Adam Beach overcame a troubled childhood on a Native American reservation to become a prominent and successful Hollywood actor. Coming of age in the wake of Dances with Wolves, he found ways to address the Native American experience in ways that went beyond western clichés, notably in World War II movies like Windtalkers and Flags of Our Fathers. Other prominent roles include Cowboys and Aliens, Smoke Signals, and Warners upcoming Suicide Squad, where he gets the plum role as Slipknot. He’s currently appearing in the western Diablo, and in an exclusive interview, he spoke with us about that role and portrayals of Native Americans on film in general.
Question: What was the vibe like on a set like this?
Adam Beach: Everybody cared about what they were doing. It’s an independent film, so a lot of people were working to help the director put this piece together. We wanted to make this realistic as possible – drawing into the romanticism of Native Americans and other components in a way that reflected history – and putting the pieces of the puzzle together in an environment like that means that people really have to care about what they’re doing.
Q: What was the biggest challenge on set, creatively?
AB: Working with Scott [Eastwood] was wonderful because we’ve been friends for a long time. What was tough was finding that connection, the chemistry we had, and applying it to two characters who had never seen each other before. I didn’t expect that to be as tough as it was. But we found a way and it worked.
Q: We’re seeing a recent upsurge in westerns, with the success of Bone Tomahawk and the likes of The Revenant and The Hateful Eight making huge waves. What are your thoughts on that?
AB: The western will never die. The romanticism in there speaks to all of us. American has become this idealized place of freedom and that holds a lot of power over our psyche, regardless of the reality. Star Wars was always a western at heart, and I think the success of those movies – still blowing us away after all this time – speaks to that need that the western answers to. It may change form, it may show up in other kinds of movies, but it’s not going anywhere. How do you tweak it? How do you change it? That’s the challenge. Everyone’s trying to changing it up. I enjoy it because, as a Native American, it reminds me of my roots. We were more in touch with the world around us. The trees, the water, the animals, the land. Westerns and movies with Native American themes bring us back to that era, and help us keep the spirit of our ancestors alive.
Q: Do you think lower budget films help with that, that connection to an earlier era, or do you need a bigger budget with the epic scope?
AB: It works for both of them. The question is, what kind of filmmakers do you have making it? You want to get that sense of the environment, the great vistas of the west, but you need to connect the stories and the characters to it. That comes with the script. There’s a sense of power to that connection that you have to connect to. Someone walking through the woods, walking through this environment and being linked to it in a real way.
Q: There’s been a lot lately about the portrayal of Native Americans on screen, and minorities behind the scenes: writing and directing. Where do you see that process going? Is it developing in a positive direction?
AB: I think so. If somebody’s disgracing the culture or an image of a tribe, you’re going to hear about it. Social media allows up to have that kind of voice in ways we couldn’t just a few years ago, and I think you’re really seeing a difference there. You can’t run away from racism or racist portrayals. And that also expands us in new directions that we couldn’t consider. I love westerns, as I’ve said, and when you do them right they can be beautiful. But Native American performers have historically shown up in westerns because that’s the only genre Hollywood would give us jobs for. That isn’t the case anymore. We can play judges and lawyers and criminals. We’re advancing into ways that let us show the world who we are now instead of who we were 165 years ago. And with that comes increased filmmaking opportunities and a chance to share our voice in ways we never could just a few years ago. We can look at what Hollywood messed up and make it better.
Q: Do you think that Diablo moves that forward?
AB: You always see films, especially westerns, with a cowboys-and-Indians vibe to them. That’s one of the central dramatic tensions in the genre, for better or for worse. Dances with Wolves did a lot to change that, and with Diablo, I hope we’re looking at further demolishing that divide. Characters finding a universal connection to each other. Acknowledging the warfare, the battles, the way we fought so violently against each other, and then saying “there’s a better way.” I don’t think we could have done that without Dances with Wolves, or a film like Dances with Wolves, coming along and having the impact that it did.