Face your fears, Native actor tells students

By Mike Dunham
Anchorage, Alaska (AP) 2-09

Actor Wes Studi talked about facing fears, success in Hollywood and holding on to what you learn in life when he addressed a general assembly of students at Begich Middle School on Feb. 10.

But his star performance came at an after-school meeting with kids in the Indian Education program. He recreated a climatic scene from “The Last of the Mohicans” in which he played a Huron warrior who rips the heart out of a despised British officer and takes a bite out of it.

“Ewww!” came the chorus of young voices.

“I’m going to have nightmares now,” said one.

“Aw, come on,” Studi replied. “You’ve heard scarier stuff than that.”

Studi is visiting Alaska, his fourth trip here, as the next guest in the “Pillars of America” series, a program of motivational speakers sponsored by Anchorage Rotary Clubs with the intent of “inspiring today’s young Alaskans.”

An Oklahoma Cherokee, Studi served in Vietnam and became a Native American rights activist after receiving an honorable discharge. He took part in protests and was arrested during the 1973 occupation of Wounded Knee. He was released from jail on the condition that he leave South Dakota.

He returned to Oklahoma, enrolled in college, worked to promote Cherokee as both a written and spoken language, spent time ranching and horse training. He also started performing in local theater and television productions.

He began his narrative to the Begich crowd describing the fear he had as he pondered whether to try his luck in Hollywood.

“What if I don’t get into any films after telling all my friends in Tulsa that I’m an actor?” he said. The prospect of their scorn held him back.

But acting had prepared him to take the step. “When you’re in the wings, waiting for your cue, a huge wall of fear erects itself right in front of you.” Overcoming that fear takes effort. You push yourself onto the stage, “And -- boom! -- the magic begins.”


At his first interview in Los Angeles, he was asked if he could ride a horse, shoot a gun and speak any language other than English. He easily qualified on all three counts, and his career was launched.

The things you learn become part of who you are, he told the students. “You never know when they might pay off.”

Studi’s credits include “Powwow Highway,” “Dances With Wolves,” “Heat,” “Highlander” and “Mohicans.”

In most of his roles he’s identified as an Indian, but not always because that’s the how character was written. “Because I’m known to be a Native American, whatever part I have, people say, ‘Oh, he’s playing a Native American.’ “

Yet his upcoming role in NBC’s new series “Kings” casts him as a general in a monarchy in the future. In the upcoming movie “Avatar” he’ll be a 10-foot tall, blue alien.

That character is created using the technique called motion capture. He’s filmed from hundreds of angles with sensors attached all over his body. The sensors feed his movements into a program which uses the data to create a computer-generated image that duplicates his actions.

The motion capture work, done in something of a visual vacuum, forces him to concentrate on his performance, he said. It’s a lesson he thinks the middle schoolers can apply to pursuing their own ambitions. “You have to give your all. You have to make it a commitment.”

He considers the technique animation, he said, but it’s still acting.

And acting is not real life. The bite he took out of “Grey Hair’s” heart was cut from the final version of the film, he told the Indian Education students, in part because at the time cannibal/murderer Jeffrey Dahmer was making the news.

And the actor who played the officer?

“Of all the people I’ve worked with in Hollywood, he’s the one I’m probably the tightest with. He bought a condo in Santa Fe, where I live. We celebrate the holidays together.”