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“Because I lived a life before that” – Wes Studi’s long journey to acting

On January 29, Wes Studi joined Professor Alexander Nemerov to discuss his practices as an actor and how he takes on the emotions of his characters.

Wes Studi, left, and Alexander Nemerov in conversation on January 29 at Stanford. (Photo credit: Sasha Landauer)

By Sasha Landauer

In one of his early casting calls, Wes Studi was asked, “Can you ride a horse, shoot a gun, and speak a language other than English simultaneously?” In a conversation with Art & Art History Professor Alexander Nemerov on January 29, the actor recalled, “I could do all those things because I lived a life before that. I took those three things and put them to creating a character.”

Studi is an actor who has given acclaimed performances in films like Dances with Wolves, The Last of the Mohicans, Geronimo: An American Legend, and Heat, as well as James Cameron's Avatar and Paul Weitz’s Being Flynn.

The experiences that brought him to that casting call, and all that he has accomplished since are an extraordinary personalization of the western and Native American experience of his time. The richness of his lived experience, he says, is part of what has allowed him to take on complicated and powerful roles.

“As a young man I believed that warriorhood was a good thing,” he said. “That it was a part of a young man’s being, of becoming, of going through a process of sorts and becoming an adult and a responsible part of the world. I volunteered to go to Vietnam, I served my country for one year, and came home to be spit at, to be called baby killer, to being absolutely abhorred as a monster of some sorts who had been over in Vietnam killing people.”

Partway through his time serving in Vietnam, Studi said he came to realize the injustice of the conflict and feel an affinity with the oppression of Vietnamese people. “We had gone through the same damn thing, I began to realize that,” he said.

Upon his return, Studi became involved with the American Indian Movement takeover of the Wounded Knee monument in South Dakota, in protest of the Lakota tribal administration and what the organizers believed was the failure of the US Government to meet treaty obligations. The standoff, which began in February 1973, eventually involved the US Marshals and the FBI, lasted 71 days, and resulted in several casualties.

“At the end of Wounded Knee for me, the real lesson learned from all of that was that we have to go back to our communities, begin to organize, and begin to strive for that which we are asking for,” Studi said.

Studi then took part in the revival of an original Cherokee newspaper (founded in 1844 and published in the Cherokee syllabary), known as the Cherokee Advocate. He wrote a column, Anyway, James, in which he was very critical of the Cherokee tribal administration. He was eventually fired from the job, although it remains the work he is most proud of.

From there, Studi went on to acting. “There was nothing else I could do,” he said.  

On the Politics of Acting

Nemerov then questioned Studi on the relationship between art and politics. He said many students come to him with a concern that working in art is “a surrender of one’s political life,” given the ways in which it can aestheticize the present. He asked Studi how he conceived of the relation of art to politics.

“Art has been used to further politics since day immemorial,” Studi responded. “Art is life, life is art. If you live a good life, you’re a good artist. If you’re able to live a life that supplies you and yours with what you need, you are Leonardo Da Vinci or something. Art itself is life.”

On Embodying on the Emotions of Characters

Nemerov began the event by showing several excerpts from The Last of the Mohicans, in which Studi played the Huron Indian Chief Magua, the primary antagonist to Daniel Day Lewis’ hero, Hawkeye. The clips he chose highlight the intensity of Studi’s role; he slashes an enemy’s throat, pushes a man off a cliff, and watches his beautiful beloved jump after him.

Wes Studi plays Magua, rear, in a climactic scene from Last of the Mohicans (1992).   Morgan Creek International

“Can you tell us a little bit about how that role came to you, and then how you tried to embody that character?” Nemerov asked.

“It came to me the old fashioned way – I had to audition for it. But actually, the Magua role was extremely difficult in terms of feeling all of those things as they relate to one’s own personal experience,” Studi responded.

“I don’t plan anything in terms of where it’s going to go. What I do is feel something very similar to what I’m describing, as in the loss of my wife, or the anger I feel towards someone who has taken something from me. I’ve experienced those things in my own life and add them to this particular performance.“

“Now, I don’t recommend any actor to do that on a regular basis, because it can be an emotional rollercoaster ride in terms of playing with your own emotions, and at the end of the day you can be fairly dead. Worn out.”

“I save it for the close ups,” Studi continued. “Then you really have got to feel it because then that camera is right there. It’s the best, absolute best at finding any kind of lie that you might be telling. It simply doesn’t accept a lie. It’s looking for truth and it’s going to find it. So if you’re not feeling it, nobody else is going to feel it either.”

Nonetheless, Studi says he recognizes the ways in which he must be careful in using his platform. “What kind of a world do we live in? Flaming conservative and liberal. We as Cherokees have always been caught between the conservative and the liberal. We have always had to fight each side, and work with each side,” he said.

“I think I’ve done my part so far and I will continue to do my part,” he said. “I have my opinions, and I will use them when needed, and I will continue to work as long as I possibly can, because this is something that I have come to love to do.”



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