Navajo actor Jeremiah Bitsui stars as Luther SickBoy Maryboy in Drunktown's Finest, a film about young Natives in Gallup, New Mexico, that will premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, on Saturday. It promises to be the latest of the edgy projects that have come to define Bitsui's career — after all, this is an actor who first appeared on the big screen in Oliver Stone's Natural Born Killers and had an eight-episode stint on the acclaimed drama Breaking Bad.
The actor credits his string of successes to hard work and a bit of good fortune. "Yeah, I think it's a mixture of both. It's definitely the hard work factor. You have to be ready for those opportunities when they come. I think of success as when hard work meets opportunity. I've been working at it for a number of years. Just more recently, the last six or seven years, it's been really great. It's been a blessing to be able to do what I do." This will not be the first time at Sundance for the Chinle, AZ native; previously, Bitsui had a lead role in A Thousand Roads (2005), a short film directed by Chris Eyre that still plays regularly at the National Museum of the American Indian in both New York City and Washington, DC.
Drunktown's Finest is the story of "three people, living in a town, that are seeking out different identities," Bitsui explains. "It's really a coming-of-age story about three young people trying to figure out their next steps. My character, SickBoy, is trying to change some of the things that are going on in his life. He's trying to figure out how best to provide for [his pregnant girlfriend.] He's trying to figure out a way to own up to his responsibilities by marrying her. But he has a lot of conflict in his life, in terms of who he was. His story is really about redemption and he's going to able to go about being a productive person in society." The other two storylines are about similarly conflicted characters. Nizhoni Smiles (played by Morningstar Angeline) is a girl on a spiritual journey, a Christian seeking to reconnect with the Native American family from whom she was separated. Her adoptive parents do know her history, but they are trying to shield her from her past. Felixia (played by Carmen Moore), an aspiring transgender model, is having her difficulties with her identity, and facing rejection in the career she's been dreaming of.
Bitsui's preparation for his various roles does not differ a great deal, whether it's for film or television. "The two are quite similar," he says. "Breaking Bad was a TV show that was shot like a film. When you're preparing for a scene, being able to do a full block-out rehearsal; where you do one for yourself, and then one for the first team, which means the crew. … I think that's a wonderful way to prepare and allow the actors to rehearse in that environment without any cameras, and being able to get a run-through. I say it's a luxury because with independent films, like Drunktown, you don't always have that rehearsal time. So, literally you may be there and your rehearsal is sometimes taped, and you just go right into the scene."
The veteran actor has yet to do any stage performances, but he would welcome the opportunity: "I'd love to do a play. The only stage-work that I can say I've done was in high school. I had a drama teacher who made us do a scene from a play for class. It's kind of a funny story. My scene partner and I knew the scene, but didn't know all the lines. So, we just kind of ended up ad-libbing most of the scene. And, the teacher ended up asking us if we could do it for the end-of-the-year Christmas showcase. We didn't do it, but that was my only real stage experience. Since then, a few other opportunities have popped up. At some point, I think it might really be good to take a shot at the stage."
Reflecting on his path, Bitsui recalls some special advice from his grandfather, who told him "If you go to college, don't just joun Indian activities. Don't join the Indian Club." "That was interesting advice coming from a grandpa," Bitsui says. "He wanted me to go to college and just compete with everybody else, and interact with everybody else, and not segregate myself. I really feel that has helped me throughout life. There was a point in my career where I was auditioning and reading for a sheriff role. And, everybody I was reading against were 50-something-year-old white men. When I walked in, the director looked shocked. It turns out that the casting director took a little bit of a risk and brought me in as a wildcard, kind of an out-of-the-box, unorthodox option. I never got the part, but that was a momentous occurrence for me, as an actor, because it showed me that I was capable of playing any role."
Bitsui earned his degree in the arts at Santa Monica College, and a business degree from the University of Phoenix — none of which was part of the initial plan. "I grew up in a rodeo family, and my parents expected me to be a ranch hand," he recalls. "But I was allergic to everything at the ranch. So I had to figure something else out. That's when I started watching a lot of films. And then I got into acting. I moved out to L.A. when I was 19 years old. I didn't really have any money or a plan, but my parents were always supportive. When I was young, they told me 'Jeremiah, we love you and we wish we had a ton of money to send you to any school that you'd like, unfortunately we don't.'" Both parents hold masters degrees and value education highly. "That made me want it even more" Bitsui says. "That's what motivated me to go to college. My first business was a consulting company that worked with people to do training for school-to-work and jobs programs. That was how I put myself through school." But he does not want to limit himself to being in front of the camera, either. Rather, he has directorial and producer aspirations. "I would love to be able to go in that trajectory. Actually, I originally planned to attend film school. I've always had that interest. Right now, I write scripts and one day I would love to be behind the camera, directing and producing. And giving other actors the opportunity to do what I'm able to do."
He started out preparing for his different roles as a method actor, but found it wasn't exactly healthy. "I would put myself into situations where I could draw off an experience," he says. "But, now as I get older, I realize that in film it's a little bit harder. Say you're playing a really dark character, the character may have been traumatized, in some way. If those things really happened to you, and you're re-living them for 60 days on a film set, it can become unhealthy. So, basically, I decided to make it more about technique. Now, I am more mindful of the physical, rather than the emotional. Because you can have really strong feelings and it doesn't show up on film. So, the physicality is what you're portraying and what people can actually see."
What's in store for 2014? "It's really been a growth year," Bitsui says. "There's a lot on the table. Hopefully, getting more work. Finding more cool opportunities and partnerships. Being able to work with great people in the business. I have another television show coming out in the spring called Night Shift. It's by one of the producers I worked with on Breaking Bad. It's about a group Afghanistan War veterans. They're actually MedEvacs who actually tend to people on the battlefield. They end up coming home to San Antonio and working in an ER. So, that's what the new show's about."
Forging ahead and serving as an example, for Bitsui, can be a form of giving back. "This was all inspired by one of my clients when I was working with the youth," he recalls. "She said 'Jeremiah, the biggest thing you can do for these kids is making yourself successful and doing what you're passionate about.' That resonated in my own heart, and I realized it's important to do what you're passionate in. Because of that, there's been a great deal of success. I feel so blessed to do what I do, and being able to work in the industry I love."