Movie News & Reviews

Native American actors stepping out of Western roles

Through the years, few Native American actors have broken through into mainstream roles that weren't period-piece "warrior" types.

So it's refreshing to see a new breed of Native actors get the spotlight with the release of the "Twilight" movie "New Moon."

For months, the Internet has been buzzing with talk about the actors playing the "Wolf Pack" in the film: Chaske Spencer, 34, Alex Meraz, 24, Kiowa Gordon, 19, and Bronson Pelletier, 23.

The series of books by Stephenie Meyer goes beyond cult status. The first film was expected to be a modest hit, but ended up grossing more than $190 million domestically, according to Box Office Mojo (it was made with a budget of $35 million).

In "New Moon," Bella (played by Kristen Stewart) is heartbroken after her glittery vampire love, Edward (Robert Pattinson), leaves her for her own good (don't they always?). She gets really bummed, so she starts hanging out with her Native pal, the frequently shirtless Jacob Black (Taylor Lautner).

She soon figures out that Jacob is a werewolf (this is a very monster-heavy neighborhood), and his tribe has had a long history with the vampires she is involved with. Trouble ensues.

In the book, Meyer mixed fact and fiction, drawing from werewolf lore of the Quileute tribe in northern Washington, where the action takes place.

This new breed of Native action hero is more than due. It's also a chance for Native people to be shown in a positive (although hairy) light.

Casting for the film was extensive yet swift. "New Moon" had an ambitious production schedule, with filming starting just last spring, and director Chris Weitz insisted on using actors of Native descent for the "Wolf Pack." Spencer is Lakota (Sioux), Meraz is Purepecha (Tarasco), Gordon is Hualapai and Pelletier is Cree-Metis.

Lautner's Native ancestry, however, is somewhat questionable. He has said that he recently discovered his Native roots, a mix of Potawatomi and Ottawa, as well as French, Dutch and German.

Really, though, who cares? The squealing teens who make up most of "Twilight's" audience certainly won't.

But the "Wolf Pack" actors join a select few to get mainstream, non-Western roles through the years. Will Sampson played the stoic Indian in "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest." Graham Greene played a detective in "Die Hard With a Vengeance" and a romantic interest in "Transamerica."

Adam Beach starred as Ira Hayes in Clint Eastwood's "Flags of Our Fathers" and most recently had a recurring role on "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit."

And Wes Studi (who was just in Wichita for the Tallgrass Film Festival) has perhaps had one of the most extensive careers as a Native actor. He'll next appear in James Cameron's upcoming space epic "Avatar."

But here's hoping "New Moon" sheds new light on Native actors. And brings more of our heroes to the big screen.