TRUE WOMEN

TRUE WOMEN (1997)
CBS-Hallmark Production mini-series
Directed by: Karen Arthur
Character’s Name: Tarantula

An epic saga about three generations of women in Texas who change the face of the American West in the 1800s, based on a true story.

Michael says, “‘True Women’ was a challenging film because my character, Tarantula, was so interesting. In the script it might have been easy to see Tarantula as a bad guy, one-dimensional. But I knew that there was more to him than that. Karen Arthur was the director and she really encouraged me to show those other sides of him. He didn’t have many lines, so I made them more interesting for me to say them by making him unable to speak English very well. Of course he was fluent in Comanche, his own language. Since I made it a real struggle for him to speak English, it made you really listen to understand him. I got a big compliment from Dana Delaney, the star of the film, who said, after doing our first scene together, ‘Wow, I really didn’t know what you were going to say next.’ As if I was making up the lines instead of reading them from the script everyone knows. That was nice of her to say. It was funny because I left that set to go back to ‘Rough Riders,’ then I came back a week later and the crew was imitating me in the way my character spoke. What’s the saying: ‘Imitation is the highest form of flattery’?!! I had a good laugh with that. But at the same time I learned an important lesson: often in Hollywood films, the dialogue given to Indians is rudimentary at best, childish or ignorant at worst—hardly the eloquent way they actually spoke. After this experience and the support Karen Arthur gave me, I decided never to remain trapped as an actor by the limitations of the dialogue, but to seek some way to make it more interesting, dynamic, and therefore, true to life.”

SUNSHINE STATE

SUNSHINE STATE (2002)
Sony Pictures Classics
Director: John Sayles
Character’s Name: Billy Trucks

“Sunshine State,” by the acclaimed director John Sayles, deals with the lives of people residing in a beachside community in Florida facing the choice of holding on to its traditional way of life, or welcoming the prospect of development and modernization. Sayles has put together a fine ensemble cast including Edie Falco, Angela Bassett, and Timothy Hutton.

Michael says about the immensely respected filmmaker, John Sayles. “He was a wonder to work with. He was the most relaxed, assured, and generous director I have ever worked with (even more so than Bruce McDonald, if that was possible). The script was written by Sayles and deals with a large ensemble who are involved in one way or another with real estate development on the Florida coast. It is a complex drama that interweaves numerous storylines and characters. Only a filmmaker as accomplished as Sayles could make this kind of movie, but he has influenced so many American directors. Films like ‘Boogie Nights’ come to mind as another film that uses this kind of ensemble cast. (By the way, I really liked ‘Boogie Nights.’) I played a character named Billy Trucks, who worked on the land-clearing crew for the real estate developer. The character John wrote was interesting and multi-dimensional. It is a small supporting role, but the chance to work with John was so appealing that I would have played a smaller role just to be part of the cast.”

Michael gives a strong performance, delivering a number of sardonic lines with great comedic timing. This fine film opened in North America in the summer of 2002.

STOLEN WOMEN, CAPTURED HEARTS

STOLEN WOMEN, CAPTURED HEARTS (1997)
CBS Movie-of-the-Week
Directed by: Jerry London
Character’s Name: Tokalah

A western love story set on the plains of Kansas in 1868. Tokalah is a warrior who is mysteriously drawn to a white settler named Anna, whom he had seen in a vision when he was a boy. After being captured, Anna first refuses his overtures, then gradually adjusts to her new life and begins to feel a connection to him.

Some 12.4 million homes watched this movie when it first aired on CBS. It won as that night’s most highly-rated program.

Michael says, “The response to this movie was overwhelming. People loved the movie, but also were impressed with me as well. CBS told me that they’ve never had the kind of response for a single actor ever. How cool is that?”

Michael later wrote, “Playing Tokalah was one of my favourite experiences as an actor. I had just finished filming ‘Crazy Horse’ for TNT the year before, and I was asked to co-star with Janine Turner in this MOW (Movie of the Week). I naturally jumped at the chance to play a romantic lead–which is a rarity for any non-white actor, especially a native one. I felt the experience of playing Crazy Horse gave me the confidence to portray a leading man like Tokalah effectively. He was a complicated character, but motivated to discover who Anna is and why he needs to be with her. From this, I believe I was able to create a character that had passion and intelligence. The director, Jerry London, gave me a lot of room to portray him with a certain degree of sensitivity instead of only ‘strength,’ which can also be translated as ‘stoic.’ In period portrayals of Indians, this is an all too common trap–a portrayal Hollywood filmmakers have now accepted as truthful and authentic. I remember, for example, charting the script to see how quickly Tokalah would have to learn English. I wanted to reveal the difficulty of learning the language without impeding his ability to communicate effectively with Anna. Subsequently, I think his progression from speaking no English, to broken English, to being quite articulate is believable, even though it occurs in about three scenes.

“‘Stolen Women’ was a hugely important role for my career–especially since it was seen by so many people here in North America and, of course, across the globe. The response to the film continues to amaze me.”

Photo © Michael Greyeyes, personal collection

NOTE FROM MICHAEL’S WEBSITE ADMINISTRATORS: The most frequent question from Michael’s fans is: “Where can I buy a copy of ‘Stolen Women, Captured Hearts’?” Unfortunately, CBS Television never released this film on home video or DVD in the U.S. or Canada. It is not available for purchase in North America. The Lifetime cable network in the U.S. has been re-airing it every couple of months. Check your local television listings, or Lifetime’s website, to see when it might re-air.

If we receive information on upcoming broadcast dates, we will post in the News section on Michael’s Home Page.

SKIPPED PARTS

SKIPPED PARTS (2001)
Trimark Pictures
Director: Tamra Davis
Character’s Name: Hank Elkrunner


U.K. Title: “The Wonder of Sex””Skipped Parts,” filmed on location in Michael’s home province of Saskatchewan, is adapted from the novel of the same name, part of the GroVont trilogy by author Tim Sandlin. It is set in Wyoming, in 1963. An impetuous, free-spirited young mother, Lydia Callahan (played by Jennifer Jason Leigh), and her 14-year-old son Sam (Bug Hall) are banished to the rural town of GroVont by her domineering father because of her transgressions. It is a coming-of-age story dealing with the love between young Sam and his classmate Maurey (Mischa Barton), and how they have to take responsibility for their actions, in contrast to the more irresponsible adults around them.It is said that opposites attract. The wild Lydia loves to curse, smoke, drink and party. She meets a quiet, confident Blackfeet rodeo rider named Hank Elkrunner (played by Michael Greyeyes). Despite their many differences, they fall in love. Hank brings a sense of stability and calm to the turbulent lives of Lydia and Sam, as they all gradually become a family. Michael’s fine performance in this film is warm, humourous and multifaceted.(Some of this information is from www.upcomingmovies.com)

SKINWALKERS


Wildwood Enterprises, Carlton International Media Ltd., Granada Entertainiment USA, PBS, WGBH
Director: Chris Eyre
Character’s Name: Dr William Stone


“Skinwalkers” is based on a mystery novel of the same name by author Tony Hillerman, and the script is written by James Redford. Actors Adam Beach and Wes Studi play the lead roles as detectives Jim Chee and Joe Leaphorn, respectively, of the Navajo Tribal Police.Michael wrote from movie set in Arizona: “I am truly excited to be part of this new project. I think it is the most challenging part I have played since Tokalah in Stolen Women.”He later said, “I was delighted with how the film turned out. I’ve heard from a number of sources that it was the most highly-rated movie that PBS has ever aired.” 

Questions4


Q: Even though you are no longer dancing ballet professionally, do you still take classes to keep in shape? What is your favourite way to exercise nowadays? Would you ever consider starting a school for Native American students to learn ballet or would you teach it in the far future?

Dale H.A: I used to take an odd class now and then for a few years after I retired, but I don’t take class anymore. Instead I go to the gym and lift weights and use the exercise bike and elliptical trainer. I used to do Pilates, which is really amazing, but I don’t have the time to pursue it any more. I recommend it to anyone interested in getting fit (but it’s expensive!). As for teaching–I used to teach ballet at CIT in Toronto when Carol Greyeyes was the Artistic Director, but since then I haven’t had the opportunity. CIT (Centre for Indigenous Theatre) is a training centre for native actors, but they incorporated dance as part of the curriculum, and I was invited to be a guest teacher. I loved the students, but being away from home to teach them in Toronto was tough and it became too difficult to co-ordinate it with my schedule. Who knows, maybe another opportunity will come around again.

Questions3

Q. Dear Michael, I went to see “Smoke Signals” and, although I enjoyed the film, humour and the performances by the actors, I was also wondering why the native people were shown to be spending their time drinking, or Victor’s father hitting his wife and child and leaving his family. Is this really how life is there? It seemed so filled with hopelessness.
From: Teresa

A. “Smoke Signals” is about Indians – yes. There are generalizations in the movie about us that make it easy for the various Indian cultures to see something familiar in the reservation represented in the film. In other words, there are elements in the film that strike a common chord amongst our peoples. But is this film a portrait of all Indian people and families? No. This is a specific portrait of one family, some of the reasons why it broke apart and, most importantly, the consequences that followed. I think you can look at the film in a broader context. Obviously many families in America, both Indian and non-Indian, have problems. Sometimes it is because of alcohol or drugs; sometimes there is abuse—all things the film showed. So you have to think- if I see an ethnic group portrayed in a certain way, can I see what is common between us or do I keep the experiences of one group separate from mine? You asked “Is this what life is like on a reserve? It all seems so hopeless.” I didn’t see the film this way. I looked at the life on the reserve there and saw people’s humour win out again and again over their poverty. In “Smoke Signals” there is comedy and sadness. There are times when the story breaks your heart. But there are other times when the characters make you see how important it is to work through all the pain to love and forgive each other. There is regret as well. Do you remember the scene where Gary Farmer who plays the father tells his young friend, “Yeah, I broke three hearts that day too.” That was one of the most moving and understated lines of dialogue I had ever heard in a film. When I see the film I don’t see hopelessness but redemption. I hope if you see it again, you can come away with feeling that too.

Q: Dear Michael, Thank you for caring about us. It is a measure of the beauty of your spirit. Here is my question: How did you make this transition into acting? Were you always interested in it? Was it a natural progression or an unexpected development? Sincerely, Elaine

A: My transition into acting was aided immensely by the films “Last of the Mohicans” and “Dances With Wolves.” After seeing “real” Indian actors on screen, I thought to myself that this is something I could do. I wasn’t interested in acting until 1991, when I worked with a group of actors in Wisconsin. They were very interesting and reminded me of dancers. We talked about acting, and I realized that it wasn’t so different from dancing, especially the way that Eliot [Feld] approached dance. Looking back, there are many, many differences but those were easy to overcome. A huge debt of gratitude is owed to my agent in Toronto, who took me on without any experience. She is a big talent agent now, but she believed in me and was willing to take a risk. I can’t imagine where I’d be without that lucky break. She’s in a position now where she doesn’t take newcomers, so I was lucky to be starting out just when she was.

Questions2

Q. Mr. Greyeyes, do you feel that there is a lack of appreciation for the work of Native American or people of color in the film industry? Do you think that there are limited roles or movies for Native Americans in the film industry? I have seen a lot of your work and read some of your interviews and would like to say that I really appreciate you and your work. I think that you have a very kind soul and I wish you and your family the very best that life has to offer any of us. Donya

A. I think that people who make “Indian” movies are unconsciously biased about us, but that doesn’t mean to say that what they are doing sometimes isn’t excellent or well intentioned. I think they’ve simply been brainwashed by other films and media images, and, often, thoughtlessly perpetuate them. Does this mean that what they’re doing is, therefore, forgivable? No, not at all. Shame on them for not knowing the difference. A few years ago I spoke to an audience at Kent State University and I asked the question: What do you think Indians look like? I answered for them. “You probably imagine that they look like me, for example – brown skin, long dark hair, high cheekbones, etc.” I said, “I’m proud of the way I look, but I know that I am only one small example of what native people actually look like. There are Indians who look like Black people, or even white people—they have green eyes, even blue eyes, curly hair, but they are full-blooded members of their tribes nonetheless. Those people would never get hired by the Hollywood establishment because they don’t ‘look Indian.’ Isn’t that sad and ironic?” I told the audience that I am lucky. I am in my 30’s and am exactly the kind of thing that producers, who have the same perceptions of us as the general audience does, imagine when they think of a proud Indian warrior. That has helped me get the roles I’ve landed, but I think I’ve given those characters more depth than the writer or director intended.

I originally answered this question a few years ago, but I’m afraid to report that nothing has changed here in Hollywood. As you know, I wear my hair short and recently came up for a part in a major motion picture—a period western. Unfortunately for me, I didn’t get hired due to the fact that I am no longer stereotypically “Indian-looking”. The director and casting agent told my manager that I was too “clean-cut” and “cerebral” for the role. Sounds to me like they prefer their “Indians” to be “dirty, or dishevelled” and “stupid”. Good grief.

Q. At the beginning of “Stolen Women” it says, “based on a true story.” Do you know any details of this “true story” and how accurately it was portrayed by the movie?
Thanks, Morwenna

Hi, I loved “Stolen Women, Captured Hearts.” Was it a true story? Was the movie based on a book? I would love to read it.

Elaine
A. The idea for “Stolen Women” comes from a book called “Pioneer Women: Voices from the Kansas Frontier” (by Joanna L. Stratton). Leigh Murray, the producer of the film, originally read this book and saw a brief passage about the true story of two women who were kidnapped by a band of Indians. The woman (Anna) did fall in love with one of the men in the band and stayed with him. From this brief passage, Ms. Murray’s curiosity was piqued by what this story could have been about. Many events soon followed, having the writer create the script, getting CBS interested in the idea and eventually getting a star like Janine Turner also interested in playing Anna. Even then work continued with the cultural advisor Lois Red Elk creating accurate names for all the Lakota characters, like mine: Tokalah (which is a traditional name in her culture). From these interesting beginnings emerged one of my favourite films. I think many of my fans will agree, it was worth all the effort.

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.