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Alberta-born actors Tantoo Cardinal and Jillian Dion each delivered gripping performances in Killers of the Flower Moon — and now that the SAG-ACTRA strike is winding down, the two can freely talk about their roles as the film already vibrates with Oscar buzz.
Martin Scorsese’s historical epic cinematic requiem (still playing in theatres, do go) depicts the conspiracy to murder Osage tribe members — for a time a century back the richest people on earth thanks to the oil reserves on land they owned.
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The movie’s moral centre inside this tornado of white greed is Lily Gladstone’s Mollie Burkhart. Cardinal plays her mother Lizzie Q, while Dion is Mollie’s sister Minnie — all real people.
Cardinal, who was in both Dances with Wolves and Legends of the Fall, was born in Fort McMurray and now lives in L.A., with Dion (Legion, Into the West) belonging to Saddle Lake Cree Nation northeast of Edmonton, where she graduated high school from Eastglen. She now lives in Vancouver.
The two shared a lively and hilarious conversation about making the film, showing at Cannes and wider issues of Indigenous existence.
Q Take us back to Cannes and getting a standing ovation.
JILLIAN DION Being on the red carpet and being representative of each of our tribes but also as Indigenous people as a collective was really cool. I was a little bit shocked getting out of my car and seeing 200 photographers flashing their bulbs. Then having Will (Belleau) doing a warrior call was something so powerful. Then at the end, Tantoo was wearing this beautiful dress, dancing along the red carpet.
TANTOO CARDINAL It just felt like it was a natural process and not unexpected. That’s the way to hit Cannes, with the hottest film and the royalty of Scorsese. (Leonardo) DiCaprio and (Robert) De Niro are kind of with the package, but it’s Scorcese who really gathers the crowd. It was a moment to remember, working with the wizard. I told Scorsese, “Mm, nice party.” And all these cameras are going on and he said, “I’ve never seen anything like this.” DiCaprio said the very same thing: “I have never seen anything as big as this.” So both of them were having a new experience — and here we figured it was a normal day for them red-carpet people.
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Q Can you talk about the reaction to the film?
TC It was the same kind of feeling I got with Dances With Wolves, which for its time had a big impact on our overall society. And I’m so looking forward to whatever impact Killers intends because Killers intends something. There’s a lot of dialogue, and I think that’s what you can hope for your art is that it creates a ruckus of some sort.
Q Can you both give your impressions of the shoot — it sure looked epic.
JD Just attention to detail. From the cultural consultants that made sure the blankets were sitting properly to making sure our hair is the way it should have been, having the big wool coats and the big hats is very traditional of Oklahoma and the Osage people. Working with Marty, he can get things out of an actor with just a look or a single word. I think any of the shoots I was a part of, there was maybe four takes max, and then it was on to the next. Aside from that, the kindness of the Osage people — and also those Oklahoma sunsets.
Q Tantoo, what pops into your head?
TC The extravagance, the money, the rollin’ in the dough. To look at everybody and see them in such rich clothes — and the white people running around trying to be the best servant. And, you know, it’s too bad everybody’s gonna get killed, and that may seem morbid. But to me, that’s the best we can get out of it is people are going to know what happened. We’re so used to our stories being shoved under the rug or if they’re brought out, reinterpreted. Like, “residential schools were well-meaning people.” It’s also remembering why we’re doing this, is seeing what could have been and what we were not allowed. I worked with the Osage speakers primarily because I didn’t speak a word of English, so I wanted to do the best I could. I did a lot of work alone out on the prairie and the buffalo reserves, and being told about the snakes, which ones were friendly and where not to go.
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Q Can you talk more about the Osage Nation being welcoming?
JD Just like taking us into their homes, right down to teaching us the language and showing us traditional foods. Taking us out on the town, sending us to cousins’ or aunts’ houses two towns over to go meet them and hang out. We were consulting them every step of the way, so I think there’s an appreciation for that. There’s always going to be a little bit of worry about having this story come out.
Q Does Scorsese give you room to experiment? What’s he like in the middle of a scene?
TC I had a suggestion for my death scene and he listened very intently and had some director questions and he shot it. He ordered up an actor, flew him overnight on the red-eye and shaved his head and off we went. He had the budget, he didn’t have to ask daddy nothing.
Q Whoa, that ancestors’ scene was one of the best parts of the movie.
JD This is the biggest project I’ve ever done in my life so I was a bit green, and honestly a bit nervous. But as soon as we got there we had a couple meetings with Marty and Cara (Jade Myers), JaNae (Collins) and we were sitting in a room talking about the characters. I’m not sure what was going through his head but he just said, “You’re the actors, figure it out.” Great, I can do that. I knew then there was room to play.
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Q Do either of you have any Indigenous filmmakers we should know about? Let’s give someone a little love.
TC There’s some filmmakers growing up in Tap Root Actors Academy in Kikino Métis Settlement (two hours northeast of Edmonton) that Jillian teaches at. It’s a school I started because in the 50 years plus of being in this industry I couldn’t fill one hand with Métis characters being asked to play Métis characters. So that’s where I put my focus and it’s a blast.
JD The stories they’re telling, it’s wild to watch because they’re free in everything they do.
Q Do you have any questions for each other?
JD What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?
TC A mistake is a gift to further understanding. I would ask Jillian, why have you chosen this path? Or has it chosen you?
JD I believe I was chosen for this path. I’d never really considered acting as an artistic outlet but stumbled upon it on a journey to a powwow. When I stepped into the acting world I immediately felt a connection and a desire to tell stories from our perspective, and feel blessed to have chosen to do so.