From "Dances With Wolves" to "Year of the Dog;" actor Michael Spears brings real-life perspectives
From big-budget Oscar winners to indie films, actor Michael Spears has been lighting up the screen with his performances since he was in “Dances with Wolves” at age 13.
Spears, Kul Wicasa Oyate Lakota Lower Brulé, can currently be seen in a pivotal episode of “Reservations Dogs,” playing the father of a teenage boy who died by suicide, and in the western drama “1883” as a Comanche trader.
A forthcoming role in the indie film, “Year of the Dog,” found him turning a real-life conversation that came up in a script reading into a deeply affecting scene in the film.
ICT caught up with Spears on Indigenous Peoples Day as he returned from celebrations in his hometown of Bozeman, Montana.
“We had a celebration and gathering-round dance and meal with all the Indigenous students and the whole campus and community came out,” he said. “We sang some songs and shared some music.”
“Year of the Dog” is set to premiere at the Chelsea Film Festival in New York City on Saturday, Oct. 15. The film is produced and directed by Rob Grabow, who also stars in the film as an alcoholic trying to get his life together with the help of Spears and a stray Husky dog.
Spears said he was visibly upset while reading an early scene opposite Grabow. Grabow had been wearing a knit hat featuring the Atlanta Braves, and it offended Spears in real life and as part of the wardrobe Grabow planned to wear in the film.
Spears voiced his opposition. It was eye-opening for Grabow to learn from a veteran Native actor, whom he held in high regard, that the Braves hat, to him an endearing childhood symbol, had a much darker meaning to Spears.
Determined to right the wrong, Grabow asked Spears to rewrite the scene from an Indigenous point of view. In that scene, Spears is dropping the vulnerable Grabow off at an AA meeting and tells him not to wear the hat.
“That happened organically and I got to do rewriting and that's what you see on the screen,” Spears said.
“I had voiced my concern for the imagery, and particularly the chanting and the tomahawk chop and the racial ramifications and the effects that it has on myself, and kids,” he said. “Grabow said, ‘Okay, I get it, and I want to bring that to the forefront here.’ That's where we're at with that today, with Rob being brave and telling this story and allowing us to be truthful in the film.”
Spears says the scene was all “improv from the hip there, and we just had a conversation.”
Grabow said it affected him personally as well as professionally.
“It's my favorite scene in the movie, and I think it's also the most powerful scene in the film on a lot of levels,” Grabow told ICT. “I found childhood solace in watching Braves games on TV, so I was heartbroken when he shared it with me. I was also taken aback because he did it so vulnerably and there wasn't judgment — he was sharing as earnestly as a human being could possibly share that this was just painful for him. And he didn't ask for anything in particular, which also was just heartbreaking to me, that it could be seen as odd to ask and express this.”
Spears powerful personal experiences have carried through in his other current roles, most notably as the grieving father in “Reservation Dogs.”
“I'm sure a lot of people can relate to suicide and death and grief in that process,” Spears said. “It is something I unfortunately have been very familiar with, between the pandemic and most recently, about a year and a half ago with my own mother, and both of my grandmothers passed away while I was shooting those films, so it was a tough one.”
Spears said his character is learning to relate to the world again.
“The particular character on Reservation Dogs, he's still developing emotionally,” he said. “He has stopped drinking, but in my characterization he's emotionally stunted and finds himself waking up to reality, and to feel and be able to connect again.”
He continued, “Those particular two roles – it was heavy because I was dealing with the deaths of family members, processing that grief. I feel thankful, giving props to Rob for telling his truths and all the writers on Rez Dogs. They've come a long way and know we have a place at the table and a voice for all of the dehumanizing and racist stuff that we have to deal with throughout our lives. Now we have some power behind that.”
At age 44, Spears said he has seen the long arc of representation of Indigenous people in film, and thinks the power and reach of the internet has increased social awareness at a rapid pace.
“I’ve been one of the fortunate ones to have been acting so long,” he said. “This generation has become more woke to issues like this. I played outside growing up, and the lives of me and my children are so different. My son set my computer up [and] I'm getting on for the first time and looking at all of the different things that he set up on here. Our technology has come and helped us to further achieve cultural integrity, especially in film.”
Spears said he has a big year coming up. He will be back on “Reservation Dogs” and will appear in “1923,” the next installment of “1883” that will star Harrison Ford.
“In a series with Han Solo! Can’t beat that!” Spears said. “Even if I'm the old guy now. I still can’t play the grandpa roles, but I'm not the 20-year-old warrior anymore.
“It's going to be a big year with more Indigenous filmmaking and writing and music and the whole nine yards. We're plowing forward.”