The Canadian drama Indian Horse is based on the award-winning novel by acclaimed Ojibwe author Richard Wagamese. It tells the story of Saul Indian Horse, a First Nations boy who runs away from Canada’s notoriously abusive Indian residential school system in the late ’60s, only to be dragged back under the thumb of some cruel Catholic officials who want to strip away his “pagan” identity. Thanks to one empathetic priest, however, Saul finds escape in the sport of hockey. Eventually adopted by a kindly family, Saul begins a lifelong climb up the professional sporting ranks—and faces demons both external (racism) and internal (alcoholism).
Playing Saul Indian Horse in his formative teen years is local Albuquerque actor Forrest Goodluck. Goodluck—a member of the Diné, Mandan, Hidatsa and Tsimshian tribes—made a splash in the film industry with his first onscreen credit, playing Leonardo DiCaprio’s half-Pawnee son, Hawk, in the Academy Award-winning 2015 film The Revenant. Since then, he’s taken on roles in other films, including 2018’s gay conversion therapy drama The Miseducation of Cameron Post.
This weekend the feature film adaptation of Indian Horse heads out of the Canadian territories and opens here in Albuquerque. Alibi took the opportunity to speak with the film’s up-and-coming young star, who chatted with us from Los Angeles.
Weekly Alibi: So are you living in Los Angeles now or just working?
Goodluck: I’m just here for pilot season. I’ll probably make the move eventually, but I’m still based in Albuquerque.
Hunting down work on TV pilots? That must be exciting.
Yeah, exactly. It’s kind of crazy. It’s a lot of meetings and auditions.
Obviously the first thing out of the gate for you was the high-profile, award-winning drama The Revenant. How did you wind up getting into that?
It was filmed in Calgary, Canada. It was the first film I tried out for after taking a bunch of improv and acting classes and doing theater at Albuquerque Little Theatre. I took an “Auditioning for Film” class, and it really helped me think about working in film, even just being an extra or whatever. So I went up to Santa Fe to audition for a film called Man Called Buffalo, which was a Chris Eyre film, a very prominent Native director. We’d known his films and were so excited to audition for him. I went out for it and pretty much got the part. The film fell through because of funding, though. It never happened. But I did meet a woman named Rene Haynes, who was the casting director for it. She’s a very prominent Native casting director. She did Dances With Wolves and Twilight. She kind of kept a tab on me—thought, “This kid could be good.” She sent me a lot of stuff. I went and even got a role for this film that was supposed to star Nic Cage. I got the part, but it also fell through. Another role where I was supposed to play a hippie kid out on the road fell through. I was getting all these roles, but just films that ended up not being financed. So the first thing that actually came through was The Revenant. Rene Haynes was also casting it, looking for a kid to play the role [of Hawk]. Just by happenstance and really really good luck, I’ve been able to be an actor—because it was never something I ever really thought about.
Was it at all intimidating, your first time out, being on set with all those big-name actors and a director of Alejandro Iñárritu’s stature?
For me, I think I was always so interested in movies. After I got the acting bug, the first time I was ever on set was a film called Jane Got a Gun. The director was [Scottish filmmaker] Lynne Ramsay. Of course, now I look back and think, “Oh my god. I worked with Lynne Ramsay!” From that job, I got paid for the day I was there, and I went and bought a camera to start making my own movies. I was very interested in directors. So when I got to the set [of The Revenant], I don’t think I was too intimidated by the actors. Like most people would be. By Leo [DiCaprio] and Tom [Hardy] and Will [Poulter]. I was more intimidated being around Alejandro. It was just insane to me that they were looking at me and creating something, a character in a film, around what I was doing. That was where I was more starstuck. ... Overall I’ve never experienced such an incredible collaborative experience. Everybody was pushing to create something together.
Let’s talk about your new film Indian Horse. I checked it out last week and found it a quiet but impactful piece of work. Were you familiar with the book?
Thanks. I appreciate that. The book is very much like the film. It was almost spot-on. At some point I just chucked the screenplay and read the book to research for the scenes, because it had more subtext than the screenplay did. … I kind of knew that as the teenage Saul, I wouldn’t get too much time on screen. I was just really hoping for any amount of time, because it was such an important story. And it was one that I think, for Canada—but especially for the United States—is one that people don’t really know. It’s a story that should be told in a new way. If that means I get one scene, I’d be OK with that, if I can just be a small part of it.
And you end up with some very pivotal scenes in the film.
Yeah. Exactly. ... It’s such a true, harsh story. It’s amazing to me that people would want to go and see this harsh piece of history. But people get it. In Canada we were the number one English-speaking film [of 2018]. We were screening against Avengers, and I think we did 10 weeks [atop the box office]. I was in Canada for another film and I was like, “Oh, we should see Indian Horse.” We go and see it, like seven, eight weeks in, and there were still 30 people in the theater. For me it was all about that, seeing how many people feel the story and see Indian people as just being real, just as a person. You’re forced to look at them with those close lenses that the director and cinematographer use. Us being seen and all seen differently is important. To me the film was so important, but also so beautiful.
How was it going from interacting with New Mexico Native peoples to interacting with Canadian tribes? Was it a culture shock for you?
Meeting them was like meeting your family. Of course, there are so many little differences. For me it was less like culture shock. For me it was just exciting to find out what little things Canadian Indians do compared to Indians down here. It wasn’t even Canadian Indians so much as Canadians in general have those specific mannerisms that they do.
Had you played hockey prior to this film?
Yeah, so I just lied to the director. “Of course I play hockey.” I auditioned for the film—actually in LA, for some reason. I auditioned in front of the director. ... I looked off-screen. His head was off-screen on Skype. I was looking at the director and what he was thinking, and I could tell I got the part. But he didn’t tell me I got the part at that time. I immediately came back home, and basically went straight to Outpost Arena. I’m actually so glad I learned on their rental skates, just because we skated in real 1950s skates [in the movie]. Of course the film took place after that, but they would have had hand-me-down skates, even older skates for the time period. So I learned on the Outpost skates, the rental ones, which were not sharp, which were made of leather, which didn’t have any modern support. And I’m so glad I did, because those are the skates we skated on. I actually got in with the older groups at Outpost that played hockey. I played with them every Tuesday and Thursday for a couple weeks until we shot. They were the ones who taught me how to play hockey, which is super cool.
I see on your résumé, you also shot the pilot for “Scalped”—based on the Vertigo comic by Jason Aaron and R.M. Guera—in New Mexico. What can you tell us about that?
That was also Rene Haynes’ project. I auditioned for that and got the part. It was an amazing experience. What drew me to the project was how many different Native actors there were in it from here. Like Gil Birmingham, Lily Gladstone, Chaske Spenser. Alex Meraz was in it. It was amazing actors in it, and I just wanted to be a part of it. A lot of those people I’ve worked with later down the road. But that just, unfortunately, never went through. Not because the TV pilot was bad, but because the network [WGN America] actually folded every show they had, because the network went bankrupt or something. I’m disappointed. It woulda been fun.
You said New Mexico is still your base. As a professional, what do you think the future of New Mexico’s film industry will look like? Do you think we have a viable industry?
Oh, absolutely! I think New Mexico is the reason why many people here make it. Going to LA is so insane. There are so few avenues to make it happen. But in New Mexico there’s so many small-budget, medium-budget local projects. Of course, it’s not as glamorous as young actors today in the spotlight. I’m not there. I’m not even close to that. New Mexico is a place where you make smaller connections—and not small as in “small projects,” but small as in this is a small community that is so interconnected. And once you find it, it doesn’t leave you. It’s also so artistic. Being in LA can be very business-oriented. Many times in New Mexico it’s all about the art, and I think that’s the best part about being there.