How Graham Greene Led The Way for an Aspiring Native American Actor (Guest Column)

THUNDERHEART,  Graham Greene, 1992. ph: Elliott Marks / ©TriStar Pictures / Courtesy Everett Collection
©TriStar Pictures/Courtesy Ever

There is a Native film from 1989 about a road trip called “Powwow Highway” starring Gary Farmer and A Martinez. It’s a wonderful film that I enjoyed, and I highly recommend it to people who haven’t seen it. However, it wasn’t so much the movie that had a huge impact on me as it was a single performance that moved me. This performance has stayed with me to this day. I look at it when I need some inspiration and guidance for my work.

I was around 13 years old and living in a small town on an Indian reservation in the eastern part of Montana when I first saw “Powwow Highway.” I had rented the film at our local video store and had no idea what the movie was going to be about. I just knew that it had Indians in it and that was cool enough for me.

Somewhere in the middle of the movie, there is a scene that takes place at a powwow in a school gymnasium. One of the lead characters gets into a confrontation with a group of guys. Just when things start to get out of hand, the lead character is saved by a Vietnam veteran. The actor that played that Vietnam veteran is Graham Greene.

Graham Greene was only in one scene and his character had barely any dialogue.

But, in my humble opinion, Graham knocked it out of the park. He made his character so fire that I felt he stole the whole movie for me. I was only 13, yet I knew this actor was something special to me.

Shortly after in 1990, when “Dances with Wolves” came out, I saw Graham Greene again. He was playing Kicking Bird, a role in which he was rightfully Oscar-nominated for Best Supporting Actor. Greene’s portrayal as Kicking Bird was for me one of intuition, patience, curiosity, and a quiet leadership that came through his eyes when he spoke his lines in Lakota Sioux to Kevin Costner’s Lt. Dunbar.

I remember watching Greene as he walked the red carpet at the ‘91 Oscar ceremony from my television at home, in some small town out in the middle of nowhere. I remember feeling so inspired and proud to see this huge movie make such a cultural impact for Indigenous people’s portrayal in Hollywood at that time and era. It was a win. And, there was Graham Greene. One of the many Native actors riding the ’90s wave of Native cinema. And at a young age, I wanted to be a part of it, somehow.

After “Dances with Wolves,” Greene followed up with “Clearcut” and “The Last of His Tribe.” Two more great movies and impeccable performances from Greene. But, it was his role as Walter Crow Horse in “Thunderheart” that stole my imagination and solidified my decision to want to become a professional actor.

Unfortunately, I don’t remember what Native Youth Conference it was, as I had attended a number of them in my youth. But this particular conference was having a private screening of the film “Thunderheart” for the youth who attended, and the movie wasn’t going to be released for another week, I believe. So, we all felt pretty special to watch the film before it was to be released out into the world.

It was exciting. The theater was packed, and the energy was electric. There was a sense of love and unity in the air. When the lights came down for the movie to start, everyone went silent.

If you haven’t seen “Thunderheart,” I highly recommend it. I don’t want to go too much into the film’s plot but, when Graham Greene showed up on the screen, I knew this man was going to be my go-to if I should ever try to become a professional actor. His character was one of the best roles in the film and as always, Graham gave a stellar performance. Val Kilmer was the lead and good in it too, but to me, it was Graham Greene’s film the second he set foot on the screen until the end of the movie, as far as I’m concerned.

Without giving too much away, in the scene when the bad guys are closing in on Val Kilmer and Graham Greene, the bad guys’ trucks are slowly pulling up. Guns are drawn and the future looks bleak for our two heroes. Just when you think this all going to end badly, Graham gives the coolest look to Val. And then they both pull their guns and run headfirst into the danger that lays before them.

The audience went wild when Greene leaped and slid over the top hood of a car to get a better shot at the bad guys. And I was right there with him. I never felt more pride in my heritage watching this Native actor take on the bad guys like he was Paul Newman and Robert Redford all wrapped into one. “Run for the Stronghold, Thunderheart!”

I left the movie theater that night a changed teenager. A young man on a mission. I had no idea how to get there. But, if a guy like Graham Greene can make it then maybe…maybe I can do what he does. Be an actor. A performer. Something other than where I was at.

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Chaske Spencer in “Wild Indian Courtesy Wild Indian

The first movie I was cast in was a film called “Skins.” The film’s lead was Graham Greene. I’ve worked on many films since then, but this one was the best acting lesson I have ever received.

My part wasn’t that big, but I was very grateful to be there. One day I was on set when Graham was there. He was working and I was watching him. I was nervous to meet him.

One night after a long day of filming I was hanging out at the local empty bar that night; just me and my script. I know I know…. but then Graham Greene walks in. He must have wrapped early and he was alone as well. My head shot straight down into my script to try to ignore him. Fear shot through my body. Should I say hi? Should I just let him be? I’ll just sit here and try to be cool.

Graham pulls up to the bar and looks over and sees me. “Hey, nephew! Come over here! What ya doing?” I freeze for a bit and then I muster up some courage and walk over as cool as I can to the bar. I pull up beside him. Grab a chair. Order another drink and away I went on this crazy life as a “clown” as Graham liked to call actors that night.

I am not going into the details of our discussion. It was private. It was educational. But, most of all it was a fucking blast hanging out with Graham Greene that night.

I got to see the man behind the screen. The Artist. The Performer. The Icon, in my opinion. A couple of things he told me that I’ve always made sure I remembered before I go to set: One. Know your lenses. Two. I am just a clown. I put on make-up. I pretend to be other people. I dance for the audience. I make them laugh and I make them cry. That’s my job. I take pride in my job. I know I’m not reinventing the wheel here or trying to cure cancer. I am just a clown that… hopefully, is good enough at my job that I can make you forget about life for a few hours. This is what I’ve learned from Graham Greene. To me, he has always been my go-to. He is a Native man who happens to be one of the best actors of his generation. He helped give me some pride in those days when there wasn’t much pride going around. He has worked with some of the biggest names in Hollywood and has stolen scenes right out from under them.

I’ve been lucky that I’ve been able to work with Graham Greene again on one of the “Twilight” films and he remembered me. I haven’t had the honor of being in his presence in some time. I hope he still remembers me. But, if he doesn’t that’s okay too.

He did his job. And he did it very well.

He inspired this young teenager to take that chance and go out and try to do what Graham Greene does.

All I can say is — thank you, Graham. Thank you for being you. And that was the best part of our conversation that night. That is what I walked away with.

Just be you.

Indigenous actor and advocate Chaske Spencer (Lakota Sioux) stars in “Wild Indian,” which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. He will  next star opposite Emily Blunt in Hugo Blick’s limited series “The English.” He  is also known for his portrayal of Sam Uley in the “Twilight” Saga.