Michael Greyeyes pushed his body to the breaking point in order to play Makwa, the haunted man at the center of “Wild Indian.”
The veteran actor shed 35 pounds from his already slender frame, losing the weight largely by fasting. It was hard, Greyeyes admits, but also necessary to portray someone who has a toxic secret that threatens to destroy his carefully manicured existence as a successful executive and family man.
“There were months where basically I was hungry all the time,” Greyeyes told Variety. “That allowed me to have a lived experience. I would walk by coffee shops or bakeries and see all these delicious looking things I couldn’t have. It created a sense of frustration and keen hunger. I felt like a wolf at times when I was playing this role — I was something lurking at the edges of polite society trying to find his prey.”
“Wild Indian,” which premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival to strong reviews, continues a hot run for Greyeyes, who at 53 years old is more in demand than ever before. It’s a streak that kicked off with his compelling turn as Sitting Bull in 2018’s “Woman Walks Ahead” and continued with supporting roles in “True Detective” and “I Know This Much is True.” But nothing compares with his revelatory work in “Wild Indian.”
The Hollywood Reporter, for instance, raved that “Greyeyes displays a taut physicality and simmering intensity that hold your attention every moment he’s onscreen.” And SlashFilm enthused that “Greyeyes perfectly balances these warring factions; the cruelty of the adult man and the gentle nature of the child buried within.”
The film’s success hinges on his ability to navigate that duality. Greyeyes is front-and-center as Makwa, an Ojibwe man who has fled the reservation to reinvent himself as Michael, a father and businessman, who carries with him the imprint of an earlier act of shocking brutality.
As a teenager, Makwa murdered a classmate and then conspired with his friend Teddo to cover up the crime. Decades later, he thinks he’s moved on. He has a stylish apartment and a beautiful wife and a baby on the way — he is far removed from his impoverished childhood, one characterized by deprivation and physical and emotional abuse. When Teddo reappears, the sins that Makwa thought he had buried threaten to be unearthed. Greyeyes perfectly conveys how Makwa’s history of violence has polluted his soul, forcing him to barely suppress a simmering rage.
For the actor, “Wild Indian” provided the kind of complex, multi-layered indigenous character that movies have largely failed to offer up.
“Indigenous characters exist in American cinema in unique kinds of silos,” Greyeyes said. “They’re often used as foils against which white characters discover something. They exist as sort of a metaphor for something else. What impressed me about ‘Wild Indian’ is that Makwa is framed inside the typically heroic position in a film as a leading man, but what made it more interesting is that he is an incredibly broken person.”
Director Lyle Mitchell Corbine Jr. always knew he wanted Greyeyes to play the role, believing that he had the ability to make viewers care about a character who in lesser hands could have appeared like a stock psychopath.
“He was willing to do what he needed to do to trace this emotional arc,” says Corbine. “Michael didn’t just understand the character’s journey. He got the subtext. He understood that we needed to play his character’s struggle in the context of the struggle that all Native people have.”
Indeed, “Wild Indian” isn’t afraid to grapple with the political and cultural injustices that Native Americans have faced. But that’s a rarity. Indigenous characters are few and far between on film. A recent study by USC Annenberg found that 97% of the top-grossing movies lacked a single Native American or Alaskan Native character.
“It’s a damning statistic,” says Greyeyes. “I don’t think anyone in the industry can look at that and feel anything but disappointment and shame. But I’m excited to be working on a project that elevates our representation in any media. Erasure has been a matter of national policy to allow the settler state to exist. I look at my media work as very political. I’m here to demolish notions about who we are that don’t reflect the world that we live in.”
For Greyeyes, that work includes a star turn in the upcoming adaptation of Stephen King’s “Firestarter,” which is being produced by Blumhouse the maker of “Get Out” and “The Purge.” It also includes a role in “Rutherford Falls,” a sitcom about the relationship between the residents of a small town in New York and the members of a neighboring Native American reservation. The show will feature the largest indigenous writing staff on TV, has a Navajo and Mexican American show runner in Sierra Teller Ornelas, and is the latest collaboration between Ed Helms and Michael Schur, who previously worked together on “The Office.”
“It’s going to be landmark television,” Greyeyes says. “I jumped at the chance precisely because my character was funny. I’ve always been interested in expanding my range as an actor and I’ve never played comedy. I was as nervous walking into scenes with Ed Helms as I’ve ever been.”