We talk to the Native actor about dealing with the undead twice over and his role as Sitting Bull in Woman Walks Ahead.
Last year, the Canadian Plains Cree actor did his first bit of derring-do in response to a zombie apocalypse during his attention-grabbing multi-episode arc as the formidable Qaletaqa Walker on Fear the Walking Dead. This year, as we discovered when we caught up with him to talk about his remarkable performance as Sitting Bull in the forthcoming film Woman Walks Ahead, Michael Greyeyes has continued fighting the good fight on a different front in the independently produced feature Blood Quantum.
In the movie, Greyeyes explains during a day off from filming near Montreal, “I’m playing the sheriff in a fictional reserve community called Red Crow. It’s 1982 — and it’s the zombie apocalypse.” But this particular apocalypse scenario has a major twist. “Native people are immune. So, as the sheriff, I’m holding back the horde of white zombies to protect the community. It’s actually a very astute political commentary, really, on colonialism and the rapacious nature of colonialism. It’s funny, it’s scary, it’s exciting — and it also is quite politically astute.”
As much fun as zombie hunting may be, it’s obvious from his alternating tones of full-tilt enthusiasm and unabashed reverence that Greyeyes places a greater premium on portraying Sitting Bull in Woman Walks Ahead. “For me as an actor, it was a huge challenge, the most difficult role I’ve ever played,” he says. “I’ve worked in this industry for a long time, and I’d never before seen a mainstream Hollywood production provide this layer of sophistication to a Native character, especially a historical character.
“The way I describe it to people is: Sometimes when you get a character — and certainly not just Native characters, but any character — maybe they play within an octave, or two octaves. But with [Steven Knight’s] script and what he did with Sitting Bull, it was like asking me to play all the 88 keys on the piano. I’ve never seen as expansive a portrait of an Indigenous character on film as what I was able to see with Sitting Bull.”
Slated for a June 29 North American theatrical release, Woman Walks Ahead is a fact-based drama that pivots on the real-life relationship between Swiss-born, New York-bred artist Catherine Weldon (played by Oscar nominee Jessica Chastain) and Lakota chief Sitting Bull. In the 1880s, Weldon travels to the Dakota Territory to paint Sitting Bull’s portrait, only to become involved in a treaty dispute that threatens to take away the Lakota tribe’s land. These two strong-willed and wildly dissimilar individuals become allies — but not before each learns much about the other’s culture and assumptions.
“In a sense,” Greyeyes says, “we see Sitting Bull here at a point of crisis in his life. He’s just been released from a federal penitentiary for his role at the Battle of the Little Bighorn. He’s being watched closely by the Indian agents and the military. He’s a dangerous person. In a way, he is very clearly an enemy of the state. And he’s been out east. He understands that there’s an economic and military complex already building in the nation that has one purpose, to take the land. If it means that they’ll wipe us out completely, they won’t hesitate.”
Sitting Bull “realizes the danger of a resistance and fighting to the very end,” Greyeyes says. “He’s caught, in a way, as I imagine the real human being was. It’s like, Well, what choices can I make? What choices are best for my community? What choices are best for my children, and my family? I think Steven’s script allows me to highlight aspects of this historic character that we’ve never seen — his humor, a certain kind of pathos, his uncertainty. We only see leaders through their heroic action. But what we don’t see in history books is their contemplation, their worry, and maybe their own indecision.”
A native of Saskatchewan, Canada, Greyeyes initially distinguished himself as an artist with his gift for dancing. After graduating from Canada’s National Ballet School and apprenticing with The National Ballet of Canada, he moved to New York in 1990 to join the company of celebrated choreographer Eliot Feld. Over the next few years, he performed in such signature Feld works as Intermezzo and The Jig Is Up and performed in roles created especially for him in, among other Feld ballets, Bloom’s Wake and Common Ground. (The New York Times dance critic Anna Kisselgoff singled him out for special praise in her review of the latter.)
“Eliot was a great mentor, a great teacher to me,” Greyeyes says. “His approach to dance was really about storytelling and a narrative. It wasn’t necessarily always about the technique or the images that were being created. He was often working from character.”
After developing stress fractures in his leg, Greyeyes redirected his focus to choreography — and, thanks in part to an Oscar-winning epic western directed by Kevin Costner, acting.
“When I saw Dances With Wolves,” he says, “it was a game-changer for me. We often talk now, very pointedly, about how you see yourself reflected in the screen. Well, for me, that was my moment where I said, ‘Oh my God! That’s actually something I can do.’ Then it was two years later that The Last of the Mohicans came out. Those are legendary films, beautiful projects. And they were inspiring.”
“I was walking home from the dance studio with my girlfriend at the time [Nancy Latoszewski], who is my wife now. I turned to her and I said, ‘I think I’m going to leave the company next year, and I’m going to become an actor.’ She didn’t even blink. She said, ‘That’s great. That’s great.’”
So Greyeyes returned to Toronto, got an agent, started making the rounds of auditions — and in 1993, landed the role of Juh in the made-for-cable movie Geronimo. As he added to his résumé with credits in TV series (including Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman and Walker, Texas Ranger), television movies (he played the title role in 1996’s Crazy Horse), and feature films (Smoke Signals and The New World, among others), “I was learning on the job,” Greyeyes says. “I was getting a great deal of experience by being in film, and I think I’m a good student.” (He’ll soon be doing postgraduate work of a sort by costarring in HBO’s True Detective Season 3.)
Greyeyes’ standout work did not go unnoticed. Early in the preproduction process, Susanna White, director of Woman Walks Ahead, narrowed her search for an actor to cast as the iconic Lakota chief. “I was circling Michael for a while,” she said at the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival. “I knew there were very few people in the world who could have played Sitting Bull. And Michael was the man. So I was keeping a firm watch on him. I didn’t want him to get away.”
Truth to tell, Greyeyes readily admits, he did not need much convincing to sign on for the project. Although he remains extremely busy multitasking when not appearing on-screen — he is the founder and artistic director of the Canada-based Signal Theatre Company and a tenured professor at York University in Toronto — he views Sitting Bull as “the role of a lifetime, really.” And Greyeyes is especially proud of the defiant speech he gives as the Lakota chief near the end of Woman Walks Ahead.
“When he says, ‘We will give no more of our land away. Not even this much,’ he’s just standing there, defiant and angry and powerful. For me, I was so gratified that we could, again, show this side of him. He’s legendary, he was a charismatic leader, he was a leader in every sense of the word. He lived the truth that he spoke. For me, that was also my responsibility as a performer: just to summon my own charisma, my own sense of power, and play him as I know he must have been.”
From the July 2018 issue.
More from the July 2018 Issue