For Once, Cherokee actor Wes Studi has been cast as the romance co-star | Movies and TV

NEW YORK (AP) — In Wes Studi’s powerful and pioneering acting career, he played avenging warriors, dying prisoners and passionate resistance leaders. For three decades, he produced strikingly large-scale portraits of the Native American experience. But one thing he had never done in a movie was kiss someone.

“I thought it was about time, yeah,” Studi, 74, laughs.

In “A Love Song,” a tender indie drama starring fellow longtime actor Dale Dickey, Studi is cast as the romantic co-star for the first time. Dickey plays a woman camping by a mountain lake awaiting a visit from an old flame.

Studi, the Cherokee actor who masterfully played the defiant Huron warrior Magua in Michael Mann’s “The Last of the Mohicans” and who got his first big break playing the character credited only as “the toughest Pawnee” in “Dances With Wolves,” wasn’t entirely limited to what he calls “leather and feather” roles. But sometimes it takes extra effort. When he heard Mann was filming “Heat,” Studi called the director and landed himself a role as a police detective.

But recently, Studi has been getting more and more of a chance to play a wider cast of characters. Along with Max Walker-Silverman’s “A Love Song,” which hits theaters Friday, he’s a recurring and fun guest star on Sterlin Harjo’s “Reservation Dogs,” whose second season premieres Aug. 3 on Hulu.

“I hope it has to do with creating a better understanding of Indigenous peoples in the general public,” Studi said in an interview earlier this summer. “It still exists, the misconception that we were all killed and we no longer exist as peoples.”

“That’s basically what I want to work on, and be a champion for Aboriginal people in the industry,” he adds.

With that, Studi, sitting outside the lobby of his East Village hotel in New York, lets out a howl of laughter that he almost doubles over.

Why does this notion, which many would eagerly endorse, strike him as so hysterical? He entered Hollywood at a time when native people were regularly played by white actors. (“Sam Waterson is the one killing me,” Studi says, smiling.) An honorary Oscar in 2019 made Studi the first Native American actor to ever receive an Oscar.

“I can’t take myself seriously when I say that, that’s why,” he replies, wiping the tears from his eyes. “I suppose it could be.”

In person, Studi bears little resemblance to his fiercer screen roles. He looks more like his characters in “A Love Song” and “Reservation Dogs.” Friendly. Quick to laugh. Self-mockery. A good storyteller. He exudes a puzzled gratitude for the life he’s found as an actor despite spending half his life without Hollywood ambitions. Studi grew up outside of Tahlequah, Oklahoma, and spoke only Cherokee until he was 5 years old. His father was a farmer.

“I had never thought of acting, really, except once early in my life when I asked my dad when I saw Jay Silverheels in ‘The Lone Ranger’: ‘Do you think anyone else can do what he does?'” recalls Studi. “He said, ‘Probably not. Most of the actors you find are six feet tall, blond, and have blue eyes.

At 17, Studi joined the National Guard and volunteered to fight in Vietnam. He toured South Vietnam and witnessed heavy actions. Back home, Studi became an activist and joined the American Indian Movement, taking part in the 1973 Wooded Knee occupation. comedy — “on a lark,” he says — with a Tulsa community theater company his friend was involved with. Studi thought: What do I have to lose?

“The worst part is that you could embarrass yourself. That’s about it,” he said. “They’re not going to shoot you for that.”

Studi performed wherever the theater company could set up a stage or at gas dinner theaters. In one play, he co-starred with Will Sampson and David Carradine. After a few years, Studi moved to Los Angeles. He was in his early forties.

“I always have the feeling: Will I ever work again? It’s always been part of it,” Studi said. “On the other hand, things have worked out for me to continue working. I don’t take this lightly. I’m especially grateful that I was able to buy a house and stay in a good car for an extended period. .

Studi recalls that the Screen Actors Guild’s Actors Book was a bulky tome, while the all-new American Indian Registry for the Performing Arts, listing Native actors, was just a thin sliver. . The parts he had were also limited.

“The only real opening for a guy who looked like me was in westerns,” Studi says. “It was the only real door that was open to us at that time. It was just about being able to deliver lines and look like you really meant it.

After a few roles, Studi landed “Dances With Wolves.” Two years later, Mann cast him as Magua in “The Last of the Mohicans,” the cunning Huron warrior who fervently believes in fighting, ruthlessly, for survival. As time went on, Studi’s relentless and determined performance only grew hotter.

“Any native who knows the history and the back and forth we had with the colonizers, if you will, can empathize with how they felt about things,” Studi said. “When you’re backed into a corner, you have to fight. It’s one way or the other. All of these things had an emotional consistency that I could relate to having lived through the turmoil of the 70s.”

When first director Walker-Silverman contacted Studi, he had no reason to expect the actor from ‘Geronimo: An American Legend’ (1993), ‘The New World’ (2005), ‘Avatar ” (2009) and “Hostiles” (2017), would say yes to a production as small as “A Love Song”.

“What’s the chance he wants to come here, eat my mom’s food, hang out with my friends, and make this little movie?” says Walker-Silverman. “But luckily Wes likes to play more than anything.”

In the film, Studi and Dickey share a sweet duet, with Studi on guitar. Walker-Silverman planned for Studi to play beat-up acoustics but Studi – who toured with his band Firecat of Discord – came on set with a red electric and a small amp. Walker-Silverman could tell the electric suited him better. While filming Colorado, Studi scratched it regularly with a big smile on his face.

“Wes is clumsy as hell, has a nice smile and can play guitar all the way. I’m glad some people can see that side of him,” Walker-Silverman says.

“Well over a hundred films between them,” adds the director. “Maybe it was the first time they kissed someone on screen, maybe it says all sorts of sad things about who’s been allowed to fall in love in movies.”

Dickey, the ‘Winter’s Bone’ and ‘Hell or High Water’ actor, admits she was a little nervous about romantic moments in which neither actor was particularly experienced.

“We’ve both played against a lot of pretty tough people,” she said in January at Sundance. “But he is such a kind, gentle, gentle soul. It was our first on-screen kiss. We both laughed a lot about it.

Studi has goals beyond what he infamously calls his first “rom-com.” One thing he’d like to do is play a main character with a full background, something he thinks he’s only done in Kevin Willmott’s 2009 film “The Only Good Indian.”

“I would love to play a lead role that takes me from really good to really bad or vice versa, something that has a long arc,” Studi says. “I want to keep doing this until I can’t anymore.”

Tap Studi and he’ll admit he sometimes gets letters from young Native American actors who say he inspired them to try out. When Studi is asked to speak to Aboriginal children, his message is simple: “If I can do it, you can too. And he followed – “a fan to the max”, he says – as an explosion of young Indigenous talent emerged in series like ‘Reservation Dogs’ and ‘Rutherford Falls’, which was co-created by the showrunner Navajo Sierra Teller Ornelas.

Studi, who lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico, with his wife, Maura Dhu, also watched one of his three children, son Kholan, become an actor. Studi visibly brightens up remembering when he and Maura put on a one-man show with the kids helping out. Studi’s son, Daniel, took care of the lighting. His daughter, Leah, was backstage to give him lines.

“There were times when she got mad at me when I dropped something: ‘Daddy, that’s not it!’ laughs Studi. “Oh, that was so much fun.”

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