From amateur actor to big star: The incredible journey of indigenous actress Lily Gladstone

The star of ‘Killers of the Flower Moon,’ which premieres at the Cannes Film Festival, was registering for a data analytics course when the acclaimed director reached out to cast her opposite Leo DiCaprio, who says, “She became a source of guidance for all of us.”

Lily Gladstone was photo­graphed April 25 at Tangible Studio in Vancouver. PHOTOGRAPHED BY LINDSAY SIU; STYLING BY JASON REMBERT AT COSTA STYLING

It was in August 2020, at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, that Lily Gladstone — who had earned raves playing a lovelorn rancher in Kelly Reichardt’s 2016 indie Certain Women — started to consider a career change. “You just wonder if it’s going to be sustainable,” Gladstone, 36, recalls thinking during that professional dry spell. “So I had my credit card out, registering for a data analytics course.”

A self-professed “bee nerd,” she planned to apply for seasonal work with the Department of Agriculture tracking murder hornets — yes, murder hornets — that were wreaking havoc around the country at the time. But as she entered her credit card information, a Gmail notification alerted her to a request for a Zoom meeting with Martin Scorsese. The murder hornets would have to wait.
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Three years later, Gladstone is approaching her Cannes Film Festival debut as one of the three leads — alongside Leonardo DiCaprio and Robert De Niro — in Scorsese’s latest film, a sprawling historical epic (three-and-a-half-hour runtime and a $200 million budget financed by Apple Studios) called Killers of the Flower Moon.

Based on the 2017 nonfiction best-seller by David Grann, the film re-creates a shameful chapter of U.S. history, when members of Oklahoma’s Osage Nation, who’d struck oil in the 1920s, were murdered by greedy white locals with designs on their money.

The real-life figure Gladstone plays in Killers is Mollie Burkhart, an Osage woman who married a white man — Ernest Burkhart, played by DiCaprio — only to find herself betrayed in ways that defy comprehension.

For Scorsese, all it took was seeing Gladstone’s work in Certain Women to know he’d found his Mollie.

“I could see that she trusted in simplicity,” says Scorsese, 80. “She understood her own onscreen presence as an expressive instrument that could speak for itself. That’s quite rare. Her silences, as Mollie, were often more powerful than her words.”

Leonardo DiCaprio and Lily Gladstone in Killers of the Flower Moon. MELINDA SUE GORDON/COURTESY OF APPLE TV+

If Gladstone’s screen presence is marked by stony reserve, her childhood was anything but. Raised by her father, who is of Blackfeet and Nimiipuu heritage, and her mother, who is white, on the Blackfeet Nation reservation in Browning, Montana, she describes herself as “an energetic and performative kid who got made fun of a lot — just that chubby mixed girl on the rez who had a little bit too much creative energy and not enough outlets.”

“But my dad always said, ‘It’s OK, honey. They’ll all want to be your friend when you win your Oscar,’ ” she adds.

For her first five years, Gladstone lived in a log cabin with a wood-burning stove. Food was limited to reservation commodities and her dad’s hunting, she says, “while my mom was off working to pay off grad school.”

Growing up in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, she recalls “being snowed in nine months of the year.” Luckily, her dad and grandma were huge movie buffs with an extensive library of classics videotaped off cable TV.

“I was watching some pretty sophisticated things for a kid,” Gladstone says. “My first Marty [Scorsese] movie was [1997’s] Kundun. My dad loved Kundun.”

Three decades later, she was starring in a Scorsese picture opposite DiCaprio in what would be that megastar’s sixth feature collaboration with the directing legend. If that sounds like pressure, it was, but there was no time to be starstruck. Gladstone needed to locate the inner strength to embody Mollie.

She admits that for the first few takes opposite DiCaprio and De Niro, her hands trembled.

“Leo was kind of poking my ribs about that for the first few days,” Gladstone recalls of those early jitters. “But in a very sweet, self-aware, tongue-in-cheek way.”

The nerves quickly melted away.

“Lily has amazing presence and strength,” says DiCaprio, 48. “She spent months studying Mollie Burkhart and her family, working extensively to understand the intricacies of this woman, her relationship with Ernest and her legacy within the Osage community. As a Native actor, in a lot of ways, she became a source of guidance for all of us, Scorsese included, in terms of how we told the story.”

Gladstone and DiCaprio held dozens of meetings with Osage leaders and locals to ensure that their input was heard and incorporated.

“They shared personal stories that ended up changing the script and helped us flesh out the characters,” she says.

For example, during Mollie and Ernest’s first meal together, a thunderstorm occurs. Instead of shutting the doors and windows, Mollie implores Ernest to fall silent and pray through the storm.

That beat came from an Osage consultant, Wilson Pipestem, who recalled his grandmother doing the same. (Pipestem also plays his own grandfather, an Osage leader, in the film.)

For yet another layer of authenticity, Gladstone and DiCaprio learned to speak Osage for Killers. There are entire scenes in which Mollie and Ernest converse in Osage so as not to let white locals know what they’re saying.

“It was really important for the both of us,” says DiCaprio, “in fact, really important for the whole set to immerse ourselves with the Osage. It was only a natural decision for Lily and I to try and learn some of this beautiful language.” Adds Gladstone, “It’s a gift to be able to say these words.”

Kelly Reichardt’s Certain Women (2016)


At the core of Killers of the Flower Moon is their relationship, a union sure to provoke heated debate on themes of race, love and betrayal. Scorsese admits to finding their dynamic “tricky” to tackle.

“What are they to each other? Does she see through him? Does he really love her? At a certain point, we all decided together that they were truly in love, no matter how crazy or impossible it seemed,” the director says.

It was Gladstone who helped shed some light by citing Graham Greene’s The Quiet American, a 1955 novel in which a love story between a CIA agent and a young Vietnamese woman serves as an analogy for America’s doomed involvement in Southeast Asia.

“That really clarified matters,” Scorsese says. “The sense of this central, extremely intimate relationship playing out as a microcosm of the wider betrayal of the Osage people.” Recalls Gladstone, “The one thing I said to Leo is: ‘I have to believe you love me. Otherwise, what kind of depth is Mollie allowed?’ “

Audiences can decide for themselves when Killers of the Flower Moon debuts May 20 at the Grand Théâtre Lumière at Cannes ahead of an Oct. 20 theatrical wide release.

Gladstone in a 2022 episode of FX’s Reservation Dogs SHANE BROWN/FX/COURTESY EVERETT COLLECTION

Now in Vancouver filming Under the Bridge, a true-crime series for Hulu, Gladstone is pulling together a look for the Cannes red carpet that will highlight Indigenous artists. “There’s just so many incredible Native fashion designers right now who deserve that platform,” she says.

Indeed, the platform being provided by Killers of the Flower Moon is lost on no one. Says DiCaprio: “We all went in wanting to ensure this story of sinister conspiracies and terrible racial injustices was told correctly and with the utmost respect to the Osage nation.”

Adds Gladstone: “There’s a big can of worms that’s being opened. A lot of institutions need to be held accountable for this period of time. This movie just scratches the surface.”

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