Michael Spears: From ‘Dances With Wolves’ to ‘Winter in the Blood’
Following its premiere at the L.A. Film Festival, Winter in the Blood won the Grand Prize at the Montreal First Peoples' Festival and most recently screened to critical acclaim at Santa Fe Indian Market. It's a film many Natives are eager to see, and not only because it's a compelling adaptation of a novel by Blackfeet author James Welch. It's also a showcase for several of Indian country's best actors, among them Chaske Spencer, Gary Farmer, Saginaw Grant, and Julia Jones. ICTMN caught up with another of today's Native stars, Michael Spears, Lakota, who plays Raymond Long Knife in Winter in the Blood, at the film's Montana premiere.
What made you decide that acting could be a viable career?
My father pushed me into an audition in 1989. Dances With Wolves was my first project. I rode an old nag around a barrel, and got the part! No, I had to read in front of Jim Wilson and Kevin Costner and auditioned against about 500 other boys. Every Native I’d seen on TV was fake, and they weren’t real, and I didn’t like them so I didn’t want to be in movies, but my dad pushed me and I got bit by the bug and here we are today. I was 11 and 12 during the filming, and the Dances With Wolves movie came out when I was 13.
You've played your share of 19th-century Indians — in, for example, Dances With Wolves\**, *Into the West*, and *Yellow Rock*. *Winter in the Blood* is set much closer to the current era, and the rez life it depicts is much more like what you might have known growing up on the Lower Brule Reservation. Does that make a difference to you as an actor?**
It's playing yourself. You just draw from experiences, and there you go! They gave me a lot of creative control of my character. They just said he comes from a pretty rough background, and is working to survive coming from the bottom up. I just had fun.
How were the locals where you filmed?
Each set’s definitely its own beast. There’s respect issues that go around every set I go on. They were real nice the little I got to interact because we’re working.
Did filming in the area of the book help your performance?
Going to the powwow did! And before that Chaske and I were at the Rocky Boy powwow. We were competing in the drum contest.
You do drums?
Yeah! My brother [Eddie Spears] and I got a new album coming out: Bear Canyon.
Why was it so important to make this particular film?
It’s telling Indian stories about us. It’s a rare peek into our world, and telling true stories is hard sometimes. There’s always going to be the crowd that won’t get any of it because they’re not Native. There are people who will choose to identify, and people who choose not to. But we’re all people, and we’re not the only ones in this world who suffer. So they can identify with it, and hopefully grow from it. It’s a real movie about real people and real issues, and that just doesn’t happen in Indian country, it happens everywhere.