Western Movies

Wes Studi

The toughest Cherokee speaks out.


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Santa Fe and Hollywood are a long way from Nofire Hollow, Oklahoma, but Cherokee actor Wes Studi has found a home in all three worlds.

Many critics say Studi should have been nominated for Best Supporting Actor for portraying the vill-ainous Magua in The Last of the Mohicans (1992). He was equally unforgettable as a Pawnee in Dances With Wolves (1990), and his star turned in Geronimo: An American Legend (1993). His latest role is as Joe Leaphorn, Tony Hillerman’s taciturn Navajo detective, in Skinwalkers on the PBS Mystery series.

Studi is one of the most recognized and respected Native American actors of our time. True West caught up with him at his Santa Fe home. Soft-spoken and witty, he looked fit and relaxed, but there was an ever-present intensity in his eyes that made you think: Yeah, he would cut your heart out if you crossed him.

True West: I’ve read that you were born in 1946 and 1947. Which year was it?

Wes Studi: (Laughing). Well, I guess if I had a choice I’d pick ’47, wouldn’t I? Shave off one year. And I thank you for the choice.

TW: All right, I won’t push. You were in Vietnam in 1968. Any memories stand out?

WS: I got there right in time for the Tet offensive. We spent our first week there without doing anything, but all of a sudden there were a lot of people being airlifted out of there and they were running short so they finally sent in us new guys. We went immediately into urban guerrilla warfare, and that will definitely prepare you for just about anything.

TW: In The Last of the Mohicans, a number of people have said that movie had an authentic look about it, from the siege to the wardrobe.

WS: They went to great lengths to authenticate wardrobe and dress and styles, hairstyles, paint, things like that. The main characters who were on camera any extended amount of time, they went to a lot of trouble to authenticate the look. And it worked, as well as all those languages.

TW: How many languages did you have to speak?

WS: We couldn’t find anyone for Huron, for the language. I know there is, but they didn’t look as hard as they could. So I used a bit of Cherokee in some of the Huron languages that I had to speak. Delaware, Mohawk and French were the languages that I don’t speak. And of course, English and Cherokee. Cherokee shouldn’t have been in there. I probably shouldn’t tell you that.

TW: How about in Dances With Wolves?

WS: That was really Pawnee. We learned that on tapes. They had a man there translate the English words, and we worked with language coaches.

TW: Is it tough to act in a...

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