Wes Studi plays an ailing Cheyenne war chief in “Hostiles.” He spoke about the film, Native Americans in Hollywood, the persistence of prejudice and his dream of being a grumpy old man.
Growing up in rural Oklahoma, speaking only the Cherokee language until age 5, Wes Studi didn’t exactly see Hollywood as the most obvious career path. By the time he started working in movies, he was already in his 40s — but it didn’t take him long to make an impact.
Since breaking out in 1990’s “Dances With Wolves” and as the fierce Huron warrior Magua in 1992’s “Last of the Mohicans,” Studi has earned acclaim for his work in movies like “Geronimo: An American Legend,” “Heat,” “The New World” and “Avatar,” as well as TV projects like “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee” and “Penny Dreadful.”
In director Scott Cooper’s brutal Western “Hostiles,” Studi plays Yellow Hawk, an ailing Cheyenne war chief who is reluctantly escorted to his tribal homeland to die by a bigoted Army captain (Christian Bale). Studi, who lives in Santa Fe, spoke with The Times about the film, Native Americans in Hollywood, the persistence of prejudice and his dream of being a grumpy old man.
Q: You’ve been in more than a few Westerns over the years. What appealed to you about this script when you read it?
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A: I think the story has something to say beyond the violence, beyond the love story, beyond the normal Western story. There was also something I hadn’t done before, which was playing a person who is slowly dying and knows that he is slowly dying. What is it like to be slowly dying, to know that you only have a certain amount of days before you? I really don’t know. But at my age it’s getting nearer — the real thing of dying — and I always wonder about people who get to the point where they can truthfully say, “I do not fear death.”
Q: Your character speaks Cheyenne throughout the film. How big a challenge was that?
A: I had used Cheyenne to a certain extent a number of years ago when I played Black Kettle (in the 2005 TNT miniseries “Into the West”) but not to this extent. It’s a difficult language. I like to think I have a little edge on it because I’m willing to experiment with different sounds and my tongue is capable of speaking Cherokee, which has a lot of sounds that are made differently. But as far as understanding goes,…