Wes Studi On His Cherokee Nation Childhood And How He Discovered Acting

Jan 18, 2018

The new film Hostiles tells the story of a U.S. Army captain in the Old West circa 1892. He's spent decades fighting Native Americans and seeing his friends killed, and he's ordered to commit an act of humanitarian relief. The bitter veteran, played by Christian Bale, is tasked with escorting an old Cheyenne chief, played by Wes Studi, back to his home valley to die.

In the film, Studi only speaks a few words of English. His character's most powerful moments come when he conveys meaning with a gesture or expression.

Studi, 70, is himself Cherokee. He was a Vietnam veteran and a Native American rights activist before he found roles, usually playing Native Americans, in films like Dances With Wolves and The Last Of The Mohicans.

He grew up in the Cherokee Nation in eastern Oklahoma, where Cherokees have lived since the Trail of Tears. Just over a century later, Studi was born in a valley called Nofire Hollow, where he also spent his childhood.

"In the beginning, we were pretty much subsistence farmers and hunters," he says. "As a child, I remember going into town by wagon one time and it was an all-day journey."


Interview Highlights

On what he remembers about the first time he saw a television

We didn't have electricity, but we did have relatives who lived above and beyond the hollow that we lived in. They were one of the first families in the area, in the Cherokee Nation, to have electricity. And that was the first time I ever saw television, was when I was maybe 4 years old or thereabouts. And what we did was we trekked 5, 6 miles up from our home to our cousin's home to watch Saturday night wrestling. Yeah, that was the first that we ever encountered electricity and television and what we consider, you know, part of the modern world these days.

On discovering the rush of community theater

It was kind of a combination of the aftereffect of Vietnam in a way, in that — I won't say I was addicted or a junkie of adrenaline — but, you know, I tried a number of fairly dangerous things just to kick that off in my brain again. You know, it's something that I'm afraid I got too used to it perhaps. ... I tried bull-riding. ... I wasn't good at all, I don't think I ever got eight seconds anywhere.

But then after that, I discovered acting through community theater. And what I saw in community theater was you could learn your lines and do rehearsals and all of that, but finally opening night shows up and you're in the wings and I rediscovered that huge wall of fear. And to me, that provided that amount of excitement and adrenaline rush.

On how Hollywood's attitude toward Native American actors has evolved

At times, you're welcome, depending on what's being cast. Dances with Wolves -- they wanted authentic-looking Indians in the film, and so they got it. The same was true with The Last of the Mohicans and Geronimo.

And I think audiences have begun to wonder more about these characters than just the antagonist part of most Indian films. We were the threat ... in many movies. But [at] that time, filmmakers were beginning to think that "Wow, well, maybe we can find some real Indians to do this rather than, like, brown-facing actors." And so it formed a curiosity by the public to see: "So they're really here still yet, huh? So the genocide we tried on them didn't work? They're still around — and trying to get into the movie business."

On whether it bothers him that Hostiles is told from a white perspective

No, it doesn't bother me because I understand that that's what it is. Now, it would be nice, yes, if I were the lead. Of course, I mean every actor is going to say that if they're honest about it. It'd be better if I were playing the lead rather than Christian. But, on the other hand, that's not what's in the script. The script is our Bible. As an actor, that's what you do; you tell this particular story.

Now, as time goes on, I hope to find one where I can be in the lead. You know, I think that's every actor's dream, actually, to play lead parts. But no, it doesn't bother me because I've realized from the get-go that this is not a story about my character. My character adds to the story, and is an integral part of it all, but it is not about my character.

This story was edited by Shannon Rhoades, produced by Danny Hajek, and adapted for the Web by Sydnee Monday and Nicole Cohen.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Let's talk about a new movie. It's called "Hostiles," and it tells the story of a U.S. Army captain. It's the Old West, 1892. The captain has spent decades fighting Indians and seeing his friends killed and then is ordered to commit an act of humanitarian relief. His commander tells him to escort an old Cheyenne chief back to his home valley to die.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "HOSTILES")

CHRISTIAN BALE: (As Captain Joseph J. Blocker) I hate him. I've got a war bag of reasons to hate him.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Captain, I just don't give a damn how you personally feel about Yellow Hawk. I don't.

GREENE: The bitter veteran played by Christian Bale starts a journey with the chief named Yellow Hawk. And our colleague Steve Inskeep has the story of the actor who took on the chief's role.

STEVE INSKEEP, BYLINE: His name is Wes Studi. And in the movie, he speaks only a few words of English.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "HOSTILES")

WES STUDI: (As Chief Yellow Hawk) Hello (unintelligible).

INSKEEP: He mostly speaks the Cheyenne language, softly, when he speaks at all.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "HOSTILES")

STUDI: (As Chief Yellow Hawk, Native American language spoken).

INSKEEP: His character's most powerful moments come when he conveys meaning simply with a gesture or with his deeply expressive face. Wes Studi is Cherokee. He's 70 years old - 70 busy years. He was a Vietnam veteran and an Indian rights activist before he found roles - usually playing Indians - in many big films. Studi grew up in eastern Oklahoma in the Cherokee Nation, land where Cherokees have lived since their ancestors walked there on the Trail of Tears in 1838. Just over a century later, Wes Studi was born in a valley called Nofire Hollow.

STUDI: In the beginning, we were pretty much subsistence farmers and hunters. There was an extended family area that we lived in - grandmother's home and one of the son's homes over here and another one further away and then cousins up and down Nofire Hollow. As a child, I remember going into town by wagon one time - and it was an all-day journey...

INSKEEP: By wagon - horse and wagon.

STUDI: By mule and wagon, yes. And we didn't have electricity, but we did have relatives who lived above and beyond the hollow that we lived in. They were one of the first families in the area in Cherokee Nation to have electricity. And I think that was the first time I ever saw television was when I was maybe 4 years old or thereabouts. And what we did was we trekked up five, six miles up from our home to our cousins' home to watch Saturday night wrestling.

INSKEEP: Ah.

STUDI: Yeah, that was the first that we ever encountered electricity and television and what we consider, you know, part of the modern world these days.

INSKEEP: How'd you get into acting?

STUDI: (Laughter) I couldn't do anything else.

INSKEEP: (Laughter) I don't believe that.

STUDI: Well, it was kind of a combination of the after effect of Vietnam in a way in that - I won't say I was addicted or a junkie of adrenaline, but, you know, I tried a number of fairly dangerous things just to kick that off in my brain again. You know, it's something that - I'm afraid I got too used to it perhaps but...

INSKEEP: What sort of dangerous things?

STUDI: You know, I tried bull riding and just physical things that were challenging.

INSKEEP: How were you at bull riding, by the way?

STUDI: I wasn't good at all. I don't think I ever got eight seconds anywhere (laughter). But then after that, I discovered acting through community theater. And what I saw in community theater was you could learn your lines and do rehearsals and all of that, but finally opening night shows up and you're in the wings and I rediscovered that huge wall of fear. And to me, that provided that amount of excitement and adrenaline rush, if you will. And if it's working right, everything is smooth. It's a beautiful thing.

INSKEEP: You got going in Hollywood relatively late as actors go, then.

STUDI: Late in life, yeah.

INSKEEP: Late in life - around 40 or something like that.

STUDI: Yeah.

INSKEEP: What is it like particularly to be a Native American and show up in Hollywood looking for work?

STUDI: Well, at times you can be - you're welcome, depending on what's being cast. "Dances With Wolves," they wanted authentic-looking Indians in the film, and so they got it. The same was true with "Last Of The Mohicans" and "Geronimo." And I think audiences have begun to wonder more about these characters than just the antagonist part of most Indian films. We were the threat. We were the da da-da da-da da (ph) kind of thing that happened in many movies. But that time, filmmakers were beginning to think that, wow, well maybe we can find some real Indians to do this rather than, like, brown-facing actors. And so it formed a curiosity by the public to see - so they're really here still, yet, huh? So the genocide we tried on them didn't work. They're still around and trying to get into the movie business.

(LAUGHTER)

INSKEEP: I want to ask one other thing in "Hostiles." This is a movie that's been praised widely for its authentic depiction of Native Americans and just complex characterizations of different kinds of people. But when I think about the story that's told, it still is the experience of a white U.S. Army captain who is learning about the Indians he's fought against all these years in perhaps a different or deeper way. Does it bother you at all that it still is, in many ways, a story from a white perspective?

STUDI: No. No. It doesn't bother me because I understand that that's what it is. Now, it would be nice - yes - that - if I were the lead. Of course, I mean, every actor is going to say that if they're honest about it. It'd be better to - if I were playing the lead rather than Christian. But on the other hand, that's not what's in the script. The script is our Bible. As an actor, that's what you do. You tell this particular story. Now, as time goes on, I hope to find one where I can be in the lead. You know, I think that's every actor's dream actually - to play lead parts. But no, it doesn't bother me because I've realized from the get-go that this is not a story about my character. My character adds to the story and is an integral part of it all, but it is not about my character.

INSKEEP: Wes Studi, thanks very much. I've enjoyed this.

STUDI: Ah, me too.

INSKEEP: He plays Chief Yellow Hawk in the western movie "Hostiles" which is out in some cities and has a wider release this month.

(SOUNDBITE OF RYAN BINGHAM'S "HOW SHALL A SPARROW FLY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.