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Life was different for Lily Gladstone in the summer of 2020. She had built up a small but impressive résumé in independent films, including two by Kelly Reichardt, “Certain Women” and “First Cow.” But the pandemic had shut down the industry, and she was worried about sustaining an acting career. Gladstone, who calls herself a “bee nerd,” looked into applying for a seasonal job with the Department of Agriculture, tracking murder hornets. Then she got an invitation to meet Martin Scorsese over Zoom. He was making a film based on David Grann’s book “Killers of the Flower Moon,” about a series of mysterious deaths in Oklahoma in the nineteen-twenties, when the Osage Nation was flush with oil money. Her performance in the film didn’t just boost her career—it has now earned her an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress, the first for a Native American woman.
The role of Mollie Kyle, who lived from 1886 to 1937, is a tricky one. She married Ernest Burkhart (played by Leonardo DiCaprio), a white man who conspired with his uncle William Hale (Robert De Niro) to knock off Mollie’s relatives in order to inherit her family’s headrights. In the film, Mollie suspects from the start that Ernest is after her money—“Coyote wants money,” she teases him—but she doesn’t divorce him until after his crimes are exposed in court. Playing her scenes with DiCaprio, one of the brightest stars in Hollywood, Gladstone adopts a Mona Lisa smile; ambiguity is central to her mesmerizing performance, and much of it comes across without words. And yet she resists the trope of the stoic, suffering Native heroine. She’s by turns flirtatious, shrewd, agonized, ailing, and clear-eyed. Anthony Lane, in his New Yorker review, called her “unmistakably the most compelling presence in the movie.”
Gladstone, who is thirty-seven, was raised on the Blackfeet Reservation, in Montana, the daughter of a white mother and a father of Blackfeet and Nez Perce ancestry. No acting career is a sure bet, but Hollywood’s treatment of Native characters and performers has historically been worse than neglectful—it’s been vilifying and insulting. The Oscars, in their nine-and-a-half-decade history, haven’t done much better. In 1973, Sacheen Littlefeather was booed when she took the stage to criticize the industry’s representation of Native Americans, at the behest of Marlon Brando. A handful of Indigenous nominees have shown up in the acting categories—most recently, the Native Mexican actress Yalitza Aparicio (“Roma”)—but Gladstone walks a mostly untrodden path, and she does it with composure and conviction. When we spoke recently, she was in Washington, D.C., for a screening of “Killers” at the National Museum of the American Indian, along with the Osage musician Scott George, who is nominated for his original song “Wahzhazhe (A Song for My People).” “There are a couple historic nominations this year, and I’m so happy that there’s an Osage making history, too,” she said. We spoke about her own historic nomination, her passion for language revitalization, and how to curse in Blackfoot. Our conversation has been edited and condensed.
You’re in the heat of Oscar season. What’s life like right now?
It’s a lot of nice hotels and a very rapid-paced schedule. It’s really lovely, the reach that this film is having. It’s been a lot of travel, a lot of meeting new people.
Awards season is this huge machine. As someone who’s been catapulted into it, have you had moments that have felt particularly surreal or fun or stressful?
It does get to a point where you get a little overwhelmed by all of the celebrity, and then pretty soon it’s just people, you know? Probably the most surreal moment was when I was at the National Board of Review awards. Patti Smith made the introduction for my award, and I was sitting between her and Daniel Day-Lewis. And then the next day I was at the A.F.I. luncheon, in L.A., sitting between Tim Cook and Leo DiCaprio, and I was telling Tim, “Why is it that today feels a little bit more grounded and familiar than yesterday?” When Tim Cook and Leo DiCaprio become “Oh, hey, guys!”—it’s a strange place to be.
The people you’ve collaborated with on this movie are, of course, old hands at this kind of thing. Leo, Marty, Bob—not that I have any reason to call them by those names. Have they given you any sort of advice on what to expect?
What I really appreciate is: there’s not this protective, patriarchal “Let me give you advice, kid” sort of thing. Anytime Leo’s done it, it’s been completely self-aware and joking. He’s kind of a goofball and a wise-ass. They lead by example. That’s been the most grounding thing, because I’ve been able to be in proximity to people who are so used to it. And meeting other people I’m just so excited by—how quickly America Ferrera took to me. I’m a huge fan of Emma Stone, and she’s been lovely, and all of these people that are now in a peer group, I guess. You just get the sense that it’s not as big or scary as you need to make it. It’s just about human connection in the end.
At the same time that you’re dressing up and going to award shows, you’re also carrying the banner of a historic nomination. The Oscars have had an extremely spotty record with honoring Indigenous people, and you’re the first Native American woman in the Best Actress category. How has that been sitting with you?
I keep saying it’s overdue. We’re in the ninety-sixth year of the Academy Awards, and we’re on Native American land. Natives are natural storytellers. A big part of our understanding of ourselves, since time immemorial, is our stories. So it’s just odd that, in the United States, it’s taken almost a hundred years for a Native American to reach this milestone in a major acting category. We’ve had Indigenous representation. We’ve had Yalitza Aparicio, Graham Greene [“Dances with Wolves”] in supporting, Chief Dan George [“Little Big Man”] in supporting. We’ve had global Indigenous recognition. But, like you said, it’s sprinkled.
I’m friends with Sterlin Harjo, the co-creator of “Reservation Dogs.” We’re both in the circuit right now, and we happened to find ourselves in the same hotel the week before last. He put it really well. He said, “We’re in a position where we’re kicking the door in. When you kick the door in, you should just put your foot in the door and stand there.” Kicking the door in and running through it means it’s going to shut behind you. While I’m the first specifically Native American Indigenous woman, I stand on the shoulders of a lot of performers. It’s all circumstantial that I have this moniker of the first, and I’m certainly not going to be the last. If I’ve kicked the door in, I’m just trying to stand here and leave it open for everybody else.
As a student of Oscar history, I know that it’s been a mixed experience for people who have been the firsts in their categories. Sidney Poitier was the first Black man to win Best Actor, in 1964, and when he was being honored at the mayor’s office, in New York City, reporters kept asking him about civil rights. He finally snapped—he was not a person who generally snapped—and said, “Why is it everything you guys ask refers to the Negroness of my life and not my acting?” I’m curious if you’ve felt that tension of being out here as an actor, but also as the face of a community. And, in addition to that, you’re playing an Osage woman, so it’s not even quite your community.
That’s something that I try to highlight first. There’s just the roadblock that a lot of Natives have in representation, that people don’t even think we’re still here. There’s some empirical data out there, some surveys—in one study I was reading, forty per cent of people didn’t think that Native Americans still existed. The perception of who we are, which has largely been shaped by Hollywood—it’s very narrow. There’s an assumption that we just disappeared.
There’s an incredible diversity in Indian country. I’m not Osage, but as a Native actor I’ve played a lot of roles now that required that I speak another Indigenous language. And I’m by no means even fluent in Blackfoot! I can introduce myself. I have a few words and phrases. I know some of the bad words.
Can you please curse in Blackfoot right now?
I’m just gonna drop this for my Blackfeet folks, but I’m not going to say what it means. Siksimiisii was one of the worst and funniest things you could say about somebody. It’s a fairly PG thing, but it’s my favorite word in our language. Good luck trying to phonetically transcribe it!
Another film that I did last year was “Fancy Dance,” which premièred at Sundance. Isabel Deroy-Olson, the actress who plays my niece, and I were playing Seneca-Cayuga, and our director and co-writer, Erica Tremblay, is Seneca-Cayuga. Erica was going through a three-year-long language-revitalization program and wanted to make a film where she saw modern characters speaking Cayuga. So, when Isabel and I were at this talkback, a woman very sweetly asked if it felt good for us to be able to speak in our native language. And Isabel and I looked at each other. Neither of us is Seneca-Cayuga! It was really difficult for us to pick up the language, and to get to the point where we could act in it as well. Tribal languages are incredibly different from each other. The perception that we all speak one Native American language is very commonly held. Most of us are not fluent even in our own languages.
That’s an aspect of Native performance that I think a lot of people take for granted. We celebrate other actors for picking up European languages for a role and sounding proficient, but for some reason that same awe and credit are often dismissed for Native actors, because people assume, “Oh, you all speak that.”
In your Golden Globes speech, you talked about how your mother had advocated for your school to teach Blackfoot when you were growing up. Can you tell me a little bit about that?
It was in second grade, when [the educator] Edward North Peigan came into our classroom. I didn’t really know what my mom was up to. I just knew that she was doing everything she could to help in community-building, and she had a degree in early-childhood education. She remembers having to find the funding to pay for a language teacher to come in. The school was fairly mixed—majority Blackfeet students, but a lot of non-Blackfeet students—so there was a little bit of pushback. And my mom was saying, “Well, we’re on Blackfeet land, and most of your students are Blackfeet, and it’s important for brain development, it’s important for sense of self, it’s important for connection to community.” I’m so grateful to her. My dad would come into the classroom and record when Edward was speaking so that we would have an archive of some of our language. But I just remember sitting there and learning how to count, learning how to introduce ourselves.
As you were growing up on the Blackfeet Reservation, what sort of art or culture called out to you?
I’ve said it a lot now: “Return of the Jedi” and my love of Ewoks gave me the early spark to want to be an actor. Missoula Children’s Theatre is a touring company, and they take plays to schools all across the country, especially in smaller rural areas. They’re in residence for a week and do a big play for the community. So I loved that. But I also remember when Edward and his wife, Wilma, were coming to school and teaching language. Every year, you put on your little school play, and I think a lot of people were pushing for a Nativity play. And the pushback was, “Well, while we have this grant to have Edward and Wilma in our schools, maybe we ought to do a different story.”
So we staged a trickster story—our trickster figure. He’s also a creator of our world. A lot of these stories, they’re fun for kids, but they’re also teaching you these sacred world-building lessons. There was an element of the story where the trickster is being chased by this giant rock rolling down a hill, and all of these nighthawks come in to try to save him, and they break apart this big, rolling boulder by throwing their feces. So I remember being one of these little nighthawks, just pummelling one of my classmates dressed as a rock with these little balled-up pieces of paper, and how fun that was for all the kids—and how triggering it was for a lot of the more conservative families, the non-Blackfeet folks! Our stories don’t move the same way Western stories do. They don’t have the same lessons. That was a really foundational experience in early childhood, as far as performance goes.
Your high-school yearbook has made the rounds online, so I know that you were voted Most Likely to Win an Oscar.
It’s really sweet. My graduating class, and a lot of people that were in the same drama program—they’re reuniting to watch the Oscars in our old high-school theatre. And then Josh Ryder, who’s the other [classmate] that was voted Most Likely to Win an Oscar—he’s still a brilliant actor. He’s a restaurateur now. Anybody in Seattle, go check out Betty Restaurant & Bar, on Queen Anne. It’s the best.
Little shoutout to Betty. I was really more involved in my sophomore and junior years. My senior year—this is silly—I wanted to do more complex work than high school would allow for. So I jumped over to the community college, where my mom was teaching. But, growing up back home, after Missoula Children’s Theatre shows, people would tell my parents that when they saw me, like, in full costume playing one of Cinderella’s ugly stepsisters, they didn’t recognize me. I disappeared into character. My identity at home and then in high school became synonymous with acting.
Then you studied acting and directing at the University of Montana. When you got out, what was your early career like? What kind of roles were you auditioning for, what were you getting, and what kind of day jobs were you doing for survival?
My dad gave me a little piece of knowledge that, until recently, I thought was a Blackfeet saying: “Prey runs to the hunter.” Turns out it comes from Carl Sagan! [In “Intelligent Life in the Universe,” Sagan credits the line to the Soviet astronomer Iosif Samuilovich Shklovskii.] Which is really cool, too. But my career has kind of been shaped that way. I graduated already cast into a touring theatre production with Montana Repertory Theatre, which is a company attached to the University of Montana actor-training program. So I went out for a year with “To Kill a Mockingbird” and played Mrs. Dubose, the ninety-year-old morphine addict.
Then I had a costume transition in the intermission and played a lady in the court. I also doubled as crew, so it gave me a holistic sense of what it is to bring a production together. After that, I decided to stay in Montana instead of going to L.A. or New York. My scene work in class was always praised, but I also got a little bit disillusioned with the whole casting process. If I had gone to L.A. or New York and done the classic [route]—audition endlessly, get an agent—just thinking about it was starting to kill my passion for it. So I stayed in Montana, where I had built some connections with local filmmakers. In between the theatre tours, I auditioned for a one-woman show that toured schools.
Oh, I read about this. And you were acting against a prerecorded track in school auditoriums?
Yeah. It’s a Seattle-based company called Living Voices, and I was performing a show that was teaching about the Native American boarding-school experience, with historical documents projected behind you on the screen and prerecorded voices from other actors that etch out this period in history. You act as a person who’s living through it for about twenty minutes—something that fits into a classroom period with enough time for a question-and-answer period. The character I played was a boarding-school survivor who had gone through the Ganado Mission hospital, trained to become a nurse in the Second World War, and then was in a letter correspondence with her clan brother, who had become a Navajo code talker. So I was teaching a little bit about that history as well, about the Native veteran experience.
It’s a heavy story to carry alone. I did that for as many years as I could but got burned out on it. You have to do so much 101 before you even start the show, contextualizing that there are five hundred and seventy-four different tribal nations in the United States, and we all come from different backgrounds, and we have a lot of different languages, and, yes, we’re still here, and, no, we don’t still live in tepees.
Right, and then there’s a sophomore sleeping in the first row. Teens are a tough audience.
Teens are the toughest audience. It was really rewarding but incredibly exhausting work, as any teacher will attest. So that job kept me going, between cashiering at Staples and then every once in a while having an independent film. I’ve always felt that acting and activism can go hand in hand. I find curriculum development fascinating, and doing that show kind of gave me a chance to figure out very succinct ways to deliver to very mixed young audiences. How do you impart enough to give them some curiosity? To break some stereotypes? To expand the lens?
Before I got cast in the Montana Repertory touring show, I was consulting with an old professor about maybe doing a Ph.D., developing performance-based pedagogy for language revitalization. My primary language teacher on “Killers of the Flower Moon,” Chris Côté—this is his life. He’s a language revitalizationist. He and I would have conversations about how I was excited to test out some of my early theories that performance is a really valuable tool for language revitalization. The first [Blackfoot] language-immersion school, Niitsiipoowahsiin, or Cuts Wood School, was established in the model of the Kamehameha schools, the immersion schools in Hawaii. And one thing that I’ve heard is that these programs were very successful at graduating fluent speakers at the middle-school level, but then the retention rate was fairly low. Having come out of a performance background, I was noticing how being physiologically based sounded like a lot of the practices of total physical response that you hear about in language immersion. When you’re learning the words “to sit,” you’re sitting down. You’re getting the concept in your body, in your movement. I felt like that was a key, maybe, to the next step of what could help with language retention, if you can express emotion in your language.
My great-grandma Lily, the one that I’m named after, was a fluent speaker. She and her family relocated from our rez to Seattle in, I believe, the nineteen-thirties, like a lot of Natives who got relocated to urban locations during that period. I remember my dad saying that other Blackfeet would come over to Grandma Lily’s house because they’re, like, “Oh, that old lady speaks Blackfoot! Let’s go visit with her!” People would talk about how good it felt physically to speak the language. Your whole world view and sense of self are based in language.
You’ve talked about how many Native languages don’t have gendered pronouns, and how that has shaped your own sense of gender. Can you talk a little more about that?
Blackfoot has gendered verbs, which is an interesting concept. There are definitely gendered roles in our communities, but gender is not a prescriptive sort of thing. Our gender is implied in our name. So my name, Piitaakii, means Eagle Woman. And the aki part is what makes it feminized. But a lot of those things aren’t exclusive. One of our heroes in Blackfeet history, Piitamakaan, means Running Eagle, which is a man’s name, but it was held by a woman because she was a really good warrior. And the verbs that she would have used, the things that men do, are gendered, but gender is not really a binary in that way. So when you think about the pronoun usage, when you’re talking about people, it’s just “this person,” “this one,” “that one.” The easiest reach in English would be “they.” It’s different for every tribe. I mean, Navajo Nation has multiple words for multiple genders. So does Crow Nation, I’ve heard.
You’ve said that using “she”/“they” pronouns is “a way of decolonizing gender” for yourself. I’m curious how that has played out in your acting life. For instance, your breakout role was in the wonderful Kelly Reichardt film “Certain Women,” from 2016, in which you play a pretty butch ranch hand in Montana who more or less falls in love with the character played by Kristen Stewart.
That’s a great example. That character comes from a Maile Meloy short story. But the character originally in the story, “Travis, B.,” was a man. You can still feel it in there. I think a lot of queer people who watch it have picked up on that. So transitioning that character from explicitly male changed the whole tone. It became more ambiguous as to what was really going on there. That’s the realm that Kelly likes making films in: things not so explicitly stated.
So there was just a part of me that felt like I understood who that character was, the way that Maile had drawn him. Maybe the rancher is not self-aware enough to know what their gender identity is, what their sexual orientation is. In the original short story, there was a line: “He got afraid of himself that winter.” The character was a polio survivor and had a displaced relationship with his own body. His spirit felt bigger than what his body was allowing him to do, with his shrunken leg. And he had this streak where he would ride a little more dangerously than he should and had a lot of broken bones. So there was some self-destructiveness there.
That’s fascinating, because none of that is explicitly said in the movie, but it clearly was influential for you in building the character.
I want to move on to “Killers of the Flower Moon,” based on the book by my colleague David Grann. When you were figuring out how to play Mollie, a real person who made real choices and lived through very extreme circumstances, what was most familiar about her and what was most enigmatic or obscure?
In reading the book, I got a sense of the kind of person that I would recognize from my grandma’s side of the family, my Nez Perce side. I have nothing but aunties on my Nez Perce side. What was really exciting was the idea of breaking some stereotypes as well, in her relationship with her sisters. The relationship that Native women have with each other, especially our families—we love being together. We love joking. We love gossiping and teasing. I could really see that with my grandma’s sisters: being very proper, still, but just giggling about everything. That’s not the Native woman that you’re used to seeing in cinema. You’re used to seeing [someone] more stoic, kind of mean. Well, it’s because there are outsiders around! People are a little bit more guarded.
Like I said, I didn’t want to overextend my own cultural understanding into Mollie as an Osage woman, but it was a basis. When I sat down with Margie Burkhart, Mollie’s granddaughter, I could see maybe how Grann was able to sketch Mollie, the way that he drew her personality. There was a lot of both her and my other language teacher, Janis Carpenter. Those two women most influenced Mollie.
Mollie has a very strange and conflicted relationship with her husband, Ernest. I want to zero in on my favorite scene in the film, a scene that’s up there with the all-time great Martin Scorsese scenes, which is their first date, when she invites him to dinner at her house. They’re flirting, they’re smoking, and she calls him out as a “coyote” and says, “Coyote wants money.” And then she offers him whiskey. She’s trying to figure this guy out, and in a way she has, but in a way she hasn’t.
Right. And at that point people were starting to pass away, and it was a really difficult transitional time for Osage. Mollie and her sisters were boarding-school survivors as well, so there’s a whole lot of contextualized history behind that. A lot of that also came from Charles H. Red Corn’s book, “A Pipe for February.” It’s a novel about the Osage Reign of Terror from an Osage perspective. As people are dying, the rise in paranoia was slow. It wasn’t immediately obvious that people were being poisoned to death. You see these new folks coming in—“Oh, these guys are new!”—and there’s a flirtation. There’s an exoticism that’s happening on both sides.
What do you think she sees in Ernest?
It’s a dynamic that I’m very used to seeing, even in my own family. This fun-loving, larger-than-life, inappropriate, sometimes goofy cowboy of a guy, and this very self-possessed, humble, acting-on-protocol Native woman. He just lives to make her laugh. That scene underwent a couple of different changes. It’s not going to be explicitly clear to the audience when Mollie calls him sho-me-kah-see—coyote—she’s not just calling him the animal. She’s calling him a trickster. One of the trickster figures in oral tradition with Osage is Coyote. He’s always tripping over his own feet, acting in self-interest, and he never really wins. He’ll screw up everything for everybody in the story in a very funny way, especially when you’re telling it to kids.
When I was learning these stories, a lot of them reminded me of our Blackfeet trickster stories. So I had a new understanding of the whole movie at that point, when my language teacher Chris kept sharing these coyote stories. He would tell them to me in the Osage language first, and then translate them into English, which helped me see how Osage is a very animated, fun language to speak. It’s highly expressive, which also started shattering some of these stereotypes about playing stoic Indians. It had a huge hand in shaping how I understood Mollie, and the humor that she would have. I found her in the language so much.
So how did that scene change?
Well, when Chris was telling me these trickster stories, I kept hearing analogies for the whole film. And Marty and I, when we hear somebody call this film a Western, we kind of look at each other, like, Ugh. Marty’s pretty resistant to calling this film a Western. To me, the genre of the film is a trickster story. When Chris kept telling me these stories, I took that idea to Marty and Leo. It suddenly gave Mollie a big blind spot for Ernest to hide in. If she was raised hearing these trickster stories as a kid, they change on you throughout your life. You hear them when you’re young, and they’re funny. And then, when you get older, you start learning the lessons that are hidden in the story. So that’s kind of Mollie from beginning to end. She enjoyed his humor, she enjoyed his nature, and she felt like she understood it—she had the upper hand.
There was a mutual benefit there, too. The first time we meet Mollie, she’s asking for her own money from her guardian, Pitts Beaty, because she’s an “incompetent” Osage. If you were married to a white person, that spouse could be your guardian. You would just tell your husband or wife that you needed something for the house, and they would cut the check. So I think Mollie, in that way, is being calculated. She was vetting him, and she found that he would be a fun-loving guy. She’s, like, O.K., this one’s easy to handle. I can deal with that.
Some of the movies that “Killers” called to mind for me are not Westerns but domestic dramas like “Gaslight” or “Suspicion,” stories of women who are married to men who they slowly realize are terrorizing them. And of course that gets more acute as the film goes on, and Mollie is starting to realize that he’s not only responsible for the deaths of her family members but is actively poisoning her through her insulin. You start to wonder, How much is she seeing through him when he’s lying to her face? How much is she deluding herself? Was that the question for you?
Well, what you suspect in your subconscious mind you’ve been conditioned to dismiss. He’s so good with the kids, and he just doesn’t seem capable of it, even if the seeds of doubt are there. [She’s] nowhere near imagining that he was orchestrating blowing up [Mollie’s sister] Rita’s house. The family didn’t put that one together or accept that fully until years after. [Molly and Ernest’s son] Cowboy maintained a relationship with his dad when he came back from prison. He even gave him the nickname Old Dynamite. Eventually, that relationship kind of got broken.
But one of the biggest clues for me, during that period when Mollie’s getting the insulin, is that the family has surmised she was also getting a combination of arsenic and morphine. Having played a morphine addict in my first play, and doing the research about that—the chemical dependency, the immediate relief—that was a clue to me. It screws with your grasp on reality. While her subconscious and conscious minds are dancing with each other, while her body is being eroded by arsenic but also healed by insulin, and she’s addicted to the whole process, the only thing that she sees consistently is Ernest, who’s bringing her this relief. It was people in my life who are recovering addicts, who are leaving toxic, abusive, codependent relationships, be it with people or with substances—that gave me some compassion for what Mollie wasn’t seeing. What she was incapable of seeing. And, even if she was seeing and suspecting it, incapable of leaving.
You’ve just had a new project announced: “The Memory Police,” directed by Reed Morano and written by Charlie Kaufman, based on the sci-fi novel by Yoko Ogawa. What drew you to this project?
Since I’ve developed my own taste in film, Charlie Kaufman has been my favorite screenwriter. “Adaptation” was the first acting master class that I put myself through. I’ve seen that film, oh, more than twenty times. A lot of people who love the novel are very curious what the adaptation is going to be, and it’s remarkable, I can tell you. It’s the kind of space I really love playing in. There was a substantial period of my life when I was working with friends and creating theatre pieces that delved into themes of subconscious and memory, all of the things that are present in this incredible book. It’s [set on] a nondescript island in a nondescript world, with the device that people’s memories are being hijacked and erased by an authoritarian, fascist government run by what’s called the Memory Police. And within it there are themes that are going to be recognized worldwide. I’ve spent so much of our time talking about language revitalization. There was this systemic effort to erase the collective memory of our very language. Yoko Ogawa wrote a book that speaks globally to people who have suffered under the foot of authoritarianism, and it’s told in a sci-fi world that’s going to be accessible. When we got sent it, it was, like, Yep, this is it. This is what we’ve been waiting for. ♦