Before the pandemic swept through the American film industry, Noah Watts was booking concerts for his band Nickels & Bones, and auditioning for acting roles in Los Angeles.
But COVID-19 brought those plans to a halt.
The actor and musician, a citizen of the Crow tribe and descendent of the Blackfeet Nation, is known widely for his voiceover work on the video game franchise “Assassin’s Creed.”
Once he learned that the coronavirus could compromise his lungs, Watts, 37, who has asthma, barely left his Billings, Montana, home. And for the next few months, neither did the four guitars standing up along his wall.
He stopped taking new gigs or roles, except for voiceover work on a video game that he could record remotely.
“I basically had to shut in for a while,” Watts recalled during a recent Zoom interview, “I couldn’t audition for any films. I was auditioning quite a bit when I went to L.A. in 2019. I couldn’t do any of those roles, any theater productions, anything where I had to be live and be around anyone else.”
“And so, with that, income goes down,” he added.
Then in January, Watts received a $2,000 check that helped him make rent and pay for his groceries.
Watts is one of more than 225 recipients of a grant from the Natives in Entertainment COVID-19 Relief Fund, created in a partnership between the Native American Media Alliance and Netflix to support Indigenous writers, directors, actors and other industry professionals who lost jobs to the pandemic.
Ian Skorodin, Choctaw, a filmmaker who is the director of strategy for the alliance, said he encourages all Natives who have lost work to apply, even if it just provides some short-term relief. More than $450,000 worth of grants distributed as of April, and there are still more grants available.
“There’s immediate benefits of being able to bridge the gap while the government passes a new stimulus,” he said. “While this amount isn’t life-changing, what we’ve been hearing is that it’s providing an adequate amount to get people through beyond what they were expecting.”
Demanding an Indigenous presence in entertainment
Both during the pandemic and long before it, parity for Native people in entertainment has been a significant issue, Skorodin said. The COVID-19 relief grant has illuminated the need to protect and advance Indigenous people’s presence in the industry.
“Native Americans don’t have a loud voice in diversity. Historically, that’s been the case,” Skorodin said.
The organization’s work aims to solve that problem and amplify Native voices. Initiatives include an annual TV writers lab, summer filmmaking workshops for youth living on reservations, nine-month training programs for TV producers, and the COVID-19 relief fund, Skorodin said.
“We need to do that so we can show that we’re not only as good as our counterparts, but we’re working harder,” he explained. “We have just as much talent, and deserve just as much attention and engagement.”
The Hollywood Diversity Report 2020, published by the University of California, Los Angeles, tracked 1,000 top roles in 286 films released in 2018 and 2019, and found that Indigenous actors played just 0.3 percent of lead roles and only 0.5 percent of all roles in the studied films.
A diversity study by Netflix and the University of Southern California reported zero American Indian or Alaska Native lead roles, co-leads, screenwriters, producers or directors in the streaming service’s films and series in 2018 and 2019. Indigenous actors also made up less than 1 percent of all main casts.
In February, the platform launched the Netflix Fund for Creative Equity, which will invest $100 million over the next five years in “a combination of external organizations with a strong track record of setting underrepresented communities up for success in the TV and film industries.”
Despite challenges brought on by the pandemic, Skorodin said opportunities for Natives in entertainment have become more accessible in some ways. It’s an exciting time for Indigenous people thinking about that path to get started, especially those living in more isolated communities, he said.
“I think now is a good time to do it. With the pandemic, everything’s virtual,” he said. “If you want to apply for a job, it’ll be online. If you want to audition, it’ll be online.”
The organization is also teaching Native youth how to use Blender, a free and open source 3D creation suite that is considered the industry standard for animation, he said.
‘Just keep going’
For makeup artist Mayera Abeita, a citizen of Laguna Pueblo, the COVID-19 relief grant helped cover preschool tuition and enrollment for her 4-year-old son.
In March 2020, Abeita, 43, had just started working on a TV show pilot that was quickly shut down when the pandemic reached California. That marked the beginning of a six-month period in which the Los Angeles-based artist couldn’t find work.
Instead, being a parent became Abeita’s full-time job, and she spent most of the early months of the pandemic home-schooling her then-3-year-old son after his preschool shut down.
Eventually, makeup gigs started to pick up again late in the summer.
“However strenuous it was, there were some little things that I was happy to be around for,” she said.
The ability to represent her tribe has served as motivation for Abeita to stay patient through difficult times.
“I feel really honored to represent, in my specific industry, on set,” said Abeita, who has been doing special effects, TV and film makeup for about 12 years.
She has worked behind the scenes of shows on major networks such as CBS, NBC and Bravo; commercials for Ford Motor Company, and even the music video for “Work” by Iggy Azalea.
“I have felt alone, culturally speaking — not that you go to work and think about who you specifically are all the time. But it was really nice to find out about the organization. It was refreshing to know I wasn’t the only one out there, in this industry, in L.A.”
In more than a decade working in the industry, taking on gigs in large cities like Los Angeles and New York City, Abeita said she has only encountered two other Native makeup artists.
“I never come across anybody who’s Native working on a set in L.A. That doesn’t mean there aren’t any. It just means I haven’t worked with them yet,” she said.
Abeita said she hopes to connect with more Pueblo people in entertainment, and shared advice for other Indigenous people who are considering a career path in the arts.
“Culturally, we’re a very strong people. Anyone who’s Native, wanting to get into the industry, you just have to have the drive and perseverance to make it through the first few years,” she said.
“You have to go in with the expectation of ‘I know I can get through these first couple of years,’ and just keep going. If you keep going, you will get to the sweet spot.”
Getting it right
Noah Watts said he has sometimes been disappointed with the mainstream film industry’s casting practices and treatment of Native people in blockbuster movies.
“Sometimes even when they are in big budget Hollywood movies, they're never the main characters,” Watts said. In 2016, Adam Beach, Lake Manitoba First Nation, played Slipknot in the blockbuster hit, “Suicide Squad.” The character had a short screen time after getting killed off.
It’s an issue that hits close to home for Watts, who said there have been times in which he was assigned roles that were simply described as “Native American” without specific details about a tribe.
“There are so many different tribes with their own cultures, their own languages and their own customs,” he said.
He said casting actors of other ethnicities to play Native roles has also been an issue Indigenous actors deal with.
However, opportunities are growing in some parts of the TV industry. In late April, NBC’s Peacock premiered the sitcom “Rutherford Falls,” boasting a Native lead, and a mostly Native cast, and the largest team of Indigenous writers to ever work on an American TV show. The network also announced in October that a pilot was in the works for a Native American drama called “Sovereign.”
For Watts, working for “Assassin’s Creed” in 2012 was an example of getting it right: the creators sought permission from the Mohawk tribe to use the Kanien'kéha language and a Mohawk name, “Ratonhnhaké:ton,” given by an elder. The game developers worked with consultants from the tribe, who were featured in Forbes in 2012 for the cultural and linguistic guidance they provided.
During his career, Watts said, he developed a personal standard. He won’t accept roles unless the filmmakers demonstrate a respect for the Native cultures they portray in their films. To do otherwise would contribute to stereotypes and inaccurate portrayals, he fears.
“We haven’t had a chance to really represent ourselves yet, to tell our own stories. It's getting there now. It's getting better,” he said. “I think that Natives need to have their own voice and control over their image in the media.”
Watts used his pandemic downtime to go back to school at Little Big Horn College, a tribal community college on the Crow reservation in Montana, for education and Crow Studies. The end goal, he said, is to teach music and acting to Crow youth and fill a gap left by public schools that tend to focus more on athletics than the arts.
He said his determination to work with kids inspired him to leave Los Angeles and return to Montana in 2020.
“I wasn't really helping out my tribe. I was really only focusing on my own career,” he said. “You get a little lost down there. I’m trying to give a little bit more back and pay attention to the things that are important, like my family here in Montana.”
Watts, who recently got the COVID-19 vaccine, said he looks forward to working on film and theater projects with members of the Crow tribe.
“It's not always just going to be raining,” he said.
“Keep going, and keep having a belief in yourself. You just have to concentrate on being an artist, telling the truth, trying to inspire people and spread love.”