Lakota actor Chaske Spencer grew up with the ambition of becoming a photographer, but eventually ended up in front of the camera in one of the most successful film franchises in history, The Twilight Saga. He and several other Native actors play Quileute tribal members who happen to be shape-shifting werewolves – known as the Wolfpack—who battle it out with vampires. Spencer reprises his role of alpha werewolf pack leader Sam Uley in the fifth and final film of the series, The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn—Part 2, premiering November 16.
Spencer’s journey has taken him from rural reservations in Idaho and Montana to the bright lights of New York where he’s now based. But he gets around. Recent work has taken him to Montana’s Fort Belknap Reservation, to shoot the film adaptation of the late Blackfeet author James Welch’s Winter In the Blood; to Australia, where he filmed the well-received but canceled NBC pilot shot in Australia, Frontier, and to the San Carlos Apache reservation to shoot the award-winning drama Shouting Secrets. Spencer spoke with ICTMN about his Twilight experiences, being an outspoken activist for positive change, and his never ending personal quest to grow as an artist.
How has growing up on various Indian reservations influenced your outlook on life?
I’ve lived on the Fort Peck, Northern Cheyenne, and the Nez Perce Reservations. I actually had a good time on all of those places and particularly enjoyed the family aspect of living there. There was a lot of poverty there and all that, and one of the reservations I moved to in the 80’s I’ll always remember had this horrible sulfuric smell in their tap water. I didn’t think much about it because I didn’t know any better or even know about life off the reservation. But just like everywhere in the world where people grow up in a lower end economic tier, I really do appreciate what I have the more I move up. It’s affected my political outlook as it’s helped me see behind the smoke and mirrors of how the U.S. government propaganda works, and what the media presents about American culture. So I took that background with me when I went to New York and started working as an actor, and I carry that with me to this day.
What made you decide to take a leap of faith to head to New York City from the rural Fort Peck Indian Reservation in Montana?
There was nothing going on in my life, really. I was just bumming around. I’d failed in school, I was drinking a lot, I wasn’t doing anything except Community Theater, and so I really had nothing to lose. Things couldn’t get any worse, so I decided to move to New York and gave acting a shot. I’d always wanted to try to see if I could do it, and luckily I’ve been fortunate enough to where it’s worked out. I didn’t try to hop in and be like, “I just want to be a movie star!” I actually wanted to learn how it was like to be a real actor so I started taking a lot of acting classes, hanging out with other actors, and learning the artistic process of it.
So what drew you to acting in the first place?
Probably girls! I know it seems kind of shallow, but in the beginning when I did my first Native production, it was because there was a good looking girl that I followed into an audition. “Hmm, she seems like an interesting lady!” But it turned into something else as I got more experience, and I just really respected the craft and work of it, I guess. I’ve also been fortunate to have some really good teachers.
Although you’re at odds with vampires as werewolf Wolf Pack Leader Sam Uley in the Twilight Saga, is it true you used to play Dracula in an off-Broadway play in New York?
I did. It was an off-off-off-Broadway play! It was a “down-on-the-Lower-East-Side-off-Broadway play.” It was a small production, and my first play in New York. I was horrible at it, but it was a good experience in learning to becoming a better actor. You can only get better if you keep doing it.
Looking back, what was it like just being part of the hugely successful Twilight franchise?
It’s funny talking about it because Twilight’s almost like an entity in its own. I don’t think it’s really hit me how huge Twilight was, but maybe it will down the road. But for now, I just think I was really fortunate to be able to get the job, that it was successful, and it gave me a career. I don’t know, maybe three or four years down the road and I’ll be blown away by being part of that franchise, but it’s still too soon. It’s like when something happens in your family—good or bad—you don’t know how to comprehend it until it sinks in. I do know I enjoyed the work, hanging out with everyone, the travel, all the opportunities given to me, and that the fans have really enjoyed the movies. There’s a lot of talent in those movies, and everyone in them will continue to work and grow as artists.
How did you approach portraying the “fatherly” character of Wolf Pack leader Sam Uley?
I think it helped out that I was a bit older than most of the other guys, had a few films under my belt, and a little more life experience. But everyone had their own way of bringing out their characters, and I think it was the chemistry among everyone that made the films click. They’re like my brothers and sisters. But yeah I tried to keep the character Sam very simple, and didn’t want him to be too animated and kept him low key. Sam’s one of those guys who says a lot without saying much.
Since you’ve grown close working with the rest of the Wolf Pack Native actors, what are your conversations like on set and do you keep in touch with them?
We talk about normal everyday stuff. We don’t really get into discussing the whole aspect of being part of Twilight, and we don’t get too self-absorbed. We have some deep conversations, but as far as being a part of Twilight together that was pretty absorbing in itself so we keep our conversations simple. We tried to maintain some sense of normalcy, I guess. I hung out with Alex Meraz last weekend, and I see Julia Jones from time to time. And I talk to Gil Birmingham a lot. Of course, I’ve known Gil for 15 years and he’s my oldest friend and he’s in the film Shouting Secrets with me.
Would you be interested in reprising your Sam Uley role in the rumored Twilight-spinoff series focusing on the Wolf Pack?
I’ve heard that rumor too, but I don’t know if there’s any truth to it. It’s cool if it was true, but I don’t think I would be involved with it because I’ve done my time with Twilight.
What was the physical process like for you and the rest of the Wolf Pack to get into such good shape for the films?
Having a trainer helps! But initially we worked out like a month and a half straight, watched our diets, and over the years of the series we got bigger and bigger.
But it’s mainly 70% diet, because nowadays I go to the gym 3 times a week now and still stay in good shape. One thing that kills muscle and protein is sugar. You can work out all you want, but if you’re not eating right you’re really not going to do anything with it.
On a lighter note, do friends ever tease you about being shirtless so often in the Twilight sequels?
Hah! Oh yeah, they do. Or else if there’s a full moon out they give me some shit. But I don’t mind, it’s all good and comes with the territory.
Why is it personally important for you to promote healthier lifestyles for young Natives for Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move!” campaign?
Natives overall are not healthy, but it’s not like there’s a bunch of health food stores on the reservations. I grew up eating junk and crappy food from a deep fryer or whatever the local gas station sold because there was nothing else to eat. I didn’t even know what a vegetable was! So we need to beware of our health because diabetes and obesity are big problems in Indian country, and we need to educate ourselves on eating right and getting lots of exercise. We should treat our body as a temple. If kids start becoming aware of maintaining healthy habits at a young age it helps against health risks as they get older.
Has getting back into your original photography passion helped keep you grounded?
It does take my mind off of things, and it’s just really fun to do. I enjoy being behind the camera, and get a kick out of finding a good photo out of a real life situation. I don’t like doing poses or portraits and prefer real life landscapes or real life photography—I guess you’d call it—on the street. And being in New York City is such a good place to be a good photographer. It’s something I’ll always do.
What are the goals for your own production company, Urban Dream?
I’d like to produce movies and have more films I could work on, and help bring productions to the present. I’m really choosy on what I pick now, because I really like to challenge myself. And through Urban Dream, I’ll be able to have a little more control of things I do. Since I really like to do films, having my production company helps me get a little bit of a foothold to do that.
Why is being part of the “Get Out the Vote” campaign so important to you?
A lot of us Natives don’t vote, and I think we get the mentality that the U.S. government has forgotten about us. But we have a voice, and I want to make sure our voice stays strong. There are a lot of Native veterans out there and we have all of these people that are uncles, dads, brothers, and moms who have sacrificed for this voting right we have. So I think it’d be respectful to exercise that right.
To this day, I still think Natives worst enemies are ourselves because we’re the only ones who keep shooting ourselves in the foot. There’s so much more out there in this world, and we need to be supportive of those who are trying to do something unique and outside the close-minded reservation box. Personally, I like hanging out with people who are different or are on the outskirts and have a different point of view.
Can you tell us about the non-profit Untied Global Shift’s “Be The Shift” program you’re part of?
“Be the Shift” is basically about creating a personal project of importance that will make a positive change in your community, and it’s making sure you stick with it. It’s shifting the power back to the people. We have to take back our power to make sure the politicians and tribal council members we elect have integrity to their words. But we got to own up to ourselves as well and not always rely on everyone else to do something about our problems.
Why where you so intent on landing the lead role of the alcoholic Virgil First Raise, the lead in the Winter In the Blood film adaptation?
I’d read the book and script, and after going through the book a few times I actually started finding dark humor in it. But it was after I saw directors Alex and Andrew Smith’s movie The Slaughter Rule that I was sold. Because they were truly artists, I knew this movie would be a good experience no matter what happened to it in the end. With independent movies you never know if it’s going to be a hit or not, but I just knew this was going to be a journey. I did play this character in and out, and I really wanted it. This was one of those characters you seek out and throw yourself into to see how far you can push the envelope on your work as an actor. I really put a lot of hard work into it, and I’m glad I did it. It was a very challenging movie to make, because the book is very dark.
How did you relate personally as an artist to the character Virgil First Raise?
Personally, I think I was surrounded by a lot of Virgil’s growing up. He has a broken spirit, and has had years and years of being beaten down physically and emotionally, and I like how the book and film starts right from where he hits bottom and focuses on a time in his life when he’s transitioning. He can go down one road and change his life, or he can go down the other road which is certain death. I think Virgil is trying to find things in his life that will help him move forward, things that will help him decide to live. As an actor, I found that fascinating. It was sort of a cleansing for me the way I threw myself into the role. I gained weight, stopped working out—I wanted to make sure I got that beer gut—and I kept to myself on and off the set. I listened to a lot of country music and I just sort of let the character envelop me while finding that character. I’d go over the script and notes with the directors, but in the end I was just Virgil. It was one of those films where I was glad it was finally over because I don’t think I could’ve lasted much longer in that frame of mind.
But that’s what I do for a living and part of the artistic journey of being an actor. It’s about creating something and having it change you in some way in your life.