Hostiles is the brutal new film from director Scott Cooper, disturbing in many ways, but as Captain Blocker (Christian Bale) leads a dying Cheyenne chief (Wes Studi) through dangerous territory, we see Blocker transform from hating a man that the government says is the enemy to finding a path to reconciliation.
Studi plays Chief Yellow Hawk. I sat down with him in Beverly Hills recently to learn that Cooper had written the part of the dying chief with him in mind. Studi, who has appeared in films such as Avatar, Dances With Wolves, Last of The Mohicans and Heat, said this film challenged him because he had to learn to die in a way he had never done so before. “I’ve lived a large part of my life looking for something that I haven’t done before, for whatever I will be able to do that pops up next that challenges me,” he says.
We also talked about the representation of Native Americans on screen. Studi says he hopes we will start seeing more Native Americans as younger generations step into filmmaking. “Youngsters are involved in becoming actors or writers and producers and becoming a part of the film world.”
The first five minutes of the film suck you right in.
That was my experience as well.
How were you approached to play Chief Yellow Hawk?
Scott Cooper told me he wrote the part with me in mind. For some reason or another, I have come to be known as the guy who can get thoughts across without words. I think maybe they just don’t trust my dialogue [laughs].
You might not have said much but your performance is memorable.
Well, most of my dialogue you don’t understand.
What did Scott say to you about Chief Yellow Hawk?
He said it was a matter of portraying a character who has a certain amount of time to live. He said, the man is slowly dying and he knows it, and this was something I had never done before. I’ve been killed quickly and slowly at times, everything from being slowly eaten by a sea monster to being shot. I have died many times on screen, but this was a slow death over that period. It was a challenge. Can I do it? II’ve lived a large part of my life looking for something that I haven’t done before, for whatever I will be able to do that pops up next that challenges me. I think Hostiles tells a story that is worth telling at this point in time in our own contemporary history.
I agree that it would seem that we as human beings don’t ever learn anything from our past mistakes. It would seem that’s the case. I would love to wake up one morning and have an influential person say, “We tried that once before and it didn’t work. Why don’t we do it a different way.”
It’s just history repeating.
It does and it will. Given basic human nature, I suppose we are condemned to continue to do so.
In terms of the representation of Native Americans on screen, I know Scott had spoken to consultants about the portrayals in the film.
When you come down to it, it’s difficult to be fair and balanced in terms of performance because we have one focal character. We have a character we are focused on. In this story, it’s the relationship between Captain Blocker and Rosamund Pike’s character, Rosalie. I don’t know how you would go about making a film that’s fair and balanced in terms of say racial lines. As supporting characters, which we are, it’s a matter of being given as much time as we possibly can in terms of moving the story ahead. We are cogs in a wheel. We are parts of a story that is important, but not the main goal so we follow our protagonist and that’s how stories work.
I think our story and how we affect the movement of the story is balanced in terms of where we would be — where we as Cheyenne people would be coming from during the telling of this story. We are fresh out of incarceration after being imprisoned for seven years. We finally have an out and are able to go back to the land we feel is our homeland. There’s a certain amount of joy to be had in that, and the ordeal of being prisoners is over. Along the way, circumstances conspire to the point that we have to make a number of decisions on how to continue to survive. I think therein lies a great story of how alliances in the world come about. People can see that not only do we have this external enemy we have to deal with at any given time, we form something of a brotherhood and sisterhood, we begin to bond over this shared traumatic experience and find that we have more similarities than differences. We know we need each other and we can’t get through life totally on our own.
What was the physical journey like for you and the conditions for you as an actor?
I live in that area so it’s not that different. I’m a horseman but it wasn’t that much of a stretch for me in terms of physicality. My journey was in how do I portray a dying man. It’s an experience I’ve never felt. You’ve heard how actors draw from their own experience, but when you’re playing a dying man, where do you reach? I’ve only seen it externally, but when it’s you I had nothing to draw from and that was the challenge. Hopefully, I pulled it off.
You did. It was a beautifully shot death scene, I have to say.
I pictured the end of hope. Hope is something I think every individual on the face of the earth lives with. Hope for this that, their future, their children’s future, but when you know you only have a certain time to live, hope, if it is something that you still have, you have to ask yourself what do I do with it. It no longer serves my purpose as a human being, what do I do with this hope? What I hoped to get across in this story was that if I could take hope and hold it in my hand, I would hand it to my son, or his son or generations to come and hopefully that is the character’s legacy. He handed off hope to continue to survive and thrive in life.
You said earlier that Scott wrote the character with you in mind, did you give him any input about Chief Yellow Hawk?
There was some input, but I gave it as much as possible in terms of what I know about Cheyenne people. We had a lot of consultants who gave us an idea of what Cheyenne lifeways are and customs are. They helped us with attitude too.
How has the representation of Native American changed? Is it getting better? It’s a period piece and I’m trying to think of a modern Native American film aside from Wind River.
Since you’re trying that answers your question. We don’t see a lot of Native Americans acting. One in a hundred maybe. It’s very rare. There are only a few of us who continue to work. The positive thing about it is that there are youngsters who are involved in becoming actors or writers and producers and becoming a part of the film world.
Right now, it’s not that great. I hearken back to the 1970’s the Native Americans we knew in film were the late Chief Silver Heels and Will Sampson.
In the ’90s my generation came along and a number of us have been working ever since. There was a time in the ’90s when a lot of productions were willing to take chances beyond the stereotype. It was after Whoopi Goldberg got to play a part that had been written for a white actor and it worked and as a result of that. I benefited from it. Somewhere along the line things went back to the way they were. Suicide Squad featured Adam Beach, and that’s a crossover role. He’s American Indian, but he’s not playing such a role and it’s not a period piece as such. Other than that there hasn’t been a lot and Hollywood has fallen down in the representation of American Indians.
Over the years, I’ve seen that it is cyclical. Films like Dances with Wolves was a catalyst and has been close to thirty years. For ten years after that, a lot of Native Americans got work and I was one of them. It seems the American public and the audience enjoy a resurrection of American Indians in cinema every twenty to thirty years so maybe I’m on my second round here.
Hostiles could trigger it.
It could. It’s capable of it, and hopefully this time we can get more recognizable American Indians on screen. Well, there was Wind River, Hostiles, and Woman Walks Ahead.
What was it like seeing the film for the first time?
My jaw dropped and I really couldn’t talk about it in the first 15-20 minutes after the credits rolled. I was so overwhelmed. Rosamund has a performance that kills it. It’s brutal and I couldn’t talk about it. I was taken aback and it took me a while. I’ve seen it four times now and each time I’ve seen something different about it. I was so dumbfounded that first time because it’s so overwhelming, you agree?
From that opening, through to that moment with Rosamund, to Bale’s moment and to your death.
I wondered how he was going to do it.
It was a beautiful and dignified death.
Yes. I think it took two viewings before I could talk about it and here we are.
Hostiles is released on December 22