Wes Studi was a late bloomer. The American Indian actor, 70, a Cherokee from Oklahoma, didn’t appear in his first film until he was in his 40s. But since then the charismatic performer, a Vietnam War vet and former rancher, has mesmerized audiences with his portrayals of American Indian warriors (“Dances With Wolves,” “The Last of the Mohicans,” “Geronimo: An American Legend”), cops (“Heat”), superheroes (“Mystery Men”), even extraterrestrials (“Avatar”).
In his latest film, “Hostiles,” Studi plays a dying Cheyenne chief being escorted back to his homeland by an Army captain and former adversary (Christian Bale). The actor, whose mellow demeanor is in direct contrast to many of his intense screen appearances, was interviewed by phone from his home in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
You speak Cheyenne throughout the entire film. Is that one of the things that attracted you to the role?
It was the language I wanted to encounter, and see if I could pull off another language. And I was going to play a dying person, and how does one portray that? It was an attractive package all around. I would describe the character as a hopeful man dealing with the loss of hope as well as loss of life. What do you do with that hope you still have? It’s a question of legacy, how does one pass along their idea of hopefulness.
You’ve taken parts that required you to speak different languages in other films, including a make-believe extraterrestrial dialect in “Avatar.” What’s the trick to speaking other idioms convincingly?
I try to know what is being conveyed, what is the meaning, then memorize the phonetics. It’s a matter of getting across the idea with the help of subtitles. It’s something you can convey with words and facial expressions and the entire body.
You also seem to have an affinity for bad-ass characters like the really scary Magua in “The Last of the Mohicans.” Why is that?
Most of the time the bad-ass roles are more fun than the good-ass roles. A lot has to do with image — what do I look like? I can be a teddy bear, but more people tend to see me as the other side of the coin, and that has to do with casting, more Iago than Hamlet. But I don’t play villains; I play people doing the right thing for the circumstances and time.
When you were a kid, there were not a lot of visible American Indian actors, the most prominent being Jay Silverheels, who played Tonto on “The Lone Ranger.” How have things changed over the years?
Having watched “The Lone Ranger,” I asked my dad, “You think we can be on TV like that guy?” He said, “Probably not, you have to be 6 feet and blond to work in TV and movies.” I said, “But what about that guy? Jay Silverheels?” Later, Will Sampson came along [In “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”], Chief Dan George [“Little Big Man”], and the rest of us didn’t show up until the late ’80s and ’90s. Sometimes it takes a long time to get the breaks. I don’t know if there are better roles these days. There are times directors consider us a visible part of the acting community, and sometimes they don’t. But things are getting better, and there are more and more Native Americans becoming involved in acting and other parts of filmmaking.
When you got into the business, were you concerned about typecasting, that you’d only appear in Westerns?
It was kind of the norm; more than likely the only work you will get is in Westerns. It’s a good thing and also it can be something an actor can fear, that you’ll be typecast. It’s something to avoid, but also it’s been my bread and butter. The good thing is I’ve been able to do parts like in “Heat,” which is ethnically nonspecific.
What was the toughest lesson you had to learn as an actor?
One of the things I learned early on was the system of believing, you have to believe in what you say. The camera is the arbiter of truth, it’s the all-seeing eye that can pick out discrepancies. You can’t lie to the camera, you must believe in what you’re saying, or the audience won’t believe you.
You served in the infantry in Vietnam. What did you take away from that experience?
The worst part was the return to the USA and how we were treated as veterans. One of the good things of the experience was I tested myself, and proved myself to myself. That was a constant in my life, that I continue to test myself as things pop up.
When did you finally realize you could make a living as an actor?
After “Geronimo,” I think. I was unsure until after that. I still had my application for a truck driving school. I more or less accepted the idea that if I don’t get the next job, I might get the job after that. I had made kind of a mark, and that might carry me on through.