As ICMN has previously reported, fans of the Walking Dead franchise in Indian country have a lot to be excited about, as the latest episodes in season three of Fear the Walking Dead feature the powerful Native Cree actor Michael Greyeyes. But this is not the only big break for Greyeyes, he also co-stars alongside A-list actress Jessica Chastain in his upcoming role as Sitting Bull in Woman Walks Ahead.
In Fear the Walking Dead, Michael Greyeyes portrays Qaletaqa Walker, a former tribal attorney and leader of the Native American tribe on the fictional Black Hat Reservation community. Though Michael Greyeyes originally signed on for six episodes, he was signed on to film over twice that amount to become an integral part of the Fear the Walking Dead’s post-apocalyptic narrative.
Michael Greyeyes has been at the forefront of performance art for the past 25 years. In addition to his role on Fear the Walking Dead as Qaletaqa Walker and a recent San Diego Comic Con appearance, is also known for his roles in Jimmy P, The New World, Dance Me Outside—and has an upcoming role as Sitting Bull in Woman Walks Ahead
Greyeyes is also a celebrated choreographer, director and educator, and an Associate Professor in the Department of Theatre in the School of Arts, Performance, Media and Design with a resumé that spans over 25 years. From his beginnings with The National Ballet of Canada and the company of Eliot Feld in New York City.
In an extensive interview with Michael Greyeyes, the Plains Cree actor told ICMN about the importance of family, Native representation in the film industry, his career and about his role on Fear the Walking Dead, which he says is a dream come true.
Can you tell us about yourself as a Native actor?
I’m at a point in my career — I’ve been in this business for 25 years — where I’ve been working in Canada and thrown a lot of energy into my theater company. I am also a fully-tenured professor at York University which is where I’ve been for 12 years. I was the graduate program director of the MFA in my department. This year, I am on sabbatical leave.
You are Qelataqa Walker in the hugely popular TV series, Fear the Walking Dead.
It is such a boss role and the response from the community is so great. They are like, ‘it’s about time!’ It is huge. Fear the Walking Dead is a much different beast than The Walking Dead. I’ve been a big fan of The Walking Dead for seven years. Lots of Indians love the show and Fear the Walking Dead too.
When I told my friend Alex Rice from Kahnawake who is a fantastic actress. She said, ‘Indians are the best survivors, they are built for the apocalypse. If there is anybody that could survive this it’s going to be us.’
— FearTWD (@FearTWD) July 27, 2017
How does it feel to be standing at the front of it all?
I am thrilled. I auditioned for this back in February of this year. My representatives called me and they said they had an audition. At first I was like, ‘cool,’ then they said it was for Fear the Walking Dead and I was like ‘oh sweet!’ I am really a fan.
And then, I read it.
I knew it was a good audition because the writing was good. As an actor I was able to throw myself into it. As an actor it is easier to learn your lines and find you see things within the scenes if the writing is good. It wasn’t about set dressing, they were playing with tropes and notions of Indian-ness.
As a scholar, it doesn’t surprise me because I feel as though that they have taken some chances with representation and due to some of the choices they have made, they have brown families as fans. One actor is Cliff Curtis, who is Maori. I am not surprised because Fear the Walking Dead has been a leader. I do not see our faces and a lot of the shows out there.
How did you feel you got the part?
I was so gratified to get the part. At first I was really excited, and then they said it was a recurring character. Recurring means you are a guest star on the show. I thought, ‘wow two or three episodes.’ Then they said it was going to be for six episodes and I was like, ‘what?’ I was super jazzed because I realized six episodes means that this person is going to have some impact on the narrative.
As I started to get the scripts, I realized I was not just a cool sidebar. This is the principal narrative arc of the season. it’s the battle between the ranchers and the tribal nation on the Black Hat Reservation.
How does it feel in 2017, to be a contemporary Native actor on a series with millions of viewers?
It is really mind-blowing. Outside of our native communities, I think people forget about our invisibility. We are so invisible in representation, how the media treats us. In Canada it’s a bit different, we have APTN. But even in the mainstream shows, actors don’t play really huge parts.
So when I got to the set and we began film the Season 3, Episode 7, which is the unveiling episode, the assistant director came up to me and said, ‘How do you learn your lines? Are you one of those actors who reads their script 1,000 times? You are unbelievably prepared.’ I said, ‘Yes, that is the only way and the best way.’
He said he never had a guest show like me. That is incredible, because there are some very amazing actors on the show.
There is another actor on the show, Justin Rain, we have really bonded. He is a younger actor he is a promising guy and very smart. He plays Crazy Dog. His role expands throughout the season, which is fantastic! I think AMC, the writers of the show and Dave Eriksen are like “We did good, these are good actors.”
After working for a couple of episodes, they started to expand my presence even more. I ended up filming eight or nine episodes in addition to the six they originally hired me for. They were like, ‘We got a good one here people.’
What are your thoughts on the show realistically reflecting Native people even though it is a fantasy thriller?
For me, entertainment is very important. I have been a fan of the Zombie genre for two decades. I am hardcore, I buy these types of movies such as The Horde, 28 Days Later, I know them and quote them all. We are in a precarious place as a culture and this is the era of Trump and Brexit, environmental degradation, sovereignty, water. This Zombie genre is a distillation of all our fears, anxieties, all of the things inside our politic, it gives these thoughts and beliefs steroids.
— FearTWD (@FearTWD) July 23, 2017
Everything that was kind of a big deal becomes life or death in a post-apocalyptic world, literally life and death. This allows the writers and actors to say, ‘this is about survival, about the rawest kind of human emotion, state of being and need.’
That makes for exciting television and exciting commentary. There is a scene where Otto, a rancher, who expresses a racial sentiment mashed up against a edit where the character Luciana is then walking along the Mexican and U.S. border wall. I think they are killing it this season. They have taken the show to a new level.
People on the show, even Ruben Blades, who is a hero to me, said ‘This storyline is going to shake people. The audience is going to go nuts for this. We never see empowered indigenous characters that are unafraid.’
What I think is amazing about Qelataqa Walker is that he is an ex-lawyer, smart, articulate and passionate about the politics of his people.
In all of this, old rules and old paradigm’s are lost.
How did it feel to say, ‘The days of the white man’s courts are over?’
First of all it’s great writing. It was riveting for me as an indigenous man, a Cree man. I thought, ‘I get to say this on a show that has millions of viewers. This is like one of those moments. I was excited to get the part, but I had no idea that it would have the scope that this character is allowed.
There is a direct correlation between the ranchers in this series and a direct correlation between the tribal nation and Standing Rock. The amazing thing is we start the second part of the season talking about water.
The action of the tribal nation and my character blow the narrative sideways. The nation has humvees, a helicopter and we arrive on the ranch like a conquering Roman empire. That is the set up for part two of the season.
It only ratchets up from there. The writers turn the screws and put us into more intense situations. Qaletaqa becomes one of the leading characters of the show through the second half of the season. I was reading the scripts in my hotel room throwing down the scripts, screaming god-damn this is good!
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How open have the directors and producers been in terms of listening to native actors to avoid stereotype?
They’ve been hugely open. My fellow actor Justin Rain, who plays Crazy Dog are very conscious of this as actors in this industry. We were reading the script and we got to one section where we were like, ‘hmmm.’ Justin brought it up because he is a confident guy and the creator Dave Erickson was like, ‘Oh okay. Well let’s talk about that.’
They were trying to find conflict and one of the rancher’s sons, Troy was throwing out racial taunts. They are racists, but the writers were trying to make Troy less likable. They were trying to create more animosity between our side and their side, I understood the narrative, but it wasn’t cool how far it went. They dialed it back a bit, and said, ‘okay, we still get it.’
David Erickson calls me and said he wanted to talk about the scene. I told him I was glad he called and we had a very forthright discussion and I told him, “I am an actor who really likes to push the boundaries of representation, and I want to expand the notion of how people perceive us. But I don’t think this one section is going to work.’ He said, ‘so we are going to change it and thank you for being honest with me. The last thing we want to do is put stuff out there that we can’t stand behind.’
They changed the script due to the comments of Justin and I. The next day new pages came out and they said these were the new lines.
These characterizations are fantastic. Qaletaqa Walker is the most three-dimensional and exciting character I’ve been given a chance to play. I told my wife I have been waiting a decade for role like Qelataqa to come my way.
What else have you been working on?
A few months before this happened, I finished my role in Woman Walks Ahead in which I play Sitting Bull, the most famous well-known Indian in the world. For me, this was a life-changing moment to be cast in this role. I played alongside Jessica Chastain who is a brilliant A-list actress. I am co starring in this film with her.
I am getting to play the two greatest roles of my entire life in the span of eight months. For me to play Qaletaqa Walker right on the heels of Woman Walks Ahead is literally the best possible scenario of anything I could imagine. I get to play Qaletaqa right after this thoughtful, dense characterization of the famous character Sitting Bull.
It is amazing because he is an older character, Sitting Bull was 59 when he was assassinated. Then the next role was Walker… Wow. If I was writing it myself I couldn’t have created a better character.
Can we expect to see a Qaletaqa Walker action figure?
Oh my god that would be so cool.
What do your kids think about their dad being a zombie killer?
I have two daughters, 12 and 15 and they are huge fans of the show. I was given screener episodes of 307 and 308 in preparation of my appearance on the after show Talking Dead.
I was watching 307 and 308 with my family and I was watching their reaction as much as I was watching the show. They were riveted. During the scene where I am in the diner and I scream ‘Stop talking, you are boring me like you did in court!’ During that scene they leapt from the couches and screamed, ‘We gotta see it again!’
They were so excited because they know I put my acting and performance career on the back burner years ago because I wanted to be a dad. I didn’t want to just fly in for birthdays because I was working. I loved being a professor and I loved teaching.
My youngest daughter was driving with my mom and she said, ‘I get it, I get why dad stayed home because I have been away a lot on this project. I was away for five months. They were like, ‘we really miss him and we get why he was home when we were younger.’ Little kids would just not understand and also, the roles for native actors were just not there at the time.
What do you think about 2016 and 2017 in terms of native actors like Martin Sensmeier who was in The Magnificent Seven, Adam Beach who was in Suicide Squad and Eugene Braverock who was in Wonder Woman?
I think a lot of it goes back to simple things. If you look at the social media movement #OscarsSoWhite and the blowback from that and then you look at this year. The fact of the matter is, it always boils down to writing. When you give Viola Davis a beautifully written role, she is going to win the Oscar because of her skill level. She is one of the most important acting voices on our planet.
When you have three-dimensional writing and when you have writing that takes risks that allow for an actor from any community, the room to do what we can do, you are going to start getting noteworthy performances.
It is not that all of a sudden in 2016 we got good, 2016 is when I feel as though the industry started to shift. I feel that there is a seat change and people are saying to themselves, ‘Wow, these guys are really good.’
As a result, people are saying, ‘let’s move beyond the stereotypes, let’s move beyond the old tropes that have worked for us, but are just not functional anymore.’
Taking all of this into account we’re coming up on the fourth episode in this season’s series, and it is the all Spanish episode. I was watching the actors to include Rubén Blades, Jesse Borrego and Lisandra Tena and I thought, ‘This is the best show of the entire series.’
These type of performances sit in your bones, they rattle your teeth, and set in your skin long after the performances are over. I look at my work as a younger actor in such films as Dance Me Outside, and I look at my work now. Our performances deepen as we get older.
This is what I watch for in performances. I watch for something that resonates with me and speaks about life in the way that I know.
Zombie shows are very popular in Indian country. My friend Alex told me, ‘this is my life!’
— FearTWD (@FearTWD) July 23, 2017
How does it feel to be working as a native actor at this level?
This is one of the joys of my career. I have been fortunate to work with such actors as Wes Studi, August Schellenberg and just the superstars of cinema in Indian country. These guys are my heroes. All of this has been an incredible part of my journey.
Qelataqa Walker could not have existed without Chief Dan George in The Outlaw Josey Wales. All of this is just part of a larger narrative for how we have sought to make ourselves on movie screens and on television.
— FearTWD (@FearTWD) July 21, 2017
What are your thoughts to the younger Native generation out there?
I have actually written quite a it about the representation of Native people out there. As an educator and a scholar, I have written things like, The Notion of Indianness and another titled Inside the Machine as part of a book titled Studies in American Indian Literature.
The landscape is completely different and our faces and our voices are now on screens. This to me, is essential. We cannot aspire until we see ourselves reflected. I decided to become an actor when I saw Dances with Wolves. I saw the faces that I had grown up with that were 20 feet high and staring back at me.
It was an incredible show and that movie still stands tall. It is still completely relevant, beautiful and surprising. That is how I got into it. I was already in theater and arts. But when I saw myself reflected, I knew I could do it.
I am just part of a longer chain of effort and advocacy. My hope is that when people see me, that they are given the same kind of courage that I was given. That is my hope.
Follow Vincent Schilling (Akwesasne Mohawk) – ICMN’s Arts and Entertainment, Pow Wows and Sports Editor Follow @VinceSchilling