Adam Beach discusses Netflix role in ‘Juanita’ says Alfre Woodard ‘is a priceless gem’
On March 8, 2019, Netflix released ‘Juanita’ starring Acadamy-Award nominated actress Alfre Woodard and co-starring Adam Beach. The film was directed by Clark Johnson and was adapted from a screenplay by Roderick M. Spencer, which was based on the novel Dancing on the Edge of the Roof, by author Sheila Williams.
The movie explores the life of a frustrated woman, Juanita, who is taken advantage of by her children and who often dives into a personal fantasy world involving the handsome Blair Underwood, who plays himself often sitting in his underwear, romanticizing Juanita.
As the movie progresses, Juanita decides that even Blair Underwood falls short of being an ideal man, and she sets out on a journey to Butte, Montana— because that’s where her finger landed on the map.
In her journey’s she continues to delve into her fantasy world and meets a slew of funny characters to include a lesbian truck driver, and a cafe’ full of Native folks— specifically, a veteran suffering from PTSD, turned french chef Jess, played by Adam Beach.
The film is filled with silly antics and a few serious undertones of self-discovery to include moments when Juanita travels to a traditional powwow and finally begins to find her true self.
In an interview with Adam Beach, who played the lighthearted, yet serious character of Jess, Beach explains what it was like working with Woodard, and his thoughts on the process of working on Juanita.
Vincent Schilling: Thanks for your time Adam. The first question I want to ask is, how was it working with Alfre Woodard?
Adam Beach: She is a priceless gem. Every day when you work with her you kind of realize how good she is. I tell people it's like going to school when you work with great actors because they kind of teach you a little bit more of what you should know. Part of my whole thing now is just what am I gonna find for work that's gonna keep me stimulated, because I've been getting jaded, and kind of bored, and kind of feeling like there's no challenge.
Vincent Schilling: So you decided to work on this film.
Adam Beach: I feel vibrant again. It's like somebody finally gets the understanding — that we have to change the narrative of Native films and our characters, and how we fit into cinema. This is one of those films that really projected that.
Vincent Schilling: This film is not just about a relationship, it gets cultural.
Adam Beach: Yeah. When you first see me as the chef, you kind of laugh and giggle because it's like I've never seen an Indian wear a hat like that before. Even me, I was kind of embarrassed wearing it. This year I helped my nephew get into chef school. He has to wear a chef's hat every day. I get pictures of his classes, and I'm like, "That's my character."
Vincent Schilling: That's funny
Adam Beach: Yeah. We don't see so-called Indians in that light. Then when we bring Juanita into the culture, especially for my character, whose suffering from PTSD from war, he's drinking, and he's trying to get his life straight. Our ceremonies are there for that, it's supposed to help us, it helps Juanita. It's a very traditional setting, and when you go to these so-called traditional powwows, there are only like 20 people there. Nobody's competing for prizes or anything, they're there for ceremony, and family, and to get together. The guys they found to help with the film, you could see how natural they are just by delivering the ceremonies on camera. And that's who we are.
Vincent Schilling: In regards to the powwow and ceremony, how were things behind the scenes with Juanita? I don't know how much she's been intermingled with going to a powwow or anything, but maybe what was some of the background, and what was going on during the actual bringing the culture to the set?
Adam Beach: But those guys, when they came in, they brought in all the stuff. That's all of their stuff that they travel with. So when you're there, you're filming them actually setting up shop for the film. It's not like, "Okay, we're going to set you up here, we're going to shoot you guys," no, "Just set it up and go." So you're seeing an actual kind of gathering being put together the right way, and how it's done. It takes you by surprise, so everybody on set was like, "Wow, this is beautiful."
Then when they start singing and you're like, oh my God, all of these guys know the songs, oh my God that woman over there made all the outfits for everybody or all the regalia for everybody to wear. It's nice to see that we are alive and well.
Vincent Schilling: So as an actor, you've been doing this for 20 plus years now. How do you prepare for a role today? And what's different from what you do now then what you used to do?
Adam Beach: I'm very picky about what I do, and I've always been. Every year I feel I get more picky because of my growth of who I am now from what I was five years ago. Preparing for a role really determines on how I see the world today, and what I could give into that character. So I'm looking for something that really interprets what I'm going through and how I perceive where we are in cinema.
Also, it's like this whole narrative change, because as you know in the last couple years I've been really vocal about stopping these wannabe Indians, and making sure that they stay out of our lane because there are not many parts for us.
The thing that was so difficult when I was boycotting, was that my friends didn't even really care about my boycott. Now a lot of people were like, "Way to go, Adam." But when you boycott something, you're kind of telling your friends, "Stay away from this film. They shouldn't be hiring non-Indians for an Indian role." When you're friends are showing up for that role, and then praising the people that have written it you're kind of like, "Wait, hold on a sec." I lost some friends during the process, but for me, I really stood up for my beliefs and our struggle in cinema. There's not much you can do.
Vincent Schilling: Yes, there's been a lot of struggle. What are you up to these days?
Adam Beach: My wife, Summer has started writing in the last couple of years, so together we have about four scripts. We're moving forward with that, and gonna set up meetings and take charge in the film process in what we're doing. I'm creating a platform for new actors. So I'm going to be looking for the new, up and coming Native actors to help them out.
Vincent Schilling: Are you going to have a full-fledged production company, or are you seeking fellow producers to help you kind of put this together type of thing?
Adam Beach: We're going to have our own production company. We're trying to figure out our name. We're just taking the reins in our hands, and gonna control what we want to do.
You know when I did the movie, Hostiles, I felt that it was like a high paid extra, and the ideas that I had that I wanted to incorporate into the film and the characters of our families weren't accepted. I felt kind of defeated. After that movie, I said, "I'll never go into something not knowing how the script development is gonna characterize what I'm doing."
I've been fortunate enough to work with great people, and you learn from those people. You want to take those teachings and put it toward our own projects, or the character developments, and et cetera. We're at a place now where we do have to work together as actors, writers, producers, but we have to be very aware that there are people out there who will get that open door and close it behind them very quickly so they can keep their job.
On the topic of the wannabe Indians that are out there because there are people still floating around saying ‘I'm from this Nation,’ but they have no paperwork to follow it up. They don't have the history of who their grandparent is. Some people are afraid to ask because they're like, "Oh, I don't want to get on their bad side." It's like, they're already playing a game and taking advantage of the little space we have in this world. The only way I can compete with that is by doing my own stuff, and not opening that door for the non-Indians kind of claiming us.
Vincent Schilling: What do you think about this whole Netflix thing? Talking about when Spielberg said something to the effect of, "Netflix shouldn't be available to run for an Oscar."
Adam Beach: What Netflix has done was opened up a platform that allows diversity to prevail on all mediums.
Vincent Schilling: After Adam Sandler’s Ridiculous Six, with the Native actors that walked off the set, Netflix did diversity efforts, they reached out to communities to say, ‘what can we do to avoid this type of stuff?’ What are your thoughts?
Adam Beach: Yeah, they're always going to be making those films. We have to have someone in place that reads those scripts and says, "This is degrading. How dare you?" We as actors are supposed to listen to those people who say, "This is degrading. Let's not do this," and not do it. If we work together at establishing this, as opposed to taking a paycheck, then we're making a change.
I think we're such a small minority in film and television, we're not even a percentage, that they take advantage of us in that way. They just want us for a backdrop. They just want us to play the savage Indian.
That's why when people see this movie, Juanita, it's going to really open their eyes, and really see that we are regular people. We strive to work careers, we are injured, and in some way, we carry the trauma of being American Indians in the last 100 years, and our culture is there to keep us grounded. That's always been there for thousands of years.
When you go to the big leagues and you look at big cinema, they don't allow these small independents to walk in on their platforms the way Netflix has allowed their platforms to succeed. That's why Netflix is such a juggernaut now. People are having this conversation because they changed the game, and I'm glad they have. Because now we can bring our projects to them and hopefully are selected, and it's streamed across the world and not in a limited kind of studio.
Vincent Schilling: Last question … any projects to look out for now moving forward?
Adam Beach: Yeah. My wife, Summer, and I have optioned the Richard Oakes story that ties into Alcatraz and the book we optioned is called “A Journey To Freedom “ by Kent Blansett. So my wife is writing that story. Reading the book of Richard Oaks and the whole Alcatraz situation, it opens your mind, including my mind as an Anishinabe. That there were these smart Indians, educators, who were leading a force of people stopping the government from eradicating our treaties, our reservations, and stopping the assimilation.
If you look into Canada, they're trying to terminate our people and the Indian Act, and privatize everything. It's kind of still going on. The story that I like about Richard Oaks is that he loved education and everything he learned he used it for the betterment of our people.
That's what we need to do. There's a lot of struggle out there, so I'm hoping this film can reignite the flame in all of us.
Juanita is now available on Netflix. Additional actors in the film include the following:
- Alfre Woodard as Juanita
- Blair Underwood as Blair Underwood
- Adam Beach as Jess
- Marcus Henderson as Randy
- LaTanya Richardson Jackson as Kay-Rita
- Ashlie Atkinson as Peaches
- Elaine Miles as Mountain
- Tsulan Cooper as Mary
- Kat Smith as Mignon
- Acorye' White as Rashawn
Visit the Netflix Juanita film page here.
Follow Indian Country Today’s associate editor Vincent Schilling (Akwesasne Mohawk) on Twitter - @VinceSchilling