The Most Remarkable Performance of the Year is Lily Gladstone’s
The emerging Indigenous actor talks to Jesse Wente about performing in Kelly Reichardt’s Certain Women opposite Kristen Stewart
Kelly Reichardt’s Certain Women (playing now for an exclusive one-week run at TIFF Bell Lightbox) boasts masterful performances from a pantheon of brilliant female actors — its cast includes Laura Dern, Michelle Williams, and Kristen Stewart. Yet the film truly belongs to Lily Gladstone, who plays a quiet, lonely-seeming ranch hand with an unrequited adoration for Kristen Stewart’s exhausted law student, who teaches a class at a community college in eastern Montana. Gladstone’s performance, which relies less on dialogue than on her longing expression as she struggles to maintain eye contact, is nothing short of heartbreaking. To watch the film is to fall into the disbelief that Gladstone is even an actor at all. Her character feels too lived-in, too awkward, too shy, too real to not actually exist in the snowy confines of the Montana town where, one night, she brings a horse to class in order to surprise Stewart.
Jesse Wente, Head of TIFF Cinematheque, recently interviewed Gladstone about her breakthrough performance and the ways of slipping into Reichardt’s film world. The two discussed their shared Indigenous heritage, representation on screen, and how Reichardt's championing of peripheral characters has made Gladstone — who is herself from Montana — feel less alone at the movies.–Chandler Levack
Lily, I'm a huge admirer of this film. That's why we're running it for the week because it didn't get a proper release here in Canada. I wanted people to see it on the big screen. It was probably my favourite film I saw last year, and I just think you were fantastic in it.
That's how I felt the first time I saw a Kelly [Reichardt] film. I was just so thankful someone was making the kind of films I was hungry for and got the point.
When you received the script, what were your first thoughts? Were you always meant to play the part [of “The Rancher”]?
I was first approached through Mark Bennett at casting. The script came by pretty early and I recognized Kelly's name immediately. I'd actually had a conversation about Wendy and Lucy Tuesday prior with a friend, so it felt a little serendipitous.
I'm used to getting so many scripts with Native-specific characters and only five pages [of dialogue], or a couple of lines... I was reading and approaching that third-act feel. It was just so immensely Montana, and when “The Rancher” came by… it's just one of those moments in the film where you're hoping something lands and touches the note she does. It's sustained for the rest of the story, and I was just blown away somebody had even written a character like that: a character who works with the land, probably lives in abject poverty most of the year. It was just an element and a voice missing from the story. I'd never seen a character like that, written for a [Native actor] — complex, not wearing everything out in the open, a nuanced human being that wasn't an identity piece, that wasn't exploring the poverty and the hardship. It was just this mysterious, beautiful human being who is very immersed in her environment.
Then something comes in that changes the temperature, changes the weather. Kristen’s character arrives and delivers a bit of an outside world that is very close to what my character wants to articulate, but can't.
I wanted it. I worked tremendously hard to get it. I had just moved back to Montana and immersed myself in the people who live in eastern Montana. I found a physicality and then submitted my tape. The Rancher character is so heavy in the narrative, the heart of the soul of the piece in a lot of ways. The rancher is dedicating her life to taking care of animals and has a hard time functioning in society, and those are themes in Kelly's work. She's so good at stripping sentiment and respecting her audience, not guiding you down any of those paths. But she had so much care for this character in particular, so it was a pretty enormous to be entrusted with that.
I agree with that completely. It is unlike almost any character I've ever seen on screen. I am Anishinaabe, from up here in Canada.
I've spent much of my career as a film critic, as a programmer, talking about Indigenous representation in films. The only character I could directly compare The Rancher with — they're utterly different, but in terms of the approach of the Indigenous identity — was Graham Greene in Die Hard 3. Graham Greene's just there, he’s a cop, an Indian in the middle of New York. I love that performance because he’s just the hero, it's not about who he is. This piece felt exactly the same — it doesn't come up and yet, it's present the entire time.
Exactly, exactly. The character of The Rancher wouldn't be the same if I didn't have the family and the people from Cheyenne and Crow I was able to hang out and connect with, who are part of my circle anyway. It infused so much of how I understood who The Rancher is. Kelly was not wed to the ethnicity, just as she wasn't wed to the gender of the character. It was who this person was. It was kind of a perfect role in a tremendous, quiet, amazing film that is actually helping me navigate the new administration down here in the States. I just want to go back on the ranch, take care of animals, and just bunker down for the next four years. (Laughs)
It's funny because we're talking about The Rancher’s voice and her uniqueness, yet she's very still and quiet in the film. How did you approach that style? Kelly Reichardt’s films express life in a way that so much cinema struggles in, to find that equilibrium. How did you approach someone who expresses so much without necessarily saying anything?
Right, well it's just physicality. Just playing it simple. That's something that's so pervasive with the people I know who are cowboys — they say so much by saying very little.
I always like creating enough of a shell that's comfortable enough for me to move around in, but that I can step out of when I'm not in character. A lot of people connect with the parking lot moment in the film, when the boundary is drawn, it's respected, and [Kristen] skitters away. Somebody asked Kelly what it was like creating that scene on the day and all she said was: “It was just windy.” Her films can be so lived-in because she sets a really good foundation, a space for you to settle into. By the time we created a character together, it was so based in movement with the horses and the rhythm of the daily chores that it did feel like a really lived-in character. You could just go with the motion of what happened on the day, which also made for why she's such a good filmmaker. She's not going to force something that's not going to happen, but she responds really well to given circumstances. You can't control the weather and you can act around it.
Had you ridden horses before the movie?
A little bit, not tremendously. I'd ridden in other films and I'd ridden when I was a kid. I got to spend a lot of time on that particular horse, so I've spent enough time on horses that I know that once I know the animal I'm pretty comfortable on it. (Laughs) Most of my family are pretty tremendous cowboys, but I was more a dancer. I rode horses quite a bit, but I loved ballet. That's what I did before I went into acting.
There's a history of performance for Indigenous people that is very embedded in notions of storytelling. I was wondering if that's similiar for you.
Early on in my career, I had it in my head that I was going to be playing smaller characters, or character roles. As a kid, I would get cast as animals, or men, or old women. But I've always been committed to the larger story at hand, and the way the character served it. I got content working within that space, but Kelly as a director and a storyteller focuses on those peripheral characters that I'm used to getting cast as. That's one of the reasons I sighed with relief the first time I saw Wendy and Lucy, because somebody was looking at these characters, you know?
Are you seeing Indigenous roles change?
One thing that's kind of fun — it's the early stages so I can't talk that much about it — but there's this script I was approached with where the character is non-ethnically specific. The director and the producer of the series just loved Certain Women so much and wanted to see me in the lead role. So we're developing the character with a little bit of an Indigenous identity coming from my own background. It's exciting because it's adding a voice so sorely missing from other stories about this particular history.
That’s kind of a first for me. Being handed a role that fits within the story that doesn't have a strong ethnic identity and being offered a chance to fold that in where it would be appropriate. So I would say, in that way, things are changing. More and more, people want to bring Native people to the writing table, early in the producing and storytelling process, rather than just searching for people who are willing to do other interpretations.
The other remarkable and most welcome thing about Certain Women is that it is a movie entirely about women, from their point of view. This is also far too rare in our business. There's been so much talk about representation, but as a female performer, are you actually seeing that manifest itself in the real world?
Yeah, that's a hard one. I do feel like there is a lot more interest, particularly since Bridesmaids came out. People are trusting that female-driven narratives in film will sell. What's refreshing about Kelly, with all of that, is that I don't think she was trying to make a film about women. Even though she genderbent my character from male to female, it was so the audience would have a lot of assumed dynamics taken off the table. Changing [The Rancher’s gender] adds a lot of nuance to that relationship, so there's a lot more area she can work within.
Kelly just likes working with a bit more ambiguity. If you were to ask her, she would just say those are the three stories that spoke to her. Kelly will pretty consistently maintain that she's drawn to stories and isn't telling them with much agenda.
I think it's the casualness, the fact it doesn't make it the point, which is so refreshing and wonderful. Women and Indigenous people aren't often granted that freedom to be that full character on screen.
She's a really careful artist. She thinks for a long time about what she wants to say, but she's not going to beat over anybody over the head with it. She respects her audience so much.
Kelly subtly creates an immersive experience and you need to be an audience member who is ready for that. I think a lot of people have lost the ability to really sit with a piece, think about it as it's unfolding, and to let it go by a little bit more slowly. But those are the ones that stay with you longer. Maybe it's a patience thing, I don't know.
You reminded me of that final scene, I cried in the theatre when I saw it for the first time. Just because I felt so much for your character, you so want happiness [for her], it's so close, and yet... it's unrequited love in a way that isn't often expressed in the movies. Again, I commend you and I think it's all of those elements that allow us that connection at the end of the film. I saw Certain Women at Sundance when it premiered. It's now been more than a year and I still can't get it out of my head.
Miigwech to you, Lily! Thanks again, I hope our paths cross again.
They will. I'm sure they will.