Mul­ti­lin­gual mul­ti­tasker

Pasatiempo - - Onstage This Week - Wes studi — Casey Sanchez

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.”

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