“You grew up on a reservation, correct? Or you spent part of your childhood on a reservation?
I grew up in Glacier National Park in Yellowstone. My grandparents lived on the Blackfeet Reservation, which is about 20 miles from where I lived in Montana. So on and off I was on the reservation with my family, on weekends or for chunks of time. My mom grew up on a reservation in South Dakota, and then moved up to Blackfeet in the ’50s.
Hanzee’s Native American heritage has become a large part of who he is and what he stands for, whereas earlier in the season, his background was more of a mystery. Did you create your own story for this shift in his character?
I did. Like you said, there wasn’t a lot written on the page about him, other than he was adopted at nine years old by the Gerhardt family, which was actually going on a lot in the ’60s and ’70s — a lot of kids being adopted out of their families into other families and relocated into other environments. So I know he went through that. And then being in the war, you know, that would have a big impression on anybody. He was this tunnel rat in Vietnam, sending the Indian down into the tunnels. I also drew from my own experience growing up in the ’70s as a Native American, being on the reservation and also living on the border of a reservation, and experiences I had with racism, on both sides. Being a mixed Native American, because my father was an Irishman, I saw both sides of it.
So that racism is vivid in your own memory?
It’s very vivid. Not being served in restaurants in the early ’70s. I remember it vividly. They didn’t come up and say, “We’re not going to serve you,” they just left us sitting at the table and then didn’t ask for our order for 45 minutes. And it’s still going on. You’d be surprised how racist these border towns are. Not just white people being racist against Natives, but Natives being racist against white people as well.
Native American actors have gotten some attention this year — there was the controversy with Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidton Netflix and the walkoffs on the Adam Sandler movie, The Ridiculous Six. Are these things that people have been talking about a lot in your own community?
Yeah, they are. I had friends who worked on that Adam Sandler film. I wasn’t there, so I don’t know exactly what took place and who exactly walked off the set. I think it was mainly background actors who did. I have had conversations with a few of the actors who were principals on the show. I have an open mind about seeing [the movie] because of the content of the film, you know, it’s ridiculous. It’s called Ridiculous Six so they probably make fun of everybody. I do know that for me, personally, I wouldn’t have been part of that film. That’s just me, personally.
You often play very specifically Native-American characters. Does that ever frustrate you?
I have played characters where race isn’t a centerpiece of the project, certainly. A waiter, a bookie, those kinds of things. There are casting directors who see past it, though we definitely have a long way to go. I did a movie recently where I’m playing a drug runner, and he’s not — there’s really no race as a part of the character, he doesn’t discuss his ethnicity at all. So things are happening, we’d like to see more obviously, but they are happening, and it’s taken a positive turn. There does need to be more, though! [Laughs.] There should be more Natives on TV.
In your dream role you’d create for yourself, what would you play?
The reality is, I look ethnic. So, I’ve played Latino roles, and I’ve played Native roles. I’m dark-skinned. I’d love a role where I’m playing a father, a loving husband, a relationship-based movie. A child and father, father-son kind of thing. I do a lot of that stuff in my classes I take, and I have a lot of fun doing it. Just being a human being and relating to another human being….”