Last year, Wes Studi received an honorary Academy Award for a distinguished film career, highlighted by iconic performances in The Last of the Mohicans (1992), Geronimo: An American Legend (1993), and The Only Good Indian (2009). But 30 years ago, he was the 28th billed cast member in Dances With Wolves, playing a character identified only as “Toughest Pawnee.” It was only his second film, and when he finished shooting he returned to his regular job, selling jewelry at an Indian store in Reseda, California. After the film opened, he wouldn’t have to work there much longer.
We caught up with Studi for a quick chat about the film that, in his words, first put him on the radar of casting directors and other filmmakers.
Cowboys & Indians: Does it seem like 30 years ago?
Wes Studi: Seems like more. It’s been a while, man! [Laughs.]
C&I: How did you get the part?
Studi: It was quite a process. When they started casting, I went in for an audition and a callback, but I did not know if I had the part for at least a month after that. And then I finally got word that I had it.
C&I: Shooting a film on such an epic scale must have been quite a change from your first film, Powwow Highway (1989).
Studi: It was a big deal — but actually Dances With Wolves was also an independent film, though it had some studio backing, and in terms of budget there was a difference from Powwow Highway. But for me it was just a great opportunity to be in a big film. It was also great to meet a lot of other Indian actors that were involved, many of whom I still work with from time to time. That’s where I met Tantoo Cardinal for the first time, and our careers have continued to touch base on different projects.
C&I: What was it like having Kevin Costner as a director?
Studi: It was a good experience. He was always very congenial and professional. He knew what he wanted to get, and he shot until he got it.
C&I: How did you approach the role of Toughest Pawnee?
Studi: Oh, I never play a villain. The purpose of the Pawnee in the film was to provide the threat, both to the Army and to the Sioux. But [Toughest Pawnee] was in the right as far as he was concerned. And that’s how I approached the role. He was in a desperate situation and doing what he thought was best. So as far as I was concerned, he was a good guy.
C&I: You spoke Cherokee as a young man — did that help at all with learning the language you spoke in the film?
Studi: I think it was very much like a French guy trying to learn Russian. The languages are extremely different. They had no relation to one another except that they’re not English. We learned our dialogue from tapes — and then more or less we had to invent our own intonations and what we thought were the right key words to hit.
C&I: What were your expectations for the film? Were you surprised at its reception from critics and audiences?
Studi: There was a theater right across the street from the store where I was working in Reseda. It was showing the film, and at the time it opened it wasn’t a huge success — at first people didn’t flock to see it. But within a week or two the lines around the theater began to multiply, and after a while they were turning people away. It blossomed through word of mouth and the press that it got. It was a slow build, but it was a terrific build to say the least.
C&I: There was talk of a Dances With Wolves sequel for years after the film came out. Are you sorry now they didn’t do it, or was it best to leave well enough alone?
Studi: I leave those decisions to the gods of filmmaking.
C&I: Either way, we knew your character wasn’t coming back.
Studi: Right. It wouldn’t have mattered to me! [Laughs.]
Photography: Image courtesy Orion/Ben Glass
From our July 2020 issue.