‘As Far As I’m Concerned, I’m Playing the Good Guy’: An Interview With Wes Studi

The “Hostiles” star on his new western, the depiction of Native Americans on film, and his lifelong activism


As Chief Yellow Hawk, a Cheyenne leader imprisoned by the U.S. government, Wes Studi gives one of the most quietly effective performances of the year in Hostiles. Scott Cooper’s new western follows Army Captain Joseph Blocker (Christian Bale) as he helps transport the terminally ill Yellow Hawk and his family to the land of the chief’s birth. The journey is a brutal, bloody one in which both men, once avowed enemies, begin to see each other in a new light. And while he doesn’t get a lot of dialogue, Studi, who has over the years given some of the most unforgettable performances in American cinema, matches his co-star Bale’s intensity every step of the way. That should come as no surprise to anyone, since this is the same actor who, as the indefatigable Huron warrior Magua, stole Michael Mann’s Last of the Mohicans right out from under Daniel Day-Lewis’s feet 25 years ago.

Studi came to acting relatively later in life; he was 46 when Mohicans came out. Before then, he had fought in Vietnam, worked as a rancher, started a Cherokee-language newspaper, and served as an activist in the American Indian Movement (AIM). He was even arrested for his part in AIM’s occupation of the South Dakota town of Wounded Knee in 1973.

He has continued his activism over the years, and after his star-making turn in Mohicans, he played some other memorable Native American roles — from the Apache resistance leader in Walter Hill’s Geronimo: An American Legend (1993), to the skeptical Powhatan chief Opechancanough in Terrence Malick’s The New World (2005). He’s done a lot more than historical pictures and westerns, however. After Mohicans, Mann cast Studi as one of Al Pacino’s partners in Heat (1995). That mild-mannered character gave the actor a chance to demonstrate his formidable range — as did his fun turns as Sagat in the Jean-Claude Van Damme classic Street Fighter (1994) and the Sphinx in the cult superhero comedy Mystery Men (1999). I sat down with him recently to discuss his new film, his career, and his activism.

Your character Yellow Hawk is so quiet in Hostiles, yet he gradually becomes a bigger and bigger force in the narrative. Was it always that way in the script? Or did you work with Scott Cooper to develop that?

Oh yeah. We had a lot of talks about exactly what would happen at any given time, and what Yellow Hawk’s behavior would be at any given point. You know, above and beyond whatever Scott had already written, he would always like to know, “What do you think about this or that? What are your thoughts on it?” So, we had a chance to go about it, and sometimes I would have an idea about this, but other times what he had written would be spot-on.

How do you prepare for a character like this? Do you do a lot of research?

I think the research had been done already, and our consultants were present on set on a 24-hour basis, so that was all we really needed. However, I am still dealing with one part of it, in that Yellow Hawk is a dying man. I think very few of us know what it feels like to have what is more or less a death sentence — a certain short amount of time to live. And how to go about portraying that — the inner workings of a mind that knows this information. Where does one’s mind go from that point? Does it begin to deal with practical matters like, how do I relinquish this? Or, how do I move on with life? And what is my legacy? You know, all kinds of questions would seem to make themselves apparent. And what is the physicality of it? That is important in terms of portrayal, too, but you can’t just jump out and say, “OK, now I’m going to flop around and show people that I’m dying.” His goal is to reach a homeland where he feels like he can go back to the spirits — on the land that he was blessed with as a young man, where he came into the world. There’s a lot of indigenous thought in terms of being able to return to a homeland, in order to fulfill the needs of passing into the next world.

Quite aside from the fact that he’s dying, there’s also a certain amount of despair in the predicament of his family and his people: They’ve been captives for so long. I imagine that comes into it, too, when you’re trying to create an inner life for this man.

Yeah. This is something that he had requested, that he’d be able to return to his homeland — but only by political whimsy does this opportunity arise, and bada-boom, here’s his chance. But he’s faced with not only outside activity — outside attack from the Comanche, or the other obstacles we have along the journey to the homeland. There’s also Captain Blocker, a character who represents a total enemy from the past. This opportunity for freedom, as well as the knowledge of impending death, allows Yellow Hawk to begin to not only tolerate but also perhaps think about understanding what in the world is it that drives these people, who seem to act upon something they call “manifest destiny,” the “doctrine of discovery,” as well as a faith that I think Yellow Hawk doesn’t quite understand — in terms of this “good god, bad god” and all kinds of theory that they have. He begins to understand that these people are desperate for a homeland of their own — because they too are fleeing a homeland that is no longer viable for them, for whatever reason. So he begins to tolerate his former enemy, who becomes an ally in this journey to his own freedom.

It’s interesting how the film complicates Blocker, as well as Rosamund Pike’s character. We see that Christian Bale still believes he was doing the right thing in the past — that he still feels the Indians are savages. And we also get that scene where Rosamund Pike’s character doesn’t want to be touched by the black soldier. The film doesn’t valorize these people, but the narrative allows them to be redeemed somewhat.

I suppose there is some redemption, but it’s not in-your-face. I found it hard to find real closure of any kind in the ending. The story definitely does not come to an end there. I mean, the young Native American boy, of course, he has to go on. Can you imagine what kind of life he’s going into now? Because it more or less signals the beginning of that era when the idea of dealing with Native Americans became: “Kill the Indian to save the man.” To educate and to make him into your image. And the boy is a big signal of it, when he accepts the Julius Caesar book that’s presented to him.

You’ve played lots of Native American characters, some of them historical figures. So much of that culture has been lost — much of it due to genocide. I assume that when you’re doing research into time periods, languages, things like that, there’s a certain amount of archaeology and a certain amount of imagination that comes into it.

Oh yeah. There has to be. But the cultures themselves have adapted to modern life. And they have since that time. I’ve referred to it as an interrupted development. Most of the indigenous people of North America had to adapt in one way or another to this incursion of Europeans, and much of their culture had to adapt so they could continue to hold themselves together. They have done that, and it’s remarkable that we still have the languages, because there was such an attack on our way of life — actual genocide, really. But in most cases it didn’t work. Some people were eradicated off the face of North America. But not the larger part of us.

You’ve been in a lot of westerns, a genre that seems to be having a resurgence recently — even though it’s nothing like the heyday of the 1930s and ’40s. And the western provides lots of opportunities for Native American actors, but it also can be harmful to the image of the Native American. But then every once in a while the genre goes dormant, and suddenly the opportunities dry up. It must be a weird relationship.

Yeah, I know what you mean. Westerns are kind of cyclical. You mentioned the westerns of the Thirties and Forties — they were pure myth, telling the story of America and its greatness and its wonderfulness in how it came to be. So we glorified the domination of North America more or less, wherein we as Native Americans were barely a part of the story. You can go to many parts of the world these days and people believe that we are extinct. Even some Americans believe that we are totally gone, you know. Because the idea was that we were the “vanishing American,” and those films in that period really pushed that thought.

But later on, around the Seventies with films like Little Big Man, they came along with a different set of priorities. And for the first time we saw Native Americans portrayed in more developed characters, like with the late Will Sampson in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and Chief Dan George in the Clint Eastwood film Outlaw Josey Wales. And we began to see ourselves in stories that mattered — that sort of humanized us more than the cardboard cutouts we had seen before. In any case, those came and, like you say, faded out of attention.

But also during that time was the large social unrest of the Seventies. The American Indian Movement and all of that that had so much to do with popularizing Native American concerns and issues. It only followed that there were the films like the Billy Jacks, and I liken those to the beginning of blaxploitation, and the rise of many African American actors at that time. But then the Native Americans’ chance to begin to exist in cinema kind of died down. The western became less popular, until the jump that happened in the top of the Nineties.

I know that Dances With Wolves was a huge watershed film in that Nineties resurgence. But it seemed like there were a number of films at that time — not just westerns — that portrayed Native Americans in a more nuanced manner. Thunderheart, The Last of the Mohicans, Geronimo: An American Legend. You were in some of these. What accounted for this shift? Was it Dances With Wolves that kicked it off?

Socially active things were maybe at a lull at the time, in terms of publicity, but the work had certainly continued. That’s also about when Native Americans were moving into the casino world; gaming and all of that was coming to the fore. That changed a lot of lives over the years, you know. But whether one was related to the other or not, I don’t know. I think westerns will always have this kind of life in that they become popular — one hits really well and so they green-light some other pictures in that genre for a while, and then another form takes over. The movie business is extremely cyclical, and the audiences’ appetites are as well. They like one thing for a while and then they move on to something else. I don’t know that it’s really the genre’s fault.

Did you watch westerns as a kid?

I watched TV westerns, yeah. I didn’t go to a lot of movies. I didn’t live in an area where movie houses were prevalent. The best memory I have of westerns is that Jay Silverheels [who played Tonto on The Lone Ranger TV show] was an identifiable-looking guy that you could look at onscreen and say, “Yeah, he really looks like us, and there he is. Wow. So, it can be done.” But then you’d go to the movies, or a movie would be shown on television, and it’d have a character like Chuck Connors playing Geronimo, and you’d feel like there was something wrong here. As well as some of the other guys that played speaking roles for Native American characters in some of the westerns. Tony Curtis, right? You’d look at these guys…I remember feeling a little sick. Not nauseous, but…“no, that doesn’t feel right,” you know? It always seemed to me like kind of a put-down of us, in a way. Almost pushing us off into kind of a second-class citizenship. “Citizenship.” [Laughs] But that kind of feeling…uncomfortable.

You were active in AIM and other groups in the Seventies, and you’ve continued your activism over the years. When did you start becoming politically active?

I think the seeds were planted in my brain probably in Vietnam. I was there because I wanted to see what warfare was all about. “How will I experience armed conflict?” So, I wound up in Vietnam. And I met a lot of Vietnamese who worked with us as scouts and whatever, and they would look at me and say, “You same same Vietnamese. You same same Vietnamese.” And at first it kind of took me aback, but then I thought, “Yeah, we are kind of the same same Vietnamese, aren’t we?” “You same same Indian.” And I began to think of what in the world was it we were doing there. Because there was a lot of political unrest back here in the States at the time, and a lot of black activist soldiers who were there were being imprisoned for protesting the assassination of Martin Luther King at that time. They said, “No, we’re not going to serve a country that has killed us in our own country.” And a lot of them were being put in jail over there in Vietnam.

So there was a lot of social unrest there, and then I came home to even more so here. And the seeds were planted. Then, because of the GI Bill, I was able to get into college, and there I learned more about our history, and the history of our dealings with the U.S. government, with Britain, with everybody around the world, even the Spanish. This was also a time of activism in terms of the National Indian Youth Council, the fishing rights protest, and everything that happened up in the Northwest and then Alcatraz. So the activism had already started before I got back. And of course it happened in the universities and colleges; it was a student-led revolution of sorts. That’s where I came to an understanding of the need to pursue the concept of sovereignty on our part.

I read an interview with you once where you talked about how in Vietnam, when your company had to clear a village, they gave you and the other Native American soldiers the day off.

Yeah, they didn’t take us on that mission. Essentially, what they’d do is they’d take one of those larger Huey helicopters and drop a net down, and tell the villagers to put all of their belongings into the net, and then after they loaded it up, the helicopter would pull that net up and take their stuff and move them to another area someplace. It was a relocation. And I could be wrong…I could be totally wrong…I may be giving the Army more credit than is due when I say that maybe they were thinking, “Well, you know, because of the past history of these two American Indian guys here in our company, maybe we don’t want to take them on that mission.” But I don’t know if that’s a reality or not.

I want to ask about The Last of the Mohicans. Your portrayal of Magua is one of the greatest performances I’ve ever seen. It’s rare that a villain is so compelling; for much of the film, despite the awful things he does, we’re almost on his side. Or at least we understand where he’s coming from. Was that something you had to work on? Was he always written that way? Because in the book it’s not really like that.

No, no, no. Michael [Mann] and I believe Christopher Crowe, the screenwriter, they had the idea of creating this character of Magua in a more developed way to begin with, and as time went on they did a lot of rewrites. Magua himself grew during the shooting of it all, but the main idea was already there. But what was really wonderful about the whole thing was that we got to know Magua in terms of his inner thinking. He had a plan. He had things that he was going to do: “This is the way for us to survive.” And he clearly expounds upon that. Up until then, it’s always been a question of simple survival for most Native American characters. A matter of survival and/or being victimized by something that they’re dealing with. This time, this guy got to say that this is what we should be doing, and this is the right thing for us to do and move ahead. “We are an expansionist people as well,” you know? “We can do all of this.” And I credit Michael and Crowe for that. They stepped out there. They took a chance.

It’s true of a lot of parts that you’ve played. Even when you’re playing a character who is at least adversarial to the protagonist, so very often the things you’re saying are correct. I think of a film like The New World where you’re the guy saying, you know, “Don’t trust this white man. He and everything he stands for will completely ruin our way of life.” And you’re totally right.

Right. Well, Magua and both [The New World’s] Opechancanough could be seen as villains, I suppose, in the traditional outlook, but I myself don’t see them that way. I certainly don’t play them as such. I’m certainly not a “muahahaha” kind of a villain. I play the guys as doing what they do for the right reasons, because they believe that this is what they need to do. As far as I’m concerned, I’m playing the good guy.