During a pause in filming on the set of Te Ata, Q’orianka Kilcher took a break from the trains and smoke at the Oklahoma Railway Museum in Oklahoma City to talk about the character of Te Ata Fisher (also known as Mary Frances Thompson). Although there are familiar elements to this film for her—including Gil Birmingham portraying her father—there are new challenges to this role. While some of her preparation for the role involves the use of both her musical and acting background, she also studied Te Ata through published letters.
For Kilcher, whose career started with a bang when she played Pocahontas in The New World (2005), it is a different experience to work on a movie where a tribe is the executive producer, with the Chickasaw Nation using its tribal citizens within the production as much as possible. “It’s investing in the future of the Chickasaw Nation,” Kilcher said.
Why did you want to play the part of Te Ata?
There are few Native American actresses who made it and were world-renowned like Te Ata was. For me personally, what really drew me to the character of Te Ata and why I was just so excited to find out that they were making a movie about her is because I feel that her story is such a timeless story. She was a young woman far beyond her time.
Gil Birmingham and Q'orianka Kilcher on the set of Te Ata. Photo by Brian Daffron.
What experiences in your life are you bringing to this role?
This has been the most challenging role I have ever taken on. Te Ata had such a rich background. I have been needing to draw on my years of dancing, playing Native American flute, of singing, of storytelling, of all those different things. At first, it was really scary, because it is a beautiful but challenging role to depict all of these different stories and really do it in an authentic way.
The interesting thing about this role is I’ve used a lot of my music background. At the same time, I feel like I’m definitely going to be a woman coming out of this film—pushing the limits beyond what I had. The most important thing is really doing Te Ata’s memory justice.
What has portraying Te Ata brought out in your own character?
A very diplomatic way—when things get tough, when you’re working long hours—how to conduct yourself in a respectful, firm way. Learning your boundaries. It’s definitely brought out my more musical side. Music has always been my love, passion and dream.
The star gets a touch-up on the set of Te Ata. Photo by Brian Daffron.
What have you been able to learn from the other cast members?
This is the most amazing cast and crew put together. Everybody is cast so perfectly. They are the most kind, gracious, un-egotistical actors I have ever worked with. They go far and beyond. All of them bring such a special quality to their characters.
What is the message of Te Ata for young people?
Something that my mom also always told me, and the reason why I am here, is never be afraid to dream too big. Gravity’s there, and it will take care of the rest. Dream massive, unrealistic, and just go for it. Never take no for an answer. That’s the reason why I am here, and I think that was very prevalent in her life as well.
It’s also important to mentor—all of the work that she did with kids. It’s important to mentor and also pass on your stories. In order to have a clear understanding of your future and where you’re going, you have to have a clear understanding of your history, your past, and where you’ve come from.
Q'orianka Kilcher shooting a scene with Mackenzie Astin, who plays Te Ata's husband Dr. George Clyde Fisher. Photo by Brian Daffron.
What has been like to work with Chickasaw Nation?
It’s so wonderful and refreshing. So many times, you have big Hollywood studios and people. They do stories about different communities, different tribes and different people. They never actually involve the tribes or the communities that they’re doing a story about. That’s one thing that I’ve found so special. Yes, the director likes me. But [in terms of casting] he was like—"It’s up to the Chickasaw Nation. This is their story." I really respect that, and I really love it. I am so glad that this film has really involved the Chickasaw Nation. This is their story. This is their hero.
Why should people see this film?
It’s a beautiful story of the human heart and the human spirit. It has its high points and its low points. It’s a beautiful journey.