Tall in the saddle
Santa Fe Film Festival honors actorWes Studi
When we called Wes Studi, he was out chasing a horse.
“Sorry about that,” he apologized when he called back a short while later. “One of the horses got loose.” It seemed a perfectly good reason for a delay from the Native American actor, who has spent a lot of his movie life on horseback— even if, in one of his latest movies, The Only Good Indian (2009), he rides a motorcycle. Is the motorcycle an Indian? Studi chuckled. “It actually is, yeah. The motorcycle was built to specifics of the very first one that the Indian Motorcycle Company put together. It’s essentially a bicycle with a motor on it.”
In The Only Good Indian, Studi (who also produced) plays Sam Franklin, a Native man at the turn of the 20th century who has embraced the white man’s ways, in the spirit of “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.” He’s a bounty hunter who rides his bike around Kansas in goggles and a leather helmet, capturing strays who have escaped from the Haskell Indian School in Lawrence and turning them in for the reward.
At this year’s Santa Fe Film Festival, Studi is being honored with a Milagro Lifetime Achievement Award at 7 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 5, at the National Dance Institute of New Mexico’s Dance Barns, 1140 Alto Street. (Studi also takes part in a panel discussion on acting the same day, at 1 p.m. at the Hotel Santa Fe, 1501 Paseo de Peralta.) But he refused to get drawn into an “It’s too soon for a Lifetime Achievement Award” quote. “Everybody says that,” he pointed out, admitting wryly, “I’ve said it once before myself.”
Multiple Lifetime Achievement Awards seem fitting for an actor of Studi’s stature. After all, actors get to live multiple lives. “I try to do as many different kinds of roles as I can possibly get myself into. But my base, of course, is films like Geronimo, where I got my start.”
In Geronimo: An American Legend (1993), Studi plays the title role, a character who in many ways is the polar opposite of Sam Franklin. Geronimo was a proud Apache who defied assimilation and with a small band of followers evaded the U.S. Army for many years before finally surrendering in 1886. The Only Good Indian is set some 15 years later, when Geronimo was still living in captivity at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, where he would die in 1909. Geronimo was Studi’s first true starring role (though he says
he’s most often remembered for his Magua in 1992’s The Last of the Mohicans), and he held his own among a company of actors that included Gene Hackman, Robert Duvall, and a pre-Good Will Hunting Matt Damon.
Both The Only Good Indian and Geronimo are among the actor’s choices for showing at the festival. The third is Mystery Men (1999), a spoof of superhero movies that gave Studi a chance to play a totally different kind of character. “That’s a good example of an ethnically nonspecific role,” he remarked. “There’sWes Studi in a superherowannabe kind of a film, and he’s not having to wear leathers and feathers.” The movie presents a stumblebum collection of B-list would-be superheroes with names like The Spleen, The Shoveler, and Mr. Furious. Their road to immortality is obstructed by the fact that none of them has any real superpowers. Studi is The Sphinx, the guru of the bunch, who dispenses tinny nuggets of wisdom like “To learn my teachings, I must first teach you how to learn.”
“Comedy works best when it’s played straight,” Studi said. “And I think that’s pretty much what we do in Mystery Men.” That philosophy earned the veteran actor some of the film’s best notices. In a cast that included Greg Kinnear, Geoffrey Rush, and William H. Macy, Bob Graham of the San Francisco Chronicle lauded Studi as “the actor who may just steal the show from them all.”
In addition to acting and producing (“and directing is definitely not out of the picture”), Studi is a musician and a sculptor. He appears locally on occasion playing bass with his band, Firecat of Discord. “We play when time allows,” he said. “Music is fun, but it’s not the total focus of what I do. And the other band members have their own lives as well. So the music is not on the front burner.” He makes sculpture as a release from the tensions of working in movies. “I carve stone. What I’ve always done is to take away, in terms of carving, shaping something into something else.”
In a sense, that chipping-away process parallels his approach to acting. “What I think about acting is that less is more. You can’t let superfluous things stand in the way of developing an interesting character. There are times when you don’t want to have too much of a back story, because it could easily interfere with whatever it is that is immediate for the character. That’s my way of going about it.”
Studi was born in Nofire Hollow in eastern Oklahoma, where he spoke only Cherokee until he was sent away to school at the age of 5. Was his experience similar to that of Charlie (Winter Fox Frank), the young hero of The Only Good Indian, who is torn forcibly from his home and sent to be Americanized in the white man’s school?
“Well, I suppose to some extent it was,” Studi allowed. “But sans the outright cruelty that perhaps was employed at one time in the Indian-school experience for Native kids. No, it wasn’t that severe. At least not in my memory. It had no effect on my culture, but it did force me to learn English in a timely fashion, if you will, within my first-grade experience. I learned English and almost forgot Cherokee. And once the nine months were over and I went home, I had to relearn Cherokee, in order to live with the family.”
He discovered acting in community theater at a crossroads in his life, after the breakup of a marriage. “It was something that was presented to me in terms of changing my life around at one point in time,” he said. “It was something that, amazingly, I discovered that I had been looking for all my life. A person can look forever to find the thing he wants to do for the rest of his life. It’s not always apparent. But once I found myself learning lines and doing plays, well, I found a great freedom and a good place to be. That idea of being bitten by the bug is not a fantasy; it actually happens, and you go back and do it and do it some more. It’s practically an addiction. Once you discover it and embrace it, you don’t want to let it go.”
Studi shows no signs of being ready to let it go, despite the Lifetime Achievement Award. His next project? “AWestern set in Wales,” he said with a smile. “It’s just strange enough for it to be extremely interesting.”
Wes Studi in
The Only Good Indian;
photo by Tyler Carmody
Studies of Studi: above and left, images from Geronimo: An American Legend