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Transcript: Race in America: Giving Voice with Amber Midthunder

MS. HERNÁNDEZ: Good afternoon. I’m Arelis Hernández, national correspondent for The Washington Post, and welcome to Washington Post Live for another program in our Race in America series.

Joining me today is breakout star of the new film, "Prey," Amber Midthunder. Welcome, Amber.

MS. MIDTHUNDER: Hi.

MS. HERNÁNDEZ: Thanks for joining us. First, a quick programming note for our audience: We want to hear from you. So, send us your questions for Amber on Twitter using the handle, @PostLive.

I'm just going to go ahead and launch into questions if that's okay with you, Amber. Does that work?

MS. MIDTHUNDER: Yeah, that works.

MS. HERNÁNDEZ: Awesome. Well, you play Naru--I happen to have watched it last night--in "Prey." She's a Comanche woman who doesn't quite fit in with her tribe. Can you tell us a little bit about her and why she wants to prove herself in this story?

MS. MIDTHUNDER: Yeah. Naru is a young Comanche woman who wants to be a hunter. You know, she's quite, I think, stubborn and very focused and determined, and that, to me, is what makes her special. I think she's relatable in the way that, you know, the feeling of wanting something and feeling called to something and not always having other people see you be fit for that thing, but you know that you are, I think is what, you know, is really driving her, along with, you know, I think the need to kind of just--she feels like she needs to prove herself. You know, it's not--Comanche people did have a female warrior society. So, it's not about like, oh, you're a woman; you can't hunt. You can't fight. It's people looking at her as an individual and saying, we know you. We don't think this is best suited for you. So, you know, she wants to prove--it's a mix of things. She wants to prove people wrong. She wants to do it because she loves it. You know, it's everything.

MS. HERNÁNDEZ: She's quite a dynamic character. And in this film, which is set in 1719 in the Great Plains, Naru is used to seeing rabbits and mountain lions and bears, but we have a clip of something else that she sees lurking in the forest. Let's take a look.

[Video plays]

MS. HERNÁNDEZ: That is not a bear. Naru finds ways to outsmart the Predator, which is the latest in the franchise, and at one point she says, I am not a threat; that's what makes me dangerous. Can you explain what she means by that?

MS. MIDTHUNDER: Yeah, I mean, I think constantly being underestimated and also that's the whole idea of, you know, I think historically this franchise, you know, is like specifically the Predator hunts for sport. It looks for the greatest threat. And I think that that parallels in a lot of ways. So, there's the literal meaning of that within the movie, and then there's, I think, the concept of anybody who underestimates her, and also the, you know, mending of skills, I think, that's what makes her unique. And that I think is what maybe makes her strong.

MS. HERNÁNDEZ: Well, so, there's not a lot of dialogue in the film itself, but we do see Naru speaking Comanche and also use sign language. The film is also available to stream completely in Comanche, if I'm correct on that.

MS. MIDTHUNDER: Yeah.

MS. HERNÁNDEZ: How did the cast and crew work to make the film feel authentic to Indigenous people?

MS. MIDTHUNDER: Well, Jhane Myers, our producer, is an enrolled member of the Comanche Nation in Oklahoma. She was involved, you know, for a very long time and she's--I mean, she was there every single day making sure that things were accurate to her people and to the time period. And that was also a big interest, you know, of Dan Trachtenburg, our director, and all of us, you know. We're--none of us were Comanche but you know, are all Indigenous people. And so, that's obviously something that we care about personally. And I mean, just everything from, like, there's a scene where you see me brushing my teeth and that's like my favorite--that's like one of my favorite little pieces that's in the movie because, you know, at one point, Dan was like, how did that work? Like, what did people do? And I guess Jhane was like, oh, well, here, let me show you. And she, like, made a toothbrush. And she was like, this is what we did.

And so, details like that to bigger things like there's a scene with buffalo or, like, the Comanche dove is--all the original actors came back to do our own characters and we worked with, like, Comanche language--you know, the Comanche language department of the Comanche Nation and professionals and people who have given their lives to that. So, the effort was there in, to me, a way that was just like commendable and amazing.

MS. HERNÁNDEZ: Well, you've given our viewers such a dynamic description of your character, Naru. I wonder, did you feel like you could relate to her and her experience in some way?

MS. MIDTHUNDER: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, this is the first time that I've been in a position in a movie this big and I've never--like, I've never been the lead of a Predator movie before. So, I didn't know--I very much felt that way, that there were times that I was like, I don't know if I can do this. And then, there would be times that I was like, 100 percent, like, this is me. So, that was like a very easy way for me to relate to her, you know, that--like I said, I think everybody can relate to the feeling of feeling called to something. I think we can all relate to having doubts. So, like, feeling called to something and then immediately thinking, like, maybe I'm wrong. Maybe I--as soon as you're faced with that opportunity. So, yeah.

MS. HERNÁNDEZ: Well, so, you said it yourself, it's the first time you're a lead in a movie, but it's also the first time an Indigenous woman is the lead of a major studio film if--I think I'm right on that. I'm curious to talk about sort of your development as an anchor and how you came into this. You're sort of--I don't know if it's fair to say born into the industry. I mean, your mom is a casting director and actor and your dad is an actor.

I'm curious about what drew you into the industry, apart from the fact of being ensconced into it.

MS. MIDTHUNDER: It's funny that people say my mom is an actor, because she's not. She accidentally became an actress the first time that she ever had an industry-related job, and then immediately decided that she hated it, which I think is so funny, just for me to later find it in my life and then to also marry an actor.

But yeah, I mean, it was never anything that was actually super related to me growing up, which I'm really grateful for. You know, like, I just felt like any other kid that, like, my parents had jobs and, like, they would do them during the day and then come home and we would cook dinner and watch a TV show and everything was normal.

So, I didn't really know and then I think it was just, like, very clear to my personality that I love to like--like, I was like eight years old and I was, like, making movies with my friends and stories and memorizing full episodes of TV shows and stuff like that. And so, you know, I was--so, I think I just at one point said to my mom, like, I want to do that. And so, I tried it and I got, like, I think, a line in a DWI commercial or something and immediately decided that I hated acting, quit for a long time, and then came back to it. And then, now, that's what I do.

MS. HERNÁNDEZ: And look at where you are now. I was reading that when you were auditioning for the role or you were reading your audition, that you didn't know what kind of film it was or what--that this was going to be a Predator film. So, what did you think was actually going on as you were reading the lines?

MS. MIDTHUNDER: None of the dialogue had to do with, like, anything that would give that away. It was all--it's from a few scenes that are in the movie, still, but that are very different now. So, really, all that I knew and the only context that I had was this was a movie about a young Comanche woman who wanted to be a hunter. That was truly all that I knew, and I knew obviously that Dan Trachtenburg was directing it, because I met with him, but that was really it. And I just thought that, you know, I really connected with this character. I thought she was really interesting, even though I didn't know a lot about her. I thought that there was just like something very special there that just made me--that kind of like lit that fire for me, and that was it. And then, it disappeared from COVID and then it came back, like, over a year later, and still had no idea what it was. And then, I think a couple months went by and then somebody told me. So, it was a very, very long time until I actually knew what the whole picture of the movie was.

MS. HERNÁNDEZ: And how did you react when you found out it was--you know, you were going to be in a line of sort of Arnold Schwarzenegger and all these other action heroes with this Predator series?

MS. MIDTHUNDER: That's so funny. I didn't even think of that. I just--I was wildly anxious. I cried immediately, and I didn't even have the job. It was not happy tears; it was just terror. And I don't know why. I couldn't tell you to this day.

But I think it was just like--I think it was some amount of, like, relief and also, like, a new set of fears, you know, of, like, not knowing for so long and then, in a way, there's no more questions and in a way there's a lot of questions. So, I think it was just the bigness of the idea of, like, facing the unknown, you know, like--much like my character has to do, I also felt like I was doing here. So, yeah, a lot of tears.

MS. HERNÁNDEZ: Well, I'm going to yo-yo back to more of your background. You are an enrolled member of the Fort Peck Assiniboine and Sioux tribe, but you told The Hollywood--

MS. MIDTHUNDER: Yes.

MS. HERNÁNDEZ: Did I get it right? Did it work?

MS. MIDTHUNDER: Yes, good job.

MS. HERNÁNDEZ: Thank you. Well, so you told The Hollywood Reporter that you have been very intentional about not pursuing Indigenous-specific roles. Why is that?

MS. MIDTHUNDER: Because often the representation that we get is not something I think to be proud of or something that makes us feel proud. You know, that was a really big deal to me with this movie, and something that I was really conscious of and really scared about every single day. Like, I would come to work and, you know, I get a lot of questions about, like, oh, following up Arnold and this and that, and like, that's not how I think about this.

The way that I was thinking about it every day going to work was, like, man, this could be a really big opportunity for Native people and for Native women to be represented well, and I wanted to take that opportunity and make the most of it, you know, because it's so rare. It's happening more now, you know, we have shows like "Reservation Dogs" and "Rutherford Falls," and "Echo" is coming and, like, our movie now. We're starting to get good Native representation with Native filmmakers and actors and all these things that we can feel proud of. But so rarely in history, you know, have we had that. Normally, it's, I think--especially in a period piece like this is, you know, usually I think we're just these kind of like represented as like subhuman, either, like, overly spiritualized or just, like, savage trope or whatever, and like that's not obviously who we are. We're people with innovation and invention, even back, you know, in the 1700s. Like, we had relationships and thoughts and ideas and all kinds of things. So, to me, that representation is the most important thing that, you know, I can do by existing in my field.

MS. HERNÁNDEZ: And how did you know that, particularly with this role, that that was going to confer that opportunity, that this young woman, this Comanche woman, was going to give you a chance to show and portray a full human, Indigenous person?

MS. MIDTHUNDER: For a number of reasons, but also, like, I was still scared, you know, because you just--in a way, you never know, but also there were a lot of things to be confident about from the very beginning. Like, I mean, Dan cares so much. Like, I cannot speak highly enough of the effort that Dan Trachtenburg and 20th Century has put into being involved with the community and conscious and aware and obviously having Jhane, our producer--you know, like, they actually listened to her and things she has to say. It's not like she's there just to like tick off a box. She's there giving her opinions and they're being applied. This film, you know, before it was done, we screened it at the Oklahoma--like, in Oklahoma at the Comanche Nation for the Comanche people and did a Q&A with them to incorporate their thoughts and notes, and that was an idea, you know, that came specifically in service to Comanche people. So, like, having those things and that--you know, from pre-production all the way to finishing the movie, that effort has not stopped. So, that is something that I just--like, I cannot be more grateful for.

MS. HERNÁNDEZ: Well, in light of that and sort of these learning experiences, we know that Native America is not monolithic in any way; it's composed of dozens of nations, or more than that. So, I'm curious what you learned as--you know, about the experiences of--

MS. MIDTHUNDER: Yeah.

MS. HERNÁNDEZ: --Indigenous people in Hollywood and in this experience, overall.

MS. MIDTHUNDER: Yeah, I mean, just so many tribes. It's like, unreal. You know, people are like, oh, Native American people. You're like, no, no, no, we're very--there's so many. So, that was a very cool experience for me, because we are different. You know, I'm Lakota, Nakota, and Dakota, but I still come from plains people, as the Comanches do, as well. The Comanches are also plains people. So, that was a really cool experience for me to get acquainted with Comanche culture and language and be able to look at like some--there are some things in our culture that we share. Like, there's a scene in the movie where it's nighttime and my character whistles, and that's a cultural thing that the Comanches and my culture also share.

But then, there's a lot of other things that, you know, we don't. So, it was just like getting to learn like--even conversations that you don't necessarily see in the movie but just--that become a part of kind of the fabric of the environment that you watch when you watch the movie, yeah, it was really special.

MS. HERNÁNDEZ: Well, you brought up the issue of representation and I wanted to talk to you about something that happened this week. The Academy of Motion Pictures, Arts, and Sciences announced that it will host an evening conversation of healing and celebration with--in September, that is--with activist Sacheen Littlefeather.

You tweeted about this and, you know, she famously declined the Oscar on behalf of Marlon Brando in 1973. She was booed off the stage. She talked about, you know, the standoff at Wounded Knee at the time, but she really didn't get a warm reception from the folks who were in that audience that day. They issued this public apology in June. She was 26 at the time, which is about your age now. I'm curious, like, how does it make you feel that the Academy came out and apologized, and do you think it is the right way for the Academy to atone for the harassment she received?

MS. MIDTHUNDER: I mean, visibility is one of the most important ways and it's one of the initial steps. I think when you're talking about reconciliation or apologies or how to mend anything. You know, we specifically have a very long history of a lot of hard things. So, I think something like that at that time is only in a way to be expected, because that was, I think, just--that just barely showcases what was actually happening for our people that you weren't seeing.

So, you know, I think that this is an incredible first step, and I think that it should have happened a while ago, but it's happening now and that's great, and that is, I think, the first step of what should be many.

MS. HERNÁNDEZ: Well, then, what should be the next step, you think, or what are the next steps?

MS. MIDTHUNDER: I think what we're talking about, which is like having space for Native people. You know, I believe that we've been storytellers since the beginning. We have always--that's how we preserve our language and our culture. You know, we are people of an oral history and specifically storytelling.

So, Native people in every capacity are, I believe, an untapped resource, especially within this industry. So, creating space for our people that isn't just, like I said, like lip service or like checking off a box on a list of things to say, like, oh, look, we had somebody, but actually making space for Indigenous people to say what they have to say to help our communities.

Because that's really what it comes back to is, like, individuals can thrive, but it's also about Native people as a whole, who, you know, we still deal with the implications of all of our history and all the things that happened to our people to this day who, all those traumas. So, it's about healing that and that is done, I believe, through, like I said, visibility and creating space.

MS. HERNÁNDEZ: You mentioned storytelling specifically and how crucial that is to many tribes' traditions and to their cultures and the way they preserve history. I'm curious about the way that you've seen that oral storytelling tradition used in the projects that you've been a part of, if it has been.

MS. MIDTHUNDER: I mean, I think it is just in the medium. You know, I think that is what filmmaking is. It's entertainment, but it's also, like, a vehicle to say whatever you have to say or, if you have to say nothing--like, you know, I think that's what's beautiful about this art form, whether you're Native or not. It is a place where imagination and creativity, collaboration, you know, narrative all can collide in a way that gets delivered to large amounts of people, potentially.

So, I think that, you know, whether or not I played a Native role or worked with Native people, it's just the nature of filmmaking. So, that's why I think it's important to use and it's important to acknowledge.

MS. HERNÁNDEZ: In addition to talking about representation, you've also raised awareness about a couple other issues, including missing and murdered Native women and cultural genocide. Are these issues that you plan to lend more than your voice to? I know that you're still very early in your career, but I'm curious, like, where you want to take this now that you have visibility, you have a little bit of a platform, now. Where do you see that going, your activism, I don't know?

MS. MIDTHUNDER: Yeah, I mean, everywhere that I can. You know, like that to me, if there is any space where I can be helpful in any possible way, especially, you know, to my own people, like, that's what matters the most, because there are so many people who have never heard of a plethora of--you know, there's so many things that are happening to Native people, still, that nobody's talking about, nobody is aware of.

So, absolutely. I mean, whatever way I can be helpful, any opportunity that I ever have to help my people, that's where I want to be. That's what I want to be doing.

MS. HERNÁNDEZ: So, I got a question from a friend of mine, a colleague at The Washington Post who covers comics and movies and whatnot. He wanted to ask you whether you'd be interested in being part of the Marvel cinematic universe. Is that something you'd be interested in in your future?

MS. MIDTHUNDER: Switching gears, but yes, 100 percent. I love Marvel. Yes, absolutely. I did a Marvel series a few years ago for, you know, FX, and that was a great time. `And I am a Marvel fan. I was a Marvel fan before that and after that. So, 100 percent.

MS. HERNÁNDEZ: So, what's next for you? What are you working on?

MS. MIDTHUNDER: I recently had a film come out called "The Wheel." It was released in July on many platforms. I produced that in, I mean, August of 2020; so, like, peak pandemic. So, that was wild. I think we were one of the first productions to, like, return post-COVID.

And it was just--it's very different from "Prey." It's just a work of a small group of people who really, really cared about this movie. And last year, we premiered at TIFF. So, in October I believe it's going to Hulu, as well. So, yeah.

MS. HERNÁNDEZ: So, I read a piece about how your family--you said your family is a little weird because you're all into, like, being outdoors and you give each other, like, ninja stars and things like that as gifts for Christmas and axes and whatnot. Does this mean that you think that you'll stick to action and drama, perhaps, or is comedy in your future?

MS. MIDTHUNDER: That's so funny. I did get my dad a set of throwing axes for Father's Day sometime before this movie. I, to me--that is how I grew up, so I just feel like it's normal. But I like it, I think it's fun.

I mean, yeah, I would be--I think when it comes to my career, I've ended up doing a lot of action roles, because they've also coincided with interesting characters and great filmmakers. And ultimately, that's always what I'm going after. So, I think I wouldn't be afraid to do another action movie, but I also would be really excited to do a comedy or a musical or a heavy drama. Like, I think being able to have the opportunity to do anything with quality is kind of what every actor wants.

MS. HERNÁNDEZ: So, we've talked a lot about representation, about visibility, about how passionate you are about the issues rep--you know, and authenticity within the filmmaking, the storytelling that happens in Native America.

You know, I'm just curious about--and I lost my question in the course of that. I'm curious about how you, with this experience--the idea of doing Indigenous-specific roles, has your perspective changed on that because of the sort of success and acclaim you're getting from this role, or is that something that you're going to be really sort of cautious and judicious about in the future, still?

MS. MIDTHUNDER: I mean, it's always been the same. It's not like I don’t want to play Indigenous roles. I do, naturally. I have no option but to wake up and be Native. So, it kind of is, whether the role is that or not, I'm there.

But yeah, I mean, I've always wanted to do them, I think, in--as long as they're good and as long as they're respectful and as long they're something that we can be proud of. And I also think it's important to see Indigenous people play roles that are not specifically Indigenous, because that's not all that we are as people. So, why would you limit us to that when you're talking about film and television? You know, we are comic book fans; we are doctors and nurses and your neighbor and the guy who makes a movie. You know, like, all these things. So, I think having Native people play a multitude of things is only helpful.

MS. HERNÁNDEZ: And I hear that. And I've talked to bunches of actors and producers and storytellers who are, you know, non-White, and through this platform.

But one of the things--that might be the goal, but one of the things that's really difficult, then, is sort of navigating Hollywood in a way where you can tell those stories, where you can play those roles. I mean, are you getting advice from anybody in the industry, maybe your parents, maybe--do you have a mentor in the industry to try and steer your career in such a way where you are playing these fully flourished individuals?

MS. MIDTHUNDER: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, definitely you know, my parents are my biggest role models and influences, and I go to them for advice constantly. I think--whether or not this is their job, I just think they are sound, good people and especially when it comes to advising career. You know, my dad has been around for a long time, and we always have those conversations.

MS. HERNÁNDEZ: Sorry, I have time for one more question, and I remember the question that flew out of my mind earlier, which is, what does this all mean for you, the fact that you are the first Indigenous woman in a lead role in a major studio production.

Just at the very base level, what does it mean for you, personally?

MS. MIDTHUNDER: I mean, for me, it's huge, I am just so excited. I'm so proud, really, for what it means for my people. But also, like, you know, it's exciting for me to be in this position and I had a great time doing this role, and I'm excited to see what comes next.

MS. HERNÁNDEZ: Awesome. Well, unfortunately, that's all the time that we have. Amber Midthunder, thank you so much for joining us.

MS. MIDTHUNDER: Thank you so much.

MS. HERNÁNDEZ: And thanks to all of you for joining us today. To check out what interviews we have coming up, head to WashingtonPostLive.com to find more.

I'm Arelis Hernández. Thank you for joining Washington Post Live.

[End recorded session]

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