By Nanobah Becker (Navajo), Intern, NMAI
NB: How did you get involved with The
Business of Fancydancing?
Sherman Alexie and I had worked on his film Smoke
Signals. We both really liked it. He calls me his "Injun-ue;"
while he's been thinking about his film projects he imagines me
as his on-screen persona.
We actually were working on three story ideas, a few different
adaptations of scripts. One of them was Indian Killer,
the other one was Reservation Blues, and this one The
Business of Fancydancing. This is the one that went ahead
first. So Sherman just called me up and said, "I want to
start in a few weeks." And I said, "Okay, I think I
can do it." Since then we've been doing the film festival
circuit and presenting the film to audiences.
NB: What was your collaboration like with him, the producers,
and the other actors?
EA: It's a very different kind of approach. Sherman's
quite aware that we're inventing a process. Aboriginal people
haven't really presented their stories in the first person on
film a lot. Especially in a dramatic, feature length production.
So, we experimented a lot. We'd get the script. We would shoot
like nine, ten pages a day sometimes. He would give us long, long,
long monologues to do, sometimes five pages long, and he'd say,
"Yeah, just get up and do it." As an actor, the most
you'd ever get is two pages. And usually your monologues are maybe
a third of a page. So to go for such long periods is so strange.
But he wanted to give it a try. He wanted to have the actors have
a lot of input.
And Sherman, it's funny, because Sherman is such a great writer
you feel a bit like you're improvising Shakespeare. He's such
a great writer that you don't want to mess with his words, but
then there he is saying, "Go ahead, change it, change everything
if you want to." It's a pretty free process.
NB: And what about the producers?
EA: Larry Estes and Scott Rosenfelt were the producers
on this film. They were two of the producers from Smoke
Signals, and they both have pretty mainstream, Hollywood
backgrounds. But like all of us, we have a great love of independent
film. We want to do film that's not aimed at a pop culture market,
pitched at a grade six level for general consumption. We want
to do films that are quite challenging and interesting for our
peer group that are pretty well educated, non-mainstream audience
like Indians, like intellectuals, or gays and lesbians, or more
of what's represented within the character group. We just didn't
want to present a bland romantic comedy with the various people
we normally get to see in film.
NB: In the published screenplay you wrote about your character:
"I wanted Seymour's story to be done justice and to be an
example to any of us Indians who left the rez to explore the world."
What did you mean by that?
EA: When Sherman first presented this script to me the
thing that struck me the most about my character was that he was
a very successful Indian man. And I've always struggled with the
idea of the "Great Red Hope" syndrome-that any person
from a minority who has a little bit of promise and a little bit
of skill and a little bit of ambition gets told, "Oh, you
have to save your race and fix the problems that occur in your
people." And I think that a lot of us fall into that trap,
and I think that a lot of us have not seen that story reflected
back to us, so I wouldn't want us to do that with this character.
[I wanted to] present him as truthfully as possible because I
think there are a lot of us who've left the rez.
NB: Do you feel like you've succeeded?
EA: I feel like my character was a little bit successful.
I purposefully presented him as quite dark because I don't think
that everyone should leave the rez and become a professional and
a foot soldier in the white man's army. I don't believe that.
I didn't want my character to be the typical hero in the Hollywood
genre. I wanted you to think that my character was going to be
the archetypal hero only to discover he's not so nice. Maybe he's
a little too ambitious. Maybe he did sell a part of his soul or
all of his soul in order to be where he's at. Maybe the fact that
he's successful or a celebrity doesn't mean that he's a good person
or a kind person. And, of course, that's the truth, right? I mean,
some of the most despicable people I know are not the ones without
ability, they're the ones who have made bad choices to hurt others.
NB: Do you think his choice to leave (the rez) plagued
EA: The choice I made for my character, for Seymour, was
to have him have no remorse. I didn't want him to pity himself.
I did want to show him, though, as pitiful. Someone you looked
at, and you thought, "uhh, I'm not sure I want to be like
that at all." So, I kinda poured all of the anguish that
I have as a person into the character.
At the time I was studying medicine; I was in the final year
of medical school. It was really, really hard and draining. And
I felt like a lot of my humanity had left and all that was left
was a cold efficiency. And, yeah, I was pretty unhappy. I wanted
to see that in the character. I didn't want to present something
that wasn't true.
I'm trying to remember who said it, but "The 'Red Road'
is hard enough to walk without someone telling you things that
cannot possibly be true." So, I had to be really honest and
say, if you work this hard, if you're this successful, you have
to be pretty cold and hard and pretty focused. So that's the side
I tried to present.
NB: I wanted to ask you about something else you wrote
in reference to The
Business of Fancydancing. You wrote, "acting is holy
work." Can you explain that?
EA: Sure. Acting should be an extension of the fine arts.
It should be a literary endeavor much like English. It shouldn't
be pop culture. It shouldn't be titillating. For instance, there
are certainly a lot of actors who make a lot of money for flirting
with the camera. They make a huge amount of money doing that.
I'm not here to sell dreams, I'm not here to flirt and to titillate.
I'm here to teach important lessons and to bring forward important
ideas that could potentially change your life. Really, I want
to present existentialist, philosophical ideas and not, you know,
work from the crotch. But that's all. I mean, that's a job, but
it's not my job.
So I think that at it's purest an actor puts forward dramas or
puts forward stories-histories-for others to see and experience
and to learn from. Thank goodness important, modern American drama
gets put forward for others to learn about. To learn about the
race riots and slavery. To learn about feminism and abortion,
to learn about gay and lesbian identity and struggle, to learn
about children's rights. Those are important issues. An actor
has a hand in that. And that 's when it becomes holy.
Of course, it can be unholy. (Laugh) It can be stupid, and I
don't mind that. I'm the first one to be an idiot if I need to
be. But there do have to be times in your life where you try to
do your best and bring out certain issues. I want [people] to
say, "He did some good stuff, he said some important things."
NB: Are you an entertainer?
EA: That's a good question. Am I an entertainer? I'm supposed
to be, aren't I? I'm supposed to be. I have to try and remember
that a lot. I think one of the things that I remembered to do
in "Smoke Signals" was to have fun. If you're having
fun, the audience is having fun. I didn't quite remember that
in The Business of
Fancydancing so my character's a little over-earnest.
And in real life, I'm almost 40, I have a very difficult job as
a physician taking care of people literally as they're living
and dying. So I can be a little over-serious.
Like, for instance, today the president of my fan club is here,
and she loves to write things about what kind of pants I'm wearing
and what kind of car I arrived in and how did I look. Did I look
good or did I look bad? That kind of stuff people respond to,
and I always have to remember that people like to be amused, that
they're entertained by that kind of stuff, even though to me it
that's not important. So, yeah, I guess the answer is yes, I am
NB: I know you're a competitive and traditional dancer.
Can you talk about the dancing you did in the movie?
EA: Oh, I sucked when I was dancing in this movie. It
was so funny. We laughed and laughed. Part of it was, in The
Business of Fancydancing Sherman has me doing a women's
shawl [dance]. I'm playing a gay character, a two-spirited character.
So he had great fun, and we thought it was quite funny. It's funny
for Indians to see an Indian man doing women's dances. But then
you also see me doing a war dance, a fancydance.
I was quite competitive and worked a huge amount as a modern
and traditional dancer, but it's been a while since I danced.
I've been in school for many years, so when I watch the film I
laugh because-part of it, I mean, it's ridiculous, a woman's dance.
The other part of it is I'm working really hard to do this men's
fancydance. But it works, and it was purposeful. If I was a really,
really good fancydancer in the film, then that would say something
about my character. If I was one that was rusty, then that says
another thing about my character. And I think my character is
more someone who'd be rusty at his traditional dancing.
NB: How has this film been perceived in your community,
and what is the difference been between how Indians and non-Indians
have responded to it?
EA: My community is not unbiased. I could probably just,
you know, do a really trashy film and they would still be happy.
But my mother, I thought her reaction was quite telling. She
really liked the film and it's complexity. She was terribly disturbed
by one scene that I think typifies the film, and that's when Mouse
and Aristotle beat up a white stranger. She said, "That was
so vicious, and it was so cruel. Why did it have to be there?
It doesn't give a good picture of us." And I thought, that's
good, because we're certainly at a point in our culture where
it's time for some social commentary. Indians aren't perfect,
they make mistakes, and certainly that kind of blind rage, racism,
anger, violence is not acceptable. Understandable, but not acceptable.
To show it on the screen, for Sherman to take that brutal moment
where these characters are idiots and reflect that to the audience,
I thought was very brave. So I'm glad that that was commented
I think in general when people watch this film, they say it's
a hard watch. The characters do some complex things that are difficult
to fit into our picture of ourselves as Indian people. So, I'm
pretty pleased with that.
As far as how non-Native audiences react, I think, first of all,
they're puzzled to see Indians because they're not used to seeing
them in modern day. I think they're not accustomed to seeing them
as sophisticated and complicated human beings. I think they're
disconcerted by seeing them in a format that's not familiar to
them. The story isn't told in a Hollywood format. There really
isn't any resolution at all. The characters retreat to their corners,
and that's the end of the movie. So I think it's a challenging
film for non-Native audiences, but a really important one. And
I think that all of them come away with a greater respect for
modern indigenous cultures and the complexity of their own urban,
multi-cultural, pluralistic societies.
NB: When you approach your work in the cinema do you take
your community into consideration?
EA: I really do take Indian people in general into consideration
when I'm working. Like I said before, it's hard enough to walk
the 'Red Road' without someone licking at your ears and telling
you things that cannot possibly be true. I really do live by that.
It would terrible for me to sell ridiculous dreams to Indian people.
I don't ever want to be accused of that. A lot of the Hollywood
machinery is about selling you impossible dreams. Ridiculous notions.
Outdated notions. And I want no part of that. Indians deserve
the truth, and so that's what I dig for. That's what my work is.
I'd like to think that my work is as an intellectual, and to
make social commentary about the state of Indian people and culture
today. Maybe it's a bit ephemeral and maybe it's not as life changing
as my other work as a physician, but I still take it quite seriously.
I'm also, of course, very humble about it. It's only my opinion,
and I'm only one person. Probably their own grandmothers will
have more influence on their lives then a hundred minutes I get
with them in my films.
NB: How are your goals as a doctor different from your
goals as an actor?
EA: They're actually quite similar, and it took me a long
time to figure out why I had these two loves. It really was like
having two mistresses-which one is more important? And thank goodness
no one has forced me to choose one over the other, because I really
think I need them both. My whole life is about dichotomy. I'm
from two worlds. I live in two worlds. I have two different jobs,
and that's okay. There's strength and balance in my plurality;
I like that.
But the commonality between the two of them is that I'm doing
my best for Indians. I really love my people and where I'm from.
I'm very proud of them and I really want to stand by them because
they deserve, by and large, better lives then they received. Certainly,
our parents' generation had terribly difficult lives. Painful,
impoverished, racist. They endured things that I don't know if
I could bear. And so, as a young person now, I feel like it's
my duty to try and make their lives better. And certainly, as
a doctor I have direct physical skills to help improve the quality
of their lives. And as an actor you're trying to tell stories
that are important to them and that make them happy. So that's
the commonality. I certainly didn't become a doctor or an actor
for my own benefit; I did it to elevate other aboriginal people.
I'm pretty lucky to do what I do and to get the education that
NB: You were the first president of the Healing Our Spirit
BC First Nations AIDS Society. Can you talk about that a little
EA: I've always had an interest in aboriginal health.
Even as a young actor. And when I was starting up twenty years
ago as an actor I used to do a lot of theater and education.
My father was orphaned by TB. His mother was thirteen when she
had him and then she died of TB. My mother's father died of TB
when she was a little girl. So when I was growing up I was quite
aware of the burden of illness in Indians.
I was studying biochemistry before I became a professional actor.
I always had a medical interest, even [while I was] an actor.
Infectious disease was a special interest, so HIV seemed to be
a really good place for me to work. So, besides being an actor
and doing theater and education in HIV and prevention, I also
sat on a few boards and tried to direct them so that they could
be helpful to Indians. And of course, I still do that even more
so now as a doctor. Much more direct. And now I'm not a paraprofessional
anymore, I'm a professional, and I can exact a little more change,
So, my interest in health keeps going. (Laugh) For instance,
I'm on the aboriginal "Breast Health" committee for
Canada, I promote Indian breast health, which is really important,
but if someone told me ten years ago that's what I'd be doing,
I'd have said, I don't think so. It sounds just too silly.
NB: How has the success of Smoke
Signals changed your life and the way you are perceived
by the people in your tribe?
I had a very particular moment recently. I was on the neo-natal
resuscitation team in my hospital. I was called in at the end
of a long delivery. The mom had been pushing for so many hours
that it was a danger to the baby, and I was there to resuscitate,
as the second doctor to resuscitate the baby if need be.
The obstetrician had left the room, the woman was pushing, and
I came in. I love to work with Indian people, but I almost never
see them in the hospital. Usually I'm with non-Indian patients.
But there was this Indian woman in mid-push. Eyes closed. Swearing
like a banshee. And her husband comes running up to her, "The
baby's coming, the baby's coming!" And I had a look and you
could see a little bit of the baby's head. It was her first baby.
I knew the baby wasn't coming, but he was completely strung out
and losing it. So I went to stand there, and if I needed to, I
could put my hand close by and catch the baby if perchance something
But this Indian woman told me later on, what she said was, "I
opened my eyes, and it was like a dream, there was Thomas Builds-the-Fire
standing between my legs." (Laugh) To her, Thomas Builds-the-Fire
in "Smoke Signals" was really real, and then suddenly
there I was. This imaginary person was suddenly a real person
giving her a hand.
That's how I think of the Indians in my area now. They know of
me and once in a while they encounter me, and they say, "You're
that guy. And we saw that movie. And that movie was so important
to us." And I think, you know, thank you. I'm really glad.
While I was doing that I had no idea anyone would see it at all
and I'm glad it was important to you. I felt really lucky to have
been a part of it. Sometimes [people] remember me and sometimes
they don't, and that's cool.
I'm certainly proud of that film and what it did. I hope that
in the future, I hope that wasn't the most important film I'll
have ever make. (Laugh) I hope that at some point I'll do another
film and other people will say, that was pretty good, too.
NB: I've worked with Indian youth a lot and every Indian
child I know has seen that movie, owns the movie, and probably
has it memorized. Is it overwhelming to be a part of this cultural
EA: I'm amazed how many Indian kids come up to me and
they know the movie so well. I could never have predicted that.
For instance, when the movie came out I had, all of a sudden,
all these girls flirting with me. And who'd ever thought that
playing a traditional geek would make me a chick magnet? (Laugh)
I would never have guessed that. I would never have guessed that
he would be at all a significant character that people would think
was really cool. No way.
It actually kind of hurt my feelings to play an Indian with an
accent who was uneducated and a bit dreamy and chatty. I wanted
to be sexy and cool. If given the choice I wanted to play Victor
and not Thomas.
I don't know why he was so appealing to people. I think probably
part of it was that, when I was doing it, I really wanted to capture
the kind of old-time Indian that we never see anymore. I wanted
to capture [in him]the essence of the most loving elder or grandmother
that you ever met.
I knew that Smoke Signals
was gonna be one of the first times that we got to see characters
from our own point of view-written by and acted by Indians. And
I knew that in 100 years people would look by on this role and
say, "You know, that was one of the first times we ever saw
it." And I knew that in 100 years Indians would look and
sound different, that my grandmother is very much like Thomas.
And that my niece, when she's telling stories, she doesn't sound
like my grandmother anymore. She sounds like this, she goes (valley-girl
accent): "Kay, once upon a time there was, like, this wolf."
And she sounds just like that, she has no accent. She's Indian
in a way that's completely different from much [older] Indians.
So that's what I wanted to capture. I think maybe that's what
people respond to in Thomas-this sense of an old world, the sense
of a generosity. I really would pray in the mornings when I was
playing Thomas to be as good and kind as possible. To show people
how much he loved other people. When you see old ladies doing
that on the rez it's really a privilege. You learn a lot from
when you see that.
Maybe that was it. I don't know. Maybe it was just his big, buck
teeth. People thought was pretty funny.
NB: Can you talk about any future projects you have acting/directing/writing?
EA: Sure, in fact I'm doing a couple of movies this year.
One of them 's just a small film with [one of] the producers of
- his name is Scott Rosenfelt. Just a small role. And then, after
that, I'm doing a musical, of all things, with a half-American,
half-Canadian cast. In that one I play a writer. It's about a
neighborhood of people, a bit like Rent I suppose, but
a neighborhood of people, and I'm the writer amongst them. Certainly
a nice role. With Sherman Alexie I'm working on Indian Killer
which we hope to shoot in a few months, and I'm directing. He's
directing at the same time The Toughest Indian in the World
in which I play the lead. And on the backburner for next year
is the sequel to Smoke
Signals called Reservation Blues.
So there's a lot of work coming up, and I'm still also a resident
at St. Paul's hospital in downtown Vancouver and finishing that
up it's really quite a lot of work. And, at some point, my new
film, which I directed, a feature-length documentary [Klah
Ah Men] which will be processed in the province of British
Columbia, Canada, will be out. I'll be promoting that.
Pretty much I'm getting to do what I want, and that's to make
movies and to be a doctor. I really can 't complain. And you know
what? People don't listen to you when you say, "Oh, I'm so
busy. I'm so busy making movies. I'm so busy working in this hospital."
They say, " Oh, shut up, you're lucky to do what you do."
So, I try not to complain. But it is busy, I must say. It is.
And there are a lot of times where I would like to pull back a
bit. But it's pretty bright. You know, as always, it's a good
day to be indigenous.
For more information
Image credits: Evan
Adams in Smoke Signals - photograph by Jill Sabella for
Miramax Pictures; still from The Business of Fancydancing;
Smoke Signals - photograph by Jill Sabella for Miramax Pictures