Sitting down with actors Jesse Plemons, Tatanka Means and William Belleau, it’s clear there is a bond between the three men.
They shared a unique experience when they filmed “Killers of the Flower Moon” on the Osage Reservation in 2021.
The film, based on David Grann’s best-selling book of the same name and directed by Martin Scorsese, goes into the true story of the systematic killings of the Osage people in the 1920s. After oil is discovered on their land, the Osage become the richest people per capita in the world. The film focuses on the marriage between Molly Kyle Burkhart, an Osage woman played by Lily Gladstone, and Ernest Burkhart, her dimwitted husband portrayed by Leonardo DiCaprio. Murder, death, and sorrow ensue as the film unfolds.
Plemons portrays Tom White, a former Texas Ranger assigned by J. Edgar Hoover to investigate the murders on the reservation. Means portrays federal agent John Wren, who was part Ute, the only Native American federal agent at that time. Belleau portrays Henry Roan, an Osage man who was deceived and killed by Ernest’s uncle, William Hale, played by Robert De Niro.
During filming, Plemons, Means and Belleau immersed themselves within the Osage community, attending the Osage Inlonshka ceremonial dances, dinners and events. Means is of the Navajo, Oglala Lakota and Umoⁿhoⁿ (Omaha) Nations and Belleau was born in Williams Lake, British Columbia on Alkali Lake, a small reservation also known to First Nations Secwepemc as “Esketemc.”
On May 21, the day after “Killers of the Flower Moon” made its world premiere at the Cannes Film Festival to a 9-minute standing ovation, the Osage News interviewed the three men at the Hôtel Barrière Le Majestic Cannes about the preparation for their roles.
They shared what it was like to get to know the Osage people, the honor of being in the film, Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (MMIW), the importance of men’s mental health, and the responsibility of telling the world the real history of Indian Country.
Osage News: How did you prepare for your roles?
Jesse Plemons: Well, that was my first time seeing the film, last night.
Tatanka Means: Me too.
William Belleau: Me too.
Plemons: I would say for a Scorsese movie, one of the added, one of the many benefits is they have such an incredible research team. Long before I showed up, I was sent this binder full of everything I could ever want to know about Tom White. Not to mention the book is so well written and goes into pretty good detail about his life and upbringing.
It’s kind of like everything else, you take in as much information, learn as much as you can, wind your way in, what you connect to, how you understand them and hope for the best.
News: What about for John Wren?
Means: Yeah, just like Jesse said, there was a good amount of research provided for us. Not a lot on John Wren though, it was very minimal because they said he never wrote reports. It was all orally reported, and he would write notes on tiny little napkins and stuff and that was his report, and he would turn that in, take mental notes, but he never turned in a written report. So, I had to take what I could from the book and from what they gave me and just try my best to put something together.
But once we got on set, it felt like it just really started to … you know, everyone just really started developing themselves and moving into their characters and after a few days you felt very comfortable. Just working alongside Jesse, he’s really supporting and made you very comfortable. That was a little … not tough for me, but there wasn’t, like … he had a binder and there’s books written about Tom White. Henry Roan, his family’s there, his descendants. Yeah, so, I worked with what I could and was very pleased with everything.
News: What was it like preparing for Henry Roan?
Belleau: Daunting. You could say daunting. Terrifying, intimidating. But I felt an innate responsibility to offer my soul and my heart to this character. For the families, so I could offer no less than my best that I could with all the tools and everything that I’ve honed up to this point.
We’re put to the test and also trusted by Marty. The days with Marty, his trust for … I remember I got a note, this was one of my first notes. Marty comes out of video village, thumbs up, doesn’t say a word, goes back in. You guys probably got one of those too. (Plemons and Means smile) He has this trust, I felt like a musician, and I was just able to play, I just felt relaxed.
And I talked with the family. Before I flew over, I was daunted, and I talked with the family, and they helped me assuage my nerves. It’s like they signed off and stamped on my approach. It’s funny to call him a character, he’s something more than that, something deeper than that, so I wanted to envelop this person and honor the family the best I could.
Then I watched the film and saw myself on screen and then the movie ended, and the lights turned on. I felt like I was going to wake up, but the applause wouldn’t stop. I was talking to Jesse about this, I felt like a team, that we won a championship together, I was part of a squad. I was part of a good team; we all did our parts in this film. And I love these guys.
It was cool doing my part and then seeing their part and I’m proud of you two (addressing Means and Plemons), all the effort that everyone put in, every scene and yeah, as daunting as it was, by the end of it when I got out, all those nerves were gone. I felt humility and pride waft over, I felt … my dad says when there’s no words, you’re entering the realm of the spiritual. I didn’t have any words and that’s the best way I could describe that.
News: You guys spent a lot of time around the Osage community. What was that experience like, being around the Osage Nation while you were working?
Plemons: I think that is why the movie is what it is. I was just blown away by the spirit and resilience and overwhelming hospitality and pride and all that, you know, I knew coming into this we’re talking about the weight of the responsibility but then being there, meeting your brother (Bates Shaw), then meeting you, you know, we just felt so taken in, so honored to be a part of finally telling this story.
Means: To me, it was like … community. It was like being home for me. It was family, a lot of the people in the community I know from growing up, from doing the work that I do. It was a lot of the cast had been on Chickasaw Rancher (Montford: The Chickasaw Rancher), a lot of the background, so we knew a lot of people and it was good to see everybody again.
It was a lot of Aye’in around, lot of laughs (everyone laughs) between takes. We were laughing, just having a good time. It was mind blowing to think that we were in the middle of Pawhuska on this huge, huge project with this legendary director. And everybody on the cast, and there’s your friends and family right there and you see them in the movie, and it takes a minute to adjust because you start seeing everybody like “I know that guy.” (everyone laughs)
Belleau: I was sitting right beside Tatanka and I was like … (acts like he’s pointing to the screen and everyone laughs)
*Joking and laughing ensue but everyone quiets down*
Means: It was all love. When I was there, I got invited out to eat, got a dinner put on for me, my relatives, the Umoⁿhoⁿ people, because I’m Umoⁿhoⁿ and we had ties there and they wanted to celebrate and eat together. The Stablers, we got together and ate, got invited to ceremony, go sweat and went to a Sundance during that time. It was just being at home and made it all that much better. We could have shot this anywhere in the world, but we couldn’t have. It had to be shot there and it shows in the film.
News: You speak a lot of Osage language in the film, what was that like, learning the Osage language?
Belleau: Again, it was daunting, but I had a good support around with the coaches I had. They were there on the day when we were filming, and I remember myself and Bob (De Niro) were sharing an interaction in the Osage language, and I was confused when I was supposed to reply to Bob within the language. So, I got the interpreter and was like “When do I respond?” and I listened to Bob and responded and we wanted to keep it a little more conversational, a little more from the heart. I think when you speak another language from the heart, I feel like there’s no right and wrong. I’m allowing myself to experience this, this communication.
News: Was it hard? Was it hard to learn the language?
Belleau: Yes. I’m not going to say it was easy, at all. None of it was easy. And to be in the mindset of … to really settle into the reality that I’m in a Scorsese movie … that’s a daunting task in itself.
Before I even got there I knew, we were in a Scorsese film with DiCaprio and De Niro, who haven’t worked together in 30 years and I’m going to be in the room, on the roster. I was telling Jesse I felt like a player, the sixth guy, but you know doing my best to contribute to the team. That’s all I could do is my best.
I feel that making a decision out of fear isn’t healthy. So, what I did was allow myself to feel the fear, I’m scared. I’m scared of this role. I’m scared of tomorrow. My dad calls it “letting fear have its dance.” It naturally just passes. Instead of trying to ignore the fear, and it pops out while we’re filming. So, I acknowledged that I was scared, instead of ignoring it. Then what happened is it dissipated, and I was able to relax and then my character was able to relax in his vulnerability and feel. I felt like I was able to convey that a little. I was compassionate toward this man.
News: This film has a lot of very strong elements; murder, fear, all of it. So, with this big story being told about what happened to the Osage people and the history of it all and telling the world of all this injustice, why was it important for you to be part of this project and tell this story?
Plemons: No offense but if you don’t know that then … I’ve never been a part of something that felt so urgent and so necessary. I’ve been thinking a lot about us as a country and we’re in this place where words … there’s a reason to be outraged by words. They can create a lot of harm and all that, but I think getting hung up on what people say rather than being honest about our history, about the very foundation of this country, there’s a lot of people who don’t want to deal with it, they don’t want to think about it.
They’d rather just point at someone and say, “No, they’re bad,” you know? And, instead of having a real conversation about it, there’s no growth, there’s no healing in this country if stories like this remain untold.
I just feel incredibly honored to have been a part of it and I think going back to what Bob (De Niro) said, the book was unbelievable, so well written, but sometimes it is the human element, complexities that reach people in a different way. I think that’s what I was so blown away by, is how complicated this relationship is between Ernest and Mollie. That last scene is just him being unable to admit that this piece of what he did, and you see it all on his face and you see it all on her face. It just feels like the most important thing I’ve been a part of.
Means: I would say because it’s American history, it’s our history, it’s Osage history, it’s Indian Country’s history and we tend to bury that on purpose, it’s not by accident. It’s because of America’s ugly conscience and it’s by design. People need to know about this. Osage people know about this, the Wahzhazhe. But, what about the rest of America? This needs to be included in American history books, for students to learn and know about. You know, so much of Indian Country’s past has been buried or tried to be erased and it’s the gritty part of our country, it’s the foundation of this country is genocide. It’s still happening in a way today, the murders of the sisters is still happening today with MMIW (Missing Murdered Indigenous Women).
That’s why it’s important, that’s why this story needed to be told and just the way that Marty told this story. De Niro said it’s his way of showing it to the world. We have our oral history but there’s the book also. This is giving a visual for the people and that’s how the world learns about us, through cinema. That’s how they’ve always learned about us, Indian Country, is through cinema. From the early wild west shows that came to Europe early on, and then through the early John Wayne westerns and everything like that. That horrible portrayal of us through those and that’s how the world learns about us. Now they’re going to be learning about this part of history in such a truthful way – that’s backed by the Osage Nation, that’s supported and had their involvement in it.
Belleau: Going off what Tatanka said, playing Henry Roan, I asked family members what has he lost up to this point? And they said he’s lost [many] family members, in a very short span. And I put myself in there and I encountered a person who had insane grief and a tremendous amount of trauma, with no mental health initiatives at that time. All they did was hand a bottle to him. As simply as I can put that. Then they just labeled him, “Oh, you’re melancholy.” There was no support for this man.
I felt honored to even portray him and I would encourage today’s man to talk. I got to set one day and I wasn’t having a good morning. I sat down in the hair and makeup chair and the team goes, “Hey, how are you?” And I said, “To be honest, I’m not doing well.” They asked me if I was okay and I said, “They just found 215 kids.”
[Editor’s Note: In May 2021, unmarked graves containing the remains of 215 children were found in Canada at a former residential school set up to assimilate Indigenous people. The children were students at the Kamloops Indian Residential School in British Columbia that closed in 1978. The discovery was announced by the chief of the Tk’emlups te Secwepemc First Nation.]
And I have to go to set, go block. So I got it out, I talked about it, and they just listened. Then I was on camera, and I was blocking. So, it was very real to show that raw part of my soul and bring it.
In 2021, my province in British Columbia was on fire. There was evacuations, my mom was sleeping on a cot. I had this impulse to get on a crew and go fight and my brothers were fighting fire at the same time, so I had all of this going on but the difference to today is – men need to talk about it more.
So that’s my message to today’s man, it’s okay to feel grief and talk about it. So, that’s my message, I felt is important today. Not just Native men, but today’s man. When you’re not doing okay just say it. There are people that are there to listen and I was heard, I felt heard. And I just told them, I’m not doing well, and they listened. And Thank You for listening to me and Thank You brothers (Plemons and Means) for listening to what I felt was important because Henry didn’t have that. That’s all I’m going to say about that.
News: Is there anything you would like to add? Your experience on the film, on the set?
Plemons: I’m still reeling from everything you guys have said and I just feel so fortunate to have been welcomed in and to be a part of the telling of this.
Means: I feel like something new is happening here, for the future of Indian people in cinema. I feel like what Scorsese did is he laid down a new foundation, a new template for filmmaking in Indian Country and if you’re smart, you’ll follow it. Because what he did is he went into the community, he met with the community. He really took it in, it wasn’t just a formality. Things really changed because they spoke and he heard, took it in and implemented it into the script.
That’s what I saw last night. I was watching the interviews today and that’s what came to me. I hope people take this in, I hope other filmmakers make note of this. He went to the community and that’s something new, something different really. You know, people, they make films about us in other countries because it’s cheaper to do. They almost shot this in New Mexico because of the tax incentives. But they wanted authenticity, and it shows.
Directed by Scorsese and written for the screen by Eric Roth and Scorsese. The film stars Leonardo DiCaprio, Robert De Niro, Lily Gladstone, Jesse Plemons, Tatanka Means, William Belleau, Cara Jade Myers, JaNae Collins, Jillian Dion and Tantoo Cardinal.
Hailing from Apple Studios, “Killers of the Flower Moon” was produced alongside Imperative Entertainment, Sikelia Productions and Appian Way. Producers are Scorsese, Dan Friedkin, Bradley Thomas and Daniel Lupi, with DiCaprio, Rick Yorn, Adam Somner, Marianne Bower, Lisa Frechette, John Atwood, Shea Kammer and Niels Juul serving as executive producers.
The interviews and photography in this story predated the Sag-Aftra strike.