Forrest Goodluck: the Native American actor ripping up the rulebook
Forrest Goodluck is an actor you don’t forget. A strong jaw, an enviable Elvis swoop of hair and dramatic eyebrows that demand you remember his face. The first time audiences saw him, in Alejandro González Iñárritu’s 2015 The Revenant, he was lunging at a villainous Tom Hardy, who mocked him for being half-Pawnee. “I told you to be invisible, son,” growled his fictional father Leonardo DiCaprio. That’s an order Goodluck could never obey, in the film or in the real world. The 20-year-old breakout talent is starring in five more films this year and next, including the Sundance Grand Jury prize-winner The Miseducation of Cameron Post. He plays Adam, a Native American teenager banished to a homosexual conversion camp after confessing to his father that he’s winkte and two-spirit, words that mean neither transgender nor gay, but exist on a Lakotan spectrum of gender that Christian missionaries refused to understand, and sabotaged with shame.
“In the 70s and 80s, winkte would be used [as] synonymous as ‘faggot’ on the res,” says Goodluck, when we meet in a coffee shop in Los Angeles. “Now, you’re starting to see the reclaiming of that word and the reclaiming of the two-spirit identity. My character in the film didn’t identify as gay. I identified as two-spirit. It’s cool, you can just do that.”
Goodluck is coming of age when a young native actor can maybe do anything. Maybe. So far, most of his roles have been tied to his heritage which is predominately Navajo plus Hidatsa, Mandan, and Tsimshian. “I’m fortunate to be multitribal, so I have this insight into different tribes,” says Goodluck. For Indian Horse, he played a hockey prodigy ripped from his family and culture to be raised by abusive Catholics as just one of the 100,000 victims of Canada’s residential school system. Scalped is a reservation noir inspired by the comics by Jason Aaron, who wrote Black Panther and Wolverine. And Blood Quantum is a zombie horror flick with a catch: Native American people can’t get infected. “I think it’s so brilliant!” Goodluck laughs. “It’s dealing with the ideas of oppression, or do you get privileges because you’re a fourth native – are you not native?”
Not bad for a boy from Albuquerque, New Mexico who started his career on an inauspicious stage. In fifth grade, Goodluck spent a month writing down every line in A Charlie Brown Christmas so he could direct it at his small school, a former mental hospital with two dingy spotlights in the basement and a stack of rusty metal folding chairs. “I didn’t know about copyright,” says Goodluck, but he did have a beagle who could play Snoopy. His Charlie Brown dropped out a week before the show, so Goodluck stepped into the lead role. “I remember my fucking dog just sitting there. So weird.”
At 13, he ditched school to audition for a part in a film by Arapaho director Chris Eyre, who carved his name into the indie scene with 1998’s Smoke Signals. “For Indian people, he’s this huge star,” says Goodluck, as was Ere’s casting director Rene Haynes. “She did Dances with Wolves, she cast all the Twilight wolves, she kinda has a thing with wolves.” And she instantly had a thing for Goodluck. The film’s funding fell through – a recurring disaster for micro-budget Native American narratives – but Rene kept recommending him for roles.
Next, Goodluck was cast as Nicolas Cage’s son. That collapsed. Then in a teen romance where he falls in love with a red-haired hippy. “Me and my mom would just read the script over and over again,” says Goodluck. “It’s so rare to have a Native kid play, just like, a boy.” That went kaput. Alfonso Gomez-Rejon hired him for Collateral Beauty until the director got replaced and everyone was recast. And then he got a good role in Lynne Ramsay’s Jane Got a Gun until she left the film and his part was cut.
“I didn’t know I was working with Ramsay until a few years ago when I was like, ‘Holy shit! I worked with Lynne fucking Ramsay!’” Goodluck exclaims. If there’s an upside to so many early setbacks, it’s that Goodluck, a kid with only one decent indie cinema in his hometown, didn’t quite realise what he was losing at the time. Now, of course, he is aghast. “You Were Never Really Here, I saw like eight times in theatres!” groans Goodluck. Hopefully, he and Ramsay will get a second chance.
“I mainly focus on directors,” says Goodluck. “Every actor tells me to find a powerful script or a powerful character. I don’t really buy into that.” His favorite films are Brazil or “anything Kubrick”, and now that he is starting college at Stanford this semester, he is torn on what to pursue. “The people I look up to so much, like Iñárritu, he went to film school,” says Goodluck. He picks up a paperback of JA Baker’s obsessive birding diary The Peregrine, which he bought on his way to the cafe. “But people like Werner Herzog or Errol Morris, a lot of the crazy documentary film-makers, tell you to read weird shit.”
Today, Goodluck is weighing up doing a history major. His older brother Kalen, a photojournalist, studied human rights. “When I was really young and didn’t have a concept of love, I was like, ‘I’m going to marry my brother!’” he laughs. So, in high school, he joined the Student Diversity Leadership Conference. Social justice still guides him. He turns down roles that have no integrity. “Anything that’s set in the olden times can be weird,” he says, and also a revived bloodlust he’s seeing for revenge flicks with “abused native women or native people getting back at white folks and just, like, murdering them”.
It’s complicated. His grandmother was forcibly removed from her reservation in the 1950s and sent to boarding school. “Whenever she saw Indians in movies, even if it was a white dude acting like an Indian, her generation is proud of that,” says Goodluck. “In a world where Indians were mythical and not even recognized, any moment of recognition is an amazing thing.” Like the old Pueblo women, he’s seen at college basketball games doing the tomahawk chop.
His generation is raising the bar. He is raising the bar. That’s the pressure of being the most recognizable new face in an era that’s ready to do better. “There’s a line of people who allowed me to sit where I sit and play the roles that I am because they went through some shit, fucking horrible roles, so I don’t have to,” nods Goodluck. After all, Native American performers helped found the entire industry back in 1894 when Thomas Edison filmed a Sioux ghost dance. “That was one of the first movies ever made and we were in it,” says Goodluck. “Maybe we’ll be the end of cinema, too.”