By JAKE COYLE
Associated Press Film Writer
NEW YORK (AP) – Lily Gladstone is named after her great-grandmother.
The elder Lily bore many similarities to Gladstone’s character in Martin Scorsese’s “Killers of the Flower Moon,” Mollie Burkhart. Both women, born 10 years apart in the late 19th century, were traditional in nature, well-loved by their Native communities and devout Catholics.
Growing up between Seattle and the Blackfeet Reservation in Montana, Gladstone was familiar with the stories of older generations of Native women – of their encounters with a fast-modernizing America and the brutal attempts to extract resources from tribal lands.
The Osage murders of the early 20th century, a reign of terror in which the Osage were targeted for the headrights to their oil-rich land, took place many miles away, in Oklahoma. But as a tragedy about the sinister exploitation of Native people, “Killers of the Flower Moon” told a tale Gladstone knew intimately.
“I carry my family’s legacy. And I’m expected to carry my family legacy, in a way,” Gladstone said in a recent interview. She added, “Even though I’m not Osage, it did very much feel like it was in my blood.”
Gladstone is the anguished heart and compassionate conscience of “Killers of the Flower Moon.” She embodies not just Mollie but generations of Native joy, grace and pain.
It’s a performance that’s thrust the 37-year-old Gladstone, who first made an impression in Kelly Reichardt’s 2016 indie “Certain Women,” onto a much larger stage. The Associated Press names her one of its Breakthrough Entertainers of 2023 for an indelible performance that deftly digs into one of American history’s darkest chapters.
It’s just one of many accolades already bestowed on Gladstone, who was nominated for a Golden Globe on Monday. She’s poised to make history, herself. If Gladstone were to win best actress at the Academy Awards, she would be the first Native American to ever win a competitive Oscar.
Has Gladstone pondered what such a momentous moment would mean? She lowers her head and smiles.
“It is, of course, something I have to think about, insofar as I would just really love to speak some of my language – and teach myself a little bit more of my language – to have and to hold in that moment,” Gladstone says. “It would be an incredible moment in my life, but it would mean so much more than just me.”
Gladstone, whose father is Blackfeet and Nez Perce, grew up with few Native role models on screen. She counts Val Kilmer’s Madmartigan in “Willow” as a character that felt almost like Indigenous representation. “The long hair,” she says, grinning. “The sense of humor.”
Gladstone initially aspired to be a dancer. Her first hero was Maria Tallchief, America’s first major prima ballerina. Tallchief was Osage and, like Mollie, grew up in Fairfax, Oklahoma. Gladstone’s blankets in “Killers of the Flower Moon” came from the Tallchief family – a physical symbol of the generations of women layered into her performance.
David Grann’s novel “Killers of the Flower Moon,” from which the film is adapted, closely follows Thomas Bruce White Sr., the federal investigator who solved the Osage murders. Initially, the film was centered on White, too, with Leonardo DiCaprio planned for that role.
“If people are interested in that, it’s widely documented. You can read the book,” Gladstone says of the investigation. “And that was essentially what the first meeting was with Marty and Leo after the script revisions had happened – talking about how this love story could serve as an access point.”
Scorsese and DiCaprio decided to rework the script away from a white savior narrative, centering the film on Ernest Burkhart (DiCaprio), a white man in the crime ring of his uncle William King Hale (Robert De Niro). Burkhart married Mollie and then started poisoning her, seeking to inherit her lucrative headrights.
DiCaprio, in an email, says he’s never seen Scorsese “so headstrong” about a casting as he was with Gladstone. One day into shooting, DiCaprio realized she was going to be “the spirit and soul of the film.”
“Lily, along with the Osage community, became indelible partners in structuring the narrative of this story,” DiCaprio says. “As amazingly detailed as Grann’s book was, we knew we needed to dig even deeper, and hear this history from the Osage perspective. Lily became intricately involved in guiding all of us, not only in the storytelling but also the importance of Mollie’s heroism within it. “
But the hard work lay ahead of capturing one of the most disquieting marriages in recent film. The filmmakers’ research suggested there was love, despite everything, between Mollie and Ernest. “Killers of the Flower Moon” transformed into a rendering of American history as a gangster story writ in the home. It took time to find that dynamic. Gladstone recalls shooting one key scene eight different ways, with varying levels of suspense, abuse and love.
“The ones that worked were the ones where there was this complicated love and this tortured complicity on his part,” she says. “We somehow made that work because somehow in reality it did work and somehow it still works. You know, this dynamic is not a new one, not an old one. It’s just a very real one.”
When Gladstone first saw the film ahead of its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival, she reached out to her co-star. “I texted Leo and just in our back and forth, it was like, ‘Oh my god, we did it.’ Because there was always that question.”
“Killers of the Flower Moon” was made with extensive collaboration with the Osage, and, often, Gladstone was the go-between. Osage Nation began to feel, to her, like another home.
“She’s part of our community now,” says Osage Nation’s Principal Chief Geoffrey Standing Bear. “She comes to our traditional dinners. We all know. Here’s Lily. And no one gets awestruck because she’s one of us.”
Some in Indigenous communities have voiced misgivings about a $200 million Hollywood production choosing such a heinous history to tell, while others have debated the limits of a white, outsider perspective. Gladstone is sympathetic to those concerns, but she considers the Native collaboration that helped shape the movie “a historic moment in film.”
To her, it’s profound that the 1920s, when a young Hollywood was starting to churn out stereotyped images of Native Americans as savages, has been revisited by a filmmaker so deeply connected with the history of American movies.
“It feels like he carries the golden age of cinema in him,” says Gladstone of Scorsese. “And in making this film and making it in a way that also honored that legacy, it was a very restorative moment – bringing a Native woman into that place, having Mollie and her sisters be these characters that you would have seen in a great sweeping epic of the 1950s and 1940s.”
Throughout the film’s release, Gladstone has been eager not just to celebrate “Killers of the Flower Moon” but to thoughtfully engage with the conversations it generates. That’s made Gladstone something like a bridge between a shameful Hollywood past and its hopeful future.
With so much weight on her shoulders, it’s hard not to wonder: Is she getting to enjoy a once-in-a-lifetime moment?
“You sound like all of my close friends,” Gladstone says, smiling. “It’s got its own pace, it’s got its own rhythm. It’s temporary. So like anything that’s temporary and fleeting, you just have to enjoy the moment.”
She takes a deep breath and adds: “It’s been a really touching string of introductions.”
-Follow AP Film Writer Jake Coyle at: http://twitter.com/jakecoyleAP