Lily Gladstone Is Holding the Door Open

Life was different for Lily Gladstone in the summer of 2020. She had built up a small but impressive résumé in independent films, including two by Kelly Reichardt, “Certain Women” and “First Cow.” But the pandemic had shut down the industry, and she was worried about sustaining an acting career. Gladstone, who calls herself a “bee nerd,” looked into applying for a seasonal job with the Department of Agriculture, tracking murder hornets. Then she got an invitation to meet Martin Scorsese over Zoom. He was making a film based on David Grann’s book “Killers of the Flower Moon,” about a series of mysterious deaths in Oklahoma in the nineteen-twenties, when the Osage Nation was flush with oil money. Her performance in the film didn’t just boost her career—it has now earned her an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress, the first for a Native American woman.

The role of Mollie Kyle, who lived from 1886 to 1937, is a tricky one. She married Ernest Burkhart (played by Leonardo DiCaprio), a white man who conspired with his uncle William Hale (Robert De Niro) to knock off Mollie’s relatives in order to inherit her family’s headrights. In the film, Mollie suspects from the start that Ernest is after her money—“Coyote wants money,” she teases him—but she doesn’t divorce him until after his crimes are exposed in court. Playing her scenes with DiCaprio, one of the brightest stars in Hollywood, Gladstone adopts a Mona Lisa smile; ambiguity is central to her mesmerizing performance, and much of it comes across without words. And yet she resists the trope of the stoic, suffering Native heroine. She’s by turns flirtatious, shrewd, agonized, ailing, and clear-eyed. Anthony Lane, in his New Yorker review, called her “unmistakably the most compelling presence in the movie.”

Gladstone, who is thirty-seven, was raised on the Blackfeet Reservation, in Montana, the daughter of a white mother and a father of Blackfeet and Nez Perce ancestry. No acting career is a sure bet, but Hollywood’s treatment of Native characters and performers has historically been worse than neglectful—it’s been vilifying and insulting. The Oscars, in their nine-and-a-half-decade history, haven’t done much better. In 1973, Sacheen Littlefeather was booed when she took the stage to criticize the industry’s representation of Native Americans, at the behest of Marlon Brando. A handful of Indigenous nominees have shown up in the acting categories—most recently, the Native Mexican actress Yalitza Aparicio (“Roma”)—but Gladstone walks a mostly untrodden path, and she does it with composure and conviction. When we spoke recently, she was in Washington, D.C., for a screening of “Killers” at the National Museum of the American Indian, along with the Osage musician Scott George, who is nominated for his original song “Wahzhazhe (A Song for My People).” “There are a couple historic nominations this year, and I’m so happy that there’s an Osage making history, too,” she said. We spoke about her own historic nomination, her passion for language revitalization, and how to curse in Blackfoot. Our conversation has been edited and condensed.

You’re in the heat of Oscar season. What’s life like right now?

It’s a lot of nice hotels and a very rapid-paced schedule. It’s really lovely, the reach that this film is having. It’s been a lot of travel, a lot of meeting new people.

Awards season is this huge machine. As someone who’s been catapulted into it, have you had moments that have felt particularly surreal or fun or stressful?

It does get to a point where you get a little overwhelmed by all of the celebrity, and then pretty soon it’s just people, you know? Probably the most surreal moment was when I was at the National Board of Review awards. Patti Smith made the introduction for my award, and I was sitting between her and Daniel Day-Lewis. And then the next day I was at the A.F.I. luncheon, in L.A., sitting between Tim Cook and Leo DiCaprio, and I was telling Tim, “Why is it that today feels a little bit more grounded and familiar than yesterday?” When Tim Cook and Leo DiCaprio become “Oh, hey, guys!”—it’s a strange place to be.

The people you’ve collaborated with on this movie are, of course, old hands at this kind of thing. Leo, Marty, Bob—not that I have any reason to call them by those names. Have they given you any sort of advice on what to expect?

What I really appreciate is: there’s not this protective, patriarchal “Let me give you advice, kid” sort of thing. Anytime Leo’s done it, it’s been completely self-aware and joking. He’s kind of a goofball and a wise-ass. They lead by example. That’s been the most grounding thing, because I’ve been able to be in proximity to people who are so used to it. And meeting other people I’m just so excited by—how quickly America Ferrera took to me. I’m a huge fan of Emma Stone, and she’s been lovely, and all of these people that are now in a peer group, I guess. You just get the sense that it’s not as big or scary as you need to make it. It’s just about human connection in the end.

At the same time that you’re dressing up and going to award shows, you’re also carrying the banner of a historic nomination. The Oscars have had an extremely spotty record with honoring Indigenous people, and you’re the first Native American woman in the Best Actress category. How has that been sitting with you?

I keep saying it’s overdue. We’re in the ninety-sixth year of the Academy Awards, and we’re on Native American land. Natives are natural storytellers. A big part of our understanding of ourselves, since time immemorial, is our stories. So it’s just odd that, in the United States, it’s taken almost a hundred years for a Native American to reach this milestone in a major acting category. We’ve had Indigenous representation. We’ve had Yalitza Aparicio, Graham Greene [“Dances with Wolves”] in supporting, Chief Dan George [“Little Big Man”] in supporting. We’ve had global Indigenous recognition. But, like you said, it’s sprinkled.

I’m friends with Sterlin Harjo, the co-creator of “Reservation Dogs.” We’re both in the circuit right now, and we happened to find ourselves in the same hotel the week before last. He put it really well. He said, “We’re in a position where we’re kicking the door in. When you kick the door in, you should just put your foot in the door and stand there.” Kicking the door in and running through it means it’s going to shut behind you. While I’m the first specifically Native American Indigenous woman, I stand on the shoulders of a lot of performers. It’s all circumstantial that I have this moniker of the first, and I’m certainly not going to be the last. If I’ve kicked the door in, I’m just trying to stand here and leave it open for everybody else.

As a student of Oscar history, I know that it’s been a mixed experience for people who have been the firsts in their categories. Sidney Poitier was the first Black man to win Best Actor, in 1964, and when he was being honored at the mayor’s office, in New York City, reporters kept asking him about civil rights. He finally snapped—he was not a person who generally snapped—and said, “Why is it everything you guys ask refers to the Negroness of my life and not my acting?” I’m curious if you’ve felt that tension of being out here as an actor, but also as the face of a community. And, in addition to that, you’re playing an Osage woman, so it’s not even quite your community.

That’s something that I try to highlight first. There’s just the roadblock that a lot of Natives have in representation, that people don’t even think we’re still here. There’s some empirical data out there, some surveys—in one study I was reading, forty per cent of people didn’t think that Native Americans still existed. The perception of who we are, which has largely been shaped by Hollywood—it’s very narrow. There’s an assumption that we just disappeared.

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