Native American actress Lily Gladstone is a star in the making. You may have seen her here at ICTMN in the short film "Universal VIP," in which she appeared with Tatanka Means. She now plays Marlene in Winter in the Blood, a film starring Chaske Spencer (and based on a novel by the late Blackfeet/Gros Ventre writer James Welch) that just won the Grand Prize at the Montreal First Peoples Festival. Gladstone, who was born in Browning, Montana, and grew up on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation, shared some of her thoughts on her life and latest work at the Winter in the Blood premiere in Billings, Montana.
What made you decide that acting could be a viable career?
I was five years old and watched a Star Wars spinoff, Ewoks: The Battle for Endor. I loved the Ewoks and I wanted to be a little furry hunter-gatherer, but I was old enough to know that if really wanted to live the Ewok way, I’d have to become an actress to do so. The Missoula [Montana] Children’s Theater would come to the reservation once a year, and that was the one week out of the year where I wasn’t the chubby, greasy, mixed loud kid. I was the cool kid. It was like, "Hey, look at what Lily can do!" And that was the highlight of my life. So the "bug" bit me when I was six. Then I got my BFA in Acting at the University of Montana with a Native American Studies minor. I was there on a Presidential Leadership scholarship. Winter in the Blood was my first film experience, but I’ve been in theater a long time.
How did being from a reservation help you relate to your character in the film?
One of the things I liked with my character Marlene is when she sees Chaske’s character, this guy who’s beaten up and bloody sitting down on the street and she sits down with him. It’s a puzzle to a lot of people who just wouldn’t understand — they’re like, “Why she would sit down and talk with him?” But that’s just kind of the way it works. If you’ve had it rough, and you’ve seen it rough, and you see another Native in that position, you don’t just walk by him. You help them out, or sit with them, or shake their hand. That’s one way my character made sense — by relating her to how I grew up.
How were the locals where you filmed?
There were a lot of families on set, and you see families who came a ways, and they weren’t getting paid. And a lot of the people were like, "In the book there are Lame Bulls, and we’re Lame Bulls!" There’s nothing glamorous about being on a film set. You get there and wait, and people yell at you if you’re in the wrong spot. It’s rough to see if it's elders as extras getting yelled at, in their own area, because some of the crew from LA didn’t know protocol. So if I felt they were disrespected I’d go over and talk with them and make sure they were having a good time.
Did you sense any buzz about having accomplished Hollywood actors in town?
One day we were eating in a Mexican restaurant and Chaske is all incognito, and we hear, "Oh, one of the Twilight actors is in town!" Meanwhile, he’s like — a table away! But once it leaked in the paper, we would be sitting there all quiet, and hear this shrill, "Ahhhh!" And he has to stop and take pictures.
Did you have a prior relationship with James Welch's novel Winter in the Blood?
I read it pretty young since Welch is part Blackfeet-Gros Ventre, and I’m Blackfeet — it was kind of required reading. I read it at a crucial time. We moved when I was 11 to Seattle from the Blackfeet Reservation, and the first few years there was a culture shock. I realized not everyone said “Hooo!” or “innit!” and I got made fun of a lot and was called stupid for the way I talked. After awhile I got tired of debriefing everybody — I found I could leave all of that at home, and I look white enough where I could just not say anything and people wouldn’t bother me about it. Every year it got harder to come back to the rez during the summer, where people knew my family but not me. And then when I was 16, there was a summer camp one of my family introduced me to the book. When you hear Lame Bull speak in the novel, you hear the "Hooo!" and all that. There was the line about being “as distant from myself as a hawk from the moon.” I really felt that. I knew that. The book got me through a disconnected part of my life.