'When I was growing up, I didn't see my community reflected on screens'
Indian Country Today
If you follow the Native actors in the world of the arts and entertainment industry, whether it be film, television, or fine arts and professional dance, you likely know the Indian Country Today newscast guest: Nehiyâw actor, director, and educator Michael Greyeyes. His community is the Muskeg Lake Cree Nation in Saskatchewan, Canada.
Michael Greyeyes has made a serious mark in the world of television and film and has portrayed such high profile roles as Qaletaqa Walker in Fear the Walking Dead, the leader Sheriff Traylor in the Indigenous zombie thriller Blood Quantum and Sitting Bull in Woman Walks Ahead with Jessica Chastain.
He also played in True Detective and the character of Jimmy Saint in V-Wars. His latest work that has recently hit HBO is I Know This Much Is True starring Mark Ruffalo.
Michael Greyeyes talks about his career on pause as an actor in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic and his thoughts about such matters as Black Lives Matter, dismantling a colonial narrative and just how soon we can see him getting back to work as an actor.
Some of the points made by Michael Greyeyes:
Thoughts on black lives matter, the death of George Floyd and today's climate of protest and activism
I feel incredibly strongly about social justice. As I watched the news with my family, you know, we watch together I'm sad,[about] the murder of George Floyd, it was a grotesque act and it enraged us, but what I see as a response to it, although I'm disappointed in all of us, it took the death of this man to motivate us, to speak out and to act to protest.
I'm grateful that it seems there's a growing movement or really powerful movement that goes beyond the boundaries of community and race to involve every one of good conscience. So I'm watching the protests and I'm hoping maybe for the first time, in a really long time, that we might be able to change the systems that have never served our communities. And that's certainly the value of black lives, and devalued Indigenous lives and the lives of people of color. So, as I watched this I'm hopeful.
I'm very excited by the potential for change. I think dismantling is a great word. I think when I see these statues come down when I see city councils, like the one in Minneapolis that say this system does not work for everyone and that we must seek a new way. I think dismantling is exactly the right term. We live in settler States. The United States of America and Canada are both settler States, settler States that have been built on Indigenous lives and built with black labor. And I look at the very systems that allow these nations to exist. And I think we must actually dismantle those systems that create injustice.
For me personally, I've always been very active, in terms of using my voice as a public person and certainly my voice as an artist and educator. So when I see the statues come down, I'm actually happy. No nation with good conscience puts up statues of people that have created misery and death. In Germany, there are not many public statues of Adolf Hitler. So when I look at Confederate statues, when I look at the statutes of Columbus, I'm reminded that the state doesn't view those people as a villain. They make them into heroes, and that disappoints me.
On 'I Know This Much Is True'
I'm so proud of the show. I think the work that Derek Cianfrance, our writer and director, and of course, Mark Ruffalo as the lead actor playing two roles in the mini-series is extraordinary. The entire cast is mind-blowingly good. I'm watching everyone from people with small supporting roles to people that are returning episode after episode. And I watched their work. I'm just amazed at how truthful, honest, and direct their performances have seemed. So it was a great pleasure to work on the show and all my scenes actually were with Mark, who is an extraordinary artist and ally, as you know, to many, many causes and communities, including indigenous people.
I play Ralph Drinkwater, who is a mixed-race person. He's part African and he's part Indigenous. And he in this community of Three Rivers, Connecticut, he's the real outsider. So for me to approach this role was exciting and challenging.
One of the final scenes that Mark and I had together was written of course, based on Wally Lamb's novel. But there were some technical issues about cultural knowledge that didn't sound authentic to me. And so Derek and Mark both spoke to me and said, ‘How do we make this better? They came to the Indigenous person on set and said, “What do you know? [Can you] help us? And I think that's really indicative of an approach by people with artistic rigor and cultural understanding. So I was very grateful that, uh, I had the opportunity to change the context of the scenes. It was really exciting for me.
Getting back to work post-COVID-19
I think smaller productions might actually go first because there's fewer crew, there are fewer casts. The idea of social distancing within a production context might be easier when you don't have hundreds of people working in tighter spaces or sharing spaces. So a film called Wild Indian … we began work on this project back in November, and then we had a hiatus and then of course COVID-19 and the pandemic started. That's the first project that's coming back and I'm very excited to return to it.
On the Indigenous zombie thriller “Blood Quantum”
I loved the project and how it turned out. Jeff Barnaby … is an extraordinary talent and an extraordinary filmmaker. And what I love about his work is that it's really profound on numerous levels in terms of characterization, in terms of its engagement with history. But his films are also incredibly entertaining. So “Blood Quantum” of course dealt with colonial history and repeated trauma. It dealt with male toxicity and that the legacy of fatherhood and how that affects generations at the same time. It’s like driving in a stolen car. You know, it's fun, there are zombies everywhere.
On “Fear The Walking Dead” and going to Comic-con
When we went to Comic-con right in the middle of filming … the experience in San Diego was electric. I think there were maybe 5,000, maybe more, people in the audience. And as we were introduced one by one, it was like being at a rock concert and our images were 50-feet high on these screens behind us. And I was really grateful for the exposure, grateful to be part of such a fantastic show. And again, I'm excited to be part of a new kind of portrayal that we've been seeing more and more of on our screens and, and our television sets, which envisions our people being portrayed as in really three-dimensional ways.
On Indigenous actors and the impression on the youth
We're entertainers. We provide people with an escape from their lives — their quiet lives, their busy lives, but I think about Indigenous youth. And I know that when I was growing up as well, I didn't see my community reflected on screens. I didn't see heroes. So in my small way, I hope that the work that people like Elle-Maija [Tailfeathers], myself, Jeff [Barnaby] Kiowa [Gordon], for us, I have hope that the work that we're doing inspires people to think about careers in media, think about careers as creators, as artists.
Also in the newscast, Jourdan Bennett-Begaye has the latest numbers of positive COVID-19 tests in Indian Country.
Today, Vincent Schilling sat in for anchor and executive producer of the newscast, Patty Talahongva.