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Issue 006 Fall/Winter 2023 Interviews

Lily Gladstone on Embracing Free Fall

The 'Killers of the Flower Moon' star reflects on process and world-building in Scorcese's latest: "We didn’t need to culturally spell it out for a non-Osage or a non-Native audience," she explains.

By Kelli Weston

October 10, 2023

Lily Gladstone in Killers of the Flower Moon (2023), dir. Martin Scorcese, all images courtesy Apple Studios.

We know this story: buried in the soil, some “precious” resource entails a curse.

What follows is tragedy: theft, poison, massacre, and finally, a trail of dead that maps the path behind us (and ahead). The birth of this nation is written in blood; the seed that spawned our destinies is a ravenous greed, yet to be satiated in all its mad destruction. 

Few filmmakers have so thoroughly excoriated this past as Martin Scorsese has in his tragic fables of men rotted by American myths. That project has never been more explicit than in Killers of the Flower Moon (2023), his latest film, adapted from David Grann’s 2017 nonfiction novel about the serial murders of wealthy Osage heirs that shook Oklahoma in the early 1920s. Robert De Niro plays William Hale, the architect of this horror, then known as the Reign of Terror. After oil deposits were discovered on Indigenous land, Hale orchestrated the systematic murder and robbery of Indigenous people in Osage County for their inheritance. Ascendant star Lily Gladstone emerges at the center of this tale as the regal, strong-willed Mollie, who marries Hale’s venal nephew Ernest (Leonardo DiCaprio) and finds herself increasingly alienated as each of her family members begins dying under mysterious circumstances.

Gladstone’s performance has already garnered lavish acclaim. Not only does she emerge as a standout, matching the dynamism of veteran actors De Niro and DiCaprio, but Scorsese himself revealed that the young actress became a beacon of guidance during production. The film owes much to Gladstone’s perceptiveness and grasp of Mollie, a portrayal profoundly shaped by what the actress—of Nimíipuu and Blackfeet heritage—drew from her own upbringing. I was fortunate enough to speak with Gladstone just after the film’s world premiere at the 2023 Cannes Film Festival. By then, she had traded the sultry shores of the French Riviera for the flat, grassy plains of Pawhuska, Oklahoma, where Killers of the Flower Moon was filmed. Gladstone had returned, for the third summer in a row—every summer since filming—for Gray Horse dance season. Over the phone, we talked about how her connection to her namesake grandmother informed her performance of Mollie, the power of Indigenous language and storytelling practices, and the organic, community-oriented process research that was so central to the development of the film.  

Leonardo DiCaprio and Lily Gladstone in Killers of the Flower Moon

Kelli Weston: I saw this film at its Cannes premiere, and I was particularly moved by the ending. We’re watching this moment of community ritual, and I was doubly moved by the clapping on rhythm to that movement long after the credits rolled. What was that moment like for you in that room?

Lily Gladstone: With a premiere like that, I haven’t had such a boisterous communal response. You get applause, but that was really moving. It affirmed to me how . . . I think a lot of Indigenous creators, and I think a lot of creators that come from marginalized communities have been told for so many years that it’s like, “That’s a great story, that’s important, but we don’t really think it’s accessible to a wider audience,” that they’re not going to finance it or whatever. That was just a small testament of that. People just picked it up. There was a handful of Indigenous folks in that room, but it was a huge room of people. So yeah, that was pretty cool, especially because I feel like a big part of that message of the way the film ends is about community, and how you get through historical traumas like that as a people is you stick together as a community. Felt very appropriate.

KW: How did this story impact you when you heard it as a child? How does that inform you as an Indigenous woman moving through the world?

LG: The first time I didn’t have the language for it being the Reign of Terror. Yeah, it gave me a bigger context for what all Indigenous peoples here sort of experience, even though what we [Blackfeet nation] experienced was very different. Hearing about it, just these genocidal acts weren’t unfamiliar to me as a fifth grader. But I also don’t recall hearing about it in our school system. I heard about those things from our community. All of the knowledge that I did have came from community and family, not public schools.

Lily Gladstone (center) and co-stars in Killers of the Flower Moon

KW: I’m curious about what you drew from your own background in order to inform your portrait of Mollie and those pieces of her that may or may not have been knowable to you.

LG: Sure, yeah. There was quite a bit about Mollie that felt very similar to my great-grandmother, Lily, who I’m named after—my father’s grandmother, his father’s mother—and her mother Mary as well. Lily was a little bit more of Mollie’s contemporary. Her grandmother, Mary Red Crow, and her were very devoutly Catholic and also very traditional. My dad’s first cousin, Jack Gladstone, is a singer-songwriter. He wrote a song about my great-grandma Lily that was my favorite song when I was a kid because it’s my name.

I never got to meet her, but my dad raised me with such a strong connection to being her namesake and what that meant, because she was a matriarch of the family. She just was like the linchpin for the whole family. And my dad was the oldest boy of all of her grandkids. He spent a lot of time with her, maybe more than the other cousins. Anyway, because I’m named after a woman that was born around that time and had heard stories about that transition she saw, there was a whole bedrock of history that made Mollie feel pretty familiar, as well as her devotion to Catholicism and her kids. There was a lot there where I had an instinct walking in that I could draw on my understanding of Grandma Lily that had been built for me my whole life by stories from my family. It was a pretty immediate understanding of what the Ernest-Mollie dynamic would be. When I got here and started talking to community members, it really felt less like, “Tell me about the people from this era, from Osage.” It felt more like, “My grandma Lily would say this, I was told. Does that feel like that would be appropriate?” 

Developing Mollie, it just happened naturally and came out of an organic connecting with community, and really just spending time visiting with people and getting to know people and developing really solid relationships. For example, I’m in Pawhuska right now. This is where I stayed while we were filming. I’m back here for dance season, reconnecting and seeing people. I went to Gray Horse last week, which is the district that Mollie and her family are from. I’ve been blessed enough to go to Gray Horse every summer since we filmed. This is my third summer in a row.

KW: You’re still close with a lot of the people that you worked with while filming? 

LG: Very much, very much. My social calendar is super stacked while I’m here.

KW: What was it like to work with Tantoo Cardinal? 

LG: Of course there’s the element of getting excited about working with Bob and Leo and Marty. But I was so stoked to have that chance to get to do this work with Tantoo. And one of the things I’m going to keep in my front pocket, close to my heart the rest of my life, was after we did the scene right after she sees the owls. She thanked me for the scene. It was really lovely. There was this mutual respect and it blew me away, because she’s also a legend and she’s my elder. She’s got such a sharp, wonderful sense of humor. A lot of my favorite interactions with her that we had were just sitting in silence, listening to the birds and then looking at each other at the same time, knowingly. It’s like we both caught it.

Robert De Niro and Leonardo DiCaprio in Killers of the Flower Moon

“You walk in, you have the world, but everybody’s there asking the same questions. Everybody’s taking the jump and doing the free fall together. “

KW: I love to hear that. You’ve actually had the chance to work with so many greats: [Arnaud] Desplechin, Kelly Reichart, and now Martin Scorsese. How have these experiences shaped you as a performer? 

LG: Yeah, it was incredible working with people who were so developed and so specific about their art, and also seeing that that process is and always should remain pretty organic. That set me at ease. Because right away, working with Marty you really see how he’s there to find the truth with the people that he is making the scene with. And working with Kelly, it was really similar. You walk in, you have the world, but everybody’s there asking the same questions. Everybody’s taking the jump and doing the free fall together. 

It’s just getting in there and breaking down and dissecting the scene that you’re doing. It was great working with incredible artists to prime me for Marty too. Because it gave me that confidence to really come in as a collaborator and realize that it’s not just something that you need to ask permission for. It’s something that’s expected of you if you’re at that level working with those types of artists. You’re there for a reason and you’re there to help shape the team. It’s important to speak up and ask questions and talk about things. 

Lily Gladstone and Leonardo DiCaprio in Killers of the Flower Moon

KW: So what did the collaborations between you, DiCaprio, and Scorsese look like? How did you find your way into this really complicated dynamic between Mollie and Ernest? 

LG: I think the deepest clue came from a story I got from one of my language teachers, Chris Cote. Osage is a very different language than any other Indigenous language that I’ve spoken, including my own. I was a little terrified. I was so happy I had enough lead time to just try and make it sound natural. Both Blackfeet and Osage thrive within our oral traditions. And we both have trickster figures. Osage has several tricksters, but one of the stories that Chris told me just made so much sense. It’s like, “Okay, that’s how Mollie would see Ernest.” And it is stated in the film; it’s not spelled out for a non-Osage audience, but when she calls him Coyote, she’s talking about the trickster figure. When you hear that kind of trickster story as a kid, they’re funny stories. 

[Osage trickster figure] is very similar to—I’m not supposed to say his name out of season, but—our Blackfeet trickster figure, in that these two are both very hedonistic, very pleasure-seeking, very dumb. For me to keep Mollie the woman that she deserved to be, there always had to be a blind spot present that Ernest could hide behind. Every time we tackled a scene, we had to figure out what Mollie’s blind spot would be and how would Ernest operate within that. And one of the huge ones for me came from that story. Mollie always saw him as this trickster figure. Then in a way, we’ve created this story to be like a trickster story. She had cultural teaching, she had this guidance. But because this character’s also so goofy and hearkens to this almost childlike trickster figure, you don’t really think they’re going to be capable of planning something sinister and evil. You just think they’re constantly getting themselves into trouble. 

It makes the whole story, from Mollie’s arc anyway, a long trickster narrative, which made sense to me. Trickster stories I was raised with really made sense to Leo. He and Marty were both thrilled when I asked Chris permission to share that. And then we checked with a couple of other community members if that was an appropriate story to share. And we didn’t end up actually telling the trickster story that I was given in the narrative. We shot it. We’re given permission to use it, but ultimately I think it gave away the ending a little too much. And I feel like that’s another one of those moments where we didn’t need to culturally spell it out for a non-Osage or a non-Native audience that isn’t familiar with Coyote as a trickster figure. It’s just something people picked up on.

Lily Gladstone in Killers of the Flower Moon

KW: That makes me think about how in various marginalized communities—certainly ours—oral tradition and storytelling are so central, and performance is a core part of that. If that’s something that resonates with you, what does this kind of project then do? Does this feel like a restorative exercise? Is it cathartic or is it more heavy? Because it carries such great responsibility. 

LG: Catharsis is heavy. It feels light, but it only feels light because you’ve been carrying a great load. So yeah, absolutely, I see the correlation there. For a long time I never really had the assurance that my career would be an acting one. I went to school for theater. But there’s a lot of things that you can do with a theater degree. One of the things I thought I would do with theater work for a long time would be to use it as a pedagogical tool and find ways to use it within language revitalization as total physical response. Language revitalization is cultural revitalization, is healing generational trauma. The Osage that I learned for the film was specific for the scene. And there’s a lot more that didn’t necessarily make the cut, but I would commit to learning an entire prayer. And one of my other language teachers, Janice Carpenter, she really, really helped me hone and find Mollie’s voice. There’s a different dialect for women and men. But when she was listening to one of the scenes, it was so touching to me. She was just honest; she said she was a bit blown away. She was really impressed by hearing the scene where Leo and I are talking to each other in Osage with the doctor’s presence. She said it felt like hearing her mother speak and just . . . I can’t really speak for Janice, but I remember the way she spoke of it. And she’s spoken to Maryanne about it, one of our producers, since then. And she says it quite often, just how remarkable it was. Hearing the language in a living situation like that. 

And I’ve always felt that a language, when you have the physical action that goes with learning it, that’s what total physical response is. Your body learns the language, and you pick it up in a different way. If you add a creative element to the movement as well, then you’re getting into the realm where you’re picking up language as emotion. And I think that’s possibly one of the greatest goals of language revitalization: [it’s] so linked with cultural revitalization and cultural perpetuity. 

This is an act of that, putting Osage language on-screen in situations where you would see it instead of the old Western method of just speaking a line and then running the track backwards and then calling that tribal speak. I know that was a practice in some of those films. Or humorously, I think one of the John Ford Westerns that employed Navajo people, if you go back and actually translate what they’re saying, they’re just insulting the filmmakers. It’s really funny. But yeah, it’s performance arts related to oral tradition related to very community-based cultural perpetuity. It’s one of the reasons that I’ve stayed with acting. It’s one of the reasons that when things were lean in between acting jobs, I would bring theater technique and teach youth theater, especially to Native kids. There’s something that’s so vital and important as a marginalized community in finding your voice and trusting your voice and sharing it and getting creative with the things that you have to say. Because if you’re creative with your own story and your own words, then theoretically, you feel like you have a little bit more agency in the world. 

Killers of the Flower Moon opens in theaters around the world (including IMAX®) on Friday, October 20.