'Woman Walks Ahead': Jessica Chastain, Michael Greyeyes, director Susanna White on their portrait of old West

Before every public screening at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, the presenter took a moment to honor the native tribes that once solely inhabited what’s now Canada. Those words had extra resonance before the world premiere of Woman Walks Ahead, a drama set in the 19th century American West, when Native American tribes were frequently subjected to the violent prejudices of new white settlers, as well as U.S. soldiers. Directed by Susanna White, the film stars Jessica Chastain as portraiture artist Catherine Weldon, who traveled to Lakota territory in North Dakota with the intention of capturing the likeness of renowned holy man, Sitting Bull (Michael Greyeyes).

Woman Walks Ahead depicts a history that America, like Canada, still wrestles with today. And while TIFF’s nod to Canada’s indigenous people before every screening might sound like a small gesture of reconciliation, Greyeyes — a Canadian and member of the Muskeg Lake Cree Nation —emphasizes that it’s a meaningful one. “It’s becoming a more common practice in Canada,” he told Yahoo Entertainment in Toronto. “It happens at shows and in public gatherings. Wherever the indigenous people have voice, land acknowledgements are actually quite common. It’s glaringly absent in the U.S. When they become more common, maybe I’ll move back!” We spoke with Chastain, Greyeyes, and White in Toronto about Woman Walks Ahead‘s treatment of the past, and the film’s resonance for today.

Woman Walks Ahead is about a portraiture artist. Like portraiture, a film isn’t direct replication — it’s an impression of a person or a period. How did you approach history as portraiture in the film, knowing you can’t re-create exactly what happened?

Jessica Chastain: It’s not a documentary, so for dramatic purposes we adjusted timelines and created a story that’s inspired by true events. The film would have lasted many, many years otherwise.

Michael Greyeyes: Some of these changes are significant and reflect, I think, the philosophy behind the production. Sitting Bull, for example, did not speak English very well. That’s the historical truth. He understood it, but he didn’t like to speak it. We would not have a movie if that was our choice, and I have to applaud Susanna because I often find that as an actor in the industry, I’m an advocate for expanding what a native role might be, and what a native character might be able to do or articulate. I remember we had this conversation about a line about doing some shopping; I said, “I think shopping is an anachronistic word.” And Susanna said something to me that stopped me in my tracks: “I think he knows the word because his sophistication is better than anyone else in the scene.” In the end, their placement of the character inside the narrative is a landmark. It’s a really important statement to make.

Susanna White: There’s another interesting choice concerning Catherine. In real life, she was very politicized before she even went to the frontier. By having her start out as naïve [in our narrative] and become increasingly politicized, she becomes our eyes and ears into discovering the world. We can see her grow.

We always think of people from the past as having fundamentally the same emotions and goals. But when you look at the way people treated each other back then, it feels so foreign in some ways — or you want to believe it is, at least. How do you, as performers, understand individuals who existed in such a different era?

White: I’m a great believer that people had the same DNA. It’s just an accident the time you’re born into, so there are things that will affect you. Like if you’re a woman, having to wear a corset or not having a vote — that is going to affect you. But you’re still going to be a layered human being with the same emotions. And that was super-important to me, that you connect to every single character in this story as a fully rounded human being.

Greyeyes: On a thematic level I’d also like to say that, in light of recent events, I feel our film is topical. Like everybody, I was watching Charlottesville and some of the commentary did surprise me. I’m shocked that there’s this level of anger, vitriol, and racism still present in our society. So when we have those kinds of oppressions that means that narrative is missing from media. My lived experience tells me if it’s missing from the media, then people go, “I thought it was gone.” When I look at movies like this, and when I look at the violence enacted on Jessica’s character, I think to myself, “Well, nothing has changed.” We still have it. We hide it better, and we couch it in micro-aggressions, but it’s still there. It’s hard to change people. We’re changing slowly, but that’s why I think the film is essential.

Certainly one of the issues with films about Native Americans is that they have often been told from a white perspective, like Dances With Wolves. In the case of Woman Walks Ahead, you tell a story that unites two people who, at the time, were being oppressed by the government. Both Catherine and Sitting Bull are given equal weight that way.

Chastain: Oh my god, thank you so much for saying that. That was the big reason I wanted to make this movie. It’s really important for me to help people understand what the world was like for women in 1880. There’s a lot of talk about a woman’s place in society right now, but in the 1880s, women were property of their fathers and of their husbands. They could be committed to asylums, they were made to obey the men in their lives. So the idea that this woman finally being alone, and making a choice to go to North Dakota to meet Sitting Bull is so courageous and almost naive as to how dangerous that was, to not listen to the white men around her trying to send her back to New York. I think it’s easy to not recognize what the world was like for women at that time.

Greyeyes: [The dual perspectives] are embedded in the script and the storytelling. There’s a scene in the film that I call the Commission Speech where Sitting Bull finds his power. In the script, Catherine is sitting next to him. On the day, Jessica came over to me and said, “She should not be there. We need to talk to Susanna.” What she and Susanna understood as allies is that this is a moment where Sitting Bull is speaking Lakota to his Lakota community, and to falsely insert another narrative inside that moment is false. It’s brave to say, “I don’t want that screen time.” Jessica put herself further away from the moment, and that needs to be acknowledged. I didn’t need to fight [for my perspective], because they were there beside me.

I appreciate the way that clothing functions in the film as a means of character expression. For example, Sitting Bull starts the film in English garb, before steadily losing those layers and ultimately donning his traditional native headdress by the end of the film.
White: We have a wonderful costume designer, Stephanie Collie, and one of the things she and I really wanted to show was how fabulous the textile design was in that Lakota tradition. We used a lot of archival photos, and what we discovered was the way people mixed Western clothes with native dress. It was a big political point that people were banned from wearing buckskins, and when Sitting Bull says that he was told to burn his buckskins that’s literally the truth. It was illegal to wear native clothes, practice spiritual ceremonies, to carry out any kind of tradition that wasn’t a white Christian one. And so as we track Sitting Bull’s emotional arc, we track that arc through the costume, from him doing what is required of him via the soldiers at Fort Yates into going back into pride and strength in his traditions.

Greyeyes: I sat with Stephanie for over two days talking each scene and the progression. We charted it exactly and I walked away struck because I’d never been asked to do that. I had more costumes for Sitting Bull than for any character I’ve ever played. Again, that was not an argument I had to have. Stephanie was there beside me with the production support saying, “How do we expand the notion of a native character on screen?”

Chastain: Catherine’s clothes can’t help but inform my performance. Wearing a corset in New Mexico in the summer! Watching the movie yesterday, it’s so ridiculous seeing her in her little shoes, corset, hat, and parasol. That slowly gets stripped away throughout the film. I love the moment when she changes her shoes for moccasins, because in a moccasin you feel the earth. I also love the scene where Catherine and Sitting Bull are disrobing after the rainstorm. There’s this idea of him looking at her, thinking “What is this weird corset thing that she’s wearing?” It’s so interesting how much of the story is told without explaining it. A lot of that is in the eyes.

Susanna, walk us through a typical scene in terms of how you would direct Jessica and Michael. Would you show them the frame ahead of time, or would it be more of a “The camera’s on, time to perform” approach?
White: We didn’t rehearse before we started shooting, and we shot the film in 31 days, so there was not a lot of time to explore variations. I would have a general idea of the blocking and we’d try it. The big thing for me is emotional truth. Does it feel real? Do I believe it? Does it feel real for the actors? That was my primary thing, and then I had a bigger idea about the look of the film and this sense of the spirituality of the land. The land becomes a character of its own in the film, and they’re travelers through it. I wanted this sense of stillness in the way I framed the film; there’s a tranquility and a sense that the skies and the land that’s like a painting.

Jessica, you’ve avoided making franchise movies for a while in favor of films like The Zookeeper’s Wife and Molly’s Game. But you’re now entering a comic book movie universe with X-Men: Dark Phoenix. What about that particular movie made you finally want to suit up, as it were?
Chastain: For me, it was more that I didn’t want to be the girlfriend or the daughter cheering other people on. If you’re going to do a comic book film, you’ve gotta do something fun and cool and weird. Also, the director, Simon Kinberg, produced The Martian and he’s a friend of mine. I’m also friends with James McAvoy. I can’t really talk much about the character, but it seemed like a really fun place to be. I’ve got to make sure that I don’t only play characters that are going through an emotional experience. I need to do something fun every once in awhile! [Laughs]

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