Visual artist, moosehide tanner and proud Dene mama of three, Melaw Nakehk’o of Liidlii Kue (Fort Simpson, NWT) forayed into the world of A-list moviemaking unexpectedly in 2014, when she was cast alongside Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hardy in Alejandro Iñárritu’s high profile new movie, The Revenant. The film, which is already garnering Oscar nods and Golden Globe nominations, premieres in theatres worldwide this Friday, including Yellowknife, where a sold-out red carpet event is set to celebrate the film. EDGE spoke with Nakehk’o about her experiences being on set, walking the Hollywood red carpet and portraying Powaqa, the daughter of an Arikara warrior.
What were you expecting when you decided to try out for this part?
Well, they had an open casting call in Yellowknife. It was on a Saturday. I was really busy; Oz and Ehxea [two of her sons] have gymnastics and hockey, and I had to go grocery shopping.
People were texting me and telling me I should go do this thing, and I was really busy at the grocery store with Bez [her youngest son] and Oz while Ehxea was at hockey, and the produce guy was like, ‘Hey, try these grapes. And you should go check out this thing. You better go. You have to go.’ So I was like, ‘Okay, produce guy…’ (Laughs).
Well, if the produce guy is telling you…
Yeah (laughs). I picked up my son at hockey and dropped them off at my brother’s place and got there half an hour before it was over. As soon as I walked in, I sat down and somebody was like, ‘You! Come with me.’ They take your picture and write your name and how tall you are. Then I got a callback, so we went back on Sunday where we did a taped scene.
Then Wednesday I got a call saying the director wanted to meet me in Calgary the next day. I travelled to Calgary and saw Alejandro [Iñárritu]. He didn’t like the costume or the makeup I was wearing, so we changed, and I saw him again Friday. I saw him and got changed and was just waiting around until the end of the day, and then somebody came over and said, ‘Alejandro wants to see you.’ I went to his trailer and he was like, ‘Welcome to the film!’ and gave me a hug and then left.
I stood there for a while and was like, ‘Does that mean I have a job?’ (Laughs). Everybody was like, ‘Yeah, you’re on the film!’ So I hugged the makeup and hair artists and called my mom and dad.
What scene did you do for your audition?
The scene was: you’re with a bunch of people and going to a fur-trading post, and you’re trying to negotiate the furs for a horse. The post was like, ‘Ha! As if I’m going to give you a horse.’ Then you have to be like, ‘Give me a horse.’ I didn’t have to read anything; it was all just presence and just being badass. I was just like, ‘I’m taking the horse. You’re taking these, and I’m taking the horse.’ It was pretty cool.
In auditions it’s about the energy you have with the other person that you’re working with, if there’s energy there or chemistry. That’s what actors have told me, so… (Laughs).
What was the filming like? We’ve heard a lot of talk about a long, difficult shoot, and you had just had Bez.
Yeah, Bez was three months old when I got cast.
What was it like being on this shoot while juggling your life?
I was able to get childcare, to bring Bez with me, because I’m a single mom. I wouldn’t have been able to do the film if he wasn’t able to come with me. Production provided childcare and travel and everything for me. That was really helpful.
Huge thanks to my friend Hye and my niece Chase who came down with me to help with Bez. We would get these 4-5 a.m. pickups from our hotel to go to set, because a lot of the sets were out of town. In Calgary, it was out by Moberly, or even at this other ranch an hour and a half from Calgary. Same with the locations outside Vancouver and in Argentina, because the locations are out in the mountains, we get these crazy early pickups, and are there until the sun set. So we had 12-16 hour days, with a little baby.
Regarding your character, I understand that she is kidnapped and goes through a lot of pretty brutal violence. I’m wondering how it was for you to play that role.
Actually, from the script to what we filmed to the final film — I finally saw the film in Los Angeles at the world premiere — I didn’t know what they were doing with the storyline. They actually kind of changed the story from when we were filming, from the script to the final product. They actually cut a whole bunch of my scenes; everything I filmed in 2014 they cut. That was a little bit of a shocker, but when I got the part and I learned more about the character and read the script, and I saw what she goes through in the film, I was pretty confident that I would be able to do it.
Who this woman is and what she goes through, and her strength and her trust in her people, and also what it would have been like at that time, in the early 1800s — it’s the first real settler colonialism coming into that part of the west for the furs. It’s [Indigenous people’s] first time being unsettled on the land in their territories, with these types of interactions and the violence, the violence of settler colonialism.
I saw that in the script and I could see that in this character, and I was just like, ‘I can do this.’
I had to really try to do my best to honour Indigenous women throughout history, because there is this history of violence against Indigenous women because of settler colonialism, on our relationship to the land; that relationship of disrespecting women and disrespecting land, and this whole time of encroachment and displacement, and all of those things.
From the work that Alejandro has done before with his other films, there’s always this theme of humanity, stories about people in all of these different circumstances, their different stories and how these storylines are interconnected. I really like the way they tell stories and the humanness and grittiness of what it is to be a human being, and the things that happen. I knew from the work that they’ve done before how they tell stories.
So you could trust in that process a bit?
The movie obviously centers on the experiences of a male European settler, but as you said, it showcases the impacts of colonization and the beginnings of settler colonialism. What do you hope people get from the film when it comes to thinking about that time in history?
It is a man’s story; there are so many dudes in this movie (Laughs). Me and Grace [Dove] were the only girls, and Grace was only there for two weeks of filming at the very end. I was on set since the beginning, since September 2014, coming back again and again, and it was all dudes (Laughs).
But it’s this beautiful story, and the way that they filmed it in all natural light and amazingly beautiful, untouched places that still exist in Canada and the States and Argentina, these really beautiful, vast places, and our connection to how huge these places are–it has a lot to do with family and love and what we’re capable of doing for the people that we love.
I don’t know if Alejandro’s ever talked about it in this way, but for myself, I felt that a lot of the Indigenous characters were true in a sense to that era and that time, because there’s a lot of displacement and people travelling and moving in a weird time of year, which is the fall to the winter, when usually everybody would be hunkered down and prepared for the winter.
But in the film, there’s just people that are displaced, and that’s directly what’s happened with the settlers coming into the territory and causing disruption between the tribes and their land. That was really apparent when I was able to see the whole movie, that whole storyline and how the Indigenous people were portrayed.
So you felt that the way Indigenous people and cultures were represented was, you said, quite ‘true’?
I think as true as it could be in the sense that it’s a Hollywood movie. But I feel that Alejandro went out and did the best that he could to reflect what it would have been like.
He sought out Indigenous actors and talent to play all of the Indigenous characters. All of the stunt guys were Native. He had cultural advisors and an Arikara language guy who helped us with all of our lines, Loren Yellowbird, and a Blackfoot guy who helped with Plains culture for just getting things accurate, like costume.
When you went to L.A. for the red carpet event, everyone was talking about your dress and jewelry. Why was it important for you to wear those Indigenous designers to that event?
I knew that I wanted to wear Indigenous designers to the red carpet. It was the world premiere of The Revenant, and the movie was with Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hardy — probably two of the biggest names in Hollywood right now. So I knew it was going to be a huge deal, and as one of the only female characters in the film, I had to bring it the best I could.
Nakehk’o on the red carpet | Photo courtesy WENN
Christi Belcourt hooked me up with her Valentino contacts and I was able to get [the dress], and before I went to L.A. I was in Santa Fe to work with a photographer, Kali Spitzer, and met with Keri Ataumbi, who is an incredible jewelry designer. She’s amazing. So I was able to get some of her work that was in a museum in Pittsburgh [sent] to me in Hollywood while I was there. It all worked really well together, and it was really important to be able to represent Indigenous designers at such a high level of fashion, because today there’s a lot of cultural appropriation with a lot of the huge fashion houses and people just being disrespectful wearing headdresses and Native American-inspired stuff.
I’m also a visual artist, and make traditional Dene arts and crafts. So when I see somebody non-Native selling moccasins at a craft sale, that’s part of my culture and who I am as a person, and they’re just exploiting that for themselves. Because you know it doesn’t have the same connection or meaning to them as it does to me or any of the other ladies in my community making things. It’s just this hobby and they’re making money from it.
Have any other opportunities come to you since you’ve done this film?
Yeah, some of the people in the film who portrayed the Arikara in The Revenant have been invited down to the Arikara Nation this summer, so we get to go down there and meet people. They’re doing kind of like a historical exhibit of the era, of the beginning of the fur trade in the area, and the time that Hugh Glass was there.
We’re going to come down and talk about the film, but it’s also about the fur trade. Loren had asked me to come down and speak about the work that I do tanning hides. I’m excited to see some of the guys again and to see Loren.
The premiere’s happening in Yellowknife on Friday. I’m wondering how you feel about having all of your friends and family able to see the film for the first time, and also people from the North in general.
People have organized this huge party and I’m in like five minutes of the movie (Laughs). But we’ve invited Duane Howard, so he’s going to be here. He has a much bigger role than I do, and is an amazing person I’ve been so honoured and grateful to meet and work with. He’s going to be here and part of the panel.