One of the highlights of the Albuquerque Film and Music Experience (besides the premiere of my own film, that is) was moderating a conversation with actor Wes Studi for an audience in one of the conference halls at the Hotel Embassy Suites. We all know his work, from Dances with Wolves to Last of the Mohicans to Avatar, and all kinds of other interesting stuff along the way: Geronimo: An American Legend (with Gene Hackman, Robert Duvall, Jason Patric, Matt Damon), Being Flynn, New World, Heat. It’s the kind of career I most admire: hard-working, long-lasting, memorable, excellent support-staff for “stars,” filled with integrity: a true character actor. Of course, being a Native American (Cherokee, to be exact) brings all kinds of other challenges, in terms of getting good parts, and all of this together makes his journey unique.
Wes Studi starred in a short film playing at AFME, Ronnie BoDean, directed by Steven Paul Judd. (I found a good article discussing the background of the film.) Watching Ronnie BoDean, I thought: “Well. This clearly needs to be a feature.” Some short films are one-joke wonders, a gimmick, or clearly just a sketch-comedy routine. But the rare ones are so evocative, so tantalizing, that you want more. Ronnie BoDean is like that. So keep your fingers crossed.
I went to see Ronnie BoDean the day before my talk with Wes Studi, so I got to meet him beforehand (always helpful; it was like two weeks ago flying down to Champaign from O’Hare with Guillermo del Toro, whom I was going to be interviewing onstage that night. Not only did we “break the ice,” but we chattered at each other about movies for an hour and a half so that when we did get onstage together later that night, it felt like we were just continuing the earlier conversation.) I sat with Wes Studi and his lovely wife, and we watched the shorts program, including Ronnie BoDean.
Ronnie BoDean tells the story of a hungover tough-guy Native American, who lives in his car, surrounded by empty beer bottles, who ends up babysitting two kids for a crazy 24-hour period. It’s hilarious. You know, it’s hard to do something “new” in cinema. Even very good stories are often re-treads of things we’ve seen a million times before. But as Wes Studi said in our conversation the following day: Ronnie BoDean is a Native American ANTI-hero, and THAT is something we have never seen. What a thrilling concept!
The following morning, we sat onstage in front of an audience of about 30 people, all clearly thrilled to be there (sitting on their hands, basically, waiting for the QA period), and had a great conversation. He is a lovely man: forthcoming, funny, thoughtful.
He spoke about his childhood, only speaking Cherokee until he was 5 years old, when his aunt got him into a boarding school/orphanage-type place, so that he could get an education. His first year there was a whirlwind, but by the end of the year, he spoke English and had forgotten Cherokee. He said he came home at the end of the year, said something to his grandmother in English, and she scolded him in Cherokee: We don’t speak English here! So he had to re-learn Cherokee!
I asked him if there were any performances or movies he saw as a kid that lit the spark in him, that made him think, “Wow, that’s good. I’d like to do that.” (I was especially interested in this because he had a whole life before he got into acting, doing all kinds of different jobs: what makes someone like that go, “Okay. Now I’m gonna try THIS.”) He said that the best acting he ever saw was when he watched wrestling programs on television when he was a kid. There were the “bad” guys, who oozed evil, in their capes and costumes, and the different characters were totally clear as they fought out their epic battles in the ring. (I love this story. Good acting, inspirational acting, is everywhere, not just during Oscar season.)
But what was it, I asked … what was it that made him decide, eventually, to take that risk, and devote himself to acting?
He said that it was the risk itself that drew him to it. Because, he said, the risk is not just that you won’t make a living. (Besides, as he pointed out, he had done a lot of itinerant labor work, and he said acting is very similar to that kind of life.) The risk is also in telling your family and friends, “Yeah, I’m going to go out to Hollywood and be an actor.” Because what if you don’t make it? Who wants to “fail” in such a public way? It was that very risk that made him want to give it a shot.
I asked him about the challenges facing Native Americans in Hollywood, especially since American cinema basically STARTED with Westerns. The mythology of the American West was created mostly through cinema. Studi said that any Native American becoming an actor knows that he will be asked to do what he called “Leathers and feathers” parts. It’s part of the gig. It’s a “way in.” He shared a story, though, about one of his first roles in a TV movie. He had to creep along a roof, ready to shoot someone below, and the director said, “Okay, so when you come along that roof, I want you to be low and sneaky like an Indian.” Wow. Studi said, “So what did I do? I snuck along that roof like a low and sneaky Indian.” You do what you have to do.
We talked about Dances with Wolves and what a phenom it was. It changed his life. His death scene is one of the best scenes in the film. It’s heartbreaking. He described how he worked in a Native American “curios” shop across the street from a movie theatre when Dances with Wolves opened. The shop was called The Teepee. (This is also a good reminder to those who think once you do a movie, you’re all set. Nope. Day jobs are still necessary, even if you’re in Dances with Wolves!) So Wes Studi is working in this shop called The Teepee, and watching lines started stretching down the block across the street to see a movie he was in. And when the audience came out after the film, many of them crossed the street to The Teepee to buy some knick-knacks. Wes Studi could see the emotion on their faces, how devastated they were: “And I think they wanted to do something, you know? To somehow atone for what they just saw. So they bought dream-catchers.” Some people recognized him from Dances with Wolves (which must have been so bizarre), but mostly it was just one of those moments where he realized that a movie he had been in was taking on a life of its own, becoming an important cultural event.
I asked him what it was like to work with Terrence Malick, known for sometimes being more interested in waving tree-tops than human beings. I re-told that hilarious story from Ben Affleck on To the Wonder: Ben is acting, and the camera is off to the side, pointing at his face. He’s playing the scene. Out of his peripheral vision, while he’s acting, he is aware that the camera has swooped away from him and is now pointing up at the sky, to film birds, or trees, or whatever. Ben was like, “Terry, what the hell, I’m acting over here.” (This is just one story of many. Affleck didn’t tell this story in an annoyed way, it was more humorous than that.)
With that as the launch-pad, Wes Studi described how Malick would film scenes simultaneously with 10, 11 cameras. So you never knew which one was “on,” what angle you were being shot from, what was being focused on. (I saw an interview with Studi where he said that it was like doing “theatre in the round.”) And his character has this big monologue, which he delivered beautifully. “And then I saw the final film, and my monologue starts, and suddenly there’s shots of waving grass, and treetops …” People were already laughing. His monologue had become a voiceover for all this nature photography. Oh, Malick! Don’t ever change!
I was also thrilled to ask him what it was like to work with Michael Mann, which he has done twice, in Last of the Mohicans and Heat.
Michael Mann is one of my favorite film-makers. His films LOOK so gorgeous that I sometimes need to watch them multiple times in order to get past the visuals and absorb the story. Wes Studi told a couple of good stories.
One came from the shoot for Last of the Mohicans, where Wes Studi makes a huge impression as the vengeful Magua. He almost takes over the whole film.
They shot much of it in North Carolina, and the cast and crew were staying in an historic inn. In the main room downstairs, there was an old oil painting over the mantelpiece of a horse-drawn carriage going over a bridge, with a river below. Michael Mann was so struck by the painting and he ended up re-creating it in a huge shot in Last of the Mohicans. I love this story because it shows that while Michael Mann obviously is an obsessive planner, and chooses extremely carefully what he wants to shoot before he even gets to location, he is also open to inspiration in the moment. And when he wants something, he will get that something. That painting spoke to him, it was probably painted during the period when the story took place, and he was like: “That. I want THAT to be in the movie.”
Wes Studi said that Michael Mann’s obsession for detail means that he can be very hard on his crew. (Not the actors, but the crew.) A lot of crew members don’t last long. He’s a task-master, and he knows the look he wants. Studi told a story about getting a friend of his who was a makeup artist (maybe a tattoo artist, too?) come on the set of Last of the Mohicans to create a lightning-bolt on one of the character’s faces. And Michael Mann would stand right there, as the makeup artist painted it onto the actor. Mann would give comments, saying, “No, make it a little lower/higher”: like, every point and angle of that lightning-bolt had to pass muster with Michael Mann. And finally, the artist couldn’t take it anymore! This was fascinating to me, and honestly I’m not surprised. Michael Mann’s films are so exquisite-looking – like, every single frame – that of course he would run his crew ragged to get the look he wanted.
“There are some shots in Heat,” said Wes Studi, “that look like an Armani ad or something.”
So true. I mentioned one of my favorite shots: Al Pacino, Wes Studi, and two of the other cops, are on a stakeout, waiting for the criminals to steal stuff from inside that gigantic warehouse. The four men are shot in profile, staring down at the loading dock from a nearby building. There are four faces in the frame, and each one is staggered a little bit in front of the other, so you get four profiles in one, with noir-ish Venetian blind shadows across the whole thing. Each of them are in dark suits. It’s a magnificent image. It lasts less than 5 seconds. Imagine the time and the thought that it took to create just that one image!
I was not prepared at all for Wes Studi to turn the conversation around and start asking ME questions. “Enough about me, what do you think about me,” Wes Studi cracked. But he started asking me about being a film critic as WELL as a screenwriter, and how did that work? (I have no idea.) He said, “Because actors, you know, we look at film critics almost like the enemy.” So I talked a little bit about how I started being a film critic, which was almost by accident. I talked about the French New Wave guys, Godard, Truffaut, Chabrol, Resnais – who all started out as film critics, in love with B-movies from America. Then they started making their own movies, revolutionizing and energizing world cinema. We don’t really have a similar situation in America, the two worlds – critic and film-maker – are much more separated. I said, “But once you know the amount of collaboration that goes into making even just a short film – it’s amazing not only that anything GOOD is made, but that anything is made at ALL.”
I only mention this comment of mine because a woman came up to me afterwards who has worked in props departments and production design for 30 years, on enormous expensive Hollywood movies. And she was like, “THANK YOU for saying that!” She told this hilarious story about working on Pearl Harbor and how Michael Bay wanted some of the weaponry to be “lavender.” The sheer level of detail that goes into any single shot in any movie blows your mind … so when a 3-hour movie, say, WORKS? Frankly, it’s a miracle. Those who insist that the director is totally responsible for any given movie just don’t know how it works. Yes, he’s the Boss. But what about all of the departments who make his vision happen? Who make bombs the right shade of lavender?
It was a blast hearing him talk about Ronnie BoDean and wanting to create an “anti-hero” that hadn’t been seen before. In the conversations he and Judd had, when planning the project, they discussed how they wanted to “embrace” some of the stereotypes about Native Americans (they’re drunk, they’re criminals, etc.), and show all of these things in a straightforward comedic way that has never been done before. How many movies have we all seen where a criminal-type is then thrown into a situation (i.e. babysitting, as is the case with Ronnie BoDean) where you see another side of him? Or the Tough Guy thrown into a situation for which he is not prepared?
Ronnie BoDean is first seen rising up from the front seat of his car, hungover, cigarette in his mouth, with a dangling ash longer than the cigarette ever was. His hair is long and straight. (“Thank God I already had a long wig,” said Wes Studi.) He looks rough. In a drunken haze, he watches as a woman is dragged out of her house by two cops, presumably for disturbing the peace. Her two blonde-pipsqueak children are left behind. Ronnie BoDean realizes that their mama is probably drying out in jail for the day, so he rolls out of the car, scattering empty bottles, stalks forward in his motorcycle boots, determined to take care of the kids for the day. What then goes down is hilarious, “inappropriate,” endearing, but more than all of that: it’s COMPELLING and TANTALIZING: You want to see more, you want to know more about Ronnie BoDean’s background and character and life. Who is he? What’s his life been like?
Studi talked a lot about the struggles for Native American actors. He says he does not like to be called an “activist,” and that if you want to work in “the business” you have to accept Leathers and Feathers roles as part of the gig, a valid entry-way. But he’s at the point in his career now (Get ready for Penny Dreadful!) where people say “Let’s get Wes Studi” – or, “Let’s get a Wes Studi type.” Once you yourself are a “type,” you know you’re at another level. I asked him if he felt he needed to “combat” stereotypes and he said not necessarily, or at least that’s not the attitude he starts from. He wants to work as an actor. He works within the framework that exists. He came along at a time when a lot of stereotypes were being challenged, when film-makers were interested in looking at the myth of the American West in new and more nuanced ways. But why can’t a Native American actor just play a doctor, or a lawyer? He joked, “You know, you always get offered parts where your character says stuff like, ‘The eagle flies into the dawn and the rocks and the grass speak of our spirits …” (laughter from the audience) and he mentioned The Mystery Men, where he played The Sphinx, a humorous “spin” or “spoof” on that kind of stereotypical “wise sage” role.
The second I opened the whole thing up for questions, practically every hand went up in the air. The discussion following was in-depth, generous, thought-provoking.
Studi said, “Listen, we — ” (meaning Native Americans) “can’t sit around waiting for Hollywood to give us better roles. We have to create and tell our own stories.”
Ronnie BoDean is the future. Get ready for it.