Today, the film Tiger Eyes opens to favorable reviews in New York City and selected theaters—but its Native star, Tatanka Means, is a world away. While fans of the young-adult novel by Judy Blume queue up for tickets, Means is in his Lakota homelands, at a sundance honoring the memory of his late father, actor and activist Russell Means, who died in October.
It has been a year marked by personal loss and professional gain for Tatanka, who has in a way lived a parallel life to the character he plays, Wolf, who loses his father to cancer in the film.
“Tiger Eyes is special to me because it was one of the only films my Dad and I got to work on together,” said Means. “We’ve had been in some of the same movies but never with scenes together, and never playing father and son. He motivated me as a performing artist to become a stronger actor and sharpen my skills. He is my inspiration for everything.”
The film, based on the 1981 bestseller, centers on 17-year-old Davey (played by Gossip Girl’s Willa Holland) who is coping with the violent death of her father while helping her depressed mother raise her younger brother. Struggling with grief, they move to New Mexico, where Davey meets Wolf while exploring canyons.
In his glowing review of the film, Peter Travers of Rolling Stone magazine describes Means as the “gamechanger.”
Travers writes: “Everything is being thrown at Davey at once, a new life, a new school, a new friend in Jane, a burgeoning alcoholic played wonderfully by Elise Eberle. The gamechanger for Davey is meeting Martin (Tatanka Means), a Native American known as Wolf. He calls her Tiger. And their romantic connection is handled with rare delicacy by both actors. Wolf is also dealing with sorrow, his father Willie is battling cancer in a local hospital. That Willie is played by Russell Means, the noted political activist and Tatanka's real-life father, brings their scenes together a touching gravity. That Russell Means died shortly after filming is beyond reckoning.”
Tiger Eyes was directed by Judy Blume’s son, Lawrence, 49, who co-wrote the script with his mother. They spent 23 days shooting on location near Los Alamos, New Mexico, where Judy Blume once lived.
When asked how they selected Means for the role of Wolf, Lawrence Blume said, “Our casting director said she knew of a young actor who might be great for the part. We brought him in for an audition and were just blown away. Judy and I looked at each other as soon as he finished reading and said 'That’s Wolf!'"
"Tatanka was amazing, both as an actor and as a person," Blume continued. "Very easy to get along with, very thoughtful and creative and always ready to do anything we needed. If all actors were so talented and easygoing I’d look younger!"
Blume praised Tatanka for giving a lot of himself to the role: "He brought life to what were only words. He created his own version of Wolf but stayed true to Judy’s vision. She was thrilled with his performance. His strength and sensitivity was exactly what the role needed. My experience with Tatanka, and Russell, was magical. Getting to work with such talented people, and to see their own father/son relationship on the set was an experience I will cherish forever. "
Means is taking his lead roles and growing presence in the film industry in stride. “I’m just a kid from the rez who is trying his best and giving it my all,” he said. “It’s a tough field of business full of rejection and obstacles. But perseverance and consistency will eventually pay off if you want to achieve something bad enough. I was taught that if you have a dream, make it a vision, then a goal, and chase it down.”
Lately, Tatanka has been working hard to meet the demands of a recent string of successful movie and TV roles, comedy performances, while also caring for his young family.
He stays grounded with the support his family and community in Chinle, Ariz. in the heart of the Navajo Nation where his mother, Gloria Grant, is Associate Superintendent of Chinle Unified School District.
“Tatanka was taught well by his grandparents and our extended family who helped shaped him,” said Grant. “But it was his father who was very involved in the pregnancy and his birth that had the greatest impact sealing a bond that could only come from this type of nurturing. It was an all-out nurturing in parenting. The results are evident in his will, confidence, and his perseverance to continue to move forward.
“Tatanka does not take anything for granted and is humble. He works hard at his art, and he prays hard. He has had some losses in his life that only have added depth to his character. He also has had some great triumphs, and touched many hearts. I’m so proud of our son.”
Means agrees family is everything.
“My family is my backbone,” Means said. “My tradition and culture is my foundation. My wife and my Mom are my biggest supporters, my entourage. My wife and I recently had our first baby so she is my new driving force in life.
“I’m Oglala Lakota, Omaha and Navajo, and it’s been hard growing up and being different. Bullying is a serious issue around the nation. I experienced it when I was young because I was different — because I had long hair and glasses just like many other students [who are bullied] still do. A hero and a warrior to me is the one who isn't afraid to be himself and stand up to criticism and ridicule from the negativity of others. Pick your head up, stick your chest out, and be proud of who you are!”
In addition to acting, Means loves bringing his comedy to Indian country. “Being able to perform comedy across North America is a blessing," he says. "I’m thankful to everyone who has invited me out to share some laughs. We go through hard times every day, and helping to bring a smile to someone's face and some laughter into their lives is a good feeling. Humor is the best kind of medicine and it’s free!”
Means says he surrounds himself with a good team of positive people who will encourage him toward high standards. “You’re only as good as those you train and practice with; I learned that while growing up.”
Tiger Eyes is one of a flurry of projects Means has been involved with; others include five episodes of the Cinemax series Banshee, which will air in 2014, and the film The Host, which is currently in theaters. He has also been cast in the big-budget comedy-western A Million Ways to Die in The West, which will be directed by Seth MacFarlane of Family Guy fame and starring Amanda Seyfried, Liam Neeson, Charlize Theron.
As audiences nationwide see him light up the big screen this weekend, Means’ relatives will be at his side sundancing for four days at Wind Cave in South Dakota at the third memorial to honor the teachings, songs and prayers handed down from his father. "He taught me that to truly be free, I have to start with my own freedom," Tatanka said. "To be drug free, alcohol free and abuse free is a decision I’ve made for me personally. We’re taking back our individual freedom one household at a time. It’s up to us to decide for ourselves and our families which road in life we will continue on and how much conviction we will have to take care of ourselves, protect our families and work hard for our communities and people.
“My father now walks along side Crazy Horse, Sitting Bull, Gall, Spotted Tail, Fast Thunder and Fools Crow," Means said. "My Dad was my Hero. He was fearless. His life was dedicated to the people. He was one of the greatest. He will be remembered forever."