If there wasn’t a strike by Hollywood actors, the name of Lily Gladston — a 37-year-old actress from Kalispell, Montana — would be read around the world. At the premiere of Killers of the Flower Moon at the Cannes Film Festival — an adaptation of journalist David Grann’s book by Martin Scorsese — the Native American actress was the big surprise. Her performance was the most celebrated, with her name now almost guaranteed to appear in all the upcoming nominations.
Amid so much media noise, however, she has remained serene, with her feet and thoughts rooted in the earth. Her education and heritage (she hails from the Blackfoot and Nez Percé tribes) offer her a more patient conception of time. In fact, it’s precisely because of her capacity for silent observation — being able to say everything with her deep gaze — why director Kelly Reichardt gave Gladstone her first big role in Certain Women (2016). It’s also what Scorsese saw in her, when he made her the heart of the story that has changed the course of her career.
“It’s not another white savior film,” Gladstone notes. It’s a film intended to offer some justice to the Osage Nation, a tribe that — in the 1920s, in Oklahoma — was cornered and murdered by greedy white men, who wanted to steal land that belonged to the tribe, given that there were substantial oil reserves under the soil.
Playing Mollie Burkhart — an Osage who saw her family murdered by the ambitions of her husband’s family (Leonardo DiCaprio plays her partner) — Gladstone found a connection to her past and her community, as well as a platform in society.
Question. From being on the verge of leaving acting to being celebrated at Cannes… how do you digest that?
Answer. [Laughs] That’s how it was. There have been many times when I almost gave up acting. I had a moment of doubt right before Kelly Reichardt called me for Certain Women. [At the time], I was working, telling the story of my community to children in local theaters. And then, I still had to think about it — I have never wanted to move to Los Angeles to do castings non-stop, because I realized very quickly that I’m not good at that.
After Certain Women — during Covid, while taking care of my grandmother — I thought that a career as an actress wasn’t sustainable. I was in that post-Covid moment, when we all rethought many things. I began to look at other options.
Q. What was your plan B?
A. I wanted to do work that was relevant, that had an impact on society, that kept me busy… but I also wanted something that wouldn’t pose a danger to my family, due to Covid. I even looked at a data analysis course to track predatory Asian giant hornets! It’s strange, I know, but I love bees, especially bumblebees… I could talk a lot about bees. I was looking at the University of Montana’s website — I was about to enter my banking information for the course, when I got the alert for the meeting with Scorsese. I was amazed, because I had done the casting about a year earlier. I thought it wasn’t going to happen. It was an even bigger surprise when I realized that the first step was to speak directly with Marty. Then, it was a meeting with Marty and Leo (DiCaprio). Luckily, it was on Zoom, from my room, surrounded by my parents and family, who were supporting me. It was my territory. Two weeks later — exactly on December 1, on Mollie’s birthday — they told me that the role was mine.
Q. They also wanted you as a collaborator on the script, not just as an actress.
A. In the first casting that I did, the story was more like the book. But in the meetings, with the changes to the script — changes that I saw as necessary — the story was focused on the Osage people. Given this great cultural shift that we’re experiencing — one that hopefully continues to have an impact on social justice — Leo and Marty felt that it wasn’t the time for another white male savior story.
Q. It’s the time of women and, also, in this case, of Indigenous women.
A. I really appreciated that they didn’t change the Mollie that appears in the book. I understand that it seems complicated to put a character who doesn’t say much front and center, but that’s the power and the magic of cinema. That’s why I love Kelly Reichardt’s movies: she makes you look at all the characters in the image, not just the one in the center. For me, the most intelligent people I know tend to be the quietest, the most observant. I think cinema should pay more attention to them. That’s why I really appreciated this rewrite.
Q. Did you know the history of all that the Osages suffered through?
A. Yes. Before becoming an actress, when I was little, I was interested in ballet. At age 10 — when we still lived on the reservation — my parents homeschooled me. One of the projects I became interested in was Maria Tallchief, who was the first Native American prima ballerina. She was Osage. When I told my father, he told me what they had suffered. I remember being very worried about how this must have affected Maria. Then, like everyone else, I read David Grann’s book… but the history of the Osage was known and discussed in my environment.
Q. The oral tradition remains fundamental within Indigenous communities.
A. That’s right, [the elders] tell you specific stories about your family, or more general stories about your lineage — about where you come from, about your origins. It’s necessary that we have this knowledge about our lineage, for the state to recognize us as a Native American nation. And also because, for us, our ancestors aren’t just the past — they’re with us now. This is the idea of cultural perpetuity. The continuation of our culture is the pinnacle of our society.
Q. Your father is a member of the Blackfoot and Nez Percé tribes, while your mother is white. You lived between the reservation and Seattle. What was it like growing up between both universes?
A. I’ve always been in a community and have been raised by people who haven’t let me forget that I’m always representing everyone. My ancestors are quite mixed, as I suppose we all are. We’re all the result of generations and generations adapting to each other, knowing each other, trading, influencing each other, all without realizing it. I’m a map of all that.
Native people are rural, we’re urban. We live on the reservation. We’re all over the United States. And there’s a large Indian Country community that comes together virtually. I now live much closer to home (she calls Glacier National Park home: “It’s Blackfoot country,” she explains), but when I left the reservation for a while, it was nice to stick together like that. Social media allows us to stay in touch quickly, so we can maintain a much larger collective community.
Q. Do you consider yourself to be an activist in your community?
A. I would say that I’m more of a couch activist, because I have people around me, very close to me, who are true activists. My activism is more closely related to my profession.
Q. What connection did you feel to the character Mollie?
A. There are many strong similarities in the world of Indian societies. There are many things that remind me of my home: our relationship with the creator, with the sun, with the earth... though there are always differences, because there are 500 federally-recognized nations in the United States, as well as about 200 to 400 that aren’t federally-recognized. Each of these tribes has a language, a dialect, certain customs. It’s impossible to say that we have a single vision of the world, but there’s a common recognition.
I found very similar things between my childhood and Mollie’s. The woman in my family who would be Mollie’s contemporary would be my great-grandmother, Lily. My father was very close to her. She died six years before I was born, but I always felt that she was around. That idea of cultural perpetuity has been with me from the beginning: [my parents] gave me her name, I always knew who she was and what she was like.
Grandma Lily came from a long line of leaders in our community. My great-great-grandfather was one of the leaders who signed the treaty that gave us the land in Canada — and, by the way, through that line of succession, I’m linked to Janay Collins, who plays my sister Rita in the film. She played the role with great pride — a pride that you also see in Mollie and her family.
Grandma Lily was also a devout Catholic. She spoke Blackfoot and English fluently, she chewed tobacco. At home, she was very ironic, but in public, she was serious, calm. When I spoke with some of the Osage, I found many similarities with our history of colonization, missionaries…
Q. If your Oscar nomination is confirmed, you’d be the second Native American woman — after Jocelyn LaGarde, in 1966 — to be nominated. And you’d actually be the second Native American of all time to receive an Oscar, after Sacheen Littlefeather collected it on behalf of Marlon Brando in 1973. … only to reject the statuette. Is there a lot of pressure for you at this moment, given the notions of representation and social justice?
A. [Laughs] If I win, maybe I’ll accept it on behalf of Marlon Brando! Attention is a form of energy, money is a form of energy… but the important thing is to be present in the moment, with your feet on the ground. This abstract creature that is fame, notoriety, an Oscar — although that, actually, is something you can touch — I don’t feel it as pressure. I use the analogy of water: I feel like you have to keep moving, keep going, or you stay stagnant. I don’t want to be a pond, I want to keep flowing. If the powers that be want me to reach a moment like the Oscars, so be it. But it’s something that’s above me. That’s the only way I can think of it. And if, in some way, I would like to get it, [it’s because] society is ready and hungry for these types of stories and characters. If this has crossed my path, it’s because people want to learn about the history of the reign of terror against Indigenous people… maybe because we live in uncertain times and we see that the Osage people have survived the end of the world many times.
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