Wes Studi played a Pawnee in "Dances With Wolves." He played a Huron in "The Last of the Mohicans." Now, Studi's distinctive face stares out from billboards and posters as the Apache warrior Geronimo, the title character of a just-released epic Western about the U.S. Army's final campaign of 1886 to bring the courageous tribal leader and his followers into the reservation system. The movie is "Geronimo: An American Legend" from Columbia Pictures.
The 46 - year-old Oklahoman and Vietnam vet from Nofire Hollow (near Tulsa) trained horses and worked in construction when, 10 years ago, he sought a 180-degree career turn by studying acting with the American Indian Theatre Company. Nebraska Public Television took note of his stage work and cast him in two educational series about Native Americans .
With a frequent flyer ticket earned from traveling back and forth from Tulsa to Lincoln, Neb., Studi came to Los Angeles and spent several years doing small roles and commercial voice-overs--eking out a living. "Black Elk Speaks" marked his screen debut. "PowWow Highway" followed. It was in "Dances With Wolves" that Studi broke through the bit-part barrier. Many critics found him a riveting screen presence .
The success of "Wolves" sparked Hollywood's renewed interest in stories of the American frontier and in casting Native American actors in Native American roles. As such, Studi, who lives in Santa Fe with his wife Maura Dhu and baby boy, Kholan, has not stopped working. One day he hopes to play an Indian role true to his nation, Cherokee.
Question: Even though you co-star, as opposed to star, in "Geronimo" (with Jason Patric, Gene Hackman and Robert Duvall), it is significant that a Native American actor gets close-to-top billing, isn't it?
Answer: Sure. "Dances with Wolves" really started the movement, using subtitles for Lakota Sioux and showing Indians as interesting, complex people--not just the enemy--and giving a lot of unknown Indian actors work. Since Hollywood's on a continual search for more story ideas and "Dances" was successful, that success is inevitably going to be emulated. The story of "Geronimo" is a very viable one . . . and I just came into the business at the right time and place.
Q: What was your interest in the part of Geronimo, other than that it was a leading one?
A: I was involved in the American Indian Movement in the 1970s (demonstrating at the Bureau of Indian Affairs building in Washington; participated in the takeover of Wounded Knee) and a lot of us involved in it wanted to hold up certain Indian historical figures as heroes. Geronimo was a great symbol of resistance. Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull were others. Then, we used what they said as slogans and sound bites. With this project, I learned more about the man, and he is even more fascinating than I ever knew.
Q: How so?
A: I don't know if I would have liked him as a person, but I certainly empathize with him. It seemed to me from his writings that he had a disposition toward paranoia, because he believed everyone . . . his own people included . . . was out to get him. Another interpretation is that he was a visionary because he forecast the Army's betrayal.
When the movie opens, he's already in desperate circumstances, so we don't get to see him sitting around being a regular guy . . . we don't get that broad picture simply because of the confines of time and space in which the film is set.
Q: "Geronimo" is just the latest in the revisionist historical vein in its depiction of Native Americans . . . or should I say Indians?
A: Indians is fine.
Q: Does watching old John Ford Westerns, where the Indian is usually the bad guy, pain you?
A: No. Like a lot of other directors, he didn't flesh out Indian characters . . . they weren't that much a part of the story. It wasn't his style and it wasn't anyone's style then. These days, writers are making Indian characters grow so that we understand the enemy, if they are the enemy. We still have a ways to go to see a contemporary story with an Indian in the starring role not be an enemy. I'm waiting.
Q: Your role as the vengeful, violent Magua in "Mohicans" earned you an instant following. Geronimo also has a vengeful, violent streak. Are you afraid of being typecast?
A: In getting started, that's what I've done. I've played a type. Maybe there's now a Wes Studi type, which is one step away from being unknown. I can't take offense at that. I'm just going step by step, and my hope is to eventually be cast in a racially non-specific role.
Q: You say you fear your Indian features may limit your choices and that worries you.
A: I don't have an answer myself, and sometimes I feel it's dealt with too lightly. Racial origin is different with me. I look in the mirror and I see an Indian looking back. I'm afraid if I'm cast in an urban cop role, I am recognizable first as an Indian. It is not a small thing.
Q: Do you see yourself as a Cherokee-actor or an actor?
A: I am not a representative of anything. I have my opinions.
Q: You speak fluent Cherokee. How different is Apache?
A: Like German is from English. I'm told I speak Apache with a Cherokee accent. One of my lines was "General Crook (Hackman) is going to put you in jail as soon as you go in" and how I said it came out "General Crook is going to bend you over when you turn yourself in." Our Apache adviser howled over that one.