Years of stellar performances are paying off for the Canadian Plains Cree actor, with screen-commanding roles in the drama Wild Indian and the sitcom Rutherford Falls.
This is shaping up to be The Year of Michael Greyeyes.
Back in January the Canadian Plains Cree actor added another significant credit to an impressive résumé that already included Smoke Signals, The New World, Woman Walks Ahead, and HBO’s True Detective and I Know This Much is True: He took top billing in Lyle Mitchell Corbine Jr.’s Wild Indian, a contemporary drama that debuted at Sundance Film Festival and is slated for theatrical release this fall. Greyeyes earned rave reviews for his mesmerizing performance as Michael Peterson, a.k.a. Makwa, a Native American businessman determined to cover up, by any means necessary, a violent episode from his youth.
Since April, Greyeyes has been playing for laughs — and playing for keeps — as Terry Thomas, prominent member of the (fictional) Minishonka Nation, in Rutherford Falls, the critically acclaimed Peacock TV sitcom costarring Ed Helms and Jana Schmieding. As CEO of the Minishonka casino near the show’s titular town in upstate New York, Terry strikes a deft balance between his roles as hard-driving businessman and champion of his people. In both pursuits, he often finds himself at loggerheads with Nathan Rutherford (Helms), a proud descendant of the town’s founder, and eager to make an ally of Nathan’s longtime friend, Reagan Wells (Schmieding), a historically conscious Minishonka who’s eager to expand a cultural center that’s currently located in a small room of Terry’s casino.
Photography: courtesy Studio Seven Productions
In May, Greyeyes took home the Best Actor prize at the Canadian Screen Awards for his commanding portrayal of Traylor, the tribal sheriff who leads the fight for his people when their reservation is under siege during a zombie apocalypse in Jeff Barnaby’s boldly metaphorical Blood Quantum. (You could say this was his rematch against the undead, after his 2017 run as Qaletaqa Walker on TV’s Fear the Walking Dead.)
Sometime next year, the actor will be seen in a new film adaptation of Firestarter as Rainbird, a relentless manhunter played in a previous movie version of Stephen King’s novel by no less a luminary than George C. Scott.
The career high points keep coming for a guy who initially distinguished himself as an artist with a gift for dance. After graduating from Canada’s National Ballet School and working in the corps de dance with The National Ballet of Canada, he moved to New York in 1990 to join the company of celebrated choreographer Eliot Feld. But when he developed stress fractures in his leg, Greyeyes told C&I in 2018, he 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 on 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.”
Greyeyes won the best actor prize at the Canadian Screen Awards for 2020’s Blood Quantum.
Photography: courtesy Warrick Page/courtesy Warner Media
With the enthusiastic encouragement of Nancy — then his girlfriend, now his wife — he returned to Toronto, got an agent, and started making the rounds of auditions. “I was learning on the job,” Greyeyes recalls. “I was getting a great deal of experience by being in film, and I think I’m a good student.” One role led to another — he played his first movie lead in the 1996 made-for-cable film Crazy Horse — even as he continued to pursue parallel careers as stage director/choreographer and, at Toronto’s York University, educator.
The turning point, Greyeyes says, came after he auditioned for the role of Sitting Bull in Woman Walks Ahead. At the time, “I was up for the artistic directorship of the National Indigenous Theater in Canada. And I said to Nancy, ‘If I don’t get Woman Walks Ahead, I think I’m going to pursue the artistic directorship position.’ And she said, ‘Yeah, that’s a great idea.’ Of course, I got Woman Walks Ahead — and the rest is history, I guess.
“Something Nancy shared with me at the time really helped shape the last few years of my career. She was reading a book about very successful people, and one of the things it said was, ‘Do less. Obsess.’ And I was doing a lot of things. I was running a theater company. I was teaching, I was choreographing. I was directing and writing and performing. And I was tired, really exhausted, by that level of work.
“I don’t regret a moment of that, because it’s informed all my performances now. But after True Detective and Fear the Walking Dead, projects like that, I decided that I would step away from teaching and only pursue acting, because the work that I was seeing was getting really exciting. The kind of writing I was seeing was exciting me. And that was it. ‘Do less and obsess.’ And I’ve been drilling down completely into my work as an actor and a performer. Stepping away, even from my role as a theater director. And I think some of the success that I’m seeing is really due in part to that.”
We caught up with Michael Greyeyes while he was on location filming the forthcoming Firestarter. Here are some highlights from our conversation.
Cowboys & Indians: Even before the first episodes of Rutherford Falls were available on Peacock, it was generating must-see interest as being the first U.S. television series with so many Native Americans in the writers’ room. What was your initial response when you heard about this?
Michael Greyeyes: I actually was really surprised. Because, as you know, I’ve been in this industry for about 30 years. It is unusual to have a writers’ room that welcomes Indigenous voices. But in this case, half of the writers were Indigenous. So surprise of course was my first reaction. But to be quite honest, it’s one of the reasons why I wanted to do the show so badly.
I knew, based on simply the makeup of the writers’ room, that we’d have a multiplicity of voices. That our showrunner’s goal in dispelling the myths of sort of a monolithic Native culture could actually be executed, because we had Indigenous voices from all over Turtle Island. My experience as an NDN person, a Cree man, is really quite different than a Comanche’s. Which is really quite different than a Mohawk. Which is really quite different than Mi’kmaq and different than Haida. By having a multiplicity of voices, I knew that we’d actually be able to create a really full sense of community.
Greyeyes in Rutherford Falls.
Photography: courtesy Colleen Hayes/Peacock/NBCU Photo Bank
C&I: Now you know, Michael, I think it’s safe to say that when most people think “comedy,” they don’t usually think “Michael Greyeyes.” Even those of us who admire you as a great actor don’t usually think, “Oh, that Michael Greyeyes. What a happy-go-lucky jolly joker.”
Greyeyes: [Laughs.] True.
C&I: But you have many very funny moments throughout Rutherford Falls, as you convey the dry and sometimes lacerating wit of Terry Thomas.
Greyeyes: Well, I’ve been able to work with some really stellar actors over my career. And they all have had the capacity to simply come in with the kind of energy that the screen requires. Jana Schmieding did this from the first moment. Now Jana is a relatively new performer to film and television, but she comes out of theater. She comes out of stand-up comedy. So she’s a seasoned performer. The craft of film acting is really quite specific. But there’s lots of ways, a million ways, to skin a cat. And there’s no one methodology that works better than the other.
So the female lead is dynamite. But because she was a comedian, and because Ed Helms is a marvelous actor and a comedic actor, I was the one that felt like, Can I play tennis with these people? Like, This is not my forte. This is not where I built my career. This is not representative of my body of work. I felt like I was the newcomer. I felt like I was the newbie on the show. But because both Jana and Ed and all the other actors on the show are so generous, they got me up to speed quite quickly.
C&I: On the other hand, there is a darker side of Terry Thomas, a sense of repressed rage that you convey in Episode 4, while Terry is being interviewed by the NPR reporter. You’re all smiles and politesse until you turn off his voice recorder. Then you’re something else. And it’s funny: That moment reminded me of nothing so much as the scene in Wild Indian where your character Makwa comes off as so courteous to the elderly woman in her hospital room — until you make it very clear what will happen to her if she doesn’t cooperate with you. In both cases, how tricky was it to uncork all this bottled-up rage without going over the top?
Greyeyes: It’s a balancing act. There are many takes where the cup spills or the cup doesn’t tremble enough. What we have to have a sense of is, the character is trying not to spill the contents of that cup. If they do, then it’s no longer the audience’s scene.
See, you want the audience to collectively help hold the cup together. So it’s a balancing act, not only just internally as an actor, but also with the audience. Because it’s always the potential of this explosion of violence that makes moments like that quite terrifying.
Photography: Studio Seven Productions
C&I: You are pretty damn scary in both of those scenes.
Greyeyes: In the case of Wild Indian, that scene is why I signed on to do the film. When I read that scene, I said, “OK, I have to do this role. This is one of the most important pieces of writing for an Indigenous actor I’ve seen in my entire career. I don’t know how we’re going to do it, but we’re going to make it happen.” I felt the same way about that scene that Rupinder Gill wrote in Rutherford Falls. In a sense, there’s a heroic withholding of rage in both characters. They do it for different reasons. Obviously Makwa in Wild Indian has to prevent his full violence. We see actually how terrifying and violent he really is. He has to restrain himself, because that’s how he’ll get caught. But with Terry, he’s withholding it because that’s what he was taught. That’s how his generation operated. That’s how his parents’ generation operated. That’s how he was taught to behave, to hold his tongue, even when he could have rightly exploded. In both senses, the men were caught in the same bind: “What can I show as an Indigenous man?” But they chose not to show their complete selves for different reasons.
C&I: Another thing that struck me about these two characters: They’re also master manipulators. Right at the start in Wild Indian, Makwa totally discombobulates a co-worker simply by asking, totally out of the blue, “Think I should cut my hair?” And the other guy is so thrown, he doesn’t know what to do. He was coming in to talk about something completely different, but you’re thinking, “No, no, I’m taking charge of this conversation, this interplay.” And several times in Rutherford Falls, Terry can turn on a dime and intimidate people — and then turn back into Mr. Nice Guy. Again, in that interview with the NPR reporter, after he reveals his rage, he simply turns the recorder back on and says, “Well, I was very happy to talk to you.” Like, “Yeah, after I scared the hell out of you.”
Greyeyes: [Laughs.] Yeah. It actually comes from a place of power. Both characters are true manipulators. They understand human psychology, they understand things, but it comes from a place of power. And I think that’s the reason why I was attracted to these two characters, so vastly different from each other. But they were the same in that one regard — they were powerful men. And I think the kind of work that’s really appealing to me right now in my career is playing characters who are empowered. I’ve played a lot of tragic characters. Characters under the gun or under pressure or simply broken. But what appealed to me and what continues to appeal to me in the characters that I’m playing currently are that these are not victims. These are men in complete control of themselves and their environment.
And I think that’s an important message to send. Not only, I think, to wide audiences, but also to an Indigenous community that is reclaiming their images and have been reclaiming them for decades and decades. But I won’t play an embarrassing character, an embarrassingly disempowered character. I just turned down a movie recently in which the character had no agency. And I said, “I can’t do that. That would be a 20-year backwards step from where I want to go. And the kind of characters that I think I play well.”
I’ve played a lot of tragic characters. Characters under the gun or under pressure or simply broken. But what appealed to me and what continues to appeal to me in the characters that I’m playing currently are that these are not victims. These are men in complete control of themselves and their environment.
C&I: Let’s go back to a film we touched upon last time we chatted: Woman Walks Ahead. You said at the time that the role of Sitting Bull was “a huge challenge, the most difficult role I’ve ever played.” Yet you did not hesitate to accept that challenge. What do you think was your primary motivation?
Greyeyes: It was the unbelievable complexity of the Sitting Bull character on the page of Steven Knight’s script. It’s actually kind of an egregious level of laziness, I think, that when people reviewed the film, how deeply unfamiliar they were with other Sitting Bull performances. August Schellenberg had played him in Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, but there were many, many others. Reviewers will critique someone’s Hamlet going, “Oh, it doesn’t really compare it to so-and-so.” But was surprised that no one had recognized that the portrait that Steven had written was as wide-ranging and complex and humanizing as it was.
Yeah, the chance to tackle someone at the end of their life — who has such a personal history, such emotional scars — was a dream. And he was funny, too. He had this beautiful sense of humor, very wry. That’s why I wanted to do it. Also, I didn’t know when I auditioned for the role that Jessica Chastain would be playing the lead. In retrospect, getting a chance to work opposite her was really one of my career highlights.
C&I: Speaking of Sitting Bull: When you played the title role in the 1996 TV movie Crazy Horse, August Schellenberg costarred as the legendary Native American chief. One year earlier, you played Juh opposite his Cochise in the TV movie Geronimo. What is your fondest memory of Schellenberg?
Greyeyes: Augie was my hero. He truly was a mentor to me as a young actor. For me to receive the Augie [award] a few years ago really meant a lot to me. And I don’t think there has been a project in which some of Augie’s advice hasn’t borne out completely in completing the picture or managing something or negotiating something. One of the things he said to me is, “Always be simple.” Like, not plain or unimaginative — but he said always be simple. He said you’ll go far with that. He was right.
Greyeyes as Sitting Bull in Woman Walks Ahead opposite Jessica Chastain.
Photography: courtesy Toronto Film Festival
C&I: A final question. As a young man — well, as a younger man — I’m sure you had certain goals, certain ambitions as an actor. But did you ever think you’d be playing a role originally played by George C. Scott?
Greyeyes: [Laughs.] No, no. Actually, we just started production today on Firestarter and I’m a huge fan of George C. Scott. I don’t know how many times I’ve watched his performance in Dr. Strangelove, but it is simply one of the greatest film performances ever — ever — by any actor. But when he was cast in the role of Rainbird in the original film, it was an era in Hollywood where Indigenous actors were simply not considered for these kinds of significant roles. Things have changed considerably. And when this project first came onto our radar, and they were talking about the role of Rainbird, George C. Scott sort of always was looming in the conversation. But my reps and I have always looked at it in a simple way: It’s like, look, I’m not competing with George C. Scott. But we are taking the role back.
Wild Indian is scheduled to be released this fall. Stream the first season of Rutherford Falls on Peacock TV.
Photography: (Cover image) courtesy Studio Seven Productions
From our August/September 2021 issue