This is a lightly edited transcript of Episode No. 66 of Slate Represent, in which host Aisha Harris interviews Q’orianka Kilcher about how her activism influences her acting and about playing Te Ata Fisher.
Also, Marissa Martinelli and Oni Hartstein join the show to discuss All I See Is You, The Ticket, and other movies in which blind characters regain their sight.
Episode No. 66 of Represent:
Recording: The following podcast contains explicit language.
Mr. Stevens: Miss, stop. Stop! We are getting ready for a production here!
Speaker 3: Mr. Stevens, I just traveled 1,117 miles to get here. I would really love a chance to audition for you.
Mr. Stevens: I can’t accept you alone. There is a committee.
Speaker 3: Well, how long would it take to get them all here?
Mr. Stevens: Give me 10 minutes.
Aisha: Hey, everybody. This is Aisha Harris, your host, and welcome to the latest episode of Represent. This week, we’ll be chatting with actress and activist Q’orianka Kilcher, star of Te Ata, a biographical film about the life of Te Ata Fisher, a Chickasaw Nation citizen, who helped to tell the stories of Native Americans through her performances across the country and throughout much of the twentieth century.
But before we get into that I’ve got Represents own wonderful social media assistant Marissa Martinelli and Oni Hartstein, an entrepreneur and movie fan here to discuss an interesting trope that has found its way into two movies this year. So welcome Marissa.
Marissa: Hey, Aisha.
Aisha: Welcome back. It’s great to have you.
Marissa: Always happy to be here.
Aisha: And welcome Oni. This is your first time. We’re so glad to have you.
Oni: Glad to be here. Thank you for reaching out.
Aisha: Of course.
So, Marissa, in a piece you wrote for Slate this week, you discussed The Ticket, which stars Dan Stevens, and All I See is You, which stars Blake Lively and was released last weekend. Each involves characters who are legally blind and soon gain sight, and the effects have dramatic consequences for their lives and families. Now interestingly enough, Oni has had her own personal experience of gaining sight for the first time in her 30’s and wrote about it earlier this year for Birth.Movies.Death. And so it’s great to have you both here to discuss.
In preparation for this discussion I watched At First Sight, which is a movie that came out in 1999 and stars Val Kilmer and Mira Sorvino, which I think you also mentioned briefly in your piece Marissa, and also has the similar trope. I also watch The Ticket. And Oni, you watched The Ticket, correct?
Oni: Yeah. Yes I did.
Aisha: OK, awesome. We’ve seen those movies, Marissa you’ve seen a lot more than we have. So you’ll feel as in a little bit on some of the background of the tropes that we’re talking about. But first Oni, as someone who you’ve had this experience, was this something you were familiar with as a movie trope before? We’re having this discussion or is this sort of new to you?
Oni: It was new actually. I was like, “Wow.”
Aisha: Yeah. It was new to me as well, but Marissa I know that you’re familiar with this obviously.
Aisha: So can you talk a little bit more about it and what your piece is sort of dealing with all of these different movies in this trope?
Marissa: Sure. The trope specifically is about people in movies, characters in movies who are blind and regain their sight, and in the process of regaining their sight it devastates their relationship, specifically romantic relationships. And when I first saw the trailer for All I See is You, which just came out recently, I had a very strange sense of deja vu.
The movie is directed by Marc Forster and it stars Blake Lively as a woman who moves with her husband to Thailand for his job. She’s blind and sort of the combination of the language barrier and her being blind means that she’s more dependent on him than usual. And so when she has the opportunity to have surgery to restore her sight because she lost her eyesight as a teenager in a car accident, she jumps at the chance and in the process their relationship completely unravels.
When I was watching the trailer for this I was like, “Didn’t this movie already come out this year?” And there was another movie that hit theaters this year and it was The Ticket, starring Dan Stevens as a man who has been blind since childhood and his sight comes back to him basically overnight and it unravels his marriage with his wife.
Aisha: Yeah. I imagine that this can be very tricky territory to handle because the whole idea of someone regaining their sight or gaining their sight for the first time and the fact that it has a devastating consequence like a very negative consequence on their relationships, that seems kind of tricky to imply, I feel like. But according to you the movies handle these things differently. One may be better than the other.
Marissa: I think that’s largely a matter of preference, but they are very different in some ways. They do have a lot in common: Both characters regain their sight and in Blake Lively’s case, her character, Gina, had a chance to prepare because this is something she was actively seeking. For Dan Stevens’ character, James, it happens overnight, but they both experience similar revelations. So they both get to see their living quarters for the first time. Gina finds that she doesn’t like her apartment in Thailand, it’s very sterile with very modern furnishing, it’s not her taste. James finds that his house is sort of ramshackle and it’s like a cozy little house in a rural community, but they both want to live somewhere else because they don’t like what they see. They both have scenes where they look in the mirror and discover like, “Oh I’m a very conventionally attractive actor. I should start dressing nicely” and, for Blake Lively, wearing makeup and she dyes her hair blonde and looks like Blake Lively. And yeah it puts a lot of strain on the relationship in the process.
Aisha: One of the other things about the James character in The Ticket, is that he’s sort of ... someone does call him an asshole, he sort of becomes an asshole in the process because not only does he start to dress better, but he also ... and the house doesn’t seem like it ... like he doesn’t like the house as much now that he knows what it looks like, he also now starts to seek out other women outside of his relationship.
Marissa: What’s interesting is that both characters have affairs. For Blake Lively’s character it comes late in the film but in The Ticket, it’s early on like he’s clearly very interested in other women, which is just another thing they have in common. But The Ticket is much less sympathetic toward James, so he’s positioned as sort of an antihero or even sort of the villain in his own movie, whereas All I See is You, there are hints that there are serious problems in the relationship before Gina has surgery and her husband is not a very likable guy. There are a lot of red flags. So that movie is much more sympathetic toward her.
Aisha: Now Oni, one of the things ... I don’t know if you read any of the descriptions for The Ticket, but I was reading the description for The Ticket. It’s on Wikipedia. I don’t know if it’s the like official summary tagline, but it describes the whole plot of him regaining his sight suddenly and then it says, “However, James finds himself becoming metaphorically blinded by his obsession for the superficial and his pursuit of success.” Now this wording of becoming metaphorically blinded, so listeners may have actually heard our recent episode with Victoria Cruz where we discussed the ... she was the sort of star of the movie The Death and Life of Marsha P Johnson and a listener pointed out to me after the fact that ... at one point in our conversation she mentions that people need to not be allies, need to not be blind and deaf to the things that are afflicting people of color and trans women of color.
He pointed out that that’s something that is not necessarily OK to say. I was not aware of this. This was something that completely passed by me. But it made me think about the way in which we phrase these things and the idea of using sight and sound as metaphors for not like being ignorant that sort of thing. And so I read that description I was like, “Oh, this is pretty, pretty bad,” and I’m curious as to like what was your take on The Ticket and do you think that it fell into any tropes that you feel sort of negatively impacts the people who cannot see, who can actually not see?
Oni: I didn’t really feel overly negative about ... my take on it was he probably just naturally was that kind of person and ... because for me when I got my sight, I realized some of the things that I was doing and some of the places that I was at and the relationships I had weren’t really working, but it wasn’t like ... it allowed me to become myself. I started singing more, I started creating more art and everything like that. So my take on that was that maybe the person on that film wanted to make a point about capitalism and greed and stuff in addition to it. I didn’t see anything negative about blind people personally. That’s just me. I don’t want to speak for everybody obviously.
Aisha: Yeah, of course.
Oni: I found it to be a bit weird in the beginning of the film, how he was kind of just like ... it almost was a little creepy, they were just lounging around and there was a lot of vocal fry being used in how the actors were kind of like talking. I don’t know if ... it made me uncomfortable like were they ... If anything it would be like, “Are they trying to say that blind people are just kind of like [inaudible 00:10:12]?” We’re just hanging out like ... No. I always had a very active imagination. I always had a very active way of speaking. That would be the only thing that I would see would be kind of bizarrely negative, but I didn’t really jump to that immediately, if that made any sense.
Aisha: Yeah, yeah. That’s all, it makes sense. It was just something that I was just made more acutely aware of in having a listener point that out to me. Marissa I would love you to talk a little bit more about how this relates to the Poor Miss Finch, which is sort of the anchor of your piece.
Marissa: Great. I’ve been calling this trope the Poor Miss Finch plot line, after an 1872 novel by Wilkie Collins called Poor Miss Finch. This novel has basically the exact same premise, which is that the main character, Lucilla Finch, is blind and she’s blind but she has an irrational fear of dark colors. She’s never seen dark colors. She just has this sense that she hates them, and this extends to people with dark complexions and she ... there’s like a really on the nose line early in the book where she’s like, “Oh, if I ever married a man and then found out he had a dark complexion I would run away and leave him.”
And so naturally, she becomes engaged to a man who does not have a dark complexion, but he has epilepsy and so as part of his treatment he takes silver nitrate, which was actually a real treatment for epilepsy and has the side effect of turning your skin like basically bluish black. She doesn’t know that and he’s horrified at the idea that she might find out. So when a doctor comes to them and says that he can restore her sight or grant her sight for the first time, he’s horrified and it threatens the whole relationship and he runs away and he’s got a twin brother, because this is a Wilkie Collins novel, and his twin brother does not have blue skin and there is all this drama that ensues. But it’s the same basic premise that sort of, the idea taken literally that love is blind and that if you take away the blindness you jeopardize the love.
Aisha: Yeah. That was something that was also at the end of At First Sight, the Val Kilmer movie, which is actually based on a true story about a man who was blind and then had surgery to regain his sight but then the surgery didn’t last. I think that’s another thing that we see throughout all these examples is that it doesn’t last. Like they eventually lose their sight again to some extent. And he says at the end in a voiceover something along the lines of like, “I feel like even though I don’t have my sight anymore, I still feel as though like I see more than other people or not having sight makes me more aware of things than people have sight.”
Oni, since this is sort of your narrative, this is part of your life, can you talk a little bit about the decision you made to get the surgery. You talk about it in the piece that you wrote for Birth.Movies.Death, which is really great, but I’d love you to share a little bit more about what that experience has been like and how that’s translated into how you view movies now.
Oni: Yeah, it was really strange. I haven’t seen a lot of movies that you guys have probably seen. I haven’t seen Jaws, basic movies that everyone has pretty much seen because it’s always been difficult. And for me I didn’t even realize it until after I got the surgery. I would kind of play it off like, “I don’t like that.” But it wasn’t that I didn’t like it, it was that I was just kind of frustrated with the effort that it took to really partake in that.
I was born legally blind, which means I could see shape and color and I could get some contact lenses that would correct me maybe if I was lucky to 20-60, but they would cause serious eye infections that’d be very painful. I would have floaters and flashes. It would look like I had the ‘80s polar bear and snowstorm effect. I still have some of that, but there was only so far it could be corrected to. So, when they actually were able to correct me ... I developed cataracts really early because I’m severely, I was like a minus 26, severely near-sighted deformed eyeballs and deformed retinas.
When they actually did the surgery to correct it and I was 20, 25, it was so surreal. You go to sleep and you wake up and you’re able to see. Not perfectly like you guys may know, but it was just weird. The decision to get the surgery was really a no brainer because it was getting to the point where I wouldn’t be able to do even what I considered at that point basic tasks, if that makes any sense. I mean as far as the decision it was really a no brainer. It was like I was going to lose my sight almost completely as the lens just deteriorated and it was deteriorating fast.
Aisha: So aside from finally getting to the point where you decided to have this surgery and describing sort of what it was like for you, do you feel as though these representations that we’ve talked about now are ... do you feel as though they describe your experience somewhat accurately of what it’s like to see for the first time or do you feel as though they are maybe off the ... they’re a little out there or they’re super dramatized in a way that’s not truthful to your experience at least?
Oni: I feel like for The Ticket the way he was looking around was kind of like ... you know he was touching his wife, he was kind of like ... for me, it was all like I saw what I looked like for the first time because the only way I was able to truly see myself in focus was ... I had microscope visions so I was focused to the tip of my nose and no further. So I could see parts of my face but not the full thing. So for me it was like, “Oh my God the sky is blue!” Because I wasn’t seeing color accurately either. I wasn’t more focused on looking at other people, I was focused more on the world and how I fit in it. So I feel like the way he was portrayed was ... maybe other people are different from me, but how it was for me was, “What does my face look like?” Everything’s a different size, my hands look larger because my previous eyes shrunk everything somehow.
So I kept knocking glasses over and I actually got very upset and nobody warned me about this, nobody. I freaked out and I wanted to go back because I started crying and I was like, I don’t know what to do. I don’t know my coping mechanisms that I had to see, they were very good. I had this way of walking forward and I would see it wasn’t perfect. I’ve walked into the men’s room before. I could count like these units that I would define and I would go by big landmarks like a McDonald’s sign. You could tell what a McDonald’s was. You could see the colors and you could go.
I didn’t use street names. My coping mechanisms all flew out the window and because these lenses they implanted in my eyes I can’t focus near or far ... I have progressive lenses. So I’m focused to where my iPhone is or my computer screen without correction but ... so now it’s like I have to wear prescription sunglasses and prescription glasses or the contacts I have to wear aren’t really perfect sometimes that ... the one pair I have they clipped my distance off, the other pair I can’t read. So, I had to develop new coping mechanisms for how to see because I was so bad. The surgery did not get me to 20-20 and I knew that in advance.
But as far as how people interacted with me, people had trouble of not treating me like I was disabled and that was the hardest thing. A lot of ... so I would say yes. A lot of this is accurate and it’s why I was less satisfied with The Ticket, maybe they were just trying to say he was naturally a jerk to begin with. But for me I was just like, “OK, I can do things on my own,” and some people weren’t able to transition into that because I feel like when you’re disabled you do attract people that are control minded. They don’t even see it. They don’t mean it but their interaction with you is because they want to make you feel better.
And the thing that was said in The Ticket was ... James said to his wife like, “Oh you’re losing control, you’re afraid of losing control.” That was the most resonant thing in that movie to me because I was like, they didn’t really show their relationship before which I think it would have been a stronger film had they done that and they had shown that she was a little control oriented. But that would also kind of tip the sympathy scale a little more toward him, which I don’t know if they want to do.
But yeah. I still get scared and I think I’m a different person in the mirror, I almost said hello to myself because [inaudible 00:19:46]. I walked into a store and had a full length mirror just three weeks ago. It takes extra processing power for my brain to decode what I’m seeing because it never had it before. So yeah, it was pretty accurate to the point that I was like, “Oh.”
Aisha: How long has it been now since you got the surgery?
Oni: It was throughout 2016. So my first surgery was in February, March. I would say around June 2016 the surgery was finished and then I would say through end of 2016 because it took me a while to get used to seeing in my new glasses and I still assumed that I wouldn’t be able to see things so I would get scared and then I would be like, “Oh, wait I can do-”
Marissa: I just want to say I’m so interested in the fact that everything you just described Oni is really similar to the Val Kilmer movie.
Aisha: Yeah I was going to say the same thing.
Marissa: He has that exact same experience where he at one point looks in a mirror and he’s like, “Oh, hi,” and he doesn’t realize it’s his reflection. And it’s interesting because that is the example we’re talking about that’s actually based on a true story. So it’s interesting that that experience mirrors yours so closely.
Aisha: And also the aspect of his sister being very like wanting to keep looking after him even after the fact and she has a conversation with Mira Sorvino’s character who ... Mira Sorvino is the love interest of Akerman, and she has a conversation with the sister about like, “You need to let him go,” and she’s like, “But he’s my whole life.” It’s like ... Yeah, everything you’ve described reminds me a lot of At First Sight in that way. I don’t think it’s very good movie just generally.
Marissa: It’s sort of a silly romantic comedy that’s a little cheesy.
Aisha: Yes, super cheesy.
Marissa: Also like the entire plot is spurred by Mira Sorvino’s character taking a vacation and he’s heard massage therapist and she’s known him for like five minutes when she’s like, “You should get this experimental surgery that I just Googled five minutes ago.”
Aisha: Yeah there’s this and there’s some ...
Marissa: But because it is based on Shirl Jennings and this real case, I guess those parts of the story had a basis in psychology and medical fact.
Oni: Yeah, wow. Actually I wouldn’t be in Los Angeles if I hadn’t gotten the eye surgery. I took a risk and I said, “Look, I had really put a lot of my passions that I wanted to pursue in life. I had really just kind of assumed, oh I’m just going to go along for the ride with other people, oh I can’t really do that.” I just said to heck with it, I put everything in a bag and I moved to LA, and that’s part of ... here I am.
Aisha: So to wrap this up Oni, we’ve already talked about how there’s a lot of similarities between your story and some of the stories you talked about today, but is there any other sort of representation you’d want to see with regards to people who are blind when it comes to movies and TV shows? What do you think that they could be doing even better than they already have or to some extent maybe haven’t?
Oni: I feel like defining what being blind actually is, could be done a little better because a lot of people assume you’re seeing a complete black nothing. You know black dark square or whatever. For me it wasn’t the case. Actually most people who knew me who I didn’t tell had no idea I was blind, none. I had such good coping mechanisms. But blindness can be obstructed vision, it can be extreme myopia like I had, it can be so many things. So yeah. If flashing out that these are real people, they have real internal dialogues, and a lot of us ... I never thought of my ... I didn’t wake up in the morning and say, “Hey I’m blind.” I woke up in the morning I was like, “Hey, I need some coffee,” and I just did my thing.
So I even lied to myself and didn’t ... it wasn’t a big factor in my life because I think that was my coping mechanism. If I focus on it, it would have drove me insane. I focus on what I have not what I don’t. So yeah, there’s a little more nuance to that I think, than what came across in The Ticket at least.
Aisha: Well, thank you so much Oni for joining us and for talking about this and diving into this very interesting trope.
Marissa: Extremely specific trope.
Aisha: It’s a very specific trope. Yes.
Aisha: And thank you Marissa for joining us as well and as always for social media [inaudible 00:24:18].
Marissa: Thanks Aisha.
Aisha: Thanks so much.
Speaker 8: You know Mary, I’ve been giving these monologues for years and years and everyone does Shakespeare, everyone. Did you know you’re the first Indian that ever enrolled in OCW? And that’s not a crutch. It’s an advantage. What could you show me that I haven’t seen before? What can you offer that all these little sugar cookies can’t? That’s what I want to sing. See you in class.
Speaker 9: Thank you Miss Davis.
Aisha: Up next, my interview with Q’orianka Kilcher, star of the movie Te Ata. As I mentioned earlier in the episode, Te Ata Fisher, born in Mary Frances Thompson, was a Chickasaw Nation citizen who became a cultural ambassador of sorts for her tribe and many others. Bringing their stories to audiences across the country and around the world. Her 60 year career included performances for Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt at the White House and for the king and queen of England. During our conversation, Kilcher and I discussed the behind the scenes involvement of the Chickasaw Nation, being typecast, and how her activism influences her work among many other things. Check it out.
Well, joining me this morning straight off of the flight, so we really appreciate her coming directly from ... where OGA or JFK? Do you mind it?
Aisha: Well, thanks for coming to our Brooklyn studios to talk to us. Q’orianka Kilcher, welcome to the show.
Kilcher: Thank you, and I’m glad to be here.
Aisha: It’s great to have you on. So you were born in Germany to ... your mom I think is Swiss German?
Kilcher: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Aisha: And your dad is of indigenous Peruvian descent.
Kilcher: Ah, you did your research.
Aisha: I did my research. So were not originally born in America and I imagine there are a lot of people like myself who are Americans who have never heard of Te Ata before. At least I had not before watching the movie. So I’m curious as to what your exposure had been to her if at all before you got the role and what was your research like for the role?
Kilcher: I actually did not know who Te Ata was before a friend of mine Wambli Eagleman, who is an actor and model told me that they were doing this film about a really cool powerful young woman. And I was like, “Oh, this one’s so cool. Are they still casting for it? What’s going on?” So I looked Te Ata up on the Internet and then I started researching her life and I was just blown away by her career. What an extraordinary young visionary woman she was because she really was not just an ambassador for the Chickasaw Nation, which was her tribe, but for all Native American tribes. And through her storytelling and through her art, she really broke down those cultural barriers and would tell stories from all different tribes and share them with not people just within her community, but on an international basis.
So she performed for President Roosevelt and then also for royalty in Europe and traveled the world and shared traditional stories. The more that I found out about her I was blown away and so I met with the director. I came in at the very end of everything. I think they were looking at two other actresses already. And so I met with him and I do have a background in dance and music. I love singing. I actually always thought the music would take off before the acting but it happened the other way round.
He went back to the Chickasaw Nation and I guess they approved of me—
Aisha: And this was the director, correct?
Kilcher: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yeah. The director Nathan Frankowski. I think that’s how you say [inaudible 00:29:02]. I was so humbled and so thankful that they entrusted me to bring to life Te Ata on the big screen and for me the most important thing while filming was to really do the memory of her justice. Because I am not Chickasaw, I’m [inaudible 00:29:29] from the jungles and highlands of South America, I was thinking, “Oh, I’m not going to get it. Oh wow, what an amazing role,” because it’s not that often that you come across roles like this where it’s a strong powerful dignified woman.
Aisha: I want to ask you a bit more about the fact that you’re not Chickasaw and the Chickasaw Nation approving of your casting. I know that within ethnicities and within different backgrounds there’s a little bit more leeway or more acceptance of people playing roles that are not necessarily their background. So it’s OK for someone like Jennifer Lopez who is Puerto Rican to play Selena who is Mexican or ... I’m trying to think of it. We see Asian characters playing across different ... they may be Korean but they’re playing Chinese. We see that-
Kilcher: It’s OK, but at the same time you do get a little backlash at times.
Aisha: Did you face anything like that outside of the Chickasaw Nation or have you seen any complaints about that?
Kilcher: No. Not personally. I haven’t gotten any horrible message.
Aisha: Well, that’s good.
Kilcher: I was so overjoyed that the family members of Te Ata and friends of her that used to know her, after they saw the film they wrote me emails and called me and they were just so happy and they thanked me for the way that I portrayed her in the film and I was so overjoyed and so happy because I was like, “OK, good.” If the family members are happy with my performance of how I brought her to life in the film and they’re happy with the film, that’s one of the most important things to me.
I was fortunate enough to work with several of the family members while filming and that was such a treat because I got some wonderful inside information. Because oftentimes if you are portraying somebody that has been alive or something, you might not necessarily be able to have that well of information directly from family members and people that know them when they’re not on stage and when they’re just in their household. So to just listen and see some videos of her when she was at home and how she would interact with people and the way that she told stories when she would be in her house and different things, it was so beautiful and it was so great.
Aisha: Yeah. She did live a very long life. She lived to be 99-
Kilcher: 99, yeah.
Aisha: And it’s great that you did have ... She passed away in ‘95, so it’s been a while, so it’s great that you still had people who could remember who were still around who knew her personally that could remember her.
Kilcher: Yeah. Governor Bill Anoatubby, who actually played a small little role in the film. He actually knew Te Ata and he’s actually the one that has been very instrumental in having the Chickasaw tribe ... it’s kind of his baby of having them tell their story and getting to film. I think it’s such a beautiful blueprint and I hope more people and more different tribes are inspired by what the Chickasaw are doing because I think it’s important that we start telling our own stories. Because oftentimes people take our great stories and they tell them in their way, and so it was beautiful to have the Chickasaw Nation really be from the beginning, down to casting and everything be such a big part of their story being told.
Aisha: Was that the case ... you were also Pocahontas in Tthe New World, which was directed by Terrence Malick. Was that the case? Did you have access to the tribes for that movie as well or was it sort of your first experience with working with another nation.
Kilcher: I did have access. For that one, woof, that was a long time ago. It was a bit different and they had a lot of cultural advisors and I had about a month of preparation where I was learning Algonquian, and reading, researching so many different books because in every book that I read, everyone had a different opinion as to who they thought Pocahontas was. Was she the savior of the people? Did she betray them? So in doing that film I dealt with needing to do a lot of research and then sitting down with myself and reading the script and the story that Terry had envisioned. And then kind of deciding who I thought she was and how I wanted to portray her.
Yes, it was a ... the process of that was a bit different because on this one I had Jeannie Barbour ...
Aisha: Who was a member of the Chickasaw Nation.
Kilcher: Yes. Yeah.
Aisha: She’s a screenwriter for Te Ata.
Kilcher: For Te Ata. Yeah. She had all the information on Te Ata and so I worked with her and I was really thankful to the whole creative team because in the script it says, “And then Te Ata performs,” and that’s so great. But what am I going to perform? I don’t know.
Aisha: Well, did you have a ... you had accounts of what the types of things she performed.
Kilcher: Yeah. I did, and why I was so thankful to the creative team was because they really allowed me to almost, like Te Ata would have done, reach out to my family members like Earl to Lee from the Navajo reservation Dené, and I asked ... he’s my great uncle, and I asked him for permission to use one of the songs in our family. It was kind of what Te Ata did, which was breaking down those cultural barriers and really reaching out to different communities and asking for songs, asking for dances, and different things. So because in the script it would say that and there was not too many-
Aisha: Queues or ...
Kilcher: It wasn’t so specific of like ... and then having a video of like, this is the particular dance and song you’re going to do, I was able to create over like 15 live performances. For me it was one of the most challenging roles I’ve ever done because I had to draw on my musical and dance background and try to think of OK, I need to do this storytelling and I have to do it in a magical way that would draw people in nowadays.
Aisha: One of the things that we see often there at the film is Te Ata being encouraged to hone in on what makes her different from everyone else around her, and to share that story so that she can share it with not only white people in order to sort of bridge the gap between them, but also other Native Americans.
Kilcher: Embracing the individuality rather than seeing it as something that’s bad. That is a note that is touched on in Te Ata and that’s something I really think is important because nowadays there’s this kind of idea of how ... through magazines and everything this unrealistic idea of how you’re supposed to look, and what’s beautiful and what’s not. I think it’s kind of terrible.
Aisha: Can you talk a little bit more about the way in which especially as a native woman that plays into your auditioning, in your roles, because one of the things in the film that I notice is that your college professor and also the character’s future husband, who is white, they’re both white. They are the ones who are encouraging her, “You have to tell these stories, you have to ... this is not just for you it’s for all of your people, for everyone,” and there’s a little bit of a struggle for Te Ata between doing this Broadway show, which is not necessarily about ... it’s not going to get to those people who need to see them, these stories and choosing between that and doing what she’s been encouraged do. Where is the line for you as an actor between representing your people and doing what you really want to do?
Because I feel like especially for Native women it can be sometimes constricting. Like you’re only getting asked to go for roles that are specifically about being a Native American or Native as opposed to a role that you just might be good for not those reasons.
Kilcher: It’s a good one because that’s often something that one faces, but I do have to say the industry is changing a bit with that. I just got done shooting a TV show called The Alienist for six months in Budapest. It’s based on Caleb Carr’s novel, The Alienist. My character that I play, her name is Mary Palmer, and in the book she is written as blonde hair and blue eyes. And they ended up casting me in it. Not once did they have me wear a little dream catcher earring or something to hint that I’m Native American or anything like that, I was just a person and that was so great because oftentimes I find if you are getting a role or doing a role, it’s the stereotype of something. Specifically Native Americans we’re not relics in a museum. We are doctors, we are taxi drivers, we are all sorts of different things.
Aisha: You exist.
Kilcher: Yeah, we exist. We’re not just the drunk made of ... or the one that goes all ... or has a feather in their hair or wears the dream catcher earrings and necklaces or ... I’m using that as an example because often I’ve had roles where they have me wear that and I’m like, “No. C’mon.”
Aisha: Have you been able to veto that or is that like sort of in the process?
Kilcher: Sometimes. Every project I feel as artists it’s our responsibility to push the barriers and the limits a bit further and so when I do anything if it’s right I always try to ...
Aisha: Yeah. Put your [inaudible 00:41:48].
Kilcher: Yeah. I was so thankful to the whole creative team and to Jakob Verbruggen, who is the director that remembered my performance in Tthe New World and he brought my name up to the creative team on The Alienist and to TNT. They all were like, “Huh, that would actually be an interesting choice.” So I’m really, really proud of TNT and for the whole team that they themselves are pushing that barrier within film as well of casting me in a role that was originally written for blonde hair blue eyes, because that doesn’t happen very often at all. So yeah.
Aisha: Do you have any agent as well?
Kilcher: I am actually meeting with some different agency managers right now, because I just recently parted ways with my team. But yeah.
Aisha: I was just curious because I often wonder what it’s like. I know that a lot of agents for the most part tend to be white, not people of color. There’s a very small contingent of people of color who are agents, and so I’m always curios about what those conversations are between the agent and their clients as to the types of roles that they are taken out for. Have you ever had conversations with your previous agents about like, “If it has this in the scripts or in the casting description, I’d rather not go out for it,” or is that not really something you’ve had to deal with?
Kilcher: I’ve been offered a film once where I was going to portray a woman from the Middle East. The director offered me the role, read the script, and they just portrayed her in a way that was really degrading and just not in the greatest way and I had just gotten done doing a campaign with Amnesty International about violence against women. The actor side of me was like, “OK, this is some interesting material and I’d like to sink my teeth into it,” but then I was like, “You know what? I can’t do this and I cannot portray a woman from that culture because first of all I’m not that since it is in such a degrading way that she is.”
It’s my responsibility to also say no to something like that. I need to respect that it’s not my culture and maybe if there’s an actress that is from that descent and she feels like she wants to do it, then by all means I’ll power to her. But I just felt I can’t do that. Because I would be upset if somebody did a native role and they weren’t native and it was in a very degrading derogatory sort of an empowering way. It would just be like, “Why? Why would you do that?”
Aisha: Would you have taken the role had it been better written even though it wasn’t your background?
Kilcher: Possibly there’s a very fine line, because you’re representing people, a culture. And so there’s a very fine line of being respectful to that. So in any roles that I do and in any films that I’ve done, I really believe that the film is so powerful and very influential.
Aisha: I know in the past you’ve sort of recoiled from the term of being a political activist, do you still feel that way and what is it about the phrase political activist or political activism that made you not really want to be labeled as such? Because I feel like whether it’s human dealing with human rights issues, environmental issues as you do, you were arrested when you were younger with your mom in front the White House for protesting the president.
Kilcher: In the past it’s been that I did not want to be labeled as that because politics divides people. I was always focusing on what brings us together, our humanity, our human beings, and not making it a political thing because I really believe that the environment and human being shouldn’t suffer anymore because of politics and greed.
Aisha: But at this point we are in a very [inaudible 00:47:25] time where politics ... clearly there are some people ... this is me throwing my opinion in here. But there are some people who are right and there are some people who are very clearly wrong and I just wonder if you can still-
Kilcher: Well, I believe in the thing that there is ... sometimes there comes a time when silence is betrayal. Right now we are in a very interesting place in the world, but I think it’s more important now than ever before for people to really come together and unite. There’s power in unity.
Aisha: How do we do that though when some people don’t want to listen or so set on dividing us? I just think of something like the Colin Kaepernick kneeling for the National Anthem, which is something that was not meant to divide, but there are some people who disagree with him even though the whole point of this country is to be able to protest peacefully. So when I think about those types of things that we’re up against how do we bridge that gap? Or is that a gap still worth bridging? I know it’s a really ...
Kilcher: No, no, no, I’m thinking because this is a really great question and it’s meaningful and especially I can understand a lot of young people possibly in the world feeling like, “Oh wow, there are so many things happening, what am I supposed to do?” I think it’s realizing that we all possess the power of a grain of sand in a tipping scale. Still, sometimes I think why isn’t somebody doing something about this horrible thing or that? And then I realized I am somebody.
Aisha: It’s tough. I think that there are a lot of people doing small things but it doesn’t feel like for me that it’s moving as quickly as it should. But I can understand your sentiment as well.
My last question for you is, when was the last time you saw yourself on screen, in a film or TV show in something that you weren’t actually a part of, so you can’t say Te Ata.
Kilcher: What do you mean.
Aisha: You felt represented, you felt as though as ... whether it’s as a native woman, as a woman, you felt as though you could relate to that character or to that show or that movie or that role.
Kilcher: There’s a lot.
Aisha: OK. Yeah.
Kilcher: I don’t know. One of them that I always think is very powerful and beautiful just in the simple line of, I see you, Avatar.
Kilcher: Just the way that the Na’vi people are of the acknowledgment of actually truly seeing the other person seeing them. Because I feel like nowadays everyone walks by and you’re like, “Hi, hi, hi, but do you actually see the person? Do you actually” ... Or there’s this like a bullet proof invisible wall in front of you and the world and we don’t truly care when we ask somebody, how are you. But it’s just more of a formal thing of like, “Hi, how are?” That’s one of the things in Avatar that I really love and also I think that it’s really important to show the beauty of cultures of people, of places, because I think if we start to show people what is so beautiful about these things, it will hopefully inspire them to want to protect and preserve those things for future generations.
I also did some work in Brazil with Greenpeace and we were working with trying to bring awareness about the Awá community. There’s only in between three and four hundred of them left, because they’re getting killed by illegal loggers and different things like that. It is going to be a truly sad day if they do get wiped out. The same goes for dolphins, for whales, all the different things. So yeah.
Aisha: Well, you’re in luck because there was like four more movies coming out of Avatar I think.
Kilcher: Well, funny thing ... So Neytiri, I have one of the first sketches of Neytiri that James gave me. Because-
Aisha: And that’s James Cameron?
Kilcher: Right. And with a really sweet note he said, “Your beauty and work was my early inspiration for Neytiri, too bad you were working on another film. Next time.”
Aisha: Does that mean we might be seeing you in some future Avatar?
Kilcher: But I’m really proud of him as a filmmaker for shedding light on such important issues and I think that’s our job as artists and filmmakers, it’s our responsibility.
Aisha: Well, it’s been an absolutely-
Kilcher: I’m so sorry. I’ve been like all over the place [crosstalk 00:52:57].
Aisha: No, this is a great conversation. It’s been so wonderful to have you here.
Kilcher: Thank you.
Aisha: And everyone check out Te Ata. Thanks so much.
And that’s all for now. Te Ata had a short run in theaters last month, but we’ll be sure to keep listeners in the know for when they can catch it streaming and on demand via our Facebook page. Represent is produced by the lovely awesome Veralyn Williams, our excellent social media assistant is Marissa Martnelli and our intro outro music is performed by the sweet San Francisco funk soul band Midtown Social.
Also, this week we want to recommend you check out Slate’s DoubleX Gabfest, our by-weekly podcast about feminism, gender, sexuality, health, politics, [inaudible 00:53:48] and so many other issues of interest to women and their friends. It’s hosted by NPR’s Hannah Rosin, New York Magazine’s Noreen Malone, and managing producer of slate podcast June Thomas. Find and download it wherever you get your podcasts. Until next time.