Rodney A. Grant has heard it all before: There are no Native Americans who can act. Mainstream audiences don’t want to see movies about Native American life. People won’t relate to Native American characters unless they’re played by big, white Hollywood stars wearing makeup.
To the naysayers, Grant can now respond with three words: Dances With Wolves. The Western, directed by and starring Kevin Costner, has earned $80 million in its first 10 weeks in theaters. Grant costars in the film as Wind in His Hair, the bold Sioux warrior who initally distrusts the white man in his tribe’s midst. This month, he also appears as Crazy Horse in ABC’s miniseries Son of the Morning Star, about General George Armstrong Custer and the 1876 Battle of the Little Bighorn. Grant clearly considers the TV role the less rewarding, but he has real hopes that filmmakers will follow the lead of Dances and deal more realistically with Native American history and culture.
On a December afternoon in Rapid City, S.D., Grant is hanging out with friends before going to the Crazy Horse Memorial, a vast sculpture of the Sioux hero of Custer’s Last Stand that is being blasted out of the side of a mountain 17 miles southwest of Mount Rushmore. Though it’s 20 below even without the brittle wind, he is comfortable in a thin jacket, jeans, and cowboy boots.
Grant, 31, spends most of his time in L.A., but he grew up on an Omaha Indian reservation in northeastern Nebraska. ”One of the biggest problems on a reservation — not just on reservations but in ghettos or poor parts of town — is alcohol and drugs,” Grant says. He was not immune. As a teenager he drank heavily. At 20, he broke into a liquor store and spent two days in a Nebraska jail. He remembers the prison psychologist telling him, ”I don’t know why you’re here. You have an above-average intelligence. You don’t have a criminal mind. If you took care of your alcohol problem, you might not be here.” Time in a rehab center helped, Grant says. One lesson he’s learned: ”It’s real fun to have money in your pocket. Because when you’re on alcohol or use drugs, you never have money and do a lot of things you normally wouldn’t do to get drugs and alcohol.” He now speaks to Indian groups about alcohol and drug abuse.
Relationships also have been a struggle. A marriage ended in divorce. (His ex-wife has custody of their young daughters, Jade Marie, 8; Regina Lee, 7; and Mikayla Mary, 6.) Grant has custody of his 3-year-old son, Walter, from a later relationship. ”He sat through Dances real, real good for 2 1/2 hours,” Grant says.
He decided to become an actor in the late 1980s while watching a Western on TV — an obscure movie called Eagle’s Wing. ”Sam Waterston played an Indian guy,” recalls Grant, who was then working as a meatpacker in Macy, Nebraska. ”I really liked him in The Killing Fields, but here he was, riding in a tattered breechcloth. It blew my mind. I thought, ‘What is this? If they resort to Sam Waterston, I’m going to Los Angeles.”’ His first film job was a small role in 1988’s War Party. His second was performing a stunt (he fell off a horse) in 1989’s Powwow Highway. Then the roles dried up — until Dances.
Grant credits the film’s success to Costner’s vision and commitment: ”Kevin’s idea of wanting to do it in the Sioux language and use subtitles just made people that much more enthused. I’ve seen a lot of directors’ work, and you just have to have an understanding for human dynamics, and that’s what he had. He was very caring.”
Morning Star is more problematic for Grant. The four-hour miniseries follows the lives of both the Civil War hero and Indian fighter (played by Gary Cole) and Crazy Horse. But, says Grant, ”It’s just a glorification of Custer. The Indians are there just to make background noise.” Indeed, though Grant’s presence is commanding in the production, Crazy Horse gets considerably less screen time than Custer. Still, Grant concedes that the industry’s attitude toward Native Americans has changed considerably in recent years. ” [Dances] makes people think, raises awareness of exactly who Native American people are,” he says.
At the unfinished Crazy Horse project, mammoth in its scope, Grant is visibly moved by the tribute to Native American pride and endurance.
”I go to L.A. — it’s exciting, that’s where the work is. It’s really hustle- bustle and motivating,” he says. ”But after a couple of days, I find myself wanting to get away and come back up this way. Because-just look around. It’s really good to be active, looking for jobs and pursuing a career out there,” he adds. ”But it’s also beneficial to have a very clear spiritual mind.”