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Gladstone, DiCaprio and De Niro share about their Osage experience

The stars of ‘Killers of the Flower Moon’ sat down with Osage News and discussed learning the Osage language, attending Inlonshka and why the story of the Reign of Terror needs to be told

Martin Scorsese’s “Killers of the Flower Moon” made its world premiere at the Cannes Film Festival, to much fanfare and rave reviews. The week of the premiere was jam-packed full of receptions, dinners, and other engagements for the stars of the film.

On May 21, after a live-streamed press conference earlier that day, Lily Gladstone, who portrays Osage woman Mollie Burkhart in the film, Leonardo DiCaprio, who plays her dim-witted husband Ernest Burkhart, and Robert De Niro, who plays Burkhart’s scheming uncle William Hale, sat down with the Osage News at the Hôtel Barrière Le Majestic Cannes.

The film, based on David Grann’s best-selling book of the same name, goes into the lives of the Burkharts during the Reign of Terror in the 1920s. Murder, death and sorrow surrounds them as the plot unfolds.

The actors shared what it was like to tell such an important story, the relationships made with the community, learning the Osage language, and attending the Inlonshka dances.

Osage News: I did have a lot of questions prepared for you all before I came to Cannes, but after seeing the film and listening to the press conference, those have all flown out the window. I would like to instead just have a conversation and focus on the Osage community.

First and foremost, one of your Osage consultants, Johnny Williams passed away this winter. I don’t mean to upset you (Gladstone’s eyes began to water), but I was hoping you all could share what it was like with him on set? Osages are not only proud of this film that was made, but they are also proud of the relationships made too.

Gladstone: I’m just so sad I don’t get to see him. You know, it was just so nerve-wracking for me and Johnny was one of the first people that I met. His ability to tease so warmly, you don’t find many places. He just … that’s just how I felt. When I got the thumbs up from him, if he wasn’t teasing me I wasn’t doing a good job.

DiCaprio: I felt the exact same way, not only him but the entire Osage community and how they embraced us and trusted us with this story and were encouraging us and he was one of the main people there from the onset that brought us into the community, told us the stories and his sense of humor was fantastic, too. He was an amazing man and he embraced us with open arms, he really did.

Gladstone: The levity, he really grounded the ways we approached things but he also in making us laugh, you know, the film is serious but when you’re watching it, it has these moments. I feel like Johnny was this perfect introduction for us to have permission to just be ourselves, also. To take it serious but not like take it so serious we had no room to move.

Osage News: In speaking about the seriousness of this film, how is learning the Osage story and the Reign of Terror, then living this story so-to-speak on screen. How has that changed you?

De Niro: Well, it’s made me aware of something I wasn’t aware much of. The cliché, I don’t know if that’s the wrong word, but is historically when I would see the Native Americans who were the richest per capita at that time, that whole stuff, I didn’t know much more than that. Of course, I had no idea what happened at Black Wall Street and I never heard of what happened there, no one ever told me. So it just opened my eyes a lot to this whole thing. I’m grateful for all that. This is Leo and Marty’s, their project.

DiCaprio: It was fascinating for me in a lot of different ways. Not only the close relationship we developed with so many of the Osage people in really trying to tell this story from their perspective, but we were there 100 years later. One hundred years later, as Bob mentioned, a 100 years after Black Wall Street happened. A 30-minute car ride the Rorschach flip side of that coin, white people taking advantage of people who’ve become independently wealthy and they were like vermin at that time.

It was fascinating to be there 100 years to that day and also to speak to direct descendants who still are affected by this tragedy. It was bizarre to watch all the news cameras in Tulsa and then to be able to try to retell this story through the connection of these two characters. I talked about it like it was almost detective work, but we really tried to bring an identity to who these two people were (Mollie and Ernest Burkhart). And, you know I think there are different ways to look at their relationship, but ultimately there was a love story there between these two and that’s what we wanted to focus on. Otherwise, I don’t know that the film would have worked in this capacity.

So, we did a lot of work to really work on what Ernest and Mollie’s relationship was, what a twisted love story that it was, convoluted and complex. But, it was just fascinating to me that they stayed together through all this and you know, I’m just incredibly happy that we got to tell this story and everyone was involved in telling it and we tried our very best to be as truthful as we could. I’m just incredibly happy the Osage community embraced us the way they did.

Indigenous actress Lily Gladstone and director Martin Scorsese on the set of the upcoming Apple Original Film, “Killers of the Flower Moon.” Melinda Sue Gordon/Courtesy of Apple

Osage News: Lily, your role as an Osage woman whose family is murdered, how did learning this story then, and onscreen, change you?

Gladstone: You know, one of the little, just interesting, fateful, spirits working in ways to pull people together in all of this, I remember sitting in the Osage Nation Museum with Leo and we’re going over all of these documents. When we get to the part where … (turns to DiCaprio) you got the line about Rita’s earpins for women and Blackie, when he picked that up, and we were going through these documents together and then I got to the part where they were testifying.

They were only talking about Bill Smith, they didn’t say Rita, and I think you caught me because I stopped and it really bothered me (becomes emotional). And in this really fateful way, JaNae (Collins), who plays Rita is family, we’re cousins. I didn’t know that. So, I was offered this role on Mollie Burkhart’s birthday, Dec. 1, nobody planned that, it just happened that way. On Dec. 4, my dad texted me this quick little online bio and said you’re playing an Indian woman of status with wealth, we have someone in our family you should study.

He sent me a link to a quick little bio of Natawista, which means Medicine Snake Woman. She was married to a trapper/trader named Alexander Culbertson, an Irishman, and very, very wealthy. Property in Canada, property in the United States, high society. I want JaNae to be able to speak to it because Natawista is her great-great-great-great-grandmother. My dad told me about Natawista and I’ve heard of her in little ways here and there, but he really wanted me to learn about her when I was studying for Mollie.

I don’t feel like Natawista is the same person as Mollie, very different people but like he wanted me to have that guiding post anyway. That day he texted me that was the day JaNae and I had a call-back together. There was something about her onscreen that like, you don’t know it unless you’re feeling it, just something I understood about her in a way that I didn’t even know yet.

Natawista was my great-great-great-grandfather Stu Red Crow’s auntie. That goes back Blood Nation in Canada and JaNae’s family goes back Dakota/Lakota way and mine kept within the Blackfoot Confederacy. We both are northern Montana girls and history just kind of made this little triangle of our families and us.

When we came to Pawhuska together, we were sitting on my front porch and she said, “We’re relations.” And I said, “Really? How?” And she’s like, “Natawista’s my …” and I’m like, “JaNae!” (laughs) So, knowing that and knowing immediately that’s why one thing about JaNae really stood out to me in our call back. Beyond the fact that she took time to call the (Osage) Language Department and do her audition in Osage, nobody asked her to do that. (laughs) I love her. She’s one of those people you can’t take your eyes off on screen.

Osage News to Gladstone: The same could be said about you. (DiCaprio nods his head in agreement)

Gladstone: It runs in the family. (laughs)

Robert De Niro and Leonardo DiCaprio on the set of the upcoming Apple Original Film, “Killers of the Flower Moon.” Melinda Sue Gordon/Courtesy of Apple

Osage News: Why is this film necessary and important?

De Niro: My feeling is that when we saw it, it was a masterpiece with someone like Marty doing it. There’s no right or wrong in telling the story. He’s presenting this, I hate to use these types of words but that’s what it is, a masterpiece, a work of art and it’s very long. He has the right to make it that, tell the story in his way and people have to come to it. You don’t start cutting it because people don’t understand it or they get impatient, or this or that. This is the story, it’s the way it’s told and this is the way you have to look at it, like a work of art. It’s that simple. It just so happens that Marty did a wonderful, great job of this subject. With love, and heart and passion and empathy.

It’s no surprise that it’s gotten received as well as it has. It’s my impression of things at this point. So, no one could have done it better.

DiCaprio: You know, Marty was there for 10 months, in that house, thinking of this story. I remember this tender moment when we were talking and it was “Leo, I feel this story in my bones,” and I’ve never heard him say that. It was very interesting, he felt a deep passion to tell this story and of course, this is what he does so well – it’s obviously a microcosm for a much larger horrendous tapestry of what has been done to Indigenous people in our country. By focusing in on these characters and finding this truth, he was obsessed. Especially after meeting the Osage community and being embraced by them.

As great as David Grann’s book was, to hear their version of that history was incredibly important to him. And, you know for the both of us, again, it was just interesting to get into the minds of who these people were. I was shocked that Mollie would have stood by this horrendous human being for such a long time, long into the trial. We as actors did our best to try and interpret who these people were and we kept coming back to the same conclusion that, you know, even if Ernest was taking advantage of her, there was this connection there between them. I’m not going to say that was pretty unanimous? I’m not going to say unanimous because nothing is ever unanimous, but amongst the Osage people they agreed that yes, there was something there between these two people.

It was also amazing to just continue to do research on these two people and just see how Hale was cut out of photographs. There were these scarred photographs in the museum and to see how the community still continues to be affected by all this.

I think it’s an incredibly important story to tell. I’m just honored to have been able to tell it because so many people have read the book, but this is going to bring the story of the Reign of Terror and what happened to the Osage people to a whole new light. It was beautiful to be here in Cannes with all of them as well, and supporting us. It was an amazing experience, one that I will never forget.

Gladstone: I’m struggling to think of another film that had such a strong presence that was so real of Native women, Indigenous women. I love my sisters, the actresses who play my sisters, and the love that Mollie had for them because we spend enough time with them and see them as a family in the story that we feel the impact.

I just want to divert for a small second. My mom, I don’t want to give anything away actually, but when the tragedy of all this finally touches him, she said it was this really complex of good, he finally feels it. It finally got through, he finally felt it. We’ve been feeling this since contact. And I can’t think of another story up to this time that has helped an audience fall in love with a Native woman so that people will care about all of the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women that we are dealing with now that people don’t look for, except for search parties, families. People have to put it together on our own because who’s helping us? This is not history, this is modern, this is contemporary and having a chance to not just have this love story to talk about, how did this play out, like, I mean it serves as a really good analogy for just relations between the government and Native people period, between humanity and the planet.

When I was watching the film, making it is one thing, I kind of liken it to you stand up for your friends before you stand up for yourself. I was almost more affected watching Mollie than I was trying to be the actress navigating but finding it in the scenes but then seeing it as a whole … I fell in love with her too. We have so many stunning Native actresses that have held their place so strongly and beautifully on screen for a long time and I can’t think of another one where you see this love story that allows the audience in there too.

Mollie survived but three of the Kyle sisters did not. All of us know somebody, somebody in our family, somebody in our close circles, somebody we grew up with that we don’t know where they are.

Lily Gladstone as Mollie Burkhart in the upcoming film “Killers of the Flower Moon.” Osage News

Osage News: Since I have this time with you, the way that you wailed … I’ve heard Osage women wail, and I’ve seen trauma, I’ve seen our young women die. The way you wailed, it took me right back to that.

Gladstone: I’m sorry.

Osage News: No, it’s important because I think a majority of America doesn’t see that kind of pain. They don’t know that kind of pain and the way that you did that … I cried. Your performance was amazing. How did you prepare for that?

Gladstone: I didn’t. I didn’t know how that scene was going to go … until it did. That shot, I think it was the first one …

DiCaprio: I think we were talking about being in the basement, that was the location.

Gladstone: Right, we found that too with just the idea of what was going on, with Tulsa (Tulsa Race Massacre) happening then recently and like, taking refuge and Marty had talked about we were going to get a wide and then punch in, but then I think what is in the film is the first take. I think it was. Because that’s just what came out, there’s no need to punch in.

Osage News: You all went to the Inlonshka dances in Pawhuska during filming (summer of 2021). Did you get a chance to go to Grayhorse too? What was that experience like?

Gladstone: I went to both.

DiCaprio: I went to Pawhuska.

De Niro: I didn’t get a chance to go, but I wish I had. I had to go back to New York that weekend.

Osage News: Well, you’re always invited.

Leonardo DiCaprio (black jacket, black hat and face mask) makes a noticeable arrival in a black SUV that was backed up to the dance arbor at the Pawhuska Inlonshka dances in 2021. After he arrived he sat next to director Martin Scorsese on the Drumkeeper family’s benches. The Pawhuska Inlonshka tail dancers all shook DiCaprio and Scorsese’s hands. Osage News

DiCaprio: It was beautiful. You know, the ability to be quiet and respect the culture and see the tradition and how much thought and love and how much their story was in those dances was amazing. It was almost meditative. You have to sit there and experience it. Something you can’t really put into words.

Gladstone: That’s not an opportunity you get often, is it? (laughs)

DiCaprio: I don’t, I don’t often get to just sit and watch.

Osage News to Gladstone: I saw you dancing.

Gladstone: Yes, I got invited. Speedy invited me first, Cecelia Tallchief. She was the first to invite me. I got invited to dance at Grayhorse the first year we were out there. I was back at Grayhorse last year, on Saturday. (Gladstone was also at Grayhorse Inlonshka this year as she was in the area to film an episode of Rez Dogs)

Lily Gladstone (center), poses with women of the Hamilton Family Camp at the Pawhuska Inlonshka in 2021. Courtesy Photo/Ericka Iron

Osage News: Is there anything you would like to add?

De Niro: The kid I worked with on the Osage speech, he was a great teacher, Chris …

Osage News: Chris Cotê

De Niro: Yes, he was great. Tell him I said Hi.

Osage News: Your Osage language in the film was great, all of you.

Gladstone: Our gratitude to Janis Carpenter and Chris Cotê, I had the blessing of working with both of them, and Braxton Redeagle.

Osage News: Was it hard to learn?

De Niro: You know, I didn’t know what to expect, I had no idea. Language is so incredibly fascinating and different. I didn’t know what to expect and then Chris started teaching me and I had to learn it. It took a lot. A lot of practice to do it well, as well as I wanted to do it.

DiCaprio: You were doing some of those speeches in your sleep, I heard.

De Niro: Yeah (everyone laughs)

DiCaprio: That’s the rumor, right before bed he would practice. (everyone laughs)

De Niro: No, it’s a totally different thing. Alien to me, and the logic, so I have to learn that, even though it’s phonetic. I have to learn that and then it makes sense to me, certain parts, translation. No, it wasn’t easy. And the only way you do it is you have to work, very, very hard to make it happen.

It was important for my character to have that skill and ability and be part of it. That’s the complexity of Hale, he had that ability too. That was very important, to do it well. Again, that’s this crazy thing, why he would betray people in such a way. Where is that sense of, “I shouldn’t do this.” With all the love that I show them, why all of a sudden am I betraying them? It makes no sense.

DiCaprio: As he said, the banality of evil. The master manipulator.

Author

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Shannon Shaw Duty
Shannon Shaw Dutyhttps://osagenews.org

Title: Editor

Email: sshaw@osagenation-nsn.gov

Twitter: @dutyshaw

Topic Expertise: Columnist, Culture, Community

Languages spoken: English, Osage (intermediate), Spanish (beginner)

Shannon Shaw Duty, Osage from the Grayhorse District, is the editor of the award-winning Osage News, the official independent media of the Osage Nation. She is a graduate of the University of Oklahoma with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism and a master’s degree in Legal Studies with an emphasis in Indigenous Peoples Law. She currently sits on the Freedom of Information Committee for the Society of Professional Journalists. She has served as a board member for LION Publishers, as Vice President for the Pawhuska Public Schools Board of Education, on the Board of Directors for the Native American Journalists Association (now Indigenous Journalists Association) and served as a board member and Chairwoman for the Pawhuska Johnson O’Malley Parent Committee. She is a Chips Quinn Scholar, a former instructor for the Freedom Forum’s Native American Journalism Career Conference and the Freedom Forum’s American Indian Journalism Institute. She is a former reporter for The Santa Fe New Mexican. She is a 2012 recipient of the Native American 40 Under 40 from the National Center for American Indian Enterprise Development. In 2014 she helped lead the Osage News to receive NAJA's Elias Boudinot Free Press Award. The Osage News won Best Newspaper from the SPJ-Oklahoma Chapter in their division 2018-2022. Her award-winning work has been published in Indian Country Today, The Washington Post, the Center for Public Integrity, NPR, the Associated Press, Tulsa World and others. She currently resides in Pawhuska, Okla., with her husband and together they share six children, two dogs and two cats.
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