THE LEAGUE OF THE OLD MEN

THE LEAGUE OF THE OLD MEN (1998)
Presented by: We Care About Kids
Directed by: Allan Rich
Produced by: Michael Schroeder and Grant Gilmore
Character’s Name: Howkan

Michael co-starred in this 25-minute film with well-known Lakota actor and activist Russell Means. It was sponsored by We Care About Kids, a non-profit company based in California which was created, with strong support from the Hollywood community, to overcome intolerance through the arts. The film has been made available for presentation to schools around the United States.

Adapted from the 1902 short story by Jack London (the famed author of such classics as “The Call of the Wild”), this film deals with the trial of an elderly warrior named Imber (Means) who is accused of murder. Michael portrays Imber’s nephew Howkan, a young Indian educated by missionaries. He serves as interpreter for Imber who speaks no English.

Michael writes, “I worked on this project as part of a special SAG agreement, wherein all participants including crew worked for free because we liked the project so much. It was definitely a labor of love. The film was produced as part of an anti-racist campaign by ‘We Care About Kids.’ It is run by well-known actor Allan Rich, who acted as producer and director for the film, as well as playing the judge in the film. We made it in Big Bear, California in the late spring of 1998. It only took about 4 or 5 days to film the whole project. It was a wonderful experience and I think the film turned out very well.”

Interview

The following is the transcript of an interview Michael held with Jan (who designed his official website) and her friend Laura on 07 July 2002. Michael answered numerous questions from fans, on a wide range of subjects, some of which he has since updated.

JAN: Let’s begin with several questions from a fan named Maureen. The first is: “Some movies put forth a strong message to society about different cultures, most of which are negative. Are you looking to stay in the field of native culture films, or are you willing to cross over to a more suspenseful or thriller-type movie cast?”

MICHAEL: Well, you know what? I think people would probably be surprised by this, but I view myself as a character actor, even though I’m the right age and look for a “leading man”. But I view myself in the industry and as a professional, as a character actor. What I mean by that is, in a movie you’ll have various leads: the romantic lead, the action lead. Sometimes you’ll need the burly cop type, or the angry biker type. In the films that I do, they’ve needed a native type, for example Hank Elkrunner in “Skipped Parts.” Hank fits into the story as a “type.” That’s how I get hired. If it was just a cowboy, if Hank had not been native, there’s no chance in the world I would have been in that movie. They wouldn’t have thought to cast me.

People say, “Are you worried about being pigeonholed?” Frankly, in Hollywood, you need to have some kind of angle in. I don’t look at it like it’s limiting. I look at it from a very pragmatic point of view. Thank God they needed a native character. I consider myself a serious actor. I always try to make the role more than just a type. But the realities of the business, the realities of being in Hollywood, are: you need to be categorizable in order to get work. I’m grateful that I get the work I do because they’re looking for a native actor. And you should always remember that the character actor in a film is usually an excellent actor. They have to be. I hate to admit it, but sometimes a typical Hollywood lead is limited in their range (sometimes their role as a leading person requires it), but a character actor has to be able to portray anything.

Hopefully one day I’ll be a good enough actor — “He’s a good actor, he’s not just a native actor” — that they’ll say, “You know, I saw this guy in a film and it doesn’t require that he should be a native guy, but he’s an interesting actor, he’s always done really cool projects. I’d like to work with him.” So hopefully one day I’ll get to that point. But I’ll never not do native roles. That’s how you pay the bills.

JAN: You said in one interview, there’s no way you’ll be cast as a Viking.

MICHAEL: Exactly. It’s just not going to happen.JAN: Another question from Maureen: “What are your favourite bloopers from your films?”

MICHAEL: I never see the bloopers because I don’t watch the dailies. I never watch them. I don’t have enough time.


JAN:
Here are some interesting questions from your fan, Dale: “Do you get into, or have you gotten into those silly, crazy, useless reality shows on TV? We still love you if you do!”

MICHAEL: I’m hesitant to admit that I do indeed watch the new reality shows. Our favourite is “Fear Factor,” but I’m embarrassed to say that I’ve also watched “The Bachelor,” and now even “Joe Millionaire.” They are definitely my guilty pleasures of late, even though the profusion of such shows is putting actors like myself out of work. The other irksome trend is for major movie stars to do guest spots on every TV show you can think of. With that kind of competition, what hope do we have! Hopefully, both trends will die soon and my brothers and sisters in the industry can get back to work–and I can again resume watching more “edifying” programming.

JAN: Dale also asks: “Which of your favourite HBO shows would you like to make a guest appearance on?”

MICHAEL: [thinks briefly, then affirms:] “Six Feet Under”.

LAURA: Not as a corpse, hopefully!

JAN: Oh no, please…

MICHAEL: Some of the corpses have the best roles.

JAN: One more from Dale: “What are your favourite foreign films, past and present?”

MICHAEL: I love foreign films. You’d have to include English films as foreign because they’re made differently. My favourite film in that category is “Topsy Turvy”. It’s English. It’s a long film. It’s challenging. It’s intellectual. It’s just a great movie. Rent it – it’s so good!

JAN: Any others that come to mind?

MICHAEL: “La Femme Nikita” is one of my all-time favourites. It’s a French film. Got that on DVD.

“The Red Violin” is one of my favourite movies, my favourite of recent years. Nancy’s too. Even more than “Topsy Turvy”. A top ten film for me. [jokes] Don’t go home! Rent it! Watch it before you leave!

It’s so haunting and beautiful. The writing is stellar. There’s a line it, in a section filmed in China. This is during the Cultural Revolution. They’re destroying Western instruments. They’re destroying all vestiges of the West. One of the characters is holding the violin, draped in a cloth. She hands the violin to this man and says: [paraphrases] “Take care of it.” He asks why and her line is: [paraphrases] “I love my country. Don’t you understand? I love my country.” What she really meant is, “I love the violin. It means everything to me.” But she didn’t say it; it’s the subtext. Good writing never speaks subtext. It’s about something else, but the audience knows what is really being said.

JAN: Here are some questions from a student in Toronto: “My name is Krystyna. I am a high school student in Toronto. Also I take Drama class. I have an assignment to do. We have to get an interview from an actor. I decided to write to you and ask you a couple of questions if you do not mind. My first question is: Have you ever participated in a street theatre, and what is the most interesting part for you?”

MICHAEL: Street theatre is a wide-ranging genre. I did a play based on township theatre which is the street theatre of South Africa during the apartheid years. A famous movie was made [based] on it: “Bopha”, which means “arrest” in the Zulu language. Because of the extreme censorship during the apartheid years, the only way people could talk about apartheid and the brutality of the police system or the prison system was through township theatre. [It] would occur, like, there [points away], on the steps of someone’s house, in a garage. That was the only way that you could talk about the social issues.

I did a play called “Survival”. We presented it in a theatre, but it was never meant to be seen in a theatre. It was meant to be performed on the streets of Soweto. It’s exciting theatre since each actor must play at least 3 or 4 different characters during the play and make lightning-fast changes from one to the other. In the play “Bopha”, when they play white characters, everyone wears a clown nose. So you know [this character] is the prime minister, and when they appear on TV, they hold up these old cardboard cutouts of TVs and say, “In the news today…” It’s amazing. That kind of theatre is very fun to do, as an actor.

JAN: And you did this in Toronto?

MICHAEL: I did it in Toronto, years ago.

JAN: Krystyna’s next question is: “Do you think it is easier to work in movies than in theatre?”

MICHAEL: Much easier to work in the movies. The experience of “Cuckoo’s Nest” is reminding me of that. I haven’t worked in theatre since my dancing days. But it’s all about rehearsal. You repeat, you repeat. Repetition is painful. Once you’ve learned your role and you’ve gotten it sort of fleshed out, and they say, “Okay, let’s run it, let’s run this play beginning to end without stopping” [takes a deep breath] You take a breath and it’s like, “Okay, talk to me in two and a half hours.” Because there’s only one way to get to z when you’re going a, b, c, d, e, f, g. You have to go through the whole alphabet. So that takes a lot of discipline. It’s going to take a lot of energy for me to go through all these emotions, go through all this blocking, go through all these scenes. Sometimes you have to wait for a scene that you’re in. When you’re in the scene, time goes very quickly. But when you’re just standing back there, sweeping, you’re like, “Okay, it’s going to be 15 minutes of constant sweeping until my next monologue or whatever.”

So it takes discipline, but in the repetition it’s only by running something that you make discoveries about how your performance could change or improve. Theatre is difficult because it demands a lot of you. Film – you get to rehearse it like twice and then you start doing takes. Maybe you do six, seven takes. Maybe one of those takes is a good one. With theatre, it’s all in the preparation that you do in rehearsal. In film, you don’t get much rehearsal, so your preparation for film occurs at home, or in your hotel room, before you get to the set. As Brando said in his autobiography, you come with your role in your back pocket. No one tells you anything. You’ll have it in your back pocket, and they say, “So how are you going to do it?” And you say, “I’m going to do it like this.” So unfortunately there’s little interchange with the cast. I remember a friend of mine watched “Sam’s Circus” [NOTE: a pilot for a CBS Television series filmed in England in March and April of 2001]. And her complaint was, “Did the actors realize they were playing with other people? The actors aren’t connecting.” You saw last night [in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”], when actors connect, it’s magical because they change each other’s performance. The dynamic changes. In film, the lack of rehearsal makes that connection with the other actors much more difficult.

Theatre is an actor’s medium. Film is a director’s medium. Television is a producer’s medium. The real creative energy, as an actor, lies in theatre. In film, it’s very gratifying because you’re still acting, and it’s prestigious of course, but how your performance is shaped is not left up to you.

LAURA: Now that you’ve done “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”, do you think you will try to get more parts on the stage, or do you think you’re still going to focus on movies?

MICHAEL: I have to focus on movies, just for business. Theatre does not pay well. Theatre takes a long time to do. When you commit yourself to a block of time and the phone rings, what do you do? You don’t have a choice. I’m a film actor, that’s how I make my living. That’s the priority. So the excitement of doing theatre has a drawback.

JAN: If you were in some successful play, like some of those Broadway plays that have a thousand performances, would you get tired performing the same thing?

MICHAEL: You see, I don’t know because I haven’t really been part of something like that.

JAN: Next question from Krystyna: “What are your techniques in order to achieve the best possible results in the play as an actor?”

MICHAEL: You study the script. I remember there was interview with a director in Hollywood. I think he was Ron Howard. And he said: [paraphrases] “I enjoy working with actors who know that this is a storytelling process, and that in this one scene there’s a little story being told.” This is something Sue Ott Reynolds, our director for “Cuckoo’s Nest”, reminded us of again and again. The director usually takes care of the big story, but if you take care of the little stories, you will build up detail. As we talked about last night, with “Cuckoo’s Nest”, if there was no dialogue, we would be doing our own things because that’s the reality of the play. You have your own life. Every character has their own life. If McMurphy didn’t come, things would continue to move along just as before. My character would keep sweeping, keep having nightmares, staying silent. The acutes would keep playing cards, getting on each other’s nerves, and Ratched would keep them all off balance, on the defensive. The interior logic of the ward would remain.

JAN: “How do you get into the character?”

MICHAEL: You start to ask questions. Who is this person? Why are they speaking? If there are ellipses, what didn’t they say? What’s the subtext? You ask questions.

JAN: And the last question from Krystyna: “What do you find the most difficult and challenging thing in theatre?”

MICHAEL: The repetition. It’s really hard. I go back to a lesson during my dancing days. I danced this piece called “Intermezzo” for Eliot Feld. We’d rehearsed it and I’d already performed it. It’s not like it was a new piece that hadn’t been premiered yet. I’d performed this on stage successfully. And there we were in New York, preparing it for the next season and we were doing runs. It was a Saturday. We used to work on Saturdays, too. My body was hurting. Eliot said, “Okay, let’s run this from the top.” “Intermezzo” was one of those ballets where, at the end of it, it was so exhausting I could hardly stand. It’s like someone says, “Let’s run up that hill or do a thousand push-ups!” [pretends to sigh tiredly] “…Ummm… Let’s not and say we did!”

I absolutely didn’t want to be there right then on the verge of another run. I kept thinking it’s really frustrating to have to rehearse this piece again. The piece is ready to be performed! And I thought, well, what else do I have to work on?

JAN: And there’s nothing new you can add to it.

MICHAEL: That’s what I thought. That’s your mindset.

So, in that rehearsal I said, I’ve got to concentrate on one element. My thighs are really hurting. So maybe if I just do a deeper plié, which is like getting more into the floor. Every element where there’s a plié, I’ll make it deeper, more luxurious. First of all, it’ll make my muscles hurt less because it’s a new shape that I’m making with my body. After about 10 minutes, all of a sudden I was in a new area of discovery. The movements were different as I changed the approach to doing them. At the end of that rehearsal, I thought, That was the most satisfying and gratifying and exciting run-through I’ve had of this, even better than in performance. Because you always have something new learn. If a performance is complete, then it’s a dead performance. You have to keep asking questions while you’re in the performance. When in life is a person really sure of something? There’s always doubt. People don’t go through life with answers. They go through life asking and looking for answers. If you have the answers, why are you here? Why is a character on stage? Because they’re searching for answers with an audience, with themselves, with the other characters.

So when I did that rehearsal of “Intermezzo”, it was like I’d never done the piece before. And Eliot [Feld], the choreographer said, “Very good run-through.” Because I’d taken it to a new level. That’s how it works.

JAN: This is a quick and fun one: “What is your workout regime these days? Weightlifting, machines, Pilates? Have you ever tried yoga?”

MICHAEL: I want to try yoga. I don’t do Pilates anymore – not enough time. Just weightlifting. I don’t run – I’ve had too many sprained ankles.

JAN: You’re too battle-scarred, right?

MICHAEL: My knees hurt. My back hurts. My shoulder hasn’t felt right since 1992!

LAURA: How did you feel the first time you got in front of a camera? Were you really nervous?

MICHAEL: The very first time I was in front of a camera [in “Geronimo”] I was so nervous I couldn’t speak. [pretends to talk without sound] [The director said] “Cut, cut, cut. Let’s try it again. Very good, Michael. A little louder!”JAN: Here are some questions I’ve been hatching for a new question and answer page on your website. It’s been just about 10 years now since you began your film career. Are there certain roles, moments or awards that particularly stand out in your mind, and ones that you are especially proud of? And do you have any regrets?

MICHAEL: All the awards that I’ve gotten are really gratifying. The First Americans in the Arts [FAITA] awards – those are really special. I’m really, really proud of those.

There are certain roles that I’m so grateful I got the chance to do. “Skinwalkers” is a new one. It was so exciting to be on the set doing that role, because with all the work I’ve done on my acting in the past few years, I feel that I had a new confidence, new skills. “Skinwalkers” stands out. It was exciting. In that film, I had a true character role–the caring doctor. Adam [Beach] played the lead, but I was lucky since Dr. Stone had some of the best lines in the movie. Hopefully, when I was onscreen I made the most of them. That’s the kind of roles I want.

“Skipped Parts” was also exciting. The experience of making “Big Bear” really stands out because it had personal resonance for me. “Stolen Women” was a really exciting time for me. “Crazy Horse” because it was a once in a lifetime event. And “Geronimo” because it was my first time. The next best set experience was “Dance Me Outside”. Those are the standouts.

JAN: Do you have any regrets?

MICHAEL: No, I don’t.

JAN: Then that’s a blessing, isn’t it?

MICHAEL: Yes.

JAN: What was the most fun experience you had on a film set?

MICHAEL: “Big Bear”!

JAN: Being with all your Cree buddies, right?

MICHAEL: Yes. People like Lorne Cardinal. I love that guy. He’s the funniest guy!

JAN: We’ve seen him on the new “Buffalo Tracks” [on APTN – Aboriginal People’s Television Network – in Canada]. He’s great!

MICHAEL: He’s so hysterical. He’s the best joke-teller I know. Hanging out with him, Ben Cardinal, the French crew, the English crew, the people in Saskatchewan. That was just an extraordinary experience because in Canada, if you think about the conflicts that exist: French and English, Indian people and the English — And there we were, Indians, French, English on the set, working on this incredible project. The experience on the set was just amazing.

JAN: Which was your most difficult role or film experience, either as an actor in general, or perhaps in terms of being physically or emotionally demanding or draining?

MICHAEL: “Skinwalkers” is a stand-out because on the day of my most important scene in the movie, I was deathly ill. I was so sick. I’ve never been so sick on a set or hadn’t been that sick and had to work. It was really hard. I described it to Nancy as my worst and best day on a film set. The worst because of the way I felt. And the best because it was the most exciting scene I’ve done in years. It’s a five-page scene with Adam [Beach]. It’s such a cool scene.

JAN: I think we more or less answered this, but just for the record let me ask it. Would you like to do more theatre in the next years? If so, are you drawn to teaching new actors and dancers, writing your own plays, choreographing new works, or occasionally dancing on stage?

MICHAEL: Acting, because I don’t think I know enough to be a good teacher at this point. Teaching is a special skill. I think I can become a good teacher, but you have to have much greater experience that I presently have. And how do I get that experience? By acting. Acting is what I would like to do. I don’t really choreograph anymore. I really don’t dance per se. Although they’re exciting, I’m pursuing acting. That is what I do. Writing is secondary too, unfortunately. Perhaps I’ll find more time for my writing in the future.


JAN: Gooch is my sentimental favourite of your film roles, even though you’ve had bigger and better roles since then. His combination of vulnerability and strength, tenderness and violence, his yearning and hurt regarding Illianna, his prison past and his hopes and plans for his cabin (the Franklin stove, for example) and his life. Well, in a nutshell, your performance was touching, powerful and amazing. Your facial expressions speak volumes. Do you have any particular memories from the filming of “Dance Me Outside”?

MICHAEL: That is a special role, it really is. Gooch is still one of my favourite roles. The movie’s great. I was really just learning how to act as we were making the movie.

JAN: You gave a beautiful performance there.

MICHAEL: Thank you, thank you. I really appreciate that comment because something about the character touched a lot of people. He wasn’t articulate vocally, but he became articulate physically. Things were happening and you had to express them, but without words. It was a great role for me, coming out of dance, because it was what I knew how to do. That’s something that’s really helped me in my acting career. You can express anger when you’re talking. But how do you express it if you’re just standing there? People seethe. Acting is a physical medium. If you only use your words, then you’re just a talking head. People talk with their whole body. Even the way they sit — often you can tell exactly what’s going on in a person.

So Gooch was that kind of a role. It was good. It was the film role where Wes Studi first saw me. I remember we were out one evening on “Skinwalkers”. Someone said to me, “What have you done?” Wes then said to them, “First time I saw this guy, he plays this kind of Vietnam vet.” [Gooch wasn’t a Vietnam vet but that’s how Wes saw it.] “This Vietnam vet comes out of prison. He nailed it!”

JAN: You know what? It’s the most poignant expression on your face when you bring Illianna back to her mother’s house. She just gives you a kiss on the cheek and she’s walking into the house. You have this look of such yearning and such sadness and love and so many things mixed together. The expression on your face is so amazing.

MICHAEL: Oh, thank you. You know what? The lines were changing as we filmed it. The actual line was, “I don’t love you anymore.” We drove up and I said to her, “I don’t love you anymore” — and people laughed. I thought, well, it wasn’t supposed to be funny. The director was by the camera and we were way over there where we had to start the motorcycle. You communicate by walkie-talkie at that distance. “Okay, Michael, go! Action!” Bruce [McDonald], who’s still one of the best directors I’ve worked with, said, “Michael, drop ‘anymore’.”

JAN: That was brilliant because it really worked.

MICHAEL: It changed the scene.

JAN: Any words of advice to the new generation of aspiring First Nations actors and dancers?

MICHAEL: Get training. There are acting traditions. From many points of view. There are our own cultural acting traditions. But there’s also the Western acting tradition. Some of it is bullshit; some of it is brilliant. But you have to know it in order to reject it in the first place and create your own. So if that means you have to travel to Paris and you study at LeCoq, do it. I would love to do that, just to know.

Mask work, clown work. All the skills you really need. Singing. Know your business. Actors like Gordon Tootoosis, Tantoo Cardinal and Augie Schellenberg – that generation of actors created an opportunity for me and Nathaniel [Arcand] and Adam [Beach] and Alex [Rice] and all these other actors to be in a position where I’m getting a chance to be in these great films. They made that opportunity possible. Hopefully, our work will create opportunities for another group to come in and they’ll have to better than we are. Hopefully, one day they’ll say, “Jude Law is brilliant. And Philip Seymour Hoffman is brilliant.” And then you name a native actor and people will say, “Yeah, they’re amazing…a great actor.” And then we won’t be just “native” actors. For example, people never say that Cathy Bates is a great “woman” actor, they just say she’s great. Hopefully, that day will come for us too and you’ll hear people say, “That guy can play anything. Like a Gary Sinise or a John Malkovich. An actor’s actor.”

JAN: One last question: Here’s a crystal ball. Where do you see yourself career-wise ten years from now?

MICHAEL: Hopefully working! [laughs] And that’s a real, honest answer. My managers and my agents are great. There should be a flowering of the work that I do over the next few years in terms of going to auditions, meeting people, doing small projects, doing experimental movies perhaps — all these different kinds of things. One of these days I’m going to be in a position to have a great role in an important film.

To be in a film like “American Beauty”, or “The Sixth Sense” — important work. Just think about those actors who were in “The Godfather”. You could retire after that. “Oh, you’re an actor. What films have you been in?” “I was in ‘The Godfather’.” “Okay… yeah, pretty good film.”

That’s what you hope. It’s not important to be the Al Pacino character, to be Michael Corleone. To be amongst people you respect and a director you respect and a writer who’s great. When you’re an old fart and you look back and you say, “Yeah, I was in ‘Casablanca’, I was in ‘Some Like it Hot’.”

JAN: Something that your grandkids can be proud of.

MICHAEL: Yes, you’ve made a contribution. I don’t know if I’ll be there yet in ten years but at least I’d like to do interesting work. If I’m getting roles like the one I had in “Skinwalkers” in ten years, consistently, I’ll be happy.APPRECIATION:

MICHAEL: I would like to thank the fans who have e-mailed me their letters of support and encouragement. Their interest in my career has been a great source of inspiration for me as I continue learning about the craft of acting. I would especially like to thank the fans who have written me via snail-mail. I endeavour to read all the letters sent to me and they have never ceased to amaze me due to the fact that the writers have been so eloquent and their stories are so fascinating. Often these writers share with me their responses to my work and the way the films I’ve been a part of have affected them or people they know. It is frankly humbling to read many of these letters. I hope that I will continue to do the kind of work that moves fans such as these to write.

GERONIMO

GERONIMO (1993)
TNT Production
Directed by: Roger Young

Character’s Name: JuhA senseless tragedy thrusts a young Apache into history in the true, awe-inspiring adventure of the last and most feared frontier warrior. This thrilling tale of superhuman courage and grace features an all-Native American cast and provides a revealing glimpse into Native American life.Michael says, “This was my first film. It was so exciting to be on a movie set. I didn’t know really what the hell was going on, so I kept my mouth shut and watched and listened. I learned a lot this way. The film was about the life of Geronimo and how the encroachment of the Mexicans and then the American settlers turned him from a simple family man into someone who had to devote his life to protecting his community. It was a beautiful movie that showed a lot of the women in the Apache community. Women weren’t in the background in real life and this film attempted to show that side of it – sadly, one of the few native-themed films made in Hollywood. I’ll never forget my first day on that film. I was so nervous that when it was my turn to speak my first line, it only came out as a whisper. The director yelled, ‘CUT!,’ and said, ‘Okay, let’s do it again!’ Then he came up to me and said, ‘That was good. Next time try to say it a little louder.’ I laugh about it now.”

DANCE ME OUTSIDE

DANCE ME OUTSIDE (1994)
Yorktown Productions
Directed by: Bruce McDonald
Character’s Name: Gooch LaCroix

This excellent movie has been an audience favourite at the Toronto and Sundance Film Festivals and especially among young Indian people. Over the course of two weekends a year apart, the lives of several Indian teenagers are forever changed. Storylines interweave: one deals with the tragic murder of one of the young people, while another deals with a complicated love story-the return of Gooch, who has just been released from prison and comes back to the rez to find that his former girlfriend, Illianna, has married a yuppie Toronto lawyer, Robert McVey. Robert and Illianna can’t have children so Illianna asks Gooch if, for one night, he’ll reignite their old romance. Throughout the story, the humour of Native people emerges again and again.

Michael says, “‘Dance Me Outside’ is one of my favourite films. It is an amazing movie, because it shows native people as contemporary.So many people in America and around the world see us more easily as people from the past but that simply is long past. Even the way we look can’t be defined easily. If you go to any reserve or any of our urban communities, we have an amazing diversity–from the way we look to the way we live. That is not what a lot of people understand, but this amazing movie shows it—especially our humour. We love to laugh, and I know so many of our people love this movie because of that. Everywhere I go in Indian country, people will walk up to me and say, ‘You’re Gooch!’ (the character I played in this movie). ‘I love that movie-I’ve seen it 30 times!’ That is an incredible compliment.”

Photo © Take One magazine (Canada), summer 1995

Dance Career

Most people who see Michael on film or in television do not realize that dance has played a major role in his life and career. In fact, if it wasn’t for dance Michael might have remained in Saskatchewan pursuing a career outside the arts, but fortunately for his fans his path towards acting was paved by dance. 

(photo © Michael Greyeyes. At National Ballet of Canada)

“I started ballet at age 6, after I got bored waiting for my sister to finish her ballet lessons. I used to wait in the car with my Mom, until she was done. It was so boring that I used to go up to the studio and watch the girls dancing. One day, I said, ‘That’s easy. I can do that.’ So the teacher told me. ‘Okay, if it’s so easy–why don’t you come and try it next week?’ I said sure. The entire next week, I kept telling my Mom, I’m going to dance class next week. She’d just nod and say sure you are. But as the day got closer and closer and I kept repeating it, she finally asked me if I was serious. I nodded and told her that the teacher had told me to come. So, the next week, I went with my Mom in tow. I think the teacher was more surprised than anyone. But she let me take class, fortunately. I liked it, and so I kept it up. Then one day, my sister (entirely of her own initiative) filled out the applications for her and me to audition for the National Ballet School. She took pictures and everything. Then we got a notice that the NBS was travelling through Saskatoon and holding auditions. My parents were pretty surprised that she had done so much on her own, but they brought us anyway. I was accepted to attend their annual July summer school in Toronto, but my sister wasn’t accepted since she was already 14 at the time and I was 10—the exact age when the NBS usually likes their students to enter their program. After the summer school try-outs, they informed my parents that I was accepted for the next academic school year and the rest, as they say, is history.”

Michael was accepted as a student at The National Ballet School in Toronto, Ontario, Canada in 1977. This very prestigious school trains young people to become professional ballet dancers. It is a disciplined environment where the intense curriculum and dedication of the teachers have made it one of the ten best schools of its kind in the world. It is a privilege to be accepted there, as there are only 150 to 200 students in the entire program. Students come from across Canada, the United States and often from across the globe. Students are accepted to the school for a year at a time. “Every year we weren’t sure if we would be packing up and returning home or staying on for another round.” Michael went on and eight years later graduated in 1984. While he continued post-graduate dance study at the school, he apprenticed with The National Ballet of Canada. Three years later he joined the company as a full member in 1987. 

(photo © Michael Greyeyes. At National Ballet School)

Looking for new challenges and a chance to perform in the dance capital of North America—New York City, Michael then went to work as a soloist for Eliot Feld and his company Feld Ballets/NY from 1990-1993. From his work with Mr. Feld, recognized as one of America’s great choreographers, Michael says, “He was especially influential on my own choreography: how you can create something from nothing, creating a world on stage, using people in movement alone. No words were used to explain emotion or meaning, just movement and shape. He was very demanding of his dancers and of himself. Sometimes this meant that work in the studio would get very tense, with shouting and many frustrations. This made work harder, but it also made the quality of the work improve as well. Many times he created brilliant choreography. That is not easy to do even once, let alone time after time. I believe his stringency and his uncompromising and critical eye have led me to also reject mediocrity in dance, in my own choreography and now in acting.”

colour photos © Kent Monkman
black and white photos © Vincent Mancuso

In 1994, Tipiskaki Goroh (meaning “Night Thunder” in Cree and Japanese), a dance company formed by Michael, visual artist Kent Monkman, and theatre director Floyd Favel, debuted at The Canada Dance Festival in Ottawa, Canada. The company performed two works:

CHILD OF 10,000 YEARSCast:
Michael Greyeyes
Mariu OlsenArtistic Director:
Floyd FavelNIGHT TRAVELLERCast:
Nancy Latoszewski
Michael Greyeyes
Allison McCreary
Christine O’LearyArtistic Director:
Floyd FavelSet & Costume Design:
Kent MonkmanLighting Design:


Efterpi Soropos”Looking back now to those performances, I can see an interesting pattern beginning to develop in my work—which I’ll describe as an attempt to subvert the expectations audiences have of native art. I thought Night Traveller was the best work I had done up to that point. The dance had 4 dancers (the most I had worked with up to that point). It also had complex, difficult choreography, and a brilliant set and costume design by Kent Monkman complemented by a haunting lighting design by Efterpi Soropos, an Australian designer we had met earlier that summer. Unfortunately, the audience did not seem to understand it or like it as much as Child of 10,000 Years, the second piece on the program. In retrospect, I realize that Tipiskaki Goroh was billed as a “native” dance company and the audience came expecting something more typically native, something more like Child, which had traditional native and Inuit dance choreography, design elements like cowboy hats, rocks, tree branches, and water. Mariu even sang a traditional song in Inuktitut.

On the other hand, Night Traveller was ‘native’ in more subtle ways. Firstly, the narrative of the piece dealt with dreams and the central image of family members that came back to visit the lead dancer (my soon-to-be wife Nancy) from the dead. I remember hearing my mother’s stories about when the dead visit you in your dreams and that formed the basis for the work. Also, the music was by Bartok and Janacek. Bartok, especially, was known for researching and documenting the traditional Hungarian folk songs and melodies he had grown up listening to and then using them as the basis for his classical music compositions. My choice of music then mirrored what I was doing with the choreography, where I used “classical,” western dance to express native themes and images. Even the title came from my roots, since ‘Night Traveller’ is a traditional Cree family name back in Saskatchewan. To outsiders it may sound poetic, but to my ears I know that it is also a surname, like Smith or Jones. I suppose that all this went right over the heads of our audience at the Dance Festival, as they missed entirely seeing the piece’s native roots. This idea of subverting an audience’s perceptions of Indianness has always played an important part in how I approach creating native characters and, in fact, this eventually formed the basis of my Master’s thesis at Kent State University. Looking back it is easy to see how this early piece was the beginning of much of the work I have done subsequently. I remember one of my dance teacher’s commenting that the piece was ‘a little gem’.”

Michael has continued to choreograph, notably for Kent Monkman’s video A Nation is Coming and the CBC documentary He Who Dreams: Michael Greyeyes on the Powwow Trail. His research into native dance traditions culminated in songs, a concert dance work presented at The Robert Gill Theatre in Toronto,1998, as part of the inaugural year-long training program at the Centre for Indigenous Theatre – CIT – in Toronto. In 2008, Michael created a new dance work for 4 male dancers, as part of Monkman’s new installation: Dance to the Berdashe, commissioned by Urban Shaman Gallery in Winnipeg, Manitoba.  This work will also be shown in Toronto, in the fall of 2008 during the ImagiNATIVE Film Festival.

The Indian Wars and the life of this legendary warrior

CRAZY HORSE (1996)
TNT Original Films
Directed by: John Irvin
Title Role as Crazy Horse

Crazy Horse is the account of the days of the Indian Wars and the life of this legendary warrior. Told through the eyes of Crazy Horse, this is an extraordinary tale of a Native American hero who knew his destiny and fought for the freedom of his people.

Here are a few of Michael’s comments on the movie:

“He’s an extremely important figure to the Lakota culture. There’s a deeply spiritual quality to the man and about the way people revere him.”

“I learned that Crazy Horse was a man who accepted his duty with a great deal of pride. He was a member of the Akicitas, the warrior society that assumed the responsibility of protecting the people and their culture, but despite being a warrior he was also a very spiritual man. Visions shaped his life. He knew that he was going to die as a victim of betrayal.”

“I was in good shape from my dance career but I wanted to get into better shape for the film, particularly cardiovascular. I ran in the mountains and worked out in a gym. I was told by the Lakota cultural advisors that to be warriors the Lakota trained all their lives from the time they were boys. I wanted to look like I had trained all my life too. I was up at 4 or 5 every morning and worked until sunset..”

“Making the movie was an experience I’ll never forget. It took two months in South Dakota to complete. We filmed near Hot Springs, which unfortunately was a very racist place. This was ironic as the movie we were making explored how racism and hatred killed an incredible man and leader. I believe that the U.S. government was terrified of Crazy Horse. That is why he had to be assassinated. He refused to trust the government negotiators, the army, or white people in general. Because he couldn’t be tricked or bought, the government had to get rid of him. As well, he was a very spiritual man. That created a deadly obstacle to the white man’s plundering and theft of the Black Hills. The history of the Northern Plains and the U.S. would read very differently if Crazy Horse had lived. I was honoured to play this man. It was very hard to portray such a hero, so instead of trying to appear ‘great and heroic,’ I played him as a man who was motivated to incredible actions by his caring for his own people. A true patriot.”

“One of the joys of filming for ‘Crazy Horse’ was working in South Dakota, on location in Paha Sapa (the Black Hills). It’s an incredibly beautiful and sacred place.”

Mr. Greyeyes

MICHAEL GREYEYES is an actor, dancer, director, and choreographer. He is a member of the Muskeg Lake First Nation in Saskatchewan, Canada.
Mr. Greyeyes began his professional career as a classical ballet dancer with The National Ballet of Canada and with the company of Eliot Feld in New York City.  Eliot Feld created two roles especially for him in the ballets Common Ground and Bloom’s Wake. As well, Michael danced many featured roles in Mr. Feld’s most acclaimed works, such as Endsong, Intermezzo, Embraced Waltzes, Contrapose, and The Jig is Up.In 1993, Mr. Greyeyes began to choreograph and direct his own theatre work, which has appeared in festivals in Canada and Europe. As an actor he has worked on stage and extensively in film and television for the last 14 years. Recent credits include, Terence Malick’s The New World, Skinwalkers for PBS Mystery!, Law and Order: Criminal Intent, Numb3rs, Skipped Parts, Smoke Signals for Miramax, the ABC mini-series Dreamkeeper and most recently, Passchendaele, Paul Gross’ World War I feature that opened the 2008 Toronto International Film Festival.
Mr. Greyeyes received his M.F.A in Acting from Kent State University, where he taught as an instructor and first began his on-going research into post-colonialism and the staging of ethnicity in both film and dance. He has presented papers on “Notions of Indian-ness” at the PCA/ACA conference in 2007 and was an invited keynote speaker at Wilfred Laurier University’s Indigenous Film and Media conference that same year.
Mr. Greyeyes has continued to create theatre work, alongside his film and television credits. This past year he was commissioned to create a new dance work for the Dusk Dances festival in Toronto and new choreography for 4 male dancers, set to a mash up of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring for Kent Monkman’s installation: Dance to the Berdashe. In 2006, Michael collaborated with renowned choreographer Santee Smith to create a duet, entitled The Threshing Floor, for Nozhem: First Peoples Performance Space and Trent University’s Indigenous Studies Program. This dance work toured across Canada in the spring of 2008 and was an invited dance work for the 2008 Canada Dance Festival, as part of Kaha:wi Dance Theatre’s “Fragmented Heart” program.
Mr. Greyeyes next wrote and performed in a short dance film entitled Triptych for BRAVO!, directed by Byron McKim in November 2007, which he also co-produced and choreographed. In 2008, Mr. Greyeyes directed a new opera work, entitled “The Journey” for Soundstreams Canada, with music by Melissa Hui, and libretto by Tomson Highway.In 2009, he will appear in Ric Burn’s new documentary/ live action film for PBS, entitled “We Shall Remain: Tecumseh” in the title role and will direct Daniel David-Moses’ acclaimed play, Almighty Voice and His Wife, for Native Earth Performing Arts.  

Big Bear

BIG BEAR (1998)
Director: Gil Cardinal
CBC-TV (Canada) four-hour mini-series – aired 03 to 04 January 1999
Character’s Name: Wandering Spirit

A four-hour historic drama mini-series on the life of Plains Cree chief Big Bear, adapted from Rudy Wiebe’s award-winning novel, “The Temptations of Big Bear.” In this made-for-TV movie, Chief Big Bear (Mistahimaskwa in Cree), portrayed by Gordon Tootoosis (Legends of the Fall, North of 60), fights for justice for his people and resists signing away ancestral rights for a reserve. The series recounts his struggle as he tries desperately to keep his people together and maintain their traditional way of life. It is also an emotional look at how one family was torn apart by the forces of history and one man’s quest. Tantoo Cardinal (Smoke Signals, Dances with Wolves) as Big Bear’s wife, as well as Michael in the role of war chief Wandering Spirit (Kapapamahchakwew in Cree), leader of the Rattler Lodge, star in this powerful production.

With a budget of $8.5 million, Big Bear is the biggest Native TV project produced in Canada to date, said Doug Cuthand, one of four producers of the mini-series. “It’s a story about the Cree people and the fact that an unprecedented number of actors are Cree is very important, something that Gil Cardinal was very aware of when he was casting. (It was an incredible experience to again work with a native director.) It’s totally unique and brings in a whole different take on the cultural perspective. The fact that he has the same perspective (as the actors) makes for a smoother path. You’re not butting heads, and, in a weird way, it’s not about cultural issues at all. We can just concentrate (on acting and) on making a great film.” Michael, quoted in an article in Saskatchewan Sage by Pamela Green.

Michael says, “I was so proud to be part of this movie. I made many great friends on the crew and in the cast as well. It was my first real chance to work beside Gordon Tootoosis and Tantoo Cardinal. I have so much respect for them and the path their generation created by opening up the field of acting for Indians many years ago. Also I got a chance to practice my French, which is very rusty. It was my first time since high school.”

Michael’s short film

Michael’s short film, A Nation Is Coming, has been shown on Canada’s Bravo and APTN cable networks. This thought-provoking film deals with native peoples’ reactions to drastic changes wrought by the introduction of technology and disease. It is interspersed with words from native prophecy and the Ghost Dance. Michael is the only person in the film. Portraying a resurrected Ghost Dancer, he appears in different scenes that express a time-line of events. He dances around a circle of fire in modern dress, performs the grassdance (those of you who have seen him in the CBC documentary He Who Dreams: Michael Greyeyes on the Powwow Trail will recognize both his regalia and some of the dance steps), dances in a simple breechcloth, and, in some very striking outdoor scenes, wears a traditional buckskin shirt and breeches and fur boots. Although there is no spoken dialogue or narration in the entire film, he does some of his finest acting to date — through facial expression and body movement alone.

Stark images of a gray, sterile industrial wasteland contrast with images of a pristine winter wilderness. Filmed in sepia-toned photography, the outdoor scenes are particularly striking. Michael trudges through knee-deep snow (and it must indeed have been very cold because one can see his breath – the film was made in and around Banff). Several shots showing him lying in the snow were uncannily reminiscent of images of the tragic victims of the Wounded Knee massacre in December 1890. There are images of disease such as Michael seeing blood trickling from his palm, and a blanket upon which are superimposed images of living micro-organisms. I understand the latter as a reference to the “blanket fever” (an early, calculated form of germ warfare/genocide when, in the 1800s, U.S. soldiers gave tribes blankets taken from smallpox hospitals).

Michael choreographed the film. His mastery of movement and his creative, artistic vision are truly remarkable. This tall young man is both powerful and graceful as he dances and leaps, seemingly effortlessly, on stage. In the final scene, as the credits roll, he appears to be a “visitor” or alien, sitting in an armchair, remote control in hand, watching a TV program about the annihilation of the buffalo. He is wearing eerie makeup (somewhat reminiscent of the late Brandon Lee in the movie “The Crow”) and comically choking as he tries to inhale cigarette smoke.

The film, which is only about 25 minutes in length, is rather avant-grade and experimental in nature. It takes several viewings to understand its messages. And due to the film’s very nature, each viewer will have a different interpretation. It continues to play in one’s mind long after one sees it. It is a thought-provoking, disturbing, inspiring and moving experience. One is left with an even greater appreciation of, and admiration for, Michael’s acting and dancing, as well.

Review © Jan
Photo © Kent Monkman