After years of bigotry and neglect, ugly stereotypes and red-face makeup, Hollywood finally seems ready to embrace Native themes and Native actors. Indian country is enjoying a surge of films that honor Native culture, and Native actors are landing prominent roles in everything from super-hero blockbusters to intense, small films. One of these contemporary rising stars is Martin Sensmeier, who got his big break last year in The Magnificent Seven, directed by Antoine Fuqua and co-starring Denzel Washington, Chris Pratt and Ethan Hawke.
That role blasted him into orbit and he is now working non-stop, with a starring role in The Chickasaw Rancher and a pivotal role in the hugely anticipated Wind River with Graham Greene, Gil Birmingham, Jeremy Renner and Elizabeth Olsen.
Sensmeier was raised in the Tlingit Coastal Community in southeast Alaska. After graduating high school he scored a job as a welder, and then spent several harrowing years rough-necking on an oil rig. (Don’t worry; he’ll explain what that means....) And then he got fired. And moved to L.A. And became a star.
While the arc of his story is simple, his journey was less smooth and far more complicated. Recently, in the weeks preceding the wide release of Wind River, Sensmeier took time from his busy schedule to talk to Indian Country about where he came from, where he’s going, and what he hopes to give back to his Native heritage.
What are some of your earliest memories from growing up in the Tlingit coastal community in Alaska?
The first house I ever lived in was built in like 1880, a Tlingit drum house. I remember playing in that house when I was a kid, and with my dog, and playing down in the old village. I also remember being out in a boat with my dad—he would always take an elder up the bay. They’re too old to take themselves out in the water, so he would bring them and we’d go up there and go hunting.
People are going to probably jump at the stereotypes of growing up in Alaska, so I’m going to embrace that with humor. Have you ever wrestled a polar bear or hunted fish with your bare hands?
Yes, I wrestle polar bears regularly. I don’t even work out in the gym, I just wrestle polar bears. That’s where I get my muscles. [laughs]
We don’t even have polar bears where I’m from.
Did your father teach you traditional things?
Yeah, traditional stuff, hunting. We’d go camping up the bay a lot with my dad and uncle, who were like best friends. It didn’t matter—winter, summer—we were always out there.
When I was a kid, we didn’t have a lot of money. I never grew up on beef and chicken. I grew up on moose meat, veal meat, deer meat, fish. We’d go out sometimes and dig clams at like two in the morning and I’d hold the flashlight while my dad and uncle would dig.
We grew up eating off the land. That’s just how it was. And that’s the beautiful part about indigenous people—everywhere you go, the positive values are essentially the same.
My mom is Koyukon-Athabascan from the Yukon, and so we’d go up to the Yukon once or twice a year and see family up there, and sometimes we’d go up there for a potlatch or something. She grew up with those Tlingit values and Tlingit ways.
Did you dance?
Growing up, I didn’t dance. My sisters and brother all danced with a dance group, and they still do. They go to celebration, they perform and dance in this biannual celebration in Juneau, Alaska. But I never danced. I think I was shy. I like to dance, I just don’t dance with a group and I don’t dance at the celebrations.
You say you’re shy, but then you deliver these performances on film.
The thing about being in front of a camera is it’s very intimate. It’s kind of like playing basketball in front of a large crowd—you don’t feel the crowd. You’re doing your thing, you’re locked in, and you can’t hear the crowd, you can’t see the crowd.
It’s kind of like the same thing with acting, for me. Acting can be such an intimate thing in a sense that you’re showing your more vulnerable parts. And you’re, essentially, being just a conduit to tell a story.
Did you ever foresee this success when you were young?
Not really. There were a lot of things I wanted to do. I wanted to play basketball.
But it’s not really something you aspire to become because when I was growing up in a small fishing village, you see people working hard. I grew up where everybody worked hard. So, by the time I was 15, I’m like, “I need to figure out what I’m going to do with my life.” And at that time I started welding. I took Welding 1 when I was in 10th grade. By the time I was a senior I was taking Welding 1&2, and I was a teacher’s aide in Welding 1. I said, “I’m going to welding school after I graduate high school, and make some good money.” [laughs]
I got a job at this shop in Anchorage, Alaska. After my first year of welding school I was working part-time doing construction for this company in Anchorage, and I was going to welding school at the time, and I just loved to work hard and I liked the feeling at the end of a long day when you work your ass off.
These guys told me, "We can probably get you a job with a welding company if you’d like." I was like, "I would love that." So they followed through on it and got me a job at the welding shop, and when I got there, there was this old man there. He was in his seventies or something, still working. You know, just this crusty old dude, you know. We started talking. I remember the first thing he ever said to me. He looked at me and he said, "So you think you know something about welding?" I said, "I know a little bit." He says, "You don’t know shit. But I’ll teach you, because I like you.” [laughs]
I started welding in the shop. And I did that for a little bit, and then I got an opportunity to work on an oil rig. I then quit welding and started roustabouting on that rig, then
That’s the beautiful part about indigenous people—everywhere you go, the positive values are essentially the same.
I eventually started roughnecking, and then doing a few other jobs there.
What are roustabouting and roughnecking?
Roustabouting is like an entry level position where you mop floors and you clean stuff, and you wash people’s coveralls. And then you go up on the floor and you relieve the roughneck, you relieve the floor men who are doing the work. And that’s your learning...I did that for a year.
And then they said, "We’re going to promote you to roughneck?"
Yep. It was interesting because I got up on the rig and I did like one hitch and by my second hitch I was like, I really hate it here. [laughs] We were replacing old pipe that was already in holes. We started drilling, and the whole rig was shaking because we were drilling into the surface of the earth and you could hear the rocks crunching, and it...And I was like, “Holy shit! This is what I’m doing with my life?” I sat there and I had a moment, and I was like, “I’m going to do this until the end of the year, and then I’m out.”
And then I did it for four more years. I think as Native people we sometimes will traverse the non-Native world to the extreme discomfort of our Native heart, and we can only last so long until we have to eventually move forward.
Did you ever see anything wild happen on the rig?
Yeah, more than a few times. I had some close calls. There were times we were outside moving the rig and it’d be 50 below zero. I’ve seen a lot of fingers get smashed and things like that.
How’d you make the transition from the rig to acting?
I first got a job on the rig when I was 21, and I’m 33 now. I remember it was my first time making real money. My first paycheck came in and I got online and bought some Lakers tickets and a flight to L.A. I got to see Kobe Bryant play.
I was off to L.A., and while I was down there I made a friend and I went to acting class with my friend, and I enjoyed it. It’s funny because I kept going to acting class. I came down to L.A. periodically, and then I’d go back to Alaska. I always found myself going back to acting class, study with a few teachers. I didn’t really think it was what I was going to do, and I never auditioned. I was still working on the rig when a buddy back home drowned in a fishing accident—that happens in a fishing village. That was the first friend I ever had, and he was a white guy. My best friend growing up. There was a kid with him, 16, who also drowned. That kid was one of my little brother’s best friends. So I was on the phone with my little brother trying to talk to him because I had lost friends before, you know. I was on the phone with him and just kind of talking to him and I showed up to the rig about 30 minutes late and my boss said, “You’ve been late too many times. I got to let you go.”
I didn’t know that that was going to be the end of my oilfield career, but it was.
How’d you get started in acting?
I was living in Alaska and traveling a little bit. I had some money saved up and I found myself in Albuquerque, and got an opportunity to be on the set for the TV show Longmire, and worked as an extra. And Lou Diamond Phillips acted in the scene I was in.
La Bamba was my favorite movie when I was kid. So it was really cool. I was watching him and I was like, “Man, I can do that.”
In 2008 or ’09, I auditioned for one of the Twilight movies. [laughs] I, obviously, didn’t get the part.
That was my first audition. I was horrible. I sucked. I thought I was so prepared, but when I got to the audition, I froze up. The casting director said, “You got a really great look.” And then I auditioned and she said, “Yeah... you should really think about maybe studying because you got a great look.”
I didn’t audition again for a year.
I did take a few more classes, and in 2012, I auditioned again for, I think, Crooked Arrows. I didn’t get the part.
I was traveling around then and posting my travels on Facebook and I had like, thousands of friends. Somebody saw some of my stuff and said, “We should think of an idea and do a show.” That’s how The Hub was created by Steven Lewis Simpson. I created the show with him and we shot that.
I later got that pull to go back to L.A., so I called my old acting teacher, and said, “I want to get back in class.” He said, “Well, I’m retired.”
He then said, "But I am managing now and I would like to have a meeting with you.”
He started getting me out on auditions, here and there. I only got an audition like every two months. But I stayed in acting class. Once I had gone through a few auditions and I’d seen the other actors working, I knew I could do this.
How much of training is valuable and how much is fluff?
I think training is absolutely necessary. And even if you’re talented, talent will only get you in the door. Looks don’t matter because this is the most competitive industry. There are a million actors in L.A. and there are people all over the world trying to do it. Think about how many of those people are really, really beautiful. So looks don’t equate to success. You’re not going to walk down the street and get discovered. It doesn’t happen like that.
I studied with four or five different teachers before I booked my first role.
Did you have any interesting challenges as a Native man?
I didn’t really face any racism, but I didn’t start booking roles until after I cut my hair. And I went on a lot of auditions before I cut my hair. Once I cut it, I started booking and people were like, “We wish you still had your long hair.”
How did you get your role in The Magnificent Seven as the Native character Red Harvest?
I auditioned several times. My manager said, “Look, there’s this remake of The Magnificent Seven, with Denzel Washington, Chris Pratt, Ethan Hawke; Antoine Fuqua is directing it. I’m like, “Holy shit, man. I’m never going to book that, but, yeah, sure, let’s go....“ So I auditioned for it. I didn’t hear anything back for a long time, and then I was in Alaska and we got a call for callback.
It was just a long process. They tested me a bunch of times.
What was it like working when you were on the set with Denzel Washington, Chris Pratt and Ethan Hawke?
All those guys were great. They taught me so much and it was like the ultimate master class. To sit there and listen to those guys talk about acting or life and watch them work, that was really empowering. I gained a lot of experience. I worked with those guys for five months. So we’re all friends.
What did you take away from that?
I knew that I was going to be doing this forever; I knew that I love doing this. It’s the first job I’ve ever had where I felt like I was supposed to be there doing that.
I feel so blessed that I get to visit so many Native communities.
It’s amazing when you look how far Native actors have come and so many big roles for them in the last few years.
Those old guys loved doing it, you know, Jim Thorpe was a film actor and he did over 70 movies. I had conversations with his son, Bill. He tells me that he loved working on movies. The thing about Native people is that when certain situations are all you’ve ever known it doesn’t feel anything but normal. Right now we’re in that place where we’re conscious of privilege, we’re conscious of what’s right, and we’re doing something about it. But back in those days it was like we just adapted.
I watched that film Reel Injun and there was this Native actor speaking in his language, and they were putting subtitles on the screen. The soldier thought he was talking, but he was really dishing out insults. I thought that was hilarious. And that speaks to who we are as Native people, you know, we find the humor in everything.
The [acting pioneers] were so strong because they didn’t sit there and say, “We’re victims.” They were just getting through it, carrying on the traditions, carrying on the culture, and some of them were doing it in secret.
Here we are and now we have rights and now people are speaking up about things that they don’t like. When you think about it, look at films like Deep Rising and Heat, and I see that Wes Studi did it before I ever did; so did Graham Greene and Tantoo Cardinal. These actors are the ones who paved the way.
You just worked with Graham Greene and Tantoo Cardinal on Wind River. Tokala Clifford said Wind River is the most accurate representation of reservation life he’s ever seen.
I have to agree and disagree because there are reservations that are like that and some that aren’t. We can’t generalize. We are very diverse people, with very diverse situations and experiences. And there are a lot of reservations where they got it good.
What did you feel about your character on Wind River? You portrayed someone who is using drugs and in the throes of addiction.
I just tried to give an honest portrayal of somebody who is dealing with that. Meth is a serious problem in a lot of our communities. I just tried to give an honest portrayal of that character.
Taylor Sheridan, the writer-director of Wind River, I got to give hats-off to him, for sure.
Any dream role or costar?
A dream role...I get to play the role of Martin Sensmeier. [laughs]
I feel so blessed that I get to visit so many Native communities. I’ve visited Seminoles, Mohegan, Onondaga. I visited communities in Montana, Washington, California tribes, Oklahoma. I’ve been in so many different places and visited so many different tribes and people.
I was in Oklahoma last weekend for the Chickasaw Film Festival and I had so many people come out and were just excited to talk to me and get a picture of me, and hear what I had to say at the Q&A.
I take this sort-of ambassador role seriously. I feel like I have a responsibility that comes with this platform that I’ve been given. And so I try to do my best. The film roles that I get afford me that opportunity, and as long as I can keep working and keep trying to put good work out there, then the people will want to hear and see me.
I just feel like that’s such a blessing and that’s what I have to give back.
Have you watched any of your performances with your family?
I don’t really watch my work, because that’s not meant for me to appreciate. That’s a performance that I’m giving away. It’s meant for you. But I went to the premiere of The Magnificent Seven, and brought my parents. That was fun.
When I travel through these communities and visit these people and these kids it brings an empowering feeling and it makes me feel that I got to keep doing this. I didn’t necessarily have that when I was a kid. There were no Native actors traveling to Alaska to talk to us when I was growing up.
Outside of Dancing with Wolves and Last of the Mohicans, the only other movies that I really watched was Heat with Wes Studi and Indian in the Cupboard with Gary Litefoot Davis.
What about romance? Do you ever think of getting married, having kids?
I’m going to die an old, single old man. [laughs] I think about a family all the time. I’m happy with my situation right now. I got a partner, and it’s all good and she’s a wonderful, amazing person.
I’m a very private person and there are a lot of weirdos out there. Sometimes I get messages from some of them. A lot of the messages I get are cool. I got a message from this family in Japan who said they just love Red Harvest so much that their kid dressed up as Red Harvest; made a birthday cake that looks like Red Harvest, and he had an outfit, face paint, everything. He sang me Happy Birthday, and sent a video all the way from Japan, and I thought that was the coolest thing ever. The Magnificent Seven is based on Seven Samurai, the Japanese film by Akira Kurosawa.
What’s next for you?
I filmed the lead in The Chickasaw Rancher and then I got back to L.A. and I filmed another movie called Spare Room. It’s about this guy who returns from Afghanistan and he’s dealing with PTSD. What’s really cool there is that I didn’t play a Native character and my character never talks about what tribe he’s from or anything like that.
Any last thoughts to share with your fans?
I’m really thankful for all the people interested in what I have going on. I look at all of our communities and I see all the stuff we have going on in terms of language revitalization, wellness work and see people who are connected and doing positive things.
At home, we’re bringing back the Canoe Society. There’s so many things that are happening in a positive way that are reconnecting us to our ancestry and I think that’s amazing and I think everybody should get involved. If you’re pondering life and wondering why you’re here, or trying to find a purpose a lot of times that void you feel can be filled with the culture.
I’ve had friends who got in a canoe for the very first time and it changed their life in a positive way. I’ve had people who have started learning the language and their world view has been changed by that. And I’ve had friends who have been at ceremonies for the first time and they found the answers they were looking for, not knowing that it was right there all along.
I think that the solutions we look for are in our communities, and we just have to work at it. And I think that those answers are there, and we should wake up on a daily basis and strive for clarity and coherence, and find that peace we need. And I think that’s how we heal, that’s how we grow, that’s how we progress.