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?
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.