Actress Lily Gladstone on verge of stardom

New film for PBS features Gladstone as an emerging ‘American Master.’

Actress Lily Gladstone, Blackfeet, who has a starring role in the upcoming “Killers of the Flower Moon” film, is featured in the 2023 short film, “Lily Gladstone: Far Out There,” for the American Masters PBS program, “In the Making.”

The film, produced by American Masters and Firelight Media, is one of seven films about emerging artists and their journeys to become masters of their disciplines. Credit: Photo courtesy of American Masters

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A new short film, “Lily Gladstone: Far Out There,” follows the Blackfeet/Niimíipuu actress on a journey back to her reservation after being away for three years.

During the years she’s been away, she’s been acting up a storm in a number of acclaimed films, including “Little Chief” and the recent “Fancy Dance.” Now she’s preparing for the release of “Killers of the Flower Moon,” a monster-budget film by one of the biggest directors in Hollywood, Martin Scorsese, in which she co-stars with Leonardo DiCaprio.

In the meantime, “Lily Gladstone: Far Out There,” features the rising actress in the PBS American Masters program, part of an “In the Making” series now available for streaming.

The short film, produced by American Masters and Firelight Media and directed by Brooke Pepion Swaney, who is also Blackfeet, is one of seven films about emerging artists and their journeys to become masters of their disciplines.

“No one becomes an ‘American Master’ overnight, and the idea behind ‘In the Making’ is to take a behind-the-scenes look at the creative processes of artists who are on their way to becoming masters in their field,” Michael Kantor, executive producer for “American Masters,” said in a statement. “We’re always seeking a broad and diverse national audience — whether on television or online — and are thrilled to continue our longstanding and collaborative partnership with Firelight Media.”

Swaney, the director, said Gladstone was a logical choice for a closer look.

“When the opportunity came up to profile an artist, Lily came to mind as a local hero doing really big things in the world,” Swaney told ICT. “I wanted to uplift her craft and her approach to her work. When I studied acting as a youth, what was often drilled into me was ‘acting is reacting.’ And Lily is a great re-actor.”

“Killers of the Flower Moon” is expected to be released in October.

“As a filmmaker or anyone who pays attention to film ever, this is huge,” Swaney said. “Native stories with Native actors are having a serious moment. And for some, it’ll be Lily’s ‘I have arrived’ moment.”

POWER IN SILENCE

Back on the Blackfeet Reservation, Gladstone reflects on the journey and how every time she begins to walk away, the acting world pulls her back in. She gives a class to eager students on the reservation, and tells them how the body and even silence can be powerful tools.

Gladstone does short exercises with the students about body language and how to block out all distractions — the lights, camera people — because what they are seeing is opposite from what the actor is seeing.

Gladstone excels in telling the character’s emotions and motives with her eyes and her stance.

“I definitely do think that is why she is sought after, but also, it is her rooted and grounded presence in her role,” Swaney said. “She becomes so focused, not just on the moment, but modulating the scale of her reactions with regard to the audience, whether it is performing on stage or for a long lens.”

Swaney said she and Gladstone had long discussions about art during the filming.

“We started getting philosophical, which can happen when you throw two nerdy Blackfeet people together,” she said.

Swaney cites American psychologist Abraham Maslow, who in the 1940s came out with a philosophy about factors that come into play when trying to reach one’s goals — he called it a hierarchy of needs. His idea states that in order to reach self-actualization, or the complete realization of potential, several things have to be met first: physiological needs such as food, shelter and safety, and then intangible needs such as love, belonging and self-esteem.

“Maslow lifted a lot of his ideas from Niitsitapi teachings when studying with elders on the Blackfeet Nation in 1938,” Swaney said. “But his view presupposes a Western way of thinking, centering the ‘me’ rather than the ‘we.’”

Brooke Pepion Swaney, Blackfeet, directed a 2023 short film, “Lily Gladstone: Far Out There,” for the American Masters PBS program, “In the Making.” The film, produced by American Masters and Firelight Media, is one of seven films about emerging artists and their journeys to become masters of their disciplines. Gladstone has a starring role in the upcoming “Killers of the Flower Moon.” (Photo courtesy of American Masters)

Gladstone responded to Swaney by explaining that “the basis of the Blackfoot hierarchy of need essentially is you need to have self-actualization as the foundation. … And how does your purpose, how does your individual gift that is supported, identified, nurtured and encouraged by your community so early in an ideal balanced society … benefit the whole in the continuation of your people?”

The concepts were key to the film, Swaney said.

“For Lily, elders identified her gift as an actor and storyteller as a child,” she said. “Her family encouraged her. Her community supports her. This is something we wanted to share in the film. Same with her motivation to inspire and support the youth, which is why we returned to the rez to share an acting workshop with Browning High School students.”

Swaney also wanted to dig into Gladstone’s process as an actor, so the film focuses as well on her craft.

“We filmed her doing her Alexander technique warm-ups. We filmed mock screen tests. We filmed a Shakespeare monologue,” Swaney said. “Not all of this made the final edit, but her craft, her work, was the goal. This included any auditions or preparations for industry meetings. The red-carpet motif — where Lily is literally rolled into a carpet by the students — was also an experiment with and a symbol for the industry as it relates to her craft.”

‘MORE TO COME’

At the time of the filming, Lily was on call for “Killers of the Flower Moon” for automated dialogue replacement, known as ADR, the process of re-recording audio in a more controlled setting after a film has been shot to improve audio quality.

She recalls how she auditioned for the role of Mollie Burkhard, an Osage woman who is targeted for the rights to her oil wealth in 1920s Oklahoma. She thought her audition was good, but then the pandemic hit and production was delayed indefinitely, so she felt the opportunity had passed her by.

Then she got the call that the role was hers.

“’Pinnacle’ isn’t the right word to describe the current place in Lily Gladstone’s acting career,” Swaney said. “I am sure there is yet so much more to come. And by the same token, I don’t think that Lily even thinks of it that way, although mainstream society certainly views Lily’s career to this point in this way.

“It isn’t necessarily about an arrival, but a moment in her life, where this firm groundedness, call it self-actualization, will serve her as things are about to get surreal with the fame machine.”

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