About 20 years ago, Rene Haynes was given the task of casting extras for Dances with Wolves, an unconventional western directed by and starring Kevin Costner. Costner insisted that all of the Native roles be played by Native actors—no exceptions.
It wasn’t easy, but Haynes did as instructed, and the resulting film was a milestone in Native cinema.
The massive commercial and critical success of Dances with Wolves, Haynes says, established a new paradigm and opened the door for Native actors, writers and directors. It also gave her career a sharp focus; in the years that followed she handled casting for such Native-themed films as Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, Squanto, Crazy Horse, and Buffalo Soldiers.
In 2009, Haynes became part of the casting team for the Twilight Saga films New Moon and Eclipse, and had a hand in selecting young Native actors for films that were destined to be among the highest grossing motion pictures of all time. The actors selected for the quartet of shape-shifting Indians known as the “Wolfpack”—Chaske Spencer, Alex Meraz, Bronson Pelletier and Kiowa Gordon—have an unprecedented opportunity to raise the Native profile in Hollywood. Expectations are high for today’s opening of The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn, Part 1, predicted by BoxOfficeMojo to make as much as $148 million over the course of the weekend.
Indian Country Today Media Network spoke with Haynes about the Wolfpack, the state of Natives in cinema, and her future projects.
Was Dances with Wolves the first film for which you helped cast Native actors?
No, I was fortunate, early on, to have been asked to cast extras on a film called War Party that was shooting in the Blackfeet community of Browning, Montana. The Blackfeet people really impressed me with their caring attitude towards all members of their community and it was then that I realized what an awesome responsibility and honor it was to make sure that we always strived to do right by them. This attitude has been the cornerstone that I have taken into every project since then.
And there have been many films and TV movies since then—from Dances With Wolves to these Twilight films to three very interesting current projects you’re working on, which we’ll talk about. How have you kept it going?
I always like to say that I just became very lucky and that I work very hard. I count myself extremely lucky to have been able to sustain a career in this business for more than 20 years now and still consider the best yet to come.
What are the general positive trends you see for Natives in Hollywood right now?
Two things: One, we have all these Native voices, these young filmmakers, writers and actors who are finding a way to be heard. And then we also have established producers and directors who continue to have interest in telling Native stories.
What are some of the bad things or things that are still difficult?
We still have the naysayers—individuals with a chip on their shoulders who tend to condemn a project, in a very public way, before even trying to find out the truth behind the intent of the filmmakers. It’s very rare these days for a Native film project not to employ technical and cultural advisors. The people who make trouble usually do not manage to halt a project, but they do give producers and studios a reason to question the idea of financing another Native project in the future. Remember, this is such a competitive business in all aspects, and particularly for funding. If producers and financiers have a choice, they are likely to choose the more commercial and less difficult vehicle. This doesn’t help all the Native filmmakers who are seeking financing for their own projects. I totally support someone’s right to speak out against a perceived wrong, I just would encourage a full investigation into the facts before making public condemnations. There are always going to be diplomatic ways to make a positive change.
In a way, that brings us to the Wolfpack—obviously a success story in terms of the exposure these young actors are getting. But there’s controversy as well, with some people wondering whether the Wolfpack is just the latest version of the same old thing—have we progressed in a great way or have we just transferred from cowboys and Indians to vampires and werewolves?
This too shall pass. Everyone in the current entertainment environment has been swept up in the vampire/werewolf craze, it’s not just the Native characters. However—for a change—the leaders of this particular trend were our young Native actors. I count it as all good; because of the Twilight Wolfpack exposure, every one of those young Native actors has captured the attention of Hollywood producers and casting directors. They have all been invited to meetings with the studios and become celebrities on the world stage. That’s created a very real interest from Hollywood in other Native talent; it’s a ripple effect that should be looked at as a very positive thing, in my opinion. Any interest—any respectful exposure—is always going to be better than no interest or exposure at all.
We hear that Kiowa Gordon has two films in the works and the characters are not explicitly Indian—that’s an unusual development, isn’t it?
Yes, and it’s the next step for Native actors: To be considered for any role, regardless of ethnicity. So what’s happening with Kiowa—I think that it’s fantastic!
What in your opinion is the current state of Native Americans in film?
I think that more opportunity for Native actors in the mainstream would be great—the talent pool today is just very rich and deep. For instance, I would love to see more Native actors on US dramatic television series. It would be great for Native kids to be able to see their role models on a weekly basis, playing lawyers, or doctors, or teachers.
How do you feel about the big-budget on-again, off-again Lone Ranger film that would feature Johnny Depp as Tonto?
I don’t know much about it—because I do not usually have time to follow the progress of films that I’m not working on—but I hope that they will decide to eventually do it and that it will put a lot of Native actors to work! I think that any opportunity for Native talent to have worked in high profile projects is worth supporting.
You’re involved with three of the highest-profile current Native film projects: Winter in the Blood, Crooked Arrows, and First Allies, which we’ve reported on before. What is the status of each of these films?
First, I want to say that I am so excited for each of these projects. The films could not be more different, and it’s great to see such a variety of projects being produced! First Allies has been delayed a bit, but Winter in the Blood and Crooked Arrows have both just successfully concluded filming. And both films contain some very exciting new Native talent making their film debuts.