Taming Trauma: Wild Indian’s Creative Minds

Michael Greyeyes as Michael/Makwa in Wild Indian.
Michael Greyeyes as Michael/Makwa in Wild Indian.

Gotham Awards acting nominee Michael Greyeyes and director-to-watch Lyle Mitchell Corbine Jr. on atrocious Native tropes, modernizing myths, and finally getting to work together on Wild Indian.

I’m halfway through my conversation with Michael Greyeyes (Muskeg Lake First Nation) when I suddenly realize that not only have the last three films he’s acted in—Wildhood, Blood Quantum, Wild Indian—been Native-made and Native-directed, but that’s also the case for the hit Peacock television show Rutherford Falls, in which he plays Terry.

It has, as I have recently written about, taken a long time to get to this point, but 2021 brought a significant run of contemporary Indigenous features to the screen, ranging from a dystopian sci-fi to an LGBTQ road movie to Wild Indian, the “chilly, stylish debut” from writer-director Lyle Mitchell Corbine Jr. (Bad River Band of the Lake Superior Tribe of Chippewa Indians), with “stand-out acting” by Greyeyes.

Greyeyes is an actor at his peak, having crossed over from the dance world to film in the early 1990s to walk in the worlds of both Hollywood and Indigenous film. In Wild Indian, he plays Michael/Makwa, a successful Anishinaabe man from an abusive upbringing. The role, he tells me, is one he has waited thirty years for, and it has earned Greyeyes one of the ten spots in the 2021 Gotham Awards’ non-gendered outstanding lead performance category, alongside the likes of Olivia Colman, Oscar Isaac and Tessa Thompson.

Corbine Jr. is also one of ten: on the strength of his narrative debut, which was supported to the screen by the Sundance Institute’s screenwriters’ and directors’ labs, the filmmaker was tapped by Variety at the start of the year as one of its ten directors to watch in 2021.

Corbine Jr. has talked about being influenced by films from RoboCop and Terminator 2: Judgment Day through to Lost in Translation, Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums. But, growing up, he had never seen Native stories in cinema other than Terrence Malick’s The New World and the coming-of-age ’90s classic Smoke Signals, directed by Chris Eyre (Cheyenne and Arapaho), both of which feature Greyeyes in supporting roles. “That movie [Smoke Signals] was very singular,” he tells me, “and there hadn’t been anything at that scale since then, or at least at that level of notoriety.”

I think one of the most atrocious tropes that we deal with in Hollywood is the powerless victim, you know, the Native victim. But I refuse to play him that way.

—⁠Michael Greyeyes, Muskeg Lake First Nation

At the age of 24, after “questioning for all those years the value of even doing a Native-centered film or a film about my background,” Corbine Jr. explains, “I was like, ‘Well I’m just going to write one’.” The result, Wild Indian, is bleak, foreboding and morally challenging; in essence a Cain-and-Abel tale in which Makwa reckons with a childhood murder that he has worked hard to bury in his past. Makwa’s friend Teddo (played by Chaske Spencer from the Twilight saga), whose life has taken a much harsher path, is nevertheless able to summon more empathy for their misdeed.

In so many tales of male violence on the screen, the narrative deals solely with the characters in their own timeline. The viewing experience often adds up to not much more than a one-and-done story, no matter how well told. But Corbine Jr. understands that there are deeper things at play, that archetypes exist for reasons, that trauma is multigenerational. He bookends Wild Indian with two mythological stories set in ancient times, in order to offer mirrored perspectives on the actions of Makwa and Teddo.

Lyle Mitchell Corbine Jr.
Lyle Mitchell Corbine Jr.

As their big year comes to a wrap, Corbine Jr. is busy on several unnamed projects, including a comic-book adaptation and a television series or two, and Greyeyes will next be seen when Wildhood gets a theatrical release, as well as in season two of the recently renewed Rutherford Falls. He has also signed a first-look deal with Blumhouse, and will play Rainbird in a remake of Stephen King’s Firestarter.

With Wild Indian now available on video-on-demand platforms, we caught up with the director and his star for Native American Heritage Month to talk about their distinctly Indigenous approach to story.

Makwa tees off as his past catches up with him.
Makwa tees off as his past catches up with him.

What is it about this project that drew each of you to the other?
Michael Greyeyes: It was Lyle’s script. It was the opportunity to work with an Indigenous director, taking our cue really from some heroes—brilliant filmmaking traditions like Once Were Warriors and The Dead Lands; and so many more. I think Indigenous filmmakers have really asserted a kind of narrative sovereignty over our stories in the past few years. We’ve always been fighting for this, [and] a project like Wild Indian is a great example of why we need it.

Lyle Mitchell Corbine Jr.: I was having a hard time trying to figure out who could play Makwa. He’s kind of a difficult-to-envision character. I had known about Michael for years, but I hadn’t thought of him specifically for it. And once I started to kind of think of what it might be like to work with Michael, it started to make a lot more sense. And I was like, ‘Oh, yeah, it makes sense if he kind of presented himself with this powerful kind of presence.’

MG: I was drawn to the script because the character, Makwa, was such a complex portrait of a contemporary Indigenous man—in this case, an Anishinaabe man. The portrait was a difficult one for me to undertake, because Makwa is so terribly broken. He was broken as a young man, through his experiences in his community, with abusive parents, neglect, and in a way he arrested his emotional maturity at that point, and then he grew up to be an adult. It was the role I’ve been waiting for maybe 30 years to play, something with that kind of complexity and that kind of truth.

A younger Makwa, played by Phoenix Wilson (M'Chigeeng First Nation).
A younger Makwa, played by Phoenix Wilson (M'Chigeeng First Nation).

Much like the film Once Were Warriors that you mentioned, Wild Indian really doesn’t pull any punches in terms of trying to paint a pretty picture of the situation for the Native American people. I’d like you to tell me what you think: would you see Makwa as being more of a villain or more of an antihero?
MG: Well, he certainly is villainous in some of the things he does. There can be no excusing him [for] his tendency towards violence. That’s very painful to witness, particularly as some of the violence is directed towards women, and women in his own community. So that part is inexcusable.

But I look at him as an antihero because through the actions of the film, through the narrative, Makwa must face his history; he must face, as a man, how his actions reverberate in the people around him. And I think that’s what Lyle does so beautifully, as an Indigenous director.

LMCJ: I was just trying to approach him as a real person, and some of the psychological frameworks of people [who] have gone through severe trauma. I wasn’t necessarily thinking villain or not; I knew he was going to be complicated, and that he was going to split the audience.

I didn’t mean for people to hate him necessarily. I also didn’t mean for people to completely empathize with him. I really liked the idea that it was just this thing that was complicated. It was almost like a Rorschach test in the way that you look at the character by the end.

MG: You know, we’ve seen men like this in our community, we’ve known men like these in our families, and he pulls absolutely no punches in regards to this depiction. So I felt safe, actually, going to the extremes of this character, because of Lyle’s sure hand. I knew that he would balance a portrayal of rage and brokenness with portrayals of hope, as he does through Teddo, the character played by Chaske Spencer, so brilliantly.

Makwa had a rough upbringing, but he’s managed to walk in many worlds, and has succeeded in the white man’s world on their terms—in a world that, in some ways, is just as ruthless as the reservation.
MG: Yeah. One of the reasons why I was willing to play a character so damaged was because, ultimately, he was a powerful character who had assimilated into settler society. He had proven himself extremely successful, he’s smart, he’s canny. His ambition holds, you know? There’s no bounds to what he wants. And in that sense, he was empowered. Perhaps the foundation of it was terribly, terribly flawed, but he was an empowered person.

LMCJ: I grew up on reservations, and I’ve always been aware of people who were one generation off, or people who maybe had never identified as Native, had never lived there. I was thinking of people who maybe didn't quite have a solid footing on who they were and got confused [about] what world they were in, so it was messing with that a little bit with his character.

MG: I think one of the most atrocious tropes that we deal with in Hollywood is the powerless victim, you know, the Native victim. But I refuse to play him that way. It wasn’t written that way, and Lyle refused to put a character like that forward. So in many ways, the film and the depictions are breaking with many traditions, in terms of the cinema that we see about us.

Teddo (Chaske Spencer, Lakota Sioux) has unfinished business on the outside.
Teddo (Chaske Spencer, Lakota Sioux) has unfinished business on the outside.

The real sense I got is that, at the end of the day, these are the ones who are the survivors. Whether they’ve done things that could be seen as amoral, the ones who didn’t step into that space didn’t survive. So it was a very intense film in that regard.
MG: I applaud Lyle for that. He’s an incredibly gifted filmmaker. One of the things that I noticed—because I also played the ancestor at the beginning of the movie and at the end—one of the things that I loved about Lyle’s visionary outlook was that disease is represented through the smallpox on the ancestor.

Then, you know, with the markings on Teddo’s face, the wounds that my character receives during the story, really what Lyle was doing there—and I only noticed that when I finally watched the film—was that he was telling a story of images about broken Indian bodies. These were bodies broken by contact [with] systemic forces, by our own choices, and it plays across these beautiful brown bodies. That in itself tells us an incredible story.

I was intrigued by the parallel story, set several centuries ago. And I was wondering if you could tell me, was that real? Or was it kind of a vision, a dream component of your film?
LMCJ: In a way you could think of the film as just being from my perspective, as a filmmaker, or just as a person. The historical piece was meant to be taken as a little bit of a legend in a way, or an archetypal story that was meant to somatically guide us through the story in a way similar to, say, I Was a Simple Man. But I wouldn’t simplify to the point where it’s like, it’s not happening or it is happening.

It’s really based on the stories I heard from the history of my tribe, which was stories [of how] people would get sick and head up river and they would come back if they got better, and if they didn’t, they would disappear forever. It was that kind of allegory that I was pointing toward, and whether it’s happening or not, it seems like it happened in my tribe. So I guess it did happen in history in a way.

Michael Greyeyes (center) in Jeff Barnaby’s Blood Quantum (2019).
Michael Greyeyes (center) in Jeff Barnaby’s Blood Quantum (2019).  

There is a very dark quote in the film about how the survivors aren’t necessarily the brave ones. They could be the cowards, who are the more treacherous. Is that part of that whole narrative from your tribe?
LMCJ: Yeah, so you get two perspectives of what happened. Historically, through Makwa, you have a self-hating narrative where he’s reflecting what he feels about himself. You’re getting a sense of who he is, and the way that he contextualizes and receives and restates what happened historically. And then you have a different perspective, with the Ojibwe legend at the beginning of the film.

Michael, what is your favorite Native American film of all time?
MG: [Laughs] Oh, that’s a tough one. What I’m gonna say right now is it’s Wild Indian. I’ve never seen a film like that from our community. It’s a crime-thriller genre, I love that it says so many things to me. And I’m a little bit biased because I’m in it but if there’s a tie, if there’s a second place, it’s got to be Blood Quantum, because I love zombie movies and Jeff Barnaby is an amazing director and yeah, I’m in that one too! Those are probably my two favorites at the moment.

Bretten Hannan’s Wildhood, to be released at a future date.
Bretten Hannan’s Wildhood, to be released at a future date.

I had the opportunity to see you in Wildhood at the Toronto International Film Festival. Congratulations on that, and congratulations on working with a pretty much all-Indigenous cast and crew. In some ways, your character in Wildhood—a hippie cake decorator with a painted van—is the antithesis to your character in Wild Indian. Can you talk about your experience of being part of Wildhood?
MG: Oh that was such a pleasure, Wildhood. Not to be confused with Wild Indian. It is a film by Bretten Hannam who is a Two-spirit Mi'kma'ki filmmaker from Atlantic Canada. [It’s a] contemporary look towards being Two-spirit, and what it’s like to be growing up in an environment that’s not so welcoming to these beautiful young men. I said, “I want to tell the story, I want to be part of the rejection of colonial anti-body, anti-love viewpoints. I want to embrace this movie, I want to contribute however I can. If my name helps get the movie made or gets some publicity for it.” I saw it at the premiere at TIFF and I was so moved. It was so profoundly beautiful.

Wild Indian’ is available to rent or own on VOD platforms. Comments have been edited for length and clarity.

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