From sci-fi epics to mystery thrillers to historical dramas of Native Americans encountering Europeans, actor Wes Studi has played many demanding and coveted roles during the past two decades. He was tribal chief Eytukan in Avatar, Lt. Joe Leaphorn in three Tony Hillerman adaptations that have aired on PBS, Magua in The Last of the Mohicans, and Sam Franklin, the lead character in The Only Good Indian, a 2009 independent film that looks at the era of forced assimilation in Indian boarding schools.
A Vietnam veteran, horse trainer, and Cherokee tribal member, Studi credits his success to the unique set of skills and talents he cultivated growing up in Oklahoma. “Many things I’ve learned in life have come in handy for film work: horses, guns, military training, and just the everyday life of studying people,” he said in a phone interview. “A lot of times an actor will say, ‘ Yeah, I can ride, no problem’ — then you have to spend a week or two just teaching them how to sit on a horse.”
A native Cherokee speaker (he didn’t learn English until he was attending grade school), Studi has picked up phonetic fluency in Mohawk, Huron, and Powhatan for different film roles. For Terrence Malick’s 2005 The New World, Studi had to learn Mashantucket, a dead language that was reconstructed by linguists. In Avatar he had to learn his way around Na’vi, a language entirely created for the film.
“I’m sometimes referred to as the language guy. I don’t know that I would have got a start in L.A. were I not capable of speaking a language other than English,” Studi said. “With my first film, about the only requisite that a producer asked me was if I was capable of riding a horse, shooting a gun, and speaking another language than English simultaneously.”
Studi exercises his passion for preserving native languages through his work for the Santa Fe-based Indigenous Language Institute, which provides services to native communities to help them ensure that knowledge of their mother tongues will be maintained. Studi’s wife serves on the board, and he works as a spokesperson. “My family is involved in the rejuvenation of indigenous languages throughout the United States,” Studi said. “It’s just something that we strongly believe in.”
Unlike most Hollywood players who have relocated to Santa Fe, Studi made the city his home when he was still a struggling actor. He discovered the city while shooting Powwow Highway here in the late 1980s. “I continued to live in Los Angeles until I met my wife. When we got pregnant, we decided we would rather raise our boy here,” Studi said. “I have enjoyed it here ever since, plus it’s halfway between Oklahoma and Los Angeles.”
Around his neighborhood, Studi is as well known as a horse trainer as he is for his acting and language work. “What I’ve done over the years is train other people’s horses. I’ll take young, green horses and get them to the point where someone else can ride them.”
Later this year, Studi is slated to appear in The Last Horseman, a tale set in the West after the Mexican War. He is at the point in his career where he is turning to work behind the camera, as a producer. Studi said he is currently involved in negotiations for a film and miniseries for which he would work as both an actor and producer.
His initial foray into acting, when he was in his late 30s, was serendipitous, a leap into the unknown. “I hadn’t even thought of acting in terms of possibility,” Studi said. “It was a late-in-life decision to give it a shot. It worked out for me. Never say never.”