Dr Jack Davy (UEA)
Research Associate, ‘Beyond the Spectacle’
The ‘Beyond the Spectacle’ project is not only interested in historic encounters between visiting Native Americans and the British public, but the experiences of contemporary Native travellers to this country. These engagements are very much ongoing, and over the last year the project has interviewed artists, students, academics and many other Native Americans from a variety of walks of life about their experiences in Britain.
One of the most significant and well-publicised recent appearances in Britain by a prominent Native performer took place in 2016, during the filming of the wildly successful Warner Bros. and DC Comics superhero movie Wonder Woman, set during the First World War.
The film featured a major Native American character named Napi, played by the Kainai actor Eugene Brave Rock, who has previously spoken movingly of his time in London and the reaction to his performance among Native audiences.
In late July, at London Film & Comic Con 2018, Beyond the Spectacle’s Jack Davy caught up with Eugene to discuss in more detail his experiences living and working in London.
J: I’m here at London Olympia on the 28th July 2018 with Eugene Brave Rock. Thank you very much for making the time to join us. Would you like to introduce yourself?
E: My name is Eugene Brave Rock, I’m from the Blood Tribe, which is part of the Blackfeet Confederacy. I am an actor and stuntman – my career started off doing stunts. I’ve lived in Paris, and I’ve lived here in London, shooting my last, current, film: Wonder Woman.
J: Thank you very much. Prior to your work on Wonder Woman, had you been to the UK before?
E: No, I hadn’t.
J: So that was your first experience?
E: Yes, my first experience.
J: I read that in Paris you had worked on the Buffalo Bill Wild West Show, is that correct?
E: Yes, at Disneyland.
J: How long were you in France for?
E: I was there for a year.
J: And how did you find that?
E: It was great, it was such a learning experience for me, being away from where I come from and being immersed in a different culture and a different language and a different way of life. Not only was I living in Paris, I was living at Disneyland! So that was a different world in itself.
J: When you first came to the UK, did you have any expectations about what it would be like based on your time in Paris, or was it completely new to you?
E: It was completely new to me. I mean first of all I could understand everybody. Or somewhat! You know, sometimes I have to tell the British people “could you slow that down? I didn’t understand!”
J: Did you have any preconceptions about what Britain would be like before coming here?
J: So what was it that first struck you, being based in London?
E: Just the infrastructure, the buildings you know, how old everything is. For me, one of the things that really stuck out for me when I got here was, you know I am a country boy from Canada and to living in Central London it was a culture shock and a people shock.
I mean I’ve never been surrounded by this many people, and the energy was the hardest part about filming Wonder Woman was living in Central London, because I wasn’t used to the millions of people surrounding me, the energies were, to be honest, draining.
J: Sure. And how did you cope with that? What were your escapes during your time in London?
E: I didn’t have any escapes. I had nowhere, I mean that’s what made it tough you know, but at the same time I think that my time here overseas has given me the opportunity to really learn a lot about myself as a person, and as a Blackfoot person, even as a spiritual thing, you know, being so far away from home all I had was my prayers, and you know what, they became a lot stronger being here, just because from being so far away from home.
J: And was that related to your work on the movie Wonder Woman? You’ve spoken quite powerfully about how you had real input in developing your character. Did that help with coping with that distance and the things you found difficult about London?
E: Yeah definitely, definitely. It was something, you know my way of being in my culture has really developed. Its given me, like I said, more of a sense of who I am and to know that that strength of my cultural beliefs has become stronger being here? Definitely.
J: Can we talk a little bit more about how you developed the character? Because you said that you objected to some things that were in the script and the director talked to you about how to change that.
E: The first thing that came up was being called “Chief”. You know I didn’t realise that that was my character’s name! So I’d actually gotten here to London and the director said that out of respect for me and my culture that she would give me that opportunity, you know, to not only not ever have to call myself Chief, but that she gave me the opportunity to speak my own language. And to come up with that name that I did, it was something that was very strong for me, because I wanted to honour and respect, you know, it being World War One, I researched some Native American veterans that fought in the war, and it was something that I really wanted to have respect for.
And I didn’t know; in researching Native American veterans I came up with Mike Mountain Horse, and the reason why I really gravitated towards his stories was because they were first hand stories. You know the other stories that I read were a non-indigenous person’s story of this Native American in Europe, but his was first-hand experience, and I really like that.
But the name that I did come up with was Napi. And you know Napi is not just a name. He’s a Blackfoot demi-god, he’s a storyteller; when I was a little kid those were the stories that I would listen to and you know in every story about Napi, and I heard hundreds of stories of Napi, in those stories, in every story there is a lesson. You learn a lesson by watching him do what you are not supposed to do.
It was nice to come up with that because you know when I go to an audition, or even just praying, I ask for Napi to walk in my shoes, to help me. You know, to help me portray the character that I’m trying to portray the best way I could. And so that’s where that character came from; I thought that if Wonder Woman’s character could be a Greek god, why couldn’t I be a Blackfoot demi-god? And so I’m very grateful to Warner Bros for giving me that opportunity to develop that character the way that I did.
J Absolutely. And how did it feel to inhabit that character, the one you developed?
E: Amazing! You know what? It’s such an honour. I thought that in doing this role I was walking a fine line. You know out of respect to my people and I didn’t want to portray that stereotypical Hollywood image. And again, you know, it’s a fine line and I think, you know? People ask me how I broke down the doors in Hollywood, and in all honesty I didn’t; Patty Jenkins the director was the one that gave me that power and that respect to do what I did.
You know I’ve done a lot of projects in the film business and most of the time its somebody else’s story and they don’t want to change that story, even if its not correct. It’s their view, and so I am very grateful for that opportunity.
J: Excellent, that’s wonderful. You talked about the connection, the research, you did with the historic soldiers who came over in World War One. Can you talk a little bit more about that research and how it felt to inhabit that role as well as the role of Napi?
E: You know I think that in researching, in doing the research that I did, it was very hard just based in history. You know my people were fighting beside the people that their grandfathers fought against. So I think that shows a lot of what they are as people, as human beings who are fighting for their country, our country. You know I think it was a time when . . . [pause]. You know, its nice to bring that hero figure into a positive light.
J: There’s another group of Native American forebears that you are walking in the footsteps of; in this very hall the original Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show appeared three times here.
J: Yes, in 1887, 1892 and 1903. Did you have any sense of or awareness of that history of Native Americans coming to Britain to perform before the British public in a similar way that you did?
E: I did. Not so much though but you know I was aware of it. From the history and the stories of Sitting Bull and being in the Buffalo Bill Wild West Show, and so I was aware of that, and I’d read some stories, you know even some tragic stories of how some of the Native Americans got lost, or they got sick and then got left behind.
[N.B. Although Sitting Bull travelled extensively with the Buffalo Bill Wild West Show in the 1880s, he did not accompany the tour to England. More than a hundred Sioux people were part of the tours however and a number did get lost, sick or left behind. Four died.]
J: And did you feel that you were part of that same trajectory?
E: Definitely. I think that I’ve taken a lot of footsteps that not a lot of my people have taken. And its been an honour to go back home and tell the stories, and to be honest and to show my people that anything is possible.
You know, when it comes down to it I’m just a local kid from the reservation. You know I can count, in that year alone I crossed the water over ten times. Back in the day that was a big deal for a Native American! They would be considered a veteran just for that fact alone back in the day, so it is a big honour and it is something that I really keep close. You know it’s like I said, I’m very thankful for the footsteps that I’ve taken definitely.
J: That’s wonderful. You’ve spoken before quite movingly about the effect that your appearance in Wonder Woman had on Native American audiences. I was wondering if you’d had any experience of British audiences and how they’d reacted to it?
E: You know a lot of people here, they’ve never met a Native American before and it’s a different feeling from being back home, being somewhere I come from. Because where I come from the racial ties are not very strong; you definitely get looked at a different way here as a Native American. There’s even instances where traffic stopped when they saw me walking with my cowboy hat on!
J: How did you find the British public reaction to you when you were working here? Was there curiosity?
E: Yeah! There was a lot of curiosity. Everybody wanted to know who I was and what I was doing. Definitely. That curiosity factor in the British people was huge.
J: Did you have any negative experiences with people?
E: Yeah. I remember somebody asking me who I was and I said I was a Native American and they honestly believed that we were all dead. They didn’t actually think that I was Native American! And I wasn’t going to argue with him. I just laughed and walked away, right?
J: Sure! You said in a previous interview that you felt like “the only Indian in London”. Did you find any connections that helped with that feeling of isolation, or was it just something you dealt with?
E: It was just something I dealt with and moved on. I’m a very worldly person now. Yeah.
J: Speaking of you being worldly now, you’ve come back to London to do Comic-Con. Do you view the city in a different light, experiencing it in a different way because you’ve been here so much before?
E: Yeah definitely. I mean its familiar now, and I still notice the glances and the looks, you know I’m not so aware of it any more now, I just move on and keep doing what I’m doing. But before I was wondering why everybody was looking at me!
J: Beyond the crowds, what would you say were the biggest differences for you. How did you find the food or the weather? Were there other challenges in your time in London?
E: Oh definitely, I felt that. I had to take a lot of Vitamin D. Even my pigment changed! I felt like I needed to go to a tanning bed. The weather was, you know, very different to where I come from. There’s a lot of rain here, and now when I go back home and it rains it does remind me of London!
J: You said when we met that you’d done a lot of conventions in North America. Is this one noticeably different? Is there an English flavour to it?
E: First of all I haven’t really been able to really take in the Con here because it’s so big, and I haven’t seen it. I’ve just been at my table meeting people, the guests here that want to come and meet me. I’ve haven’t been able to walk around and explore the Con as much as I’d like to. I hope I’ll be able to do that before I leave. So I haven’t really been able to make that comparison right now. But I think that there is a lot more people here just because its based here in London, you know there are so many people around.
J: When you were working in England before, or perhaps on this trip, have you had a chance to get away from London, did you see any of the countryside?
E: When I first came here with my wife we were able to explore, you know, we took in all the sights and a couple of our [filming] locations were out of London. One was near Brighton, which was really cool to see and to get out of London, it was really nice to see the countryside definitely.
To see the old buildings. We worked at a castle! Which was amazing. It was . . . I can’t remember the castle’s name off-hand, but it was right there near Brighton. Its just that I am in awe of how old things are. Its extreme. You know to be honest there are certain places here in London that just had a bad vibe, and I think that I felt bad energy from a part of history a long time ago, whether it be the black plague you know or some things that have happened here, you know, I could feel that energy. It was tough.
[N.B. The castle was Arundel Castle in West Sussex]
J: And when you felt that type of things what did you do? Did you give yourself a moment? Take yourself away? How did you engage with that?
E: You know I had to get away from the location where I was at, because I think that had a lot to do with it. You know when I was feeling these feelings you know it was, to be honest . . . it was . . . when I felt this feeling I was near the Catacombs you know, and it was at St Paul’s Cathedral, which was you know kind of ironic given that it was a church!
J: There are a couple of big museums in London which have historic Blackfoot material on display. Were you aware of those, did you visit?
E: No! I wasn’t aware!
J: The British Museum and the Horniman Museum both have Blackfoot material on display.
E: Oh Wow! No, I didn’t know that. The only place that I did go is the Portrait Museum.
J: On Trafalgar Square?
J: How was your experience of that?
E: That was amazing. To see the works of art and to see how old they are and again to see living history instead of looking at it in a book or on television, to have that experience I have so much gratitude.
J: I’m coming to the end of my questions, but I do want to ask you whether there is anything about your experience of living and working in London as Blackfoot person which you feel is really important that we haven’t discussed?
E: Maybe. What I think about sometimes is the relationship between our people and the Queen, based on history. Now in Canada we consider her a monarch and everything, but even that land where my people come from is still called Crown Land. You know, for me it’s a little bit . . . I don’t say its Crown Land. For me its Blackfoot Country. I just think about the history of it and how wrong it is.
J: Did you have any engagements with royalty during your time in London?
E: We had some scenes that were at Trafalgar Square, and so we had our wardrobe trailers on the Mall. And so I got to watch the Changing of the Guard from my trailer. I had quite an experience with the security there. I was up at about six in the morning on the Mall, in front of Buckingham Palace and I was reading over my lines and out of habit I was holding onto my guns, flipping it onto my finger and putting it back in the holster, taking it out again as I was reading my lines. Its just a habit. And it caused quite a lot of . . . attention, there on the Mall, right in front of Buckingham Palace!
J: That’s an amazing image and a good place to finish. Thank you very much, its been a huge pleasure talking to you and I really appreciate you giving us your time.
E: No problem. Thank you.
Transcript lightly edited for clarity. Eugene Brave Rock’s words have not been altered.