October 26, 2003|For all the praise afforded it in recent years, Michael Mann's 1992 The Last of the Mohicans is still an undervalued film of big emotions, boasting of a macho sensibility more bracing than any number of post-modern ruminations on the cult of manhood. Above all its technical achievements and ecstatic scripting, it offers Magua, perhaps the most important modern depiction of any minority character and one that arguably, single-handedly, made the casting of the Native American as the impossibly noble Child of the Earth suddenly déclassé. Wes Studi is much of the reason for the success of Mohicans, his portrayal of Magua revealing depths that reverberate with me still, offering hope that Asians in American cinema might one day be as difficult to minimize as Native Americans have become. Tied in with that respect, however, is of course the reality that roles for Indians have become relatively scarce in recent years.
In person, Studi is smaller than you might imagine, jealous of his emotions and disciplined in his reactions--intimidating until he decides to trust you a little, and then the smile breaks warm and a little sly. "You look like a Sioux," he told me, breaking into laughter that felt more warm than mocking, probably deciding in that moment to forgive me for butchering the handful of Cherokee phrases I'd learned to greet him. Dressed in a conservative dark suit, Studi was in town for the 26th Starz Denver International Film Festival to introduce his film Geronimo (directed by Walter Hill), as well as discuss the ways in which the Native American is and has been portrayed in film. Activist, passionate, he's articulate and intense, and though he puts out something like guardedness, the biggest secret of Wes Studi is that inside that hard shell is a man warm, generous, amazingly loyal, quick with a hearty laugh, and dedicated to the right causes.
FILM FREAK CENTRAL: You wrote a one-act play early on, "Coyote Chews His Own Tail"...
WES STUDI: "Coyote" was make-work, something to do in-between jobs to keep the chops up. My girlfriend and I--at the time, she's now my wife--we began to think about what kind of show we could put on that I could do by myself and that's what we came up with: a collection of stories with this guy who is the literal manifestation of Coyote telling his own stories. He's seen how the world has gotten to a point where people don't know themselves, creating social problems for all that ignorance, and he decides to come back to teach the people the old stories of himself that they've forgotten in a contemporary form. We opened up at a theatre in Los Angeles, The Court, I think it was called, on La Cienega and eventually brought it out to Santa Fe to Indian Market.
I've read that a great number of the white audience brought their children, believing that a play by Native Americans must be innocuous stuff for the whole family even though Coyote is one of the randiest characters in any mythology.
(laughs) Yeah, I don't think the idea that Europeans had about us being childlike creatures of the forest has ever disappeared. There's still a connection, maybe unconscious, between us and children so they figured, "Hey, this is a storytelling show, it must be for kids." But there's, as you say, some pretty raunchy stories in there--stuff about penises growing across highways and things like that, you know, all kinds of very adult activities. I've had a number of people bundle up their kids (laughs) and walk out of the show as soon as the "P" word got out.
(laughs) By the mystic, sometimes bumbling, stoic warrior thing? You know I was going to change my name one time. Whenever you don't have a lot to do you come up with a lot of ideas about how to enhance your career, and I was going to change my name. I thought, Well, if I change my name, I'm going to change it to Noble Redman.
(laughs) I think a few scripts actually had that as the character name.
My part in Dances with Wolves was written as "The Toughest Pawnee"--so that's no joke.
|Studi as Magua in The Last of the Mohicans|
How was Magua written?
I'll tell you, not a lot of the depth of that character was in the first script that we began to work on, it really wasn't there. I really credit Michael Mann with realizing that there was something in that character, a potential for development, and so he began to increase the size of the character as we went along. I mean, it was a six-month shoot so there was time and room to find this complicated man in among the [James Fenimore] Cooper sketch and the first drafts--as we went along Michael began to spend more and more time with Magua.
He's the emotional centre of the film.
Like you say, shades were developed in his persona and we began to see a real human being with a lot of complex motivations: terrible things driving him. Michael has a penchant for the guy up against the wall. I think that's one of the reasons that he was so drawn to this character and I owe him a lot for that experience. Without it, the film is less, I think--closer to just a love story in the woods.
I think that was Gene Siskel's initial assessment of the picture.
(laughs) Right. A romance in the woods--but it's epic, it's become that, anyway, in the time since it was released. There's a group of people who meet yearly from all over the United States in North Carolina, I went there once at their invitation, a Last of the Mohicans group who wind up there every year to screen the film and then go out to visit all the locations where we shot.
Your personal themes of contemporizing old stories, of dispelling stereotypes, of oral traditions in storytelling--they all come to a head in Magua. You even speak four languages in the picture.
Yes, four. French, English, Mohawk, and Delaware. We couldn't find the Huron language, sadly, so what I did was just insert some Cherokee into that portion because it wasn't very vocal, not really there that much but we were all interested in getting close to the texture. The feel of it.
I know you're in town talking about portrayals of Native Americans in film--what do you look back on with fondness?
Little Big Man, The Outlaw Josey Wales, some of the films at that point got a little overboard with the nobility thing, the connected to the earth, the mystical stewards of nature thing like in Soldier Blue, but as time went on, I think that portrayals have generally improved.
Are there actually fewer roles now for Native Americans as a consequence of that improvement, what with Asians getting the mystical, slapstick, stoic warrior roles?
Hey, yeah, yeah you're right, that's true--I'd never thought of it that way but it's true. Remember that commercial with this Asian fella and the car that goes by to this flute--that's real mystical isn't it? Do you remember the Indian guy with the tear coming out of his eye?
Right, but he was Italian right?
(laughs) I knew him, I knew him. He was a very nice guy, he did a lot for Indians out there at that time, he had something to do with this registry that Will Sampson set up in Los Angeles for all the Indian actors out there so whenever someone needed someone, they'd put them together with agents and place them when casting came around. Unfortunately, ironically again, as things got better, the registry went by the wayside. As for the Asian stuff, man, I blame Margaret Cho for that. (laughs)
(laughs) She's got a lot of explaining to do. You're also in town with Walter Hill's Geronimo. It got some great reviews, like most of Hill's films do, but flopped--like most of Hill's films do. Why?
A number of things, I think, one of them, and the biggest thing, I think, is that there was a Geronimo television show at the same time. Just as we were wrapping they were starting up a six-week shoot. A lot of the people who worked on the film, in fact, went and worked on the TV show. The timing was awful for that--Ted Turner did it back when he had money (laughs)--a lot of the advertising we did for the film funnelled people to that TV special--they opened before we did and I actually got a call from Turner thanking me for all that publicity. And, too, people were disappointed with the film because it wasn't just about Geronimo, it was about interpretations of myth and stories. The billing was wrong, the timing was wrong...
Wasn't there a lot of script and post-production meddling?
John Milius, I saw him after the premiere out in the lobby and he's standing there like this [Studi screws his face up with displeasure (a scary thing!)]. He wrote the initial script and he says, "Wes, why the hell did you let them do that to my movie?" There was a studio writer on set all the time, plenty of changes were made, a lot of them for the other actors. You've got Gene Hackman and Robert Duvall, you know, I'd just made SAG minimum and these guys, legends, so a lot of changes to accommodate them--there was also Jason Patric and, who knew? Matt Damon.
(laughs) This is right before Good Will Hunting?
Yep, in fact he and his good buddy Affleck, there, they were working on the script at that time. He'd come out on set and they'd work on it. I should have told them to cut it out. (laughs) "We're making this movie, boys."
Undisputed, another underestimated Hill film, is really a strong statement about race.
I think it really says something without being too "important" to itself, I think it has so much to say. The image of two black men fighting one another, especially in a cage--that's so startling and provocative an image, it's like a laboratory with monkeys that you put together to see how they react to one another, and it's the ruling class' perception that puts them there. They see these men as less than human and pit them against each other out of curiosity maybe, or hate. You see these patterns in every culture.
Tell me about Ely Parker and your dream of making a film about his life.
I'm surprised that you ask me about that, and pleased. Actually, script-wise, my wife and her partner and myself are putting it together, we have been for the last couple of years, and it's being fine-tuned at this point. The next step is trying to figure out a way to make it. Ely is...I just find him to be an amazing character for that era. The fact that he rose to such heights and came crashing down, he was a man who was hundreds, really, of years before his time. He wrote the terms of surrender for the Civil War, and then became the Indian Commissioner before most of us were even considered human. He built a canal in Rochester, NY that's still used--he was an architect, he built customs houses, just an amazing man so, yeah, we're really excited and we want to see who else we can get excited.
I'm excited to see you play Joe Leaphorn in Coyote Waits. Tony Hillerman, especially his early stuff, was always a favourite of mine.
The Hillerman stories are the closest things that we as Indians have as popular fiction with continuous characters and the possibility of some sort of longevity as a serial. I believe in my heart that it's going to continue through the entire set of novels. What I did with Leaphorn is that I took my character from Heat which was the only time I ever played a law man, and I took that character, made him Navajo and urban, and put him in that environment. That's the main difference from the books is that Leaphorn is a big city guy who goes back to the reservation, sort of reluctantly, but as time goes on it provides a really long developmental arc for being an adult and back among his people after a long divorce.
Excited, too, to see you in The Alamo.
What I like about that is that we learn a little more about Sam Houston's past. He was raised by us, you know, by the Cherokee. He married into us, lived with us for the longest time, and my character was more or less his mentor throughout his life. We've never seen that Cherokee involvement in the story of The Alamo. It's not a huge part, but at least we're there. (laughs) Sometimes you need to take the small steps.