By WILLIAM J. WRIGHT
Few actors are as versatile as Adam Beach. From comedy to comic book action, to serious drama, Beach moves effortlessly through genre unwilling to be typecast or pigeonholed. A proud advocate and defender of his Native North American heritage, Beach has used his profession to bring greater visibility to indigenous people and their culture. Whether portraying real-life World War II hero Ira Hayes in Clint Eastwood’s Flags of our Fathers, or David Spade’s affable fireworks-vending pal Kicking Wing in the cult classic comedy Joe Dirt, the Canadian-born actor brings humanity and dignity to every role he takes. In an industry that has at best, stereotyped and at worst, ignored Native people, Adam Beach is a powerful force for change.
Beach steps boldly into horror alongside veteran actors Lance Henriksen (Aliens, Pumpkinhead) and Nastasha Henstridge (Species, Ghosts of Mars), newcomers Elijah Nelson and Kayla Carlson in Martin Guigui’s THE UNHEALER. A new dark fantasy film from Shout! Factory. Pflueger (Lance Henriksen) a diabolical faith healer, passes his stolen power to both heal and harm on to Kelly (Elijah Nelson) a small-town teenage loser. As Kelly becomes consumed and corrupted by his newfound abilities, it’s up to his girlfriend Dominique (Kayla Carlson), lawman Sheriff Adler (Adam Beach), and a mysterious Navajo stranger named Red Elk (Branscombe Richmond) to set things right. In this interview, Adam Beach discusses his role in THE UNHEALER and the challenges that indigenous actors continue to face in Hollywood.
What attracted you to THE UNHEALER?
If you look at a lot of what I do, I try to do projects that have a connection to cultural awareness but also I play a lot of policemen, too, because I really like delving into law and order and authority figures. That’s something I never used to be good at when I was younger, but now, I’m pretty good at it! I was finding myself drawn to this particular film because of the [Native American] medicine factor and the teachings within our culture. Our medicines are here to help us, and I felt I could bring that cultural awareness through friends of mine who are Navajo who can help this particular situation come to reality as opposed to making some hocus pocus stuff up. What you see in the film is an actual ceremony song. The ceremony is related to this type of thing that’s happening in the movie. So I hope a lot of people can understand that, to us, it’s not hocus pocus. To us, this is very real.
In the beginning, it seems that your character might be a little resistant to mysticism and perhaps believes it’s all hocus pocus. How did you approach playing Sheriff Adler?
Well, the tough part about playing Adler is delving into the idea of, “What is a medicine man?” and “When does one choose to be a medicine man?” How do you define that? A lot of people who are of that medicine – the strength of the land – are afraid of it because there’s such a responsibility involved in those teachings that you almost can’t really live a normal life because you’re constantly aware of these teachings that enable you to find the wisdom as you get older in our lives as human beings. That’s from a lot of experience talking with friends of mine who have chosen to walk the medicine way. I felt the sheriff was in this law and order aspect asking, “How the hell can you be a medicine person if I have to arrest people and possibly shoot someone if they’re a danger when medicines are healing?” So that’s the conflict that he has to go through, and he’s been going through because he loves being a police officer and he knows the respect that is needed to be in the medicine way. He just doesn’t feel equipped until the end of the movie. The backstory is that as a young adult he was drawn to it in many ways, and those teachings are there, and that’s why they come to him because he is very, very connected. That’s why he has the strength to overcome the fear of this medicine that’s being used badly.
THE UNHEALER has a cast made up of some very talented young actors. Does working with young people energize you or change how you approach a role?
When you’re working with the younger generation, they bring an energy and a cool factor you don’t have in your 40s. But not just any young actors. They have to be qualified. They have to be good. They have to be able to resonate their personality through these characters. When you watch this film, you can actually see that they are really working their personalities within these characters. For me, it becomes easier for my character to relate to them because I’m kind of like father/sheriff. I know everybody and I gotta be nice and make sure they’re not hurting anybody. I’m not going to arrest them. I’m just going to watch over them. It made it a lot easier for me to have their young spirit around. It was pretty cool, man. I felt like I was everybody’s godfather, you know?
Although it’s a fun and exciting film, THE UNHEALER touches on the serious theme of bullying. Is that something you can relate to personally?
Yeah. Growing up in school, I remember my first and worst experience with bullying in grade six. These two bullies decided to pick on me one day. As they were about to beat me up, I had a friend who knew martial arts, and he jumped in there and he beat them up! After that, I wasn’t bullied in junior high, but when I went to high school, we saw bullying against kids who were handicapped. Me and my friends put a stop to that, and we beat up those kids. So how does bullying transfer? Did we become bullies protecting these kids who were being bullied by these other kids? We had to stand up for ourselves and fight for the weaker ones. It’s still hard to understand.
As an actor with a Native North American background, did you have any input into how Native culture is portrayed in the film?
The first thing I told everybody was that I wanted to go and seek the medicine ways for the situation. I contacted my friend Roger Willie who I did Windtalkers with, and he’s Navajo, and he introduced me to his friend who is a medicine man. Going through the details of the film, he let us use a ceremony that is kind of coincidentally about what happens in this film. This song is a real song that people are hearing in the film, and what is unique about it is that when you listen to the song, we’re hoping that it transcends through the medium of movies and social media and teaches the world who the Navajo Nation is. We’re hoping that the song can heal the audience or families that need healing in their lives. The one important thing that I want people to take away from the film is that the song they hear is an actual traditional medicine song. This song, I hope, resonates throughout the world through this medium, so the family and friends who need healing in their lives will receive it in that spiritual, magical, romanticized way.
How has film and TV’s portrayal of Native people changed over the course of your career?
I think that as a Native actor I’ve seen the progress of independent Native films. Native writers, directors, and actors…I feel that we’re now kind of turning a page into a storytelling that comes from our perspective. Now, we still have to struggle with “pretendians” – non-indigenous actors who are taking our roles – and the higher-ups don’t really see it as an issue or an identity issue. But for us, it’s important that we stand up for ourselves for this turning of the page because we can’t progress if we’re still having people stealing our identity and imposing this fake Indian-hood on us. So there’s a lot to do. We as Native people have to work together and stand together because we’re such a small minority. We’re called “others” in Hollywood. So if you look at it, our baby steps aren’t even seen, but we see big changes in ourselves because baby steps mean a lot. As for myself, I pick and choose what I want to do that emulates who we are as people and as human beings, and I’m lucky to be a part of films that strategize with me to embark on Navajo tradition like THE UNHEALER to bring the cultural perspective that’s so important. The worldwide audience needs to see us as real people and as a real voice. That’s what we bring to you – a real song and a real interpretation of what a Navajo would do in the situation.
For decades, Hollywood has tended to homogenize or paint Native people with one brush. How have you personally dealt with negative stereotyping in the industry?
It’s the choices that I make with the films I do because I give myself respect. I understand who I am and understand what I can give to a project. If the project doesn’t relate to me in the way that I think it should, I just walk away. I don’t look at my projects for monetary value. Yes, [money] is good, but when we take the check and present a negative image of being Indian in the film, then there’s something wrong. We have to be careful with that because a lot of people are saying, “Well, we’re just creating a situation.” You know, these situations are real to us. When it comes to identity, in the last 200 years, we have been put in schools to eradicate what an Indian is. Kill the Indian. Save the man. Beat their language out of them. The abuse in these schools still hinders us as Native peoples. We’re still trying to grasp our identity and our teachings. Some of us were lucky enough to grasp them at a young age, like myself. The ramifications of what they did to us for the last 200 years is the result of us fighting each other or not agreeing or throwing away our Indian-ness and using it only for monetary value. It’s really ridiculous at times. As you can tell, I really care about what I do and the voice that we have. Sometimes, it’s been a negative thing if you look at monetary value for myself like saying no to films. In the end, it’s the respect that I value myself, and people see that and say, “Wow, we respect you more for the decisions you make.”
Are you a fan of the horror genre?
[Laughs] I’m a fan of it, but I don’t like getting scared of it! If I’m watching a horror film, and I feel that music, I just shut my eyes or look away ’til the scariness is gone! THE UNHEALER has an aspect of being supernatural, but it’s not really scary. It’s kind of a thriller. The thing I like about the movie is that it makes you reflect on what kindness you have in your heart in a situation like this. I’m hoping that a lot of people can see that the medicine that this kid gravitates to is supposed to be a healing medicine, but he’s taking it and using it in such a negative way that it’s becoming an unhealing medicine, and that’s why we have to put it back into its rightful place in the spiritual law and order.
You’ve played everything from real-life war heroes to comic book characters. Do you consider yourself a genre actor or do you prefer more serious, dramatic roles?
I kind of take what comes that’s relatable to me at the moment I’m in. I find myself in growth spurts every year finding more knowledge, more connection to my family and friends. I want to be able to emulate that through characters somehow, and it just keeps getting harder because I don’t want to repeat myself constantly where I’m always playing the cop or doing something that I’ve done before. I’m at the point now where I take a script and break it down and I find what I don’t like about it. Then, I move on to the next script. If you find something you don’t like about [a script], and the producers are unwilling to change it, you can’t do that movie. Period. I’m very much aware of what I’m doing and why I’m doing it. Currently, my wife and I are writing our own projects. We’re going to open our production company and start filming our projects because we feel our voice is not being recognized enough in film and television. They’re still romanticizing us, “We’ll let you be Indian under our terms.” I want to be who I want to be under the guise of being Indian. When you look at me as an Anishinaabe man, I’m many things – I’m not just a one, linear kind of Indian. That’s what I want to explore with the characters that we’re writing. We are many different people. We’re not just poverty porn. We’re not just “savage Indians.” I’m hoping that in the next 20 years, this new generation will understand the importance of that and continue what we’re trying to establish.
Do you have any plans to step behind the camera?
The films that we’re creating, I do want to direct. It’s best that we create our own projects, so when I start directing them, there’s this personal perspective that I want to portray, and I have friends who can help me along the way. I’ve worked with many great directors, DPs, and writers. I’ll look to them to help me when that moves forward. But I think a lot of us have to understand there’s the actor medium, there’s the director medium, there’s the writer medium, there’s the producer and the studio and all these layers that we need to fill. I’m hoping that when we start our productions that I can integrate my Adam Beach Film Institute – a film school that I started years ago – and put [students] to work and teach at the same time. There’s a lot to do.
Do you have a dream project?
My dream project? I would probably want to do Turok [ a classic dinosaur fighting Native American hero who first appeared in Dell comics in the 1950s]. John Woo and I had planned to do Turok, and we just couldn’t get the right script off the ground. It didn’t work for either of us, and then it just disappeared. I’m hoping that, maybe one day, I can revive it.
THE UNHEALER is available on Blu-ray and DVD from Shout! Factory on June 8th, 2021.