?

WS: 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, and 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.

Q: 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 to not 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?

WS: It's [important] to me to be able to play those other characters, because even then I've continued to carry the banner. And 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.

Q: Good thing you mentioned color because they were blue in Avatar.

WS: It’s still a color, isn’t it?

Q: So when you saw Avatar completed, were you amazed, were you glad, did you have a whole different emotional experience?

WS: 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.

Q: 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?

WS: 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.

Q: Are you upset when your character dies in movies?

WS: 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.

Q: At least you get to play the leader; that’s something. You were the sage, or you’re the great father or whatever.

WS: But in The Only Good Indian, I live. And live gloriously, at that.

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