An Exclusive Interview with Cherokee Actor Wes Studi
by Christina Berry
Wes Studi is an actor of immense talent and range. He is great at playing good guys, bad guys, and everything in between. While he might not be a household name, he is well known to most filmgoers. He is often referred to as "the bad Indian in . . ." either Dances With Wolves or Last of the Mohicans. But Wes Studi isn't bad at all; on the contrary, he is the nicest moviestar I have ever met.
Wes Studi's first film role was in the independent film Powwow Highway. The role was small and the movie, though great, was not widely received, so it wasn't until his part in Dances with Wolves a year later that audiences got their first look at this talented actor. Wes Studi played the "toughest Pawnee," a character which didn't even have a name. As the "toughest Pawnee" audiences saw Wes terrorize, kill, and scalp several people. Wes' character left quite an impression on audiences and was followed two years later with what is perhaps Wes Studi's best-known character, Magua, in Last of the Mohicans. Magua is a Huron Indian who seeks revenge against the "gray hair" for the death of his family. After Magua, Wes Studi landed the title role of Geronimo in Geronimo: An American Legend.
Perhaps the most exciting aspect of Wes' career has been his ability to reach beyond these "Indian" role to land several notable "non-Indian" roles. In Heat, Deep Rising, Street Fighter, and Mystery Men Wes was able to shed the historical costumes and settings and play contemporary roles in popular films.
Wes Studi was born in Nofire Hollow (near Tahlequah) and is a member of the Cherokee Nation. His first language is Cherokee. In addition to his impressive acting career, Wes Studi is also a musician, author, artist, and director. Recently Wes granted an interview for All Things Cherokee. I would like to thank Wes for answering my questions and for his support of All Things Cherokee. I would also like to thank Debby Dunn and Studigroup for all the help in coordinating this interview.
1) Does your Cherokee heritage play a factor in your work? Do you ever try to incorporate it into a role? Does your heritage ever play a factor in accepting or rejecting a part?
No, not unless I feel that it would help the role. And no, it has never really played a factor in accepting or turning down a role.
2) Many people, myself included, believe that Hollywood does not understand the idea of the contemporary Indian. The majority of Hollywood films which feature Native Americans are historical films. How do you feel about the portrayal of Native Americans in Hollywood film? Do you see progress? What do you think it will take for Hollywood filmmakers to cast Indians in contemporary roles as everyday people?
I have not seen any progress in a number of years now. Period or historical films are what Hollywood embraces because it's picturesque. Hollywood does not embrace the contemporary Indian and won't until a successful film comes along with contemporary Indians in it.
3) You are one of the few "Indian actors" who has been able to cross over into mainstream Hollywood films, like Heat and Mystery Men. Do you see a new era in Native films with more actors being able to make that crossover?
Not at this moment in time, I am sad to say.
4) I once heard that the Clannad song in Last of the Mohicans includes a little Cherokee in the lyrics and that you helped write it for them. Is that true?
Clannad is an Irish band, a celtic band. They did ask me to put in a Cherokee translation of the words "I will find you" so that it comes after the English words. The Cherokee words mean the same thing. I was happy to do it.
5) I think you are a terrific role model for Native American youth. Do you think of yourself as a role model, and if so how do you feel about that responsibility?
It's hard to think of myself as a role model. People tend to put role models on a pedestal and when the role model proves to be what he is -- human -- then there seems to be no forgiveness or understanding. Look what happened to Jesse Jackson. I think people need to rethink what role model means and not expect perfection from anyone.
6) Who are your role models? Is there a particular person (or persons) whom you admire? In your career do you look to any other actors whose work inspires you?
I admire anyone who makes the effort to be successful in this business or any other business. Those are the type of people that I admire. As far as a role model, all I can say is I wouldn't want to copy anyone else or look to someone else to define who I am. I admire certain qualities in others, but I would not pattern myself after anyone.
7) Does it bother you that others may see you as an inspiration or as a role model and look up to you in this way?
Not really. I do what is in my good conscience and sincerely hope that I do not offend anyone along the way. It does make me feel good when someone comes up to me and says that I inspired them to go after their dream (acting) and they want advice from me as to how I did this and what steps to take. That makes me feel good.
8) You have a large fanclub with fans from all over the world. Have you been surprised by your global appeal?
Actually, I have been very surprised, especially abroad. When we were in Germany we were at this carnival and a man who ran one of the booths recognized me. I feel lucky and humbled to be the recipient of the love and admiration of the fans. They are great. I'm very overwhelmed.
9) What has been your greatest experience as a Cherokee actor?
Just to be able to do what I've got to do and hopefully inspire others to reach for their dream.
10) In addition to your film work you are also a musician. Any tour plans for your band, Firecat of Discord? If you ever come through Texas please let me know.
Not at this time, but we'd love to perform in Texas and I promise you'll be the first to know.
11) My mom and I bought your book, Adventures of Billy Bean, at the Merle Norman in Tahlequah a few years ago. However, I've never been able to find a copy of the sequel. Any chance there will be a reprint of both Billy Bean books? Do you have any plans to write more adventures for Billy Bean?
I don't know of any immediate plans to reprint. Of course, if the publishing company thought there was a market for the books, then maybe.
12) Then please tell me the name of the publisher -- I'm sure your fans will step up to bat for you.
It's Parkhill Press out of Tahlequah, Oklahoma.
13) Any closing remarks or statements Wes?
Yes, I'd like to thank Christina Berry for the feature on her website. Those were great questions. Please send my best to her mother, Martha, as well; she's a very talented lady. Thank you for your continued support, Christina.
Shop for Wes Studi movies on Amazon.com
All Things Cherokee has helped over 3,000 families with their Cherokee genealogy research. We offer three great services to help you find answers to your genealogy questions.
Cherokee Roll Report - this service is a great start for DIY researchers, with tons of Cherokee genealogy plus custom surname searches of all the Cherokee Rolls.
Tribal Enrollment Research - this service helps determine if you are eligible to enroll with one of the federally-recognized Cherokee tribes.
In-Depth Genealogy Research - this service is the most detailed, providing 6-hours of dedicated genealogy research into your family tree.
All Things Cherokee Gift Shop: Monthly Featured Title
Cherokee Roots: Eastern (Volume 1)
A great genealogy resource indexing those Cherokee living east of the Mississippi River.
Order Cherokee Roots: Eastern (Volume 1)