FILMS

Dances with Oscar

Canadian actor Graham Greene tastes stardom

Brian D. Johnson March 25 1991
FILMS

Dances with Oscar

Canadian actor Graham Greene tastes stardom

Brian D. Johnson March 25 1991

Dances with Oscar

Canadian actor Graham Greene tastes stardom

FILMS

Three years ago he was an out-ofwork actor, selling T-shirts on a Toronto sidewalk. Next week, Graham Greene will step into the spotlight of the Academy Awards, where Dances with Wolves leads the field with 12 nominations and Greene is a strong contender for best supporting actor. After his magnetic performance as Kicking Bird, the Sioux medicine man who befriends Kevin Costner’s character in Dances with Wolves, the Canadian Indian actor has had trouble walking down the street without being recognized. In an interview with Maclean’s, Greene described the now-familiar ritual. “First they stare at you,” he said. “Then they talk loudly at you—‘I enjoyed your performance in ‘Kicking with Wolves,’ or whatever.”

With sardonic humor, Greene tends to shrug off all the excitement. But whether he likes it or not, he has become a symbol as well as a star. An Oneida born on the Six Nations reserve near Brantford, Ont., Greene, 38, is the first North American Indian actor to receive an

Oscar nomination since Chief Dan George, another Canadian, played opposite Dustin Hoffman in 1970’s post-western epic, Little Big Man. More to the point, Dances with Wolves— the saga of an American soldier who learns to love the Sioux—depicts Indians with unprecedented historical authenticity and affection. For a three-hour epic with subtitled Indian dialogue to become a huge box-office hit represents an extraordinary breakthrough. And much of the movie’s magic rests on Greene’s performance, captured in rapturous close-ups.

But there is more to the actor than the wisdom and dignity of Kicking Bird, the unconquered Indian. Onstage in Dry Lips Oughta Move to Kapuskasing—which ended a 2Vfeweek run at Ottawa’s National Arts Centre on March 16 and opens at Toronto’s Royal Alexandra Theatre on April 13—Greene is almost unrecognizable as a toothless, beer-guzzling Indian buffoon. Said the play’s Cree author, Tomson Highway: “Graham has a chameleonlike ability to change himself into any character he chooses. And he’s a master clown.”

Now, the actor’s sudden fame poses a curious dilemma. “The native community has always been built on consensus,” Highway explained. “It’s tricky for a person to stand alone in the spotlight. Graham is very conscious that he represents all of us.” Over lunch at the National Arts Centre restaurant, Greene— dressed in black, with a turquoise pendant at his chest—discussed the pressures of success. His eyes, with their calmly defiant gaze, looked tired. “Everyone asks if this Oscar thing has changed me,” he said. “No, it’s everybody around me who is going nuts. I still get up in the morning and put my pants on one leg at a time.” He said that he had to block an attempt by theatre officials to put “featuring Oscarnominee Graham Greene” on the marquee. “I hit the f—ing roof,” he recalled. “It’s an ensemble cast. It wouldn’t be fair.”

One of several veterans in the all-native cast of Dry Lips, Greene has been on the stage for 17 years. “He’s a fantastic actor,” said Clarke Rogers, former artistic director of Toronto’s Theatre Passe Muraille. “His success is not some kind of accident. He has worked very hard with some of the best original playwrights in the country.” Added Rogers: “The guy has been paying very sophisticated dues.” Greene has also worked as a welder, high-steelworker, studio engineer, roadie, landscape gardener, factory laborer, carpenter and bartender.

Along the way, he has locked horns with the stereotypical curse of native alcoholism—both fictionally and in real life. In the original 1980 production of The Crackwalker, Judith Thomp-

son’s groundbreaking drama about infanticide, Greene played an Indian alcoholic. At the time, the actor was a member of Alcoholics Anonymous. Said Rogers, who directed it: “For a native actor to play a drunken Indian is a very hard leap to make. And he made it one of the most powerful and frightening aspects of the play.” His Dry Lips character, on the other hand, is a benignly comic drunk. Greene, who has courted both extremes in his own life, says he now belongs to “my own AA.” Explaining his willingness to play drunken Indians onstage, he quotes a native elder named Lyle Longclaws: “Before the healing can take place, the poison must first be exposed.”

The actor only recently began to tap the spiritual resources of his Indian legacy. And ironically, it was Hollywood that gave him the opportunity, through Dances with Wolves. On location in the Black Hills of South Dakota, he studied the Lakota language and traditions of the Sioux. “I still get a tingle up my back when I think about South Dakota,” he said. “It’s really a powerful spot.”

Although he grew up on the Six Nations reserve, Greene says that his family did not pass on any tribal traditions or language. He was the second of six children born to John and Lillian Greene. His father, who died in 1984, worked as an ambulance driver and a maintenance man. “He seemed to do everything, in my eyes anyway,” said Greene, who has fond childhood memories of skating on creeks and playing in the woods.

But school left him uninspired. Dropping out at age 16, Greene left home to seek his fortune in Rochester,

N.Y., where he got a job in a carpet warehouse. At 18, he studied welding at George Brown College in Toronto, then got a job in a Hamilton factory building railway cars. Drifting into the music business in the 1970s, Greene worked as a roadie and sound man, touring with such successful Torontobased bands as the Good Brothers and Crowbar. He also ran a recording studio in Ancaster, Ont. One day in 1974, a friend asked him to act in a workshop put on by the now-defunct Ne’er-Do-Well Thespians theatre company in Toronto. It was a small role (“You’ll never guess what I was—a native North American”), but Greene soon came to appreciate acting. “You dress up in funny clothes, stand around in bright lights and tell lies,” he said. “You don’t have to carry nothing. Someone sweeps up after you. No whining musicians to deal with—I can be a whiny actor.

I thought that was fabulous.”

In 1982, Greene teamed up with other native actors in the Saskatoon debut of Jessica, an award-winning play about Indian assimilation co-authored by writer-actress Linda Griffiths. That was also the year of his first movie role, portraying a friend of Indian track star Billy Mills in Running Brave. Then, in 1984, he spent 15 weeks in England working as a wellpaid extra in Revolution, a disastrous movie

epic about the American War of Independence.

When his father died that year, Greene was deeply shaken. He returned to Canada and lost his bearings in what he calls his “period of fast cars and guns.” He drove around in a camouflage suit, hunted game and tried moving to the country. Recalled former girlfriend Jennifer Dean, a Toronto actress who later lived with him in Toronto for two years: “Graham was into being a warrior. When they make a movie about Oka, he’ll play Lasagna [the nickname of a militant Mohawk involved in last summer’s armed standoff at Oka, Que.].”

Eventually, Greene abandoned his fantasy of living off the land. “Finally,” he sighed, “I gave it all up, sold the guns and stayed in the city.” There, he resumed “the long, love-hate waltz

with Theatre Passe Muraille.” During the 1980s, the innovative company was his second home. He worked with such maverick talents as writer-director Michael Hollingsworth, who turned Canadian history into cartoon surrealism with an irreverent series of plays, The History of the Village of the Small Huts. “It was a big party every night,” Greene recalled. “We’d finish the show, have a few beers—and think of more cheap things to do onstage.” When he was not acting, Greene welded sets and worked lights. But jobs were scarce. And by the late 1980s, he said, “there was nothing happening in my life: I was just laying there like a balloon with all the air let out of it.” With Michael Copeman, an actor friend, he scraped together a living by hand-painting T-shirts and selling them on the street. “Whenever we sold a T-shirt,” he said, “we’d go to the hotdog stand. It was literally hand-to-mouth.”

But in 1989, Greene found a form of redemption, first in Dry Lips, which premiered at Passe Muraille, and then in the making of Dances with Wolves. Director Costner had been having a hard time casting the role of Kicking Bird. And after seeing a videotaped audition of Greene, he rejected him at first. “Kevin wasn’t interested,” recalled Greene, with a smile. “He said I looked too white, which in itself is a big enough insult.” Greene had the American-nickel profile that Costner was looking for, but his hair was short at the time. Casting director Elisabeth Leustig persisted, however, and combined Greene’s picture with a sketch of Kicking Bird’s makeup and costume. That convinced Costner to reconsider.

While on location in South Dakota, Greene exchanged rings in a hillside ceremony with Hilary Blackmore, a 39-year-old blond stage manager from Toronto. Back in Toronto, they made their marriage official. Previously unwed, Greene has a 10-year-old daughter with Toronto actress Carol Lazare. Next week, Blackmore will accompany Greene to the Oscars. “It’s her chance to go shopping,” he said, “and to be squired around in limousines and sip some champagne.”

Meanwhile, the actor is juggling five American movie offers. He says that he is leaning towards a contemporary role. “It’s definitely time to move away from stereotypical casting,” he said. Recently, he appeared as a Navajo lawyer in an episode of TV’S L.A. Law. And he plays an Indian who kidnaps a business executive in the Canadian movie Clearcut. Based on Toronto-writer M. T. Kelly’s awardwinning novel, A Dream like Mine, the movie will be unveiled at the Cannes Film Festival in May.

Although he says that he loved the novel, Greene criticized the movie’s Toronto-based Polish director, Rich| ard Bugajski. “It was a nightmare shoot,” said the actor, who had quarrelled with the director’s shooting techniques. “The director didn’t have a handle on the story—he’ll need a damn good editor.” For his part, Bugajski acknowledged that their relationship turned sour on the set. But he called Greene “a very talented man.” Whether his talent can withstand the pressures of Hollywood remains to be seen. Still, Greene is the first to downplay the importance of his career. “It’s only a job,” he said. “If I want to, I can go back to welding.” As Greene sipped a soda water at the National Arts Centre restaurant, a stranger came up to compliment him on his performance in Dances. After she left, he said: “The other day, some lady came up and said, ‘I know you must get this all the time, but you look remarkably like that man in Dances with Wolves' I said: ‘Yes, I do get it all the time, and frankly it’s annoying. I work at the post office, ma’am.’ ” His acting was good enough to convince her.

BRIAN D. JOHNSON in Ottawa