Byline: Eric Wilson
NEW YORK — In Native American lore, an ancient prophet named Wovoka said that 500 years after Christopher Columbus “discovered” America, all of the ancestors of the current generation would be resurrected, made larger than life and invincible.
“The prophecy was that they would have guns pointed at them and be shot, but they would not die,” said actress Irene Bedard, who is half Alaskan Inupiat and half French Canadian Cree. She plays Suzy Song in the new film “Smoke Signals,” which, after being a hit on the indie circuit at Sundance this year, will open nationwide on Friday.
“I think that has happened with film,” she said. “The images are larger than life. They are shot, but they do not really die.”
Bedard has starred in 18 films, including a role as the voice of “Pocahontas” in the Disney animated film and a Golden Globe-nominated performance in TNT’s “Lokata Woman: Siege at Wounded Knee.”
Of those 18 films, only four feature Bedard in roles other than as a Native American.
“That’s not going to change right away,” Bedard said. “When I was at Sundance, I asked Denzel Washington what he thought was the number-one factor in going from an African-American actor to an actor who can play the captain of a submarine.
“He said first of all, he had a group of people who believed in him. Then he said there were the actors who came before him. Well, we had Will Sampson, Graham Greene and Tantoo Cardinal, but they went through the ringer, and still have to, to an extent.”
Bedard has faced her own acting challenges. She often has to point out to film-makers the nuances of tribal customs, such as the difference in how a Cheyenne and Cree would dress.
But more frequently, Bedard has to remind directors to make the characters human. In one instance, she played a woman who greets her husband upon his return from a months-long hunting trip and was scripted to say, “Was it good hunting?”
What attracted Bedard to “Smoke Signals” was that it was written, directed and produced by Native Americans who had created the characters from their own experiences. Directed by Chris Eyre, who is Cheyenne/Arapaho, the film was based on stories from “The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven” by Sherman Alexie, a Spokane/Coeur d’Alene Native American. Alexie and Eyre co-produced the movie.
“We’ve been going through our ‘Roots’ era, ever since ‘Dances With Wolves,”‘ Bedard said. “Now we’re coming to a place where history is not being totally disregarded. We’re not stuffed with marble eyes in museums. We’re alive and we have contemporary social, cultural and monetary issues we deal with. My grandpa had a satellite dish.”
Bedard, who was raised in Anchorage, Alaska, started acting after studying at Pennsylvania’s Mansfield University and University of the Arts. While auditioning for stage roles here, she met her husband, musician Denny Wilson, waiting tables at Around the Clock on Stuyvesant Place.
She went on to portray characters as diverse as Cleopatra and Zelda Fitzgerald on Broadway and was a founding member of the Native American theater ensemble Chuka Lukoli, for which she wrote a yet-to-be-produced play, “Point Hope.”
The couple now live in Ojai, Calif., on an acre of land in the Los Padres National Forest, where Bedard is focusing on her film career. While she feels lucky to continue to tell the stories of Native Americans, Bedard said she also feels somewhat limited by those roles.
“In theater, you can change your appearance because you’re far away from the audience, but on film, it is the impression of your face and your appearance that is seen,” she said. “You are Native American first and human second in the eyes of Hollywood.”
In “Smoke Signals,” there are characters whose cars have bad transmissions, crazy people laughing and mocking each other as they set off outside the reservation, a grandmother with wise eyes and a mother making frybread.
“These were all of things I knew growing up,” she said. “Although on the other hand, my mother listened to Elvis and wore miniskirts. She had the mod look and wore a flip. That’s just who we are.”