Playing Sitting Bull in A24/DirecTV’s historical drama Woman Walks Ahead (out this Friday), actor Michael Greyeyes brings strength and solemnity to the legendary Lakota Sioux chief, as well as something typically lacking from Hollywood takes on Native American leaders: a sense of humor.
As he portrays the man beneath the myth, Greyeyes shares ample screen time with co-star Jessica Chastain, whose character, the real-life painter Catherine Weldon, travels to North Dakota in order to paint Sitting Bull’s portrait in the 1880s, forging a strong bond with the leader in the process. The Canadian Plains Cree actor is no stranger to embodying indigenous icons. Across a 25-year career, he’s been overwhelmingly cast in Native American and First Nations roles (including in popular series like AMC’s Fear the Walking Dead) and has previously portrayed Crazy Horse and Wandering Spirit. When approached about Woman Walks Ahead, however, Greyeyes — who is also the founder and artistic director of the Canada-based Signal Theatre Company, a dancer, and a tenured professor at Toronto’s York University — says he needed little convincing to step into the main role.
As Woman Walks Ahead hits theaters, Greyeyes spoke with EW for a wide-ranging discussion encompassing his thoughts on modern criticism, his film’s devotion to cultural accuracy, and the state of Native representation in Hollywood today.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Sitting Bull is an iconic figure. What was it like for you to bring him to life?
MICHAEL GREYEYES: He’s a cultural hero, an icon, and arguably the most famous Native American in history. As an indigenous person, of course, I was hugely honored to get the chance to play him. He has been portrayed on film before, but what’s utterly unique about this project is that there’s never been a portrayal of him that’s as three-dimensional and as expansive. In terms of screen time and the opportunities that afforded me as an actor and an artist, it was unheralded. I’ve been in the industry a long time, and a mainstream Hollywood film just doesn’t typically afford Native characters that kind of scope.
This was a role that was fought for by all of my peers, and it was talked about quite a bit in the community. It’s landmark. As an artist, you have to understand that Native performers and Native arts workers [have] worked constantly in Hollywood to subvert the white gaze, in some cases the male gaze, in order to drag stories about us—that involve us—toward an indigenous subjectivity. I didn’t have to work as hard with this project, because I had allies. [Director] Susanna [White] was a tremendous ally. Jessica, of course, was a huge ally to me. And I had considerable support from the producers and the rest of the artistic team to align the portrayal with what I knew to be truthful, about our culture.
Since the film’s release, have you had conversations specifically about Woman Walks Ahead‘s representation?
I have, actually. I just screened it in Oklahoma, which was of course formerly the Indian territory. And the response I’ve received from indigenous audiences has been universal; they’re delighted that a portrayal of certainly one of our heroes is as fully human, nuanced and sophisticated as what we were able to create. On the other hand, I’ve been incredibly disappointed with a lot of the reviewership and critical response to the film, which puzzles me, but doesn’t surprise me. Like, for example, Entertainment Weekly just came out with what I would call a scathing review of the film. Of course, people like films and don’t like films, but what was particularly troubling about the EW review is that I wasn’t actually mentioned in it, apart from that I was playing Sitting Bull. The portrayal is a big part of the film. When he’s not mentioned — and this wasn’t the only one, by far — when they don’t mention the response to that performance or portrayal, it erases the Native contribution to the film, and I find that actually racist. On the one hand, audiences have been effusive and responded to the film’s power, yet a lot of critique has missed the point entirely.
Do you feel like that’s is a frequent happenstance? Brie Larson recently called for more diverse voices in film criticism, and there’s been a reckoning of late with regard to how many “white dudes” are in that field.
I couldn’t agree more. I loved what Brie said. Jessica has spoken about that as well. She’s said, “Look at the demographics of who’s reviewing movies.” Perhaps reviews don’t hold the same power they did in previous eras, but they still have power and we ultimately have to ask the question: Are they cultural gatekeepers, and people who may not have the ability to overcome their blindspots in terms of looking at films and understanding that? A lot of the feminist press we’ve read in the last two weeks has been extraordinary. They’re talking about how the film has dragged the Western toward a female gaze, and how this is an important film, a powerful corrective to male-dominated Westerns. But that had to come from the feminist press. It’s quite illustrative of some of the problems Brie Larson was talking about.
As a Native actor, it must be interesting to hear this conversation getting louder and to be a part of the movement that’s fighting not just to be represented but also not to be erased or misrepresented.
It has. It’s always been a battle. I know in the generations ahead of me, Native actors were literally clawing their way into the room in order to present ourselves. We’ve always been part of cinema, but the role of Native artists as participants has increased over the years. I find that it’s an old battle, for us. We struggle against stereotypes, against erasure. As a scholar, I’ve written about a lot of this. Reviewership and the critical layer of our industry is a new frontier for us to fight against old tropes of our supposed invisibility and the erasure of our contributions to the media.
On Woman Walks Ahead, I’m sure something that’s also frustrating to see ignored by most reviews is the cultural specificity. Scenes are staged in Lakota, and there’s also the depiction of a religious dance, the Ghost Dance. What’s the significance of these scenes being on screen?
I’m glad you mentioned that. Very purposefully, there are moments where Lakota was not translated for the audience, which is made up of primarily non-Lakota speakers. What this does, actually, is that it places the Lakota representation as normative, and it places the audience in the role of the outsider. The production gave us tremendous resources in order to ensure the Lakota was authentic and correct and, as actors, we fought to have the language represented as beautifully as it was. And at the same time, apart from the language, we had a chance to recreate our Ghost Dance, for the project. Now, the filmmakers said, ‘This is not our dance,” and turned to us to ask, “How can we represent it?” And I was actually one of the choreographers along with Rulan Tangen, who’s another performer in the project. And we said, “Ceremony’s something we don’t represent on film, that we don’t present in media.” And they asked, “How would we represent it?” And we said, “Well, we can present a stylized version.” And they said, “That’s beautiful. We’d be happy to follow your advice.” And even on the day, they were asking, “How can we photograph it? How can we work alongside you?” So, in that moment, they understood that this was culturally in our purview, so they were allies and they listened to us about how it would be represented. And the way it’s presented on film is gorgeous. I think that is the fruit of a true, intercultural collaboration.
Woman Walks Ahead is one project that represents Native history in a nuanced way. Overall, how is this year shaping up in terms of Native representation on screen?
I certainly believe that, in terms of Hollywood productions, that [Woman Walks Ahead is] unique, but what’s also interesting to me is that indigenous film — films made by indigenous directors, artists, and writers — there’s more and more of this kind of filmmaking. Jeff Barnaby, Lisa Jackson, of course the work of Taika Waititi from New Zealand – we’re on the eve of a real explosion of indigenous-led media. I think Hollywood has a long way to catch up, and I think Woman Walks Ahead is helping to lead that journey. But I always look to indigenous filmmakers to set a bar in terms of subjectivity; because, of course, independent media is initiated from indigenous perspectives and is really manifested by us.
Do you believe Native actors like yourself are finding increasing opportunities to take on non-Native roles or tackle projects you individually want to make?
It’s been slow. But I’ve been very fortunate, and I’m grateful for the opportunities I’ve had. I’m working on HBO’s True Detective season 3, and that’s an extraordinary role. I loved working on Fear the Walking Dead for AMC last year. Blood Quantum was a film I made with Jeff Barnaby. What I’ve seen — and Woman Walks Ahead is certainly at the forefront of this — is that there is a change in the writing I’ve been seeing coming out of Hollywood, that’s been landing in my inbox. It’s far more nuanced, far more sophisticated, and I’m incredibly gratified, because I do feel like we’re on the eve of something. It’s like people have woken up, and they’re realizing that stories about us, that involve us, can be very sophisticated and be quite political.
Woman Walks Ahead is set up as the story of a white woman coming into this unfamiliar territory. Were there cultural blindspots in the script when you originally read it that you had to guide the filmmakers away from?
Not at all, actually. When I got the script, it was incredibly nuanced. I’d bring it back to reviewership. There’s been a number of articles that have decided to use the white savior trope as a means to criticize our film. But I actually find it incredibly intellectually lazy, to give it that label, for a lot of reasons. The first is that by using that trope, which does exist, is that it re-centers and re-focuses the conversation about the film on white involvement. To call the film a white savior film actually erases [co-star] Chaske Spencer’s entire function as a character in the narrative [he plays the nephew to Sitting Bull]. His job is to be the agitator. He’s continually telling his uncle, “Please, fight for us. Fight with us. Do something. Stop being this farmer. We need you.” To call her the savior, in a really quite terrible way, erases Chaske’s role and importance in the arc. And of course, factually, that’s inaccurate… It’s lazy and quite infuriating.
To go back to that, you’re talking about these assumptions many writers aren’t fully conscious of making, certain elements of media they note more than others.
They’re grappling with their own blindspots, right? For there to be a dozen mentions of white savior stuff in the reviewership implies… It’s like, are you guys reading each other’s reviews, or are you watching the movie? As a professor, I’m little impressed by people who don’t do their homework… And yet, some other reviews are so incisive and move way beyond that discussion. Some dig a little deeper, go a little further, and others are happy just to trot out old notions.