The first Native American movie star

December 10, 1993|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

There can be no greater distance anywhere in entertainment culture than that between Wes Studi on screen and Wes Studi in person. On screen -- as all who've seen "Dances With Wolves," where he played a Pawnee warrior, or "Last of the Mohicans," where he played a Huron warrior, or "Geronimo," where he plays an Apache warrior can testify -- he's the mask of the red death personified. No fiercer, more demonic visage can be imagined. The guy seems to be not just a warrior but all warriors, a meta-mythic warrior, remote, impassive, unbelievably complex, his every movement an equally eloquent expression of violence and melancholy.

Yet in person Wes Studi is the farthest thing from a warrior you can imagine: He's more like . . . grandma. He's sweet and hovering, he takes your hand in both of his when he shakes, he listens intently and answers not in eloquent grunts but in vividly expressive, even dense, language. He's also a slight, graceful man, more like a dancer than an actor, light on his feet and always moving. His hair is even . . . curly.

More important, you never see The Look that may make him the first American Indian movie star: that glower, where the dark eyes seem to harden so that they spurt black flame, the rough face drawn tight like the skin of a drum and the suggestion in a tightening body of someone drawing back the hammer of a Colt.

Can Wes Studi be a pussycat?

Not likely. A full-blood Cherokee from northeast Oklahoma, Studi, 46, was an ardent American Indian activist who even took part in the Wounded Knee uprising in South Dakota in 1973, has taught Cherokee, and in another part of his life co-founded a Cherokee newspaper.

And if you ask him about it -- the distance thing -- he responds succinctly:

"Acting is like being involved in psychotherapy. If you can use past experiences, you're enriched. It's a question of controlling your past to create a present. I learned absolutely there's a source in my background. There are sound reasons for a man like myself to be angry."

He says it's very difficult not to forget.

"Those of us -- Native Americans, American Indians, whatever you want to call us -- we'll always wonder what it would be like if Manhattan Island was still ours. Would we flourish? But the fact is, we had to deal with the European invasion. Life is what it is."

Perhaps that explains his melancholy. There's a distance in him; he can't quite let go in the presence of an inquiring outsider.

And so it is, too, that his background is sketchy. Press notes don't help much. But Studi says, "If you'd have told me when I was in my 20s that I was going to be an actor, I wouldn't have believed it."

Instead, he says, it was a bottoming-out experience that convinced him what he wanted to do.

"A divorce. I found myself in that divorce motel. This was in 1982. I had to build up a new life. I got involved in community theater. One thing just led to another, and I ended up trying out for parts in film and for a long time, I didn't get any."

The first break was a little-shown 1989 melodrama called "Pow-wow Highway," which appears to have been a kind of "Saturday Night Live" for the generation of American Indian actors about to explode on screens: not only did Studi appear in it, but also Graham Greene and Rodney A. Grant.

From there, Studi got the role of the Pawnee warrior chieftain in "Dances With Wolves," not so much a "role" as a modeling job; he had no lines, but his fierce visage was incandescent.

"I felt pretty much like a day player on that set," he recalls. "Kevin Costner seemed to be a nice guy kind of guy, but I was only there two weeks. I came and went."

That led to "Last of the Mohicans" where he gave the evil Magua a tragic dimension and was one of the best -- and paradoxically touching -- villains in years.

"Michael Mann, the director, was extremely intense. I respect him for being that ruthless. It was as if he were saying, this is me, like it or not."

And now "Geronimo," which puts him in the center of a huge studio film.

"Mr. G," he calls his character.

"When I first heard of him, I was growing up and I believed what I heard: He was a 'bad Indian.' To try and figure out the role, I read his own words, which were recorded. I didn't want any interpretation coming between he and I. I know, for example, that even among the Apache he was controversial. But I came to respect him. He was fighting for his freedom and his way of life."

Asked if he were disappointed that the film was less about him than it was about the campaign, he said, "No, it's not really a story about Geronimo. I had to wrestle with this because when I first heard about the project, I thought it was his life. But it's more than that -- it's the story of what happens when four distinct and dynamic personalities come together under tragic circumstances. It tells us much more than the story about one man ever could."

He looks upon Geronimo as a symbolic figure: an isolated from mainstream character, seething with violence, resentful and volatile.

"That's the terrible thing," he says. "There are still many Geronimos out there."

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