By Sarah Bahr
Lily Gladstone shed a few tears when she heard Jack Quaid read her name in the best actress Oscars category last Tuesday morning. “I didn’t expect that I would cry the way that I did,” she said. But it was nothing compared with the reaction of her parents.
“It definitely turned on the waterworks,” said Gladstone, who stars as Mollie Burkhart, an Osage woman whose white husband is part of a murderous conspiracy in the Martin Scorsese epic “Killers of the Flower Moon.” She was calling from Pawhuska, Oklahoma, shortly after watching the Oscar nominations announcement on FaceTime with her parents.
After all, it’s not every day that you’re nominated for your first Oscar — or that you become the first Native American person to be nominated for a competitive acting Academy Award.
“It’s something that I wasn’t sure I would see in my career, in my lifetime,” said Gladstone, 37, who has Blackfeet and Nez Percé heritage. “I hope that it just means that people start caring more and learning more about these histories.”
Gladstone isn’t the first Indigenous artist up for best actress — Keisha Castle-Hughes (“Whale Rider,” 2003) and Yalitza Aparicio (“Roma,” 2018) were also nominated in the same category — but she is the first from the United States. Folk singer Buffy Sainte-Marie is considered the first Indigenous person to win an Oscar (for best song, “Up Where We Belong” from “An Officer and a Gentleman” in 1983), but her heritage has recently been disputed. And in 2019, Wes Studi, who is Cherokee American, was given an honorary Oscar for “his indelible film portrayals and for his steadfast support of the Native American community.”
Gladstone has had a busy month: On Jan. 7, she became the first Indigenous person to win a Golden Globe for best actress, delivering a powerful speech in which she spoke a few lines in the Blackfeet language. She also picked up a best actress win from the New York Film Critics Circle, as well as nominations from the Critics Choice Awards and the Screen Actors Guild.
“I’m hopeful because of the way things are trending now: We’re telling our own stories, or we have a really heavy hand in shaping how stories about us are told,” she said.
“Killers,” based on the nonfiction book by David Grann, was reconceived early on to focus on the relationship between Mollie and her husband, Ernest (Leonardo DiCaprio), who conspires with his uncle (Robert De Niro) to kill her relatives in a bid to seize her family’s oil-rich Oklahoma land.
Since the film was released in October, critics have singled out Gladstone. Anthony Lane, writing in The New Yorker, heralded her as “unmistakably the movie’s most compelling presence.”
Gladstone grew up acting in plays staged by a traveling children’s theater on the Blackfeet reservation in northwestern Montana. She landed a breakthrough role in Kelly Reichardt’s 2016 indie, “Certain Women,” that raised her profile considerably, but “Killers,” with its reported $200 million budget and A-list cast, vaulted her into hyperspace.
In a 15-minute interview, Gladstone shared what she hoped her nomination portends for the industry, how she first became interested in studying the Blackfeet language, and what people who discovered her in “Killers of the Flower Moon” should watch her in next. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
A: Thank you. It was great every time the film got a nod, but the one that really got me was Robbie Robertson [for best original score for “Killers of the Flower Moon”]. Getting to watch that nomination come in with my dad was really special, because my dad introduced me to Robbie Robertson as a musician, which was the whole reason I even knew who Martin Scorsese was as a filmmaker. My dad told me about their friendship and, as a 10-year-old, I remember him saying, “You know, one day he’s going to make his Indian movie because of his friendship with Robbie.” So it was cool to remind him of that. Seeing how touched my folks were — that was everything.
Q: What has it been like to receive such copious recognition from the industry after years of struggling to find parts that weren’t insulting or exploitative?
A: It’s time that Native characters based upon living incredible women like Mollie Kyle be given the heart of these films. “Killers of the Flower Moon” was an opportunity to restore a place on-screen for Native women that history has excluded us from. So to have Mollie and her sisters and her mother and her community be characters that, just by being who they are on-screen, are changing people’s stereotypes and contextualizing moments in history that maybe make the present make a little bit more sense — it’s long overdue.
Q: You had the chance to speak with Mollie Burkhart’s granddaughter, Margie. What was something she shared about Mollie that surprised you or that you incorporated into the character?
A: What a caring mother she was. Margie shared that when her dad, Cowboy, would have chronic ear infections and earaches, Mollie would blow tobacco smoke in his ears, which is something a lot of elders do back home where I’m raised, too. And Margie herself is so smart and grounded, and loving. At our first meeting, her body language, her intonation and the way I could see thoughts turning over in her head went into how I shaped Mollie. Her observational wry humor, the intelligence, the ability to read what’s going on in the room, the warmth all stood out. I know that those things are inherited from family, so I feel like the biggest clues to who Mollie would have been is the way that she’s echoed in her grandchildren.
Q: You spoke a few lines in the language of your people, the Blackfeet tribe, after your historic win at the Golden Globes. When and how did you become interested in studying Blackfeet?
A: Growing up on my reservation, I picked it up. I’m not fluent. One of the first sentences we learn how to construct is how to introduce yourself to a group of people. You say your Blackfeet name, and then you also tell everybody where you’re from, which people you come from, which is what I did at the Globes. I wouldn’t have been up on that stage if it weren’t for how early in my life my community identified my gift and my love for acting. Performing and telling stories has always been synonymous with my very name; I’ve always been encouraged to do this, in whatever form it takes. There were a lot of years where acting was a means of teaching and teaching about our history, specifically, the Native American boarding school experience.
After my speech at the Globes, it was moving to see the response from Blackfeet people on TikTok and Facebook. One family had recorded their little girl, who is learning Blackfeet along with English, and when she heard me speaking, she started talking back in Blackfeet to the screen, and then when I was done speaking, she went, “Soōkaapii,” which means “It’s good.” Like, “That was good.” That just broke my heart wide open.
Q: Though “Killers” was your breakout role, you have a film, TV and theater résumé that spans more than a decade. Any recommendations for what people should watch you in next?
A: Definitely stream “Reservation Dogs” — and not just my episodes! It’s an incredible, incredible series; each episode is so full, so funny, so heartbreaking. There’s a reason that it’s been named the best show by so many publications. “The Unknown Country” is another one that shows the way the performances of the incredible Indigenous actors in “Killers of the Flower Moon” have helped shift paradigm and break stereotypes for people.
And then, I can’t share it yet, but sometime in the not-too-distant future, people will be able to see “Fancy Dance,” which is the absolute best film to watch in tandem with “Killers of the Flower Moon.” It’s the same land, the same issues, exactly 100 years later, and how they’ve manifested into the modern age. It’s an incredible love story between an aunt and her niece and a display of matrilineal resilience and love and survival. I’m so excited that people will be able to access it soon.