Oil rigs? Not when there’s a big screen and big roles
Sandra Hale Schulman
Martin Sensmeier, Tlingit, said though working on an oil rig “sucks” he appreciated the time off and paychecks that allowed him to seek his dream of becoming an actor.
Sensmeier, known for his role as Red Harvest in “The Magnificent Seven” alongside Denzel Washington, has been cast as the lead role of Sergeant Samuel Coldfoot in “The Liberator,” a Netflix four-part animated WWII drama on Netflix. Sensmeier will be starring alongside actor Bradley James.
The series will be produced in a new enhanced hybrid animation technology known as Trioscope, and the story highlights the 157th Infantry National Guard unit from Oklahoma which was comprised of Native Americans and Mexican Americans that were deployed and fought for over 500 days to liberate the Dachau Concentration Camp in southern Germany.
“The Liberator” is based on the book by Alex Kershaw titled The Liberator: One World War II Soldier’s 500-Day Odyssey.
Sensmeier’s role as Samuel Coldfoot, a member of the Choctaw Nation, is recognized in the unit for his bravery and leadership and becomes one of the leaders in his E-Company. Deadline reported on Sensmeier’s role as Coldfoot earlier this year.
“Coldfoot is a born leader; brave, meticulous and inspiring. While outwardly stoic, Coldfoot is willing to sacrifice his personal well-being for what is right and this attitude has thwarted his advancement in the Army. His abilities and skills are immediately recognized by Sparks and he becomes one of the leaders of E-Company.”
Other Native American actors have been cast in the production to include Tatanka Means as Private Tomas Otaktay and Kiowa Gordon as Corporal Kanuna.
But for Sensmeier, “The Liberator” is not the only project he is working on.
Another project for Sensmeier includes “Montford: The Chickasaw Rancher,” where a nearly unrecognizable Sensmeier plays Montford T. Johnson, a half-breed Chickasaw who built a cattle empire along the Chisolm Trail in the 1800s.
Balancing his dual identity, he must fight cowboys, other Indians, bandits and settlers. The film also stars Dermot Mulroney and is financed by the Chickasaw Nation.
Chickasaw Rancher Trailer
During an appearance at the Seminole Native Reel Cinema Festival at the Hard Rock Resort in Hollywood, Fla., in February, Sensmeier, reflected on how his small-town roots led him to Hollywood, Calif., for a serious acting career.
Sensmeier is 35-years-old and grew up in Southeast Alaska in Yakutat, a small town with a population of 600. “My parents were very involved with the community, my mom is a PA and dad is a doctor, he was the first from our town to graduate from Med school and has been there ever since.”
Though his family was involved with medicine, he didn’t want to necessarily follow that path.
“I didn't want to go into medicine, it was too much school. I’ve been working since I was 10, I scrubbed boats with a bucket for 15 dollars a pop, chopped wood, sold the wood, anything I could do as I liked being physical. I did some school plays, and my brother Chris was a big movie guy, he had a home theater. There was no movie theater in our town but there was a video rental shop, just a little local place, but I would spend 2-3 hours just picking out a movie there in the late 80s, I loved everything about them.”
Sensmeier went to welding school and got a lucrative job on an oil rig, making $80,000 a year at age 20. But said the most difficult part of the work was the sub-zero temperatures.
“It sucks,” he said laughing. “But the money was good. I would have made a great welder if I stuck with it, but it’s a dirty job. The best part was the schedule — two weeks off every month, so with my very first paycheck, I went to Los Angeles in 2007 and bought a ticket to see the Lakers play with Kobe Bryant. I’m glad I did that now. I started taking acting classes too. I kept this up for about 8 years — going back and forth from the oil rig to LA.”
Sensmeier said he realized he had to fully commit to Los Angeles.
“In 2010 I said that’s it, I’m heading back to LA for good to get it going, but my original acting teacher had retired. He told me though that he was now managing actors so he took me on and sent me on auditions. It was no overnight success. I only had one audition every four months, so I kept busy with classes. My manager said I want you to go for bigger roles, ones that are non-race specific. I started working one role that was for a blond-haired blue-eyed guy — they changed his looks for me.”
Sensmeier landed a role in the Antoine Fuqua directed “The Magnificent Seven” starring Denzel Washington, whom Sensmeir says is his favorite actor.
“Denzel Washington … said luck is when preparation meets opportunity. When I didn’t get something maybe I was not as prepared as I could have been. The worst part for me was the homesickness, being away from my people and my family, the traditions we have, so to sacrifice that I committed to being the best that I can.”
After “The Magnificent Seven” Sensmeier soon landed roles in HBO’s award-winning “Westworld,” the film “Wind River,” and on TV’s “Yellowstone.”
In 2018, Sensmeier was approached to star in a script co-written by Sterlin Harjo called “Bright Path: The Jim Thorpe story” about the Olympic medal-winning athlete who was a member of the Sac and Fox Nation. While still in its early stages, the film has amassed a roster of top names who have signed on to be involved with the project, including producer Angelina Jolie, Todd Black, and Steve Tisch as producers. Several tribes have joined together to support it, including the Tuolumne Band of Me-Wuk Indians, the Mohegan Tribe, the Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation, the Tonto Apache Tribe, and the Bear River Band of the Rohnerville Rancheria.
“The Bright Path film has gone through a few writers now,” Sensmeier says. “I’m excited to see what happens, though there will be no filming this year. It has to be the right team, there is a lot that goes into a big movie. I’m very excited, it’s such an important story. In a way, I’m glad it’s taking this long as I’m working out in the gym and have other projects lined up and I’m getting more experienced all the time. In a big production even once it’s locked and moves forward, there are locations to be sourced and it will be a high production value movie. By getting it all in the order we can get pre-distribution and not have to sell the movie at film festivals.”
Sensmeier will be co-producing as part of his new company called Box of Daylight, named after the Tlingit story of Raven and his transformation of the world by bringing light to the people via the stars, moon, and sun in his box.
Thorpe’s Native name was Wa-Tho-Huk which translates as Bright Path. He won two Olympic gold track and field medals, played major league baseball, football and founded the National Football League, all while facing discrimination.
Meanwhile, Sensemeier is keeping busy with documentaries, developing more films, and producing. With his dark good looks and positive attitude, he is becoming a familiar face on movie sets and reservations.
“I’m working with great directors and am always observing on set so I constantly learn. I’m about to have a baby (with singer Kahara Hodges), have two dogs, and so have a lot of responsibility. Now tribes like the Seminole ask me to come and visit them to speak, it’s such a gift and an honor to get to interact with tribes I would never have met all over the country. I always express my gratitude, I show up ready and prepared, and everyone has something I can learn from if I listen to their stories.”
Sandra Hale Schulman, Cherokee, has been writing about Native issues since 1994. She is an author of four books, has contributed to shows at the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian and has produced three films on Native musicians.