With the help of helmers like John Woo — who insisted on an extensive search for Navajo tribesmen to star in his latest feature, MGM’s “Windtalkers” — filmmakers are continuing a trend toward casting for ethnic accuracy.
In cinematic yesteryear, when casting directors wanted someone to fill a lead role, they simply cast an A-list star — one example being Burt Lancaster in 1954’s “Apache” or Sir Alec Guiness as a Hindu sage in 1979’s “A Passage to India.”
But pressure from special interest groups has created a more sensitive climate as of late. But the creators of “Windtalkers,” about Marines who used an unbreakable secret code created by Navajo recruits during WWII, were more interested in accuracy than peer pressure.
American Indian actors such as first-timer Roger Willie, and the more seasoned Adam Beach — who starred in the drama “Smoke Signals” — are being cast to play alongside big-salary toppers such as Nicolas Cage.
Casting director Mindy Marin had her work cut out for her when the filmmakers requested that actual Navajos be cast.
“We’ve had casting calls in the past where we’ve had to seek someone from a certain community,” says Marin, who did searches in many areas including the southwest Four Corners region, “but I think this particular piece we committed a lot more time to than I’ve had in the past. We had to go very far, very wide and very deep.”
Willie was discovered, according to Marin, when he brought his eager nephew in for one of the numerous casting calls. The nephew wasn’t what they were looking for, but Willie was. Unfortunately, because of some skepticism it took quite a bit of coaxing to get Willie to take the part.
“Many of them came out of curiosity, and other out of trepidation, and some were very leery of us,” says Marin. “We had to ensure them our intention was only the best, and that we knew we were dealing with something they were very proud of in their community.”
Finally cast, co-stars like Beach — who is actually Canadian — gained knowledge from Willie’s presence on set.
“He gave our characters a past and helped show to further show how we lead our lives,” says Beach of Willie’s contributions.
Beach hopes other American Indians can break one of the larger superstitions looming, that the seduction of a career in Hollywood will not go against the traditions of his people, but hopefully start a positive new one.
“I would encourage everyone to put their foot in the door,” says Beach on the subject of more American Indians entering the acting circle. “There is a lack of interest for native actors, and they should not be afraid to approach it as a career move. I think there should be more of us out there.”