Lily Gladstone
Photo by Unique Nicole

Lily Gladstone: “You are constantly a role model”

Short Profile

Name: Lily Gladstone
DOB: 2 August 1986
Place of birth: Kalispell, Montana, United States
Occupation: Actor

Ms. Gladstone, is it true you were close to giving up acting when you got the offer for your role in Martin Scorsese’s Killers of the Flower Moon?

“Give up” is a big word! It’s more that I was giving up on the idea of basing myself in New York or LA, trying to seek out meetings. I just wanted to take a really long pause and do the things that mattered to me: at the time, I was helping take care of my immunocompromised father and my aging grandmother who has since passed away. I was just terrified of bringing Covid home. I thought about doing a little bit of Department of Agriculture data collection to fight the giant murder hornets as they were crassly called. I have a profound love of bees. So I was like, “Oh, a nice isolated job that keeps me outdoors that I can come and go from…”

It’s a far cry from the Hollywood film industry, that’s for sure.

Well, I was also waiting on a number of incredible independent filmmakers — I wondered if maybe Kelly Reichardt would call again. I knew that Erica Tremblay had been writing Fancy Dance for me, for example. I was waiting to see if Erica’s script would be greenlit. But it’s hard for a Native writer, director, queer woman to finance her films! So, you know, acting is a very difficult profession, and I guess I was just getting very real with myself about potentially doing other things, or choosing something that would be seasonal work.

“You are constantly a role model for the generation to step right behind you. I’ve always operated in this space of: ‘There’s somebody watching what I’m doing.’”

And then you got the call from Scorsese…

Marty is just one of the sweetest, funniest people to be around. I mean, meeting an icon is one thing, but meeting a really good human being is another thing. And he’s just got such a way about him. Some of our first banter was when he was mentioning Greenwich Village, he was sort of dancing around the fact that he's so intimately connected with the world of Robbie Robertson and Bob Dylan and the whole Greenwich Village music scene. I said, “Oh, I think somebody made a documentary about that, didn't they?” Of course, teasing him about it because the bands just are a whole part of Marty's life. That connection is one of the first things I ever learned about him because my dad would play a Robbie Robertson album when I was a kid constantly.

Was your dad a film buff?

I think my dad knew that I had this performance streak, so he would often put on movies and he says I really studied them hard. And he encouraged that! Some of them were for kids, some of them were a little bit more complex: The Brother from Another Planet was one that was on repeat… The Adventures of Banzai Buckaroo Across the 8th Dimension was on repeat. And then later in middle school, Kundun was my introduction to Martin Scorsese. So it gave me great faith that Killers of the Flower Moon was going to be something very epic.

And of course you were right; the film has been nominated for 10 Oscars, including Best Picture and your own Best Actress nomination. You’ve become such a role model for young Indigenous actors.

Given the community that I come from and the structure of what's expected of you at every stage of your life, you are constantly a role model for the generation to step right behind you. I've always operated in this space of: “There's somebody watching what I'm doing.” You conduct yourself a certain way when you know your younger cousins are watching what you're doing! So any pressure does feel immense when we’re talking about a film like Killers of the Flower Moon. But that’s the gift of being part of a greater community, not just my family, not just my tribal nations, but all of it, everyone. We love seeing our own succeed. It doesn't feel like it's all for me, or all about me. It’s about all the kids that I've gotten to do some theater coaching with. This also felt like it was something I was sharing with them, you know?

Were you able to work with members of your extended community, people from the Osage Nation, to prepare for your monumental role as Mollie Burkhart?

Absolutely! Before I got cast in the film, I had a couple of friends from Osage Country, from two different districts. One of them had a connection with Wilson Pipestem, who is an Osage headright holder whose grandmother Rose Pipestem was from the same area as Mollie Burkhart. We were able to have some early conversations, you know, sharing stories about his grandmother. For example, there’s an iconic photo that was the only one in circulation for a while, of Mollie sitting at the dinner table with Ernest. It’s a big thing to wear a blanket at the dinner table — that's culturally out of context, it looks odd — but taking that moment to to sit in reverence of the thunderstorm that's passing over, the quiet observation and essentially prayer in that moment, that came directly from Wilson's stories about his grandmother, Rose. So, those were some of the little things I started immediately the day that I got cast.

“The basis of life is water. This is a great pressure, but if I allow myself to be a dam, although I feel the pressure of this water behind me, it’s about letting it pass through.”

What other kind of research did you do?

Oh, right away I started research in terms of the language: I downloaded the Osage language app and started to work on the orthography, so I would be able to at least write in the phonetic alphabet for the Osage language. And that was tremendously helpful by the time I got into class to learn Osage language. But mostly it was about connecting with community and making sure that if I was going to steer in the direction of Grandma Lily, because that was what was most precious and accessible to me, that I was going in the right direction.

What do you mean?

Well, I knew that I had to carry Mollie the way would expect somebody to carry my great-grandmother, Lily. She was born in 1896. Mollie was born in 1886. I was born in 1986, so it was kind of this nice little trifecta. Lily was a traditional woman and also a very devoutly Catholic woman. I was raised having been her namesake, the only girl in my very big extended family, the descendants of Lily Wagner Gladstone. I was raised to carry her name, so when I thought about that and about playing Mollie Burkhart, I knew I would be carrying her with the preciousness I would expect somebody to carry Lily with. That was paramount to me.

Partly because Mollie’s descendants would be watching the film, right?

Yes, I knew that many families, whether or not they were descendants of Mollie, would be looking to her as if she was their own great grandmother, their own grandmother, their own mother.

That seems like an incredible amount of pressure for you as an actor.

Something I’ve been thinking about is that, really, at the basis of life is water. So you could feel like, “This is a great pressure, but if I allow myself to be a dam, although I feel the pressure of all of this water behind me, it's about just letting it pass through and continue and connect through community.” That's what it's really for. So I keep that in mind. It’s kind of an abstract, intangible and tangible thing that I make sure keeps passing through me and doesn't stop me.