Welcome to Random Roles, wherein we talk to actors about the characters who defined their careers. The catch: They don’t know beforehand what roles we’ll ask them to talk about.
The actor: Wes Studi has proven himself a formidable fighter on the big screen, thanks to his work in films as disparate as Heat and Street Fighter, even sporting spandex for his comedic turn in Mystery Men. Studi has several new movies in the pipeline (including one that’s actually called The Pipeline), but one of the projects that keeping him busy in the interim is serving as host for HD Net’s “Summer of Westerns,” which runs from May 19 through August 11 and includes, among other films, a little picture called Geronimo: An American Legend.
Wes Studi: The process of getting Geronimo started when [director] Walter Hill got in touch with us and said that he’d like to screen test me for that role. He had gone through some others, I suppose, at that point in time. At the time I was working in Texas for Bill Wittliff, who you may have heard of, on Streets Of Laredo, which was a miniseries in line with Lonesome Dove, but it was a different time in lives of Gus and Call, the characters played by Robert Duvall and Tommy Lee Jones. So I was working there with Bill, and I believe I left set for a bit and went into L.A. and did a screen test, more or less. And within a few days, it was scheduled that, as soon as I finished up with Streets Of Laredo, I was to begin the odyssey of Geronimo. So we moved to Moab, Utah from that point in time, and began work throughout the summer of ’93, I believe it was.
The A.V. Club: Geronimo is a name that most people recognize, but from a Native American standpoint, given that Geronimo was Apache and you’re Cherokee, how much of his history did you know?
WS: I’ve been acquainted with Geronimo since... I don’t know for how long! Being Native American, you’re always associated with icons like Geronimo, Sitting Bull, and others from history, no matter what their tribe. Yeah, I had an idea of who he was, but fortunately we were working with people who had extensive knowledge of his career, if you will, and I think a lot of what the story told was on the page. John Milius was the man who wrote the first script for that film, but as time went on, I believe, other writers were brought in to kind of take into account other actors and agents’ desires for their clients and such, and as time went on, there were a few changes made.
I’ll tell you a small story about the time that we initially screened Geronimo. The initial screening, I think it was at the Writer’s Guild—or one of those guilds, anyway. [Laughs.] But I sat through the film, which was my initial viewing, and I walked out at the end of it to a huge lobby wherein I was met by John Milius himself. And he looked at me, and in a very loud voice said to me, “Goddammit, Wes Studi, why’d you let them do that to my film?” [Laughs.] So I just had to kind of reel back a little bit and say, “Well, you know, I didn’t really have a whole lot of influence in terms of how many A-list actors were a part of it!” But I think it’s that, having written the initial screenplay, he wasn’t really pleased with the outcome of the film.
AVC: It still seemed to be relatively well-received, though. It earned an Academy Award nomination. For best sound, admittedly, but even so.
WS: Yeah, well, writers have their own ideas about how things should progress from the time that they turn in their script, right? [Laughs.] I didn’t remember that it was nominated for an Oscar. Too bad it didn’t win! But, yeah, it was quite the adventure, learning more and more about Geronimo, and how people actually felt about him who were of his tribe, his clan, and who were actual relatives of his. And I came to find out that he was not considered a hero by some. Like any other person in the world, he was held in high esteem as well as in low esteem. So all of that made for a fairly difficult role to play, because of all of these things you have to take into account. But as far as the story goes for me as an actor, I simply have to portray what is on the page. So that’s what we did. And we had quite a time doing it in the Four Corners area.
AVC: We try to ask actors about their first on-camera experience, and based on IMDB—which I realize isn’t always accurate—it looks like it was playing a character named Long Runner in The Trial Of Standing Bear.
WS: Oh, yeah, it was the—no, wait, it was actually the second time I had been in front of the camera! But it was the first semi-commercial sort of thing. [Laughs.] I believe it was a PBS film, and it was one of the first screenplays to be shot in digital. And that was back in the day when all of the digital cameras were huge, as were all of the cables to operate the cameras. It was quite an exercise in stamina for the camera crews! I don’t know if you were around back then, but that was, what, the early ’90s? The late ’80s?
AVC: 1988, reportedly.
WS: ’88, okay. Yeah, that was quite a film. We had scenes that were made up of either “in the snow” or “not in the snow.” [Laughs.] And we had to find snow for some scene, and the entire cast and crew were flown from somewhere around Lincoln, Nebraska all the way up to North Dakota on small planes. When we arrived there, we found a huge patch of snow wherein to work, and the temperature was below freezing. Way below freezing. It was probably somewhere around zero! We had some of our cast members lose pieces of ear to frostbite.
The whole cast and crew were in buses that were kept warm, and we would go out and shoot a scene in the snow, but we couldn’t stay out there any more than five minutes or something like that, because it was just so cold. The main cast was all bundled up to the point where you could barely see our faces! Sometimes you began to think, “Oh, I’ll be tough, and I won’t wear all that stuff around my head and everything.” Yeah, those were the guys who lost pieces of their anatomy to frostbite! That was a rugged shoot, I’ll tell you.
AVC: So what led you down the path of becoming an actor in the first place?
WS: I couldn’t think of anything else that I wanted to do with my life. [Laughs.] I had discovered acting onstage for the American Indian Theatre Company in Tulsa, Oklahoma probably four years or so before The Trial Of Standing Bear, and we did a number of shows in Tulsa at the very prestigious performance art theater there. I got to a point where I was doing stage for very little pay, working in things like gaslight dinner theaters and stuff like that. And then I did some educational stuff for the state of Nebraska—that was the first time I was in front of the camera—and then The Trial Of Standing Bear after that, and I thought, “Well, the only way for me to continue to do this kind of work is to take a shot at it either in New York or Los Angeles.” And being of a rural kind of mind, I thought, “Well, Los Angeles would be the better place to give it a shot.”
So I went out to Los Angeles and starved for a while. [Laughs.] But then things began to pick up around the time of Dances With Wolves. I had done small bits and pieces of work on other projects, but I think Dances With Wolves was my first big job. Or at least that’s how it turned out after the film came out! But, yeah, that was sort of the beginning of it all.
WS: Avatar! I was working on two Westerns at the same time, let’s put it that way. If you can think of Avatar as a Western in outer space... or, rather, on Pandora. I was working on an independent film called The Only Good Indian, working in the state of Kansas, around the Lawrence area. That was set in the early 1900s. And then I would go out to L.A. and shoot motion-capture on Avatar, And I’d go back and forth during the summer of...’07? Or ’08. One or the other.
I thought initially that these were going to be some really difference experiences, the two of them. I mean, I’m in 1900s-period wardrobe for The Only Good Indian, and then moving into whatever the future date of Avatar was! [Laughs.] But then I come to find out that, no, there’s no real big difference, apart from the fact that, in Avatar, I don’t wear period wardrobe, makeup, or anything else. I just wear these digital motion-capture suits with dots all over my face and a camera two inches away from my face. But the basics themselves are totally the same for an actor. It doesn’t matter what you’re wearing, you still have to put up the performance.
WS: For Hostiles, the big challenge for me was to play someone who was slowly dying and knows it. As you may recall, in a lot of my films, I die one way or another. In fact, that’s a joke in my family: the first thing they ask me when I tell them that I have a new job is, “Do you die in this one?” [Laughs.] But in any case, this was challenging on another level, too, because the language was 99 percent in the Cheyenne language for my character. But playing someone who knows he’s slowly dying... That’s a difficult place to get to when what you rely on for most roles are situations that you’ve been in in real life. You know, in order to connect with what’s going on in a dangerous situation or a funny situation, whatever the circumstances are, an actor can usually draw from his real-life experience. But in this, it’s totally different. I don’t know what it’s like to know that I’m going to die within a certain number of days, weeks, months, years... It’s difficult. So that was a challenge. Hopefully I rose to the occasion. I don’t know.
AVC: Well, I can only speak for myself, but I thought you were pretty great. It’s a powerful film.
WS: Oh, good! I loved working with Scott Cooper. He’s quite the young director.
WS: [Laughs.] That was the first real job I ever got in Los Angeles! Oh, my god. I think The Flash beat me up in an alley, or something like that. I don’t think I had more than a couple of lines.
AVC: Yeah, I definitely wouldn’t call it a major performance.
WS: No, but it paid a little bit of rent, you know? [Laughs.] I might’ve even gotten a good Der Wienerschnitzel meal out of it, too!
WS: I really liked working with John Logan’s script. He’s quite the inventive writer, I’ve always thought. I liked the fact that my character was put a mystical kind of a role, if you will, and it provided me with chances to do something I hadn’t done before. I liked the kinds of characters he had. You throw in an Indian spiritual guide, kind of, along with characters like Jack The Ripper and all the characters from the Penny Dreadfuls of that time. It was a great experience, and I worked with some really talented people. And I got to stay in Ireland for a while! That was a plus. I’d always wanted to visit the place, and finally... ta-da! [Laughs.]
What’s interesting is that John Logan contacted us—and by “us,” I mean my manager was involved—maybe four or five years before we got the call that this was happening. He checked my availability so far in advance that we totally forgot about it. [Laughs.] And then one day we got this call, and within a short amount of time, we’d made the deal, and I was off to Dublin! And then later on we also shot in the south of France for a lot of the scenes that had to do with the American southwest.
WS: Well, that sometimes gets me into a comic con. [Laughs.] That was my first time in spandex. My first role in spandex and a mask.
AVC: And how was that for you?
WS: I really enjoyed that! [Laughs.] And I was working with so many A-list actors and extremely talented people, and the sets—oh, my god, they would blow your mind, some of the sets we were on. It was absolutely amazing to be in a superhero—or a wannabe superhero—type film, and it opened my eyes to what doing comedy was all about. I really enjoyed it. There was a learning curve, but then I discovered again that, yes, the basics are always the same for an actor. Whether you’re in spandex or regular wardrobe or motion-capture wear, you still have to deliver the performance.
AVC: When [Mystery Men director] Kinka Usher saw on social media that I was going to be talking to you, he said, “I love Wes. He’s a real gentleman and fun to shoot with.”
WS: [Laughs.] Yeah, he was great! I liked working with Kinka. He’s very open to actors’ input, and I think that’s one of the reasons that film is still a cult classic.
AVC: Did you have any conversations with Tom Waits during the course of filming?
WS: To some extent. You know, Tom is not really easy to understand. In a conversation, I mean. [Laughs.]
AVC: I absolutely believe you.
WS: Well, if you’ve spoken with him, you know what I’m talking about.
AVC: I’ve listened to enough of his songs.
WS: Okay, then you know the growl! [Laughs.] I had a great time with Bill Macy. He was a great actor to work with. All of the guys in the group of wannabe superheroes were great. There were a lot of comedians in that group, of course, and it was kind of an eye-opener as far as seeing how comedy is developed.
WS: Let me tell you, that film has legs. It really is quite the story, and it’s quintessentially Michael Mann. That’s just the way he tells his stories. That was actually the second time I had worked with him—the first being Last Of The Mohicans—and how I got the job surprised me to the max.
It was a few years after Last Of The Mohicans, and I’m living in Santa Fe at the time, and I heard that Michael was putting together this film called Heat with [Al] Pacino and [Robert] De Niro. Meanwhile, I’m sitting around thinking, “Man, I’ll never work again!” You know, it’s that situation that actors find themselves in from time to time. So I thought, “Hey, I still have Michael’s number here. I think I’ll give him a call...” So I call, I got the reception phone, and I told them I’d like to speak with Michael, and—lo and behold—he’s on the line. So the first thing I said to Michael was, “Hey, I heard you’re making a film with me and De Niro and Pacino!” He laughed. Which he doesn’t normally do! [Laughs.] But he laughed a bit. And then we talked a bit about Mohicans and this and that, just chatting, and then... I don’t know, maybe a week or two after that, my management got the call, and we made a deal. That’s how Heat came about.
AVC: It’s one of the best film ensembles ever.
WS: Yeah! And I got to shoot with... [Pauses.] What’s his name? Come on, help me!
AVC: Val Kilmer?
WS: Val Kilmer, yeah! And darn, wouldn’t you know it? I only wounded him. [Laughs.]
WS: I think I worked with Val on another one later on. I think it was another one of the Lonesome Dove things.
AVC: I hadn’t thought about that, but I think you actually worked with him before Heat, too. Or at least you were both in the same movie. You were in The Doors, right?
WS: Oh, yeah. I know about that one. But, geez, I always think, “I wish they could take that off IMDB.” Because, you know, all you see me there is, like, one, two, and I’m gone! But I guess it’s good for IMDB to have it, eh? [Laughs.]
AVC: As long as it’s actually you, then yes. But you wouldn’t be the first person to tell me when I bring up a role, “That’s not even me!”
WS: [Laughs.] Well, actually, I’ve never seen myself! I mean, I know it’s either a helicopter shot, or they’re in a car and they drive by. But I think it was a helicopter shot. Back when they didn’t have drones, right? But, yeah, that was my big shot in The Doors. But the Western I’m thinking about was another one of those Lonesome Dove prequels or sequels or something like that.
AVC: Was it Comanche Moon?
WS: That’s it! Comanche Moon. We didn’t have any scenes together in that, but we were both in the same miniseries.
WS: Darn it, they killed me in that one.
AVC: Yes, but then they killed the series, so...
WS: Yeah. I think it was the butterflies. [Laughs.]
AVC: It may have been. It was certainly visually remarkable, though.
WS: It was a beautiful series! Ian [McShane] was great to work with. I enjoyed that. I’m not sure I enjoyed living in New York all that much. Because I did have to move there to do that. But I finally began to realize what it is that people love about New York after being there for a while, so now I love to visit.
AVC: A lot of readers wanted me to ask about it, but one of them wanted to know “everything there is to know about his experience on Street Fighter.”
WS: Everything? Oh, my, my...
Publicist: [Taking himself off mute.] I, uh, am also curious about this.
WS: [Laughs.] Oh, Street Fighter... That was a lot of fun, actually, playing a guy with one eye. But we did have to figure out how to avoid the disorientation that happens when losing one eye. It takes a while to get to used to! But initially what we did was drill a very tiny hole in the eye patch, so that my covered eye could see a little bit of something. So that’s what kept me from staggering. Otherwise, if you try to walk around with one eye, it’s disorienting. But someone came up with the idea of drilling that small hole, and I was able to keep my equilibrium.
Otherwise, it was a great experience in terms of learning how to kickbox and working with people who are knowledgeable about kickboxing. To be specific, we worked with a guy called Benny “The Jet” Urquidez. I think he’s still working as a stuntman these days. Benny put us through our paces in terms of physical exertion on that film. But it was great. I really enjoyed it. And I enjoyed working with “The Muscles from Brussels” [Jean-Claude Van Damme] as well. Oh! And we worked with the Budgie. The singer. Do you know who I’m talking about?
WS: She’s an Australian singer, but she was also a film star.
AVC: Oh, geez, you mean Kylie Minogue!
WS: Yeah! Kylie Minogue!
AVC: I am chagrined that I didn’t just ask about her up front.
WS: She’s a wonderful person. I didn’t really know anything about her, but I guess she’d been an actress since she was a child, and then she also got into music. But, yeah, she was great. So what else can I tell you? We spent some time in Bangkok, then we went over to some studios in Australia and lived on the Gold Coast, I think they called it. I think the nearest city was Brisbane. It was quite the adventure.
AVC: Before time gets away from us, let’s circle back to the first time you worked with Michael Mann.
WS: Oh, yeah. And like Heat, that’s another film that’s got legs. It’s gotten to be a classic, I think. Again, that was Michael and—oh, who was the writer? Christopher Crowe. They really developed the character of Magua in the screenplay over time. I kept getting additions to the character as time went on. They were very flexible about how to play their villain, who turned out to be quite the character for my career. He was very good. Almost everyone knows me as Magua. So, yeah, I owe allegiance to Magua!
AVC: Over the years, you’ve played characters from a number of different tribes. Has that even been an issue for you? Or do you just dive into the role, no matter what the tribe might be?
WS: No, it’s not really so much of an issue. We’re almost always provided with people who can help us with the languages. That, in and of itself, is really extremely helpful for actors—to be able to work with someone who knows the ins and outs of the languages, to know where to punch a syllable. Because we do it phonetically, you know. I’d say the only time I didn’t have an actual person for my role was in Dances With Wolves, where I had to learn Pawnee from tape recordings. Actually, it was the same in Penny Dreadful, although I did have phone contact with an Apache speaker—the one who was actually making the recordings for them. On Dances With Wolves, it was pretty much just the recordings.
AVC: What was it like working with Terrence Malick?
WS: Terrence, as it turns out, is kind of from the same area I’m from in northeastern Oklahoma. He got in touch with me at some point in his pre-production and talked to me about playing this character, and we thought it was a great deal. It was good to work with Q’orianka [Kilcher], who played Pocahontas, and Colin Farrell. I had a great time living in Williamsburg. I really enjoyed working in that area.
Now, that language was probably the most difficult for me, in terms of incorporating it into the way I speak. I remember one time we were shooting in England, and we were shooting on actual ships from back in that day that were still harbored there and kept as tourist attractions. But we’re filming on the ship, which is kind of rolling back and forth, and when you put that all together, I realized that I was going to have to use some cue cards for that particular set of dialogue. [Laughs.] Luckily, we were able to put cue cards down on the floor of the ship, so every time I got a chance, I’d look down and... [Mutters in Algonquian.] ...and then look back up to the camera. That was my big adventure: cue cards on the floor!