Tonight, Winter in the Blood, a film adapted from the novel of the same name by Blackfeet/Gros Ventre writer James Welch, will screen at the Montreal First Peoples Festival. Chaske Spencer, famous for his work in the Twilight movies and Shouting Secrets, plays the lead role of Virgil First Raise, an alcoholic haunted by his memories and prone to encounters with strange characters. ICTMN correspondent Adrian Jawort caught up with Spencer, arguably the most successful Native actor of his generation, at the Montana premiere of Winter in the Blood.
What made you decide that acting would be a viable career?
I’d always liked movies growing up like Dances With Wolves, Thunderheart, and Star Wars – stuff like that. I really didn’t think about doing it seriously until I was like 19. I ran out of options and there was really nothing to do where I was growing up [Montana]. I was going to school and wasn’t doing well, and I just really wasn’t finding what I wanted to do.
I went to New York was when I was about 21, after I flunked out of school. I didn’t drop out, I flunked out — I wasn’t a model student! I was going to be a photographer in New York, and I just started getting more into acting and really liked it. I did the whole bartending and waiter stuff, and got lucky.
How did being from a reservation help you relate to your character Virgil First Raise?
You don’t really have to stretch too far. The day Michael [Spears, a Lakota actor who plays Longknife in Winter in the Blood] came in, he was really intense and in character. He was in the zone all day, and it really added to the scene. You really like it when actors can come in and do that because some days you just can’t get there, and then when you have someone come in like that, it helps you pick up your own game.
What was your reaction upon first reading the novel and knowing you’d be filming it?
I thought it was dark at first, then re-read it and got the humor in it. It’s really funny. At first I was like, ‘How’re we going to do this? It’s all in his head. I guess we’ll just have to jump off the waterfall and see how it goes.’ I never heard of James Welch before this, but when I read it I became a fan. I just overstudied the book and kept going back to it and back to it, but then I had to put it away and kind of made it my own. It’s a good book, and I think the movie will go right alongside it when they teach courses about it in Native studies.
Why was it so important to make this particular film?
There aren't too many true Native stories out there. We’re not really represented, and what it comes down to is money. Whoever has the money has the power and the control over history books and media. I would always like to see the big casinos help Native culture in pop culture and invest in independent film. But then again I’ve been in productions where you got Natives, and then you got the guys from Hollywood, and sometimes that clashes. So it’s kind of a catch-22 in a way. What I like about Winter in the Blood is, it tells the story of just this guy. A lot of people around the world think we still live in teepees. We know who we are, but the outside world doesn’t. It’s their interpretation of who we are.
Winter in the Blood screens once today and twice on Sunday at the Montreal First Peoples Festival; get details at the festival's official site, presenceautochtone.ca. Visit winterinthebloodfilm.com to learn more about the film.