Actor and activist Chaske Spencer was born of the Lakota Sioux tribe, and raised on Indian Reservations in Montana and Idaho. He broke into the off-Broadway theater scene playing the title role in Dracula and is best known for playing werewolf alpha Sam Uley in the Twilight saga.
Racebending.com contributor Gabriel Canada interviewed Chaske Spencer over the phone on August 17th, 2010.
NOTE: The opinions espoused by the interviewees represent their viewpoints alone, and do not necessarily represent the views held by the staff of racebending.com
It is a long journey from the Northern Cheyenne and Nez Perce reservations of Chaske Spencer’s childhood to red carpet premieres filled with screaming fans in Hollywood and across the globe–a journey through the games of Hollywood, and one that saw Chaske in jail and confronting addiction on a path where he saw death looming in front of him. One constant for Chaske on his journey has been his traditional beliefs, which helped him find his center through the harrowing time he spent in jail in New York, and the fame he garnered as Sam Uley on the set of Twilight.
Chaske took some time to discuss his journey with Racebending.com, including the whirlwind of being a part of Twilight, his experience as a Native American actor, and what his current projects are.
CHASKE SPENCER: I just finished a movie called Shouting Secrets. I’m pretty proud of that one. We did it in Globe, Arizona and I really liked the story. I found out that the script is also written by Steven Judd, who’s a Native American screenwriter and very talented.
It was first written for a Dutch family, and they were trying to get it financed, and for some reason they switched over to a Native American family. I did not know that when I first read it, so it doesn’t really read as a Native American movie. It is like a family movie and the people just happen to be Native American–it was a different twist on things. It was totally a movie written for a Dutch family and you know it just interested me, I really like the character I play.
Chaske Spencer in Shouting Secrets
I finished that project and I’m gearing up to do Breaking Dawn in November. I think we’re shooting through March. After that I’m gearing up doing Winter in the Blood, the James Welch novel, with Andrew and Alex Smith, the guys who did The Slaughter Rule.
RACEBENDING.COM: Sounds like a lot on your plate this year.
CHASKE SPENCER: Yeah, (laughter) yeah and then my production company gets started on The Block after that. I guess I do four movies back to back, to back, to back.
RACEBENDING.COM: Can you tell us more about your production company and it’s new project The Block?
CHASKE SPENCER: The Block is about a writer who has a block, and the only way he can cure the circumstances he’s in is by killing people. He finds that the more people he kills, the more he has to write about, and it becomes an addiction. It’s very dark and it’s not like any character I’ve ever played. I really like the script. Ted Kurdyla, one of my production partners brought the script to me. He had done Tigerland, Phone Booth, Once Upon A Time in America so he’ s a pretty heavy hitter. We had a few meetings, ate dinner and lunch together, and I guess he was really feeling me out and fortunately we hit it off and he brought me the part.
The thing that I’m really excited about for it is that it’s my first production for my production company, Urban Dream. So a first for Josselyne [Herman], Ted, and me working together.
RACEBENDING.COM: Do you feel your projects, especially the success of the Twilight franchise, are opening eyes in Hollywood? Or at least convincing them to make more contemporary roles available for Native actors?
CHASKE SPENCER: Well, yes, and no.
Hollywood has a very short memory. I still have to struggle. I’m still getting roles geared towards Native Americans, but they’re not great scripts so I have to navigate and find out what I really want to do. I have to see if the character is right, and the story is right, because I want to keep challenging myself as an artist.
I have to be picky and it’s hard to find good roles and good scripts. I think that’s why there’s a lot of crap being made out there in Hollywood but I think there are great stories and movies out there in the independent film world and I think that’s the way to go.
Plus, Twilight is so huge–I don’t know where I could go or a bigger movie I could be in. I like the fact that I can somewhat control my career and not always be a product of Hollywood, because it is a game as well as a business there.
Also, I want to make stories and movies not just for Natives. I don’t want this to be just “a Native American production company”– it’s not about that; it’s about finding talent and stories that appeal to me and hopefully help other artists as well.
“Hollywood has a very short memory. I still have to struggle. I’m still getting roles geared towards Native Americans, but they’re not great scripts so I have to navigate and find out what I really want to do.”
RACEBENDING.COM: You have worked with some very influential directors, people like Chris Eyre and Steven Spielberg. Did you take away anything from working with them and do you see yourself working behind the camera now with your own production company?
CHASKE SPENCER: Yeah, I do. I do see myself doing that at some point. I really pay attention when I’m on set with the directors. I just watch how they maneuver and how they take the shots and how they direct actors, as well.
Some directors aren’t “actor directors.” They don’t know how to talk to actors. Which, I understand. I think it’s up to the actor to come in ready for their job, and that’s what they hired you to do, to bring something to the table.
It’s really easy to work with directors who were actors because they know how to talk to you and what they want from you. So being an actor, if I ever go into directing, I think I’d bring a lot to the table. It’s something I really want to do. It would have to be the right story– something that really appeals to me–maybe an actor’s or writer’s voice needing to be heard.
RACEBENDING.COM: In previous interviews you’ve talked about the fact that statistically, you shouldn’t be “here.” Can you elaborate for those unfamiliar with life on a reservations what those statistics are, and what you meant by that?
CHASKE SPENCER: Coming from a reservation, the chances of people getting out and becoming successful are pretty rare. The people who do, it’s almost like jumping off a waterfall: you just jump and see if you land, and we will see if you’re okay, but at least you made the jump.
When I talk about giving back to the community, I think it’s a responsibility for myself to do that. I’ve experienced a lot, living on reservation. There is poverty and abuse–physical, domestic and sexual. A lot of people don’t know that.
It’s not just to raise an awareness, but also I can’t do it alone–some actor getting on a stage as a PSA. The people in the family structure, in their own homes, have to take up for themselves, take responsibility. I could just be a broken record playing over and over again.
I had people like that come to my school when I was growing up, and it did have an influence on me, but it’s really up to the people themselves to do something about it. There is only so much someone can do to raise awareness, but if I can inspire someone to do that–to maybe make a change in their life–then I think I’ve done my job. But it’s not easy.
Being in the spotlight as a Native American actor, you’re already being put on a pedestal as being a role model, which I don’t think anyone really ever wants. You’re thrust on there anyway, so you might as well make do with it what you can. But I’m not a perfect angel.
I think there is a responsibility to raise awareness or help my community out in the best way I know how. It’s not just about Native Americans, either. I experienced poverty on both sides.
I used to live in a place called Kooskia, Idaho which is on the Nez Perce reservation, but is mainly a white community. I had friends who didn’t have the help from the government with dental or commodities. I experienced very loving, giving people, who were white, who were poorer than Indians–people who didn’t even have shoes or help with medical and dental insurance from the government.
RACEBENDING.COM: What role do you have, to bring media representation to issues of poverty? Do you think there is a hesitancy to talk about issues of poverty in general, as well as with Native peoples?
CHASKE SPENCER: To shift the power to the people, that it’s up to them. We can only do so much. So many systems focus on being a band aid and hoping it goes away, but you really need a shift.
It’s about looking yourself in the mirror and saying did you do the right thing today. It is a big path to ask, but it’s all about baby steps. If you start out with those, you can get to your destination your goal and help people.
It isn’t easy–if it was, everyone would be doing it–but I’m glad I have the media spotlight to do this. I couldn’t look at myself if I had these two number one box office movies, and I was riding around in limos and all that. If I didn’t do anything to give back, I would just be a douchebag!
Chaske Spencer, Julia Jones, Qorianka Kilcher, Alex Meraz, Gil Birmingham, Quddus, Daryll Redleaf, Justin Chon and other actors filmed a PSA to support Shift the Power to the People
RACEBENDING.COM: Is part of that philosophy coming from your parents, who were educators?
CHASKE SPENCER:Yeah. My mother and father were teachers. They’ve gone off reservation, but came back to teach at tribal schools. My dad was a superintendent and a dean of students at a college. My mom was a principal and vice principal and now teaches at an alternative school for kids who need alternative means for learning.
It all started with my parents having a good home life, as much as is possible. Again, I’m no perfect angel–it wasn’t like Beaver Cleaver–but it was enough to get me to where I needed to go.
RACEBENDING.COM: I’m curious, did your parents, being educators, talk about Indian Boarding Schools? Was that something that drove them to say, maybe make a positive change to address some of those issues, to do good in the community?
CHASKE SPENCER: I remember hearing stories from my mother and father about their parents and grandparents when they were taken of the reservation, taken to the boarding schools, and pretty much taught to be ashamed of who they were as Native Americans. You can feel that impact today.
I think that’s why there is so much alcohol and drug abuse on reservations, because the self-esteem of those people–they were robbed of the self-esteem for who they are. Our people were a beautiful people, and they still are.
The impact of that has affected generations. You had abuse, sexual abuse, at these boarding schools, plus, they were forced to cut their own hair–to be ashamed of who they were. If they spoke their own tongue, their mouths were washed out with soap. You can feel that effect today.
Girls at an Indian Boarding School. Source:University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign -An Indian Boarding School Photo Gallery
“They were robbed of the self-esteem for who they are. Our people were a beautiful people, and they still are.”
It’s very sad but it’s an awareness; I think our people do know, but some are ashamed to talk about it. If you start talking about it, you realize that’s a key point in our history, where we turned, where something happened. I believe it’s coming back with the Sundances, the Sweat Lodges and Native American spirituality coming back. We were just granted our rights here in the 1970s.
RACEBENDING.COM: Do you think that media representation plays a role in this, because there is a lack of positive portrayals in the media? So many overtly racist practices were allowed to continue well after segregation and other practices had stopped.
CHASKE SPENCER: Yeah. I went to all white school where I dealt with racism. There was a point–when I was a kid–where I said I wanted to be like Luke Skywalker, with blond hair and blue eyes. My mom right there told me to never be ashamed of who I am.
It was just conditioning. You see it everywhere in Hollywood–you know, in the media in general–it’s conditioning, conditioning everywhere you look. It took somewhere into my teens for me to really understand who I was and to start being proud of who I was.
“There was a point–when I was a kid–where I said I wanted to be like Luke Skywalker, with blond hair and blue eyes. My mom right there told me to never be ashamed of who I am.”
I can’t imagine what its like for people who grew up in the time of the boarding schools where there was a lot of racism towards people of color and minorities in general. I’m fortunate to have friends of all races and orientations. I live in New York City, so the people I hang with come from all different walks of life. I’m able to maneuver that way and have lots of different types of friends.
The big picture is acceptance, but I think we’re a long way from that. If you make an awareness of that, and acknowledge it, then maybe that’s a first step.
“As a Native American actor and role model, it can be tough because there have not been positive role models out there.”
As a Native American actor and role model, it can be tough because there have not been positive role models out there. There have been some, but it’s Hollywood, and there is propaganda and bull that goes on sometimes, and it can be difficult maneuvering through that type of life here.
Chaske Spencer in Into the West (2005)
RACEBENDING.COM: What role have your traditional beliefs played in your life and in relation to your own personal struggles?
CHASKE SPENCER: It’s helped me stay very grounded. It keeps me in reality, because I know the films I make, it’s all very lucky. Not a lot of people get to do what they love for a living and I’m a very lucky person to get to do what I’m doing.
My traditional beliefs are what I do to stay centered, to stay grounded in my tradition. I’m glad that I’m at a place now in my life where I can acknowledge that, and know I rely on that a lot today. Especially, with all the success and everything because it lets me realize what’s important in life. It’s just a movie and a fad that will go away at some point.
I’ve been making movies for twelve years now and I’ve had ups and downs in my career. There are ups and downs, mountains and valleys. It’s up right now, but it’ll be down again ,and then it’ll get up again–that’s just show business.
RACEBENDING.COM: Much of your fan base are teenagers, and one of the issues you’ve talked about in the past is the dramatic increase in teenage suicides. Is this an area you hope to have an impact in for Native American youth and for youth in general?
CHASKE SPENCER: I hope so. It’s gotten worse. When I was a kid it wasn’t that bad, or at least I was sheltered from it. But lately the suicide rate is so high.
I understand being on reservation–especially the ones I grew up, on Fort Peck and Northern Cheyenne–there is nothing to do, there nothing going on for the youth. There are lot of drugs–a lot of crystal meth, a lot of peer pressure–all that stuff. I just don’t think in high school, kids understand.
I remember being a kid, you think: That’s it. That’s life, the end all be all. But sometimes, on a reservation, that is all. I think it’s up to the teachers, the parents, the real educators to give them another outlook on life, to say: “This is not the end. You can get off the reservation. You can go and do something with your life. When you die, that’s it. There is no coming back. And you forget about the people who love you and care for you.”
“This is not the end. You can get off the reservation. You can go and do something with your life. When you die, that’s it. There is no coming back. And you forget about the people who love you and care for you.”
RACEBENDING.COM: What is it that helped bring you out of your own personal struggles with addiction and what would you say to those who are struggling with those issues now?
CHASKE SPENCER: What helped me? There were several things that helped me sober up.
When I came to New York, I always had a mentality of “work hard; play hard.” My work never really suffered from my drug and alcohol usage, but it could have. I always walked that fine line, where I could go either way.
As I got deeper into addiction, I started noticing that work was suffering. Relationships were falling apart and I found myself more and more alone. I was sick and tired of being sick and tired. I hated waking up needing something in my system just to get up and face the day.
Everyone has there own journey in how they sober up but for me it was: I could keep going down this road, but I could see that death was going to happen. I understood what they meant when they talk about death, institutions, and jail and I’d already been to jail. I could just see death looming somewhere around there because of the poor decisions I was making under the influence.
It wasn’t like a big dramatic thing. Just one night, something clicked. I’d had enough. I was done, and I couldn’t do this anymore–and I can’t quit on my own. I’ve gotten so deep into it, and trying to stop on my own is useless…so I asked for help and I received help.
The thing is, when I go back to my home reservation…I don’t think I could have sobered up on reservation. I can see where it’s hard for someone to stay sober on reservation, especially the ones I grew up on. If I had to go back and live there, I don’t know if I would be able to stay sober in those situations, its just too big and there is nothing there to help people with drug addictions. There are facilities and stuff there but the moral support you need from family and friends is not there because everyone is doing it.
Alex Meraz, Kiowa Gordon, and Chaske Spencer in Twilight: New Moon
RACEBENDING.COM: Once again thank you for your time. It sounds like having that family foundation is very important to you and I appreciate you sharing your personal experiences with us today. I’m curious, does any of this come out in your acting? Even in Twilight or other roles, is there anything that relates back to these personal experiences?
CHASKE SPENCER: No, not in Twilight! (laughter)
RACEBENDING.COM: That’s more of a battle of “Shirt, versus no shirt?” than “Good versus Evil,” isn’t it?
CHASKE SPENCER: (laughter) Yeah, the only thing I’m going through with pain right now is physical. It’s training for Breaking Dawn. In fact I just started going back to the gym. I’m going to the gym tomorrow and I know I’m going to be so sore tomorrow!
The movie I really liked the most, of all the films I’ve done, is probably Skins. I really liked that movie, and I liked the actors who are in it, and I like the story because I think it captures life on a reservation really well. I think it’s something people who lived on a reservation can really relate to.
Chaske Spencer in Skins
I’m also not in it all that much–which I like–but I get really caught up with Graham Greene and Eric Schwieg, who are really powerful actors. I really tip my hat to those two actors, because working with them and being around them, being a young man learning to act, and in seeing the final product, I could see the intensity in how they work their craft.
Racebending.com would like to thank Mr. Chaske Spencer and Gabriel Canada for this interview!