Taylor Sheridan, writer-director of the new film “Wind River,” which takes place on a Wyoming reservation, told his casting team: Hire Native American actors. When vetting is a challenge even for tribes, how can casting directors do it?
There’s a brief exchange in the new drama “Wind River” that is brusquely telling. On a reservation in Wyoming, a white man, Cory (Jeremy Renner), tries to console an Arapaho tribal member, Chip (Martin Sensmeier), who has just learned that his sister has been murdered.
When Cory philosophizes, “This land is all we got left,” Chip excoriates his use of “we” and adds, “Only thing Native about you is your ex-wife and a daughter you couldn’t protect.”
It’s at this moment, when Cory is reminded of his place, that the film refuses to dance with wolves. Marriage, affinity or even lifelong residency may change the white man, but he will always be a foreigner in Indian Country.
Taylor Sheridan, the writer-director, kept that unbridgeable distance in mind when he told his casting team: Hire Native American actors for Native American roles.
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“I wasn’t going to sit here and tell a story about very real issues,” namely sexual violence against women in Indian Country, “and cast people to portray characters in that world suffering those burdens and not have some connection,” Sheridan, who is not Native American, told me. He hired, among others, Sensmeier (of Tlingit and Koyukon-Athabascan heritage), Graham Greene (Oneida) and Julia Jones (Choctaw and Chickasaw).
Sheridan admitted, “There was someone far and away that was the best, but I didn’t hire them because they were not Native American.” He even told his casting directors that when it came to auditioning actors, “Don’t even read them unless you can vet the authentic nature of their ancestry.”
“Redface,” the manufacturing of ersatz images of Native American identity, has long been a problem in Hollywood, and there’s a well-documented history of hiring non-Indians for Indian roles. But Sheridan’s solution is thorny, too. When vetting is a challenge even for tribes, which can become embroiled in controversies over identity, how can casting directors do it? Physical appearance can be deceiving, and requiring tribal membership may exclude those who are not enrolled.
“Fifteen or 20 years ago, they would have found someone who was…