NEITHER WOLF NOR DOG FILM, Entry Two — “Playing Kent”: The Challenge for Chris Sweeney
Chris Sweeney is the actor who plays me in the film version of Neither Wolf nor Dog.
He had perhaps the most difficult acting task of anyone involved in the project.
First, he had the very real presence of me as the author to respond to and exorcize as he developed his character. Second, he had no cultural identity to fall back on. All the other actors had their Indian identities to draw from; Chris had only the vaguely drawn character of “Nerburn,” whose relative sketchiness as a character had caused a number of directors and screenwriters to reject the project because of the character’s failure to have enough dimension to serve as a legitimate lead.
“He’s too weak” was a common refrain. And they didn’t mean that as a judgment on my personality; they meant it as a judgment on my presence in the book. They wanted “Nerburn” to be the star of the show. They were not willing or able to see that this was precisely what I had attempted to avoid in writing the book. I was the observer, the outsider, the “everyman” from white America, bringing you, the reader, inside contemporary Native reality and handing you off to the Indians, who were the main characters.
As a result, I was the least fleshed out character in the story. You knew nothing about me except that I had done some oral history books at the Red Lake Reservation. I was the vessel into which you could pour your own identity and by which you could measure your own responses to people and situations on the rez. You thought you were seeing me, but you were really seeing yourself. Remove my narrative voice, which we did when we turned the story into a film driven by events rather than a narrative recounting, and my character was left with no centrality other than his response to situations. This is what both Steven and Chris had to work with.
Steven addressed this by building a back story for me. Chris, as the actor, had to address it by bringing his own emotional authenticity to the role. He and I talked about this. Dan, in the book, had put it harshly but accurately: I’m a coward. Conflict avoidance is the watchword for my actual personality. I will take strongly moral stands in life and I will be as judgmental and self righteous in private as the next person, but I will never confront anyone or anything if I can avoid it. You can dress that up and make it look like balance and equanimity, but, at heart, it can accurately be called cowardice.
Chris is an ex-Marine. But, Marines, like Catholics, can never really be “ex.” He may look scruffy and covered with “rez dust” in the film, but he is and always will be a Marine at heart. He is a protector and a guardian. When he sees wrong he confronts it. There is not an ounce of moral or physical cowardice in him. He told me there have been times in bars when he has gone over the table at someone who was behaving badly. I, for my part, crawl under the table and take notes.
This gave him a great challenge when crafting his portrayal of my character. He had to find a place in himself where he became a watcher keeping back from the action, which was not his natural stance. He did so wonderfully. What he did was tap into his impulse toward action and then reveal himself reining that impulse in. Rather than making his portrayal one of passivity, this made it one of latency. His frustration and anger were always right below the surface.
In effect, he took the weakness out of the character’s depiction by making his emotional baseline an inner withholding. It allowed him to be equal to other characters while still being subordinate to them. When Grover and Wenonah challenge him, he does not withdraw, he pushes back; He portrays me as a good man, confused by the situation he finds himself in, but secure in his presence in the world. By consciously withholding his anger and frustration, he demonstrates a deep respect for the values of the Native world in which he finds himself, rather than making the character almost self-referential in his melancholic and wistful loneliness and alienation.
But there is something else. Especially in relationship to Dan (Dave Bald Eagle), Chris is respectful almost to a fault. Steven’s camera work makes sure that you always see him observing and listening closely when Dan speaks. He matches Dan’s pacing with his own, and always allows a reflective beat before responding to any of Dan’s queries and challenges. This creates a palpable bond between the two men, one that is undergirded in real life by their common experience as veterans of combat. What I love is how Chris was able to tap into this commonality while using it to give an honest deference to Dave, whose service during WWII included being shot while parachuting behind enemy lines. These are two good men of different generations who use their common pasts to create a bond on screen, despite the fact that the characters they portray live on different sides of a cultural line.
All in all, Chris builds a character that is much stronger than my character as portrayed in the book. He makes him muscular rather then wistful; dynamic rather than passive; more yang than yin. Yet he is always the respectful and intelligent observer, aware that he is a guest in a foreign land.
It is, in a strangely subtle way, a profoundly understated acting job. The dream always was that this should be an ensemble piece. By deferring to Dan, allowing the reservation reality to overwhelm him, and keeping his internal identity strong, he made himself a worthy equal to Dan and Grover while still remaining a stranger in a strange land. He made himself an insider outsider, which I consider the respectful sweet spot for any non-Native person involved in dealing with reservation reality.
Consider this: Chris’s Kent is in the middle of almost every conversation, but he never demands the center of the stage. Without that subtle and nuanced positioning, the film would never have had the authenticity it possesses.
Once, years ago, in a discussion with some Hollywood types, I was asked if I saw Neither Wolf nor Dog as a “buddy movie” or a “fish out of water” movie.
“That’s incredibly tough to do,” they said.
But because of Chris’s complex combination of dynamism and restraint in playing the role, that’s exactly what we have. It is a masterful acting job, and one worthy of great praise.
Posted on: July 6, 2015knerburn