September 2, 2020 Interview – Michael Greyeyes
An actor, choreographer, director, and educator, Michael Greyeyes thrives on diversity. From Saskatchewan, Canada, and an indigenous man, he has built an impressive career in film over the last three decades that continues to offer him new, exciting challenges. From his early roles in films such as 1995’s Dance Me Outside, to his awarding appearance on AMC’s Fear the Walking Dead, Greyeyes continues to draw attention with his role in other features such as Blood Quantum.
A zombie film with a message, Blood Quantum hit VOD, Digital HD, DVD and Blu-ray on September 1st, and has a lot to offer old-school Horror fans. Proud of the work put into Blood Quantum, Greyeyes sat down to talk all about his role in the film and his career to this point, plus a whole lot more.
Cryptic Rock – You have been involved in film and television for over 27 years. Before we go any further, please tell us what inspired you to pursue a career in entertainment?
Michael Greyeyes – Beautiful question. I’ve always been a part of the arts, which is interesting because I don’t come from a family that was engaged in the arts; my mom was a school teacher and my dad was a security guard. Storytelling and arts weren’t necessarily a really big part of our lives. I grew up in Saskatchewan, so we’re Cree people. My sister ended up taking dance like lots of girls in the city did. I ended up getting involved as a young boy, too, and I ended up at Canada’s National Ballet School, where I trained very seriously as a dancer. I transitioned from that into theater and, ultimately, into film and TV.
I think my journey is pretty varied. I love that early focus on dance. It stays with me, because my approach to performance in film and television is still highly physical. I think that is something I relish about films like Blood Quantum where I have a chance to portray a character physically; it allows an audience to see how that translates into understanding a human being.
Cryptic Rock – Your journey does sound extremely interesting, and you have been very diverse in both film and television. Do you enjoy working in different genres?
Michael Greyeyes – I love working in different genres, mostly because I get bored easily. (Laughs) I’ve done period films, I’ve done the zombie genre, I’ve done Action films, etc. Just recently, I just finished work on a film called Wild Indian and in it I play a businessman who golfs, so I had to learn how to play golf. I love the challenge of finding these new people.
I think I’m an agile actor. I like to challenge myself in roles where I can say, “I haven’t played this person before.” I’m into expanding the envelope of how people look at indigenous men and characters. I relish in the opportunity to do stuff all the way from left to right field.
Cryptic Rock – It is great to broaden that spectrum and to crush stereotypes. Let’s talk about Blood Quantum, which is a zombie film, but one with some social awareness. Recently given a broader release on VOD, Digital HD, DVD and Blu-ray on September 1st, what attracted you to this film?
Michael Greyeyes – I think the zombie genre has always been bigger stories. You can go right back to Dawn of the Dead (1978) and that attack on consumerism. Blood Quantum is quite close to that tradition. If you look at what the film is, it’s a naked examination of colonial history. Inside of rapacious Europeans, we’re looking at a rapacious zombie horde. How do our communities react to this external pressure? What do we as indigenous people have to wrestle with? Are they all bad? Where’s the line between our own safety and our humanity as people and a community?
For me that’s what’s quite amazing about Blood Quantum. We get to revisit and litigate questions that are hundreds of years old in this high octane environment. For me, if you miss the direct correlation between our colonial history and white settlers, you are not looking at the film closely enough.
Cryptic Rock – Absolutely. It would be hard to miss that correlation. It’s compelling and makes you think, as you alluded to; much like George Romero’s films do.
Michael Greyeyes – Yeah, Romero began that tradition. The best zombie films continued it and have done exactly that.
Cryptic Rock – Absolutely. Beyond Blood Quantum’s message, the acting is extremely good too. Additionally, the special effects are really well done. What was it like working behind the scenes?
Michael Greyeyes – Big credit needs to go to Jeff Barnaby, our visionary director. It also needs to go to Blood Brothers, which is an incredible effects team out of Quebec. Jeff loves the practical effects of films from the ’80s and ’90s. Practical effects mean something: there is a kind of visceral, tangible effect. In an era where CGI is leaned on heavily, I loved the fact that we were old-school and there was a Grindhouse feel to everything we were doing. When we go Mad Max, we’re doing it with cameras on sticks. (Laughs) To me it really speaks to the kind of visceral, physical filmmaking of films that Jeff values really highly.
Cryptic Rock – It came out well and genre fans will appreciate that practical approach. As an indigenous actor who has worked in the industry for nearly three decades, do you feel there is more equality as time goes by?
Michael Greyeyes – It’s kind of sobering to hear I’ve been at this three decades. (Laughs) I’m standing on the shoulders of giants. I look back at work of people of the previous generation like August Schellenberg, Gordon Tootoosis, Tantoo Cardinal, Will Sampson, Wes Studi, etc. My generation benefited from their tireless work to kick down doors in Hollywood for our presents. For me it’s really wonderful to continually have access to good work.
When I first started, the work was what it was. I was really fortunate to be a part of some really cool early projects, like 1993’s Dance Me Outside and 1998’s Smoke Signals. Often the writing came from outside our community, though. Within the past five years I would say there’s been a real sea change in how Hollywood is treating our characters and representations. For example, Nic Pizzolatto’s writing for season 3 of True Detective I thought was incredibly nuanced and sophisticated. I played a a Vietnam vet named Brett Woodard. It really spoke about our intergenerational trauma and PSD that we, as a community, have suffered. I know a lot of indigenous people said, “Oh my god, that’s the first real native guy I’ve seen on TV in a long time.”
I feel like writing has changed. Of course indigenous filmmakers and writers have been banging at the door for a long time. I finally think we are in a place where filmmakers like Jeff Barnaby and Sierra Teller Ornelas, who is the showrunner for a show I’m working on for NBC Peacock, are taking control of writer’s rooms. We’re taking control of creative content, and because we are there’s an expansion of our representation; there’s increasing layers. I think 30 years in the business have put me in a unique position to handle the challenges of complex acting. I’m really grateful for it.
Cryptic Rock – It is great to hear things are progressing in the right direction. Last question. If you are a fan of Horror films, what are some of your favorites?
Michael Greyeyes – I have categories. I love The Exorcist (1973). I also love The Host (2006). Alien (1979) is like a top 5 film for me, the same with The Silence of the Lambs (1991). One of the recent films I dug was The Witch (2015). The genre has been with me a really long time. I find it’s a really imaginative space and I love having the shit scared out of me when I watch films. (Laughs) I will always go back to it, I’m a forever fan.