Duane Howard on making The Revenant, stereotypes and DiCaprio's indigenous-rights speech

Film directed by Alejandro G. Iñárittu is up for 12 Oscars

Duane Howard First Nations Actor

Nuu-Chah-Nulth actor Duane Howard starred in 'The Revenant' with Leonardo Dicaprio and Tom Hardy. The film is up for 12 Oscars this year. (Duane Howard)


If you're watching the Oscars this Sunday, look for Duane Howard on the red carpet. The Vancouver-based First Nations actor will be among the cast and crew of The Revenant, which is nominated for 12 Academy Awards, including Best Picture. Howard plays the key supporting role of Arikara chief Elk Dog, who is searching for his kidnapped daughter, Powaqa. Here, he recounts his experience — and why he's surprised by what ended up onscreen.

"I don't know why a lot of people [think] that we all speak the same language." - Duane Howard, actor, on perceptions of indigenous peoples

What was it like learning the Arikara language?

It was challenging. It was hard. It's not an easy language to learn.

The Arikara culture is very different from your First Nation, the Nuu-chah-nulth.

A lot of filmmakers and moviemakers, producers, directors, it's sad that they don't know the history of our people — that there are differences. They're different languages. Our language is way different from Arikara. I don't know why a lot of people [think] that we all speak the same language and it should be easy for us because we're Native. One of the main scenes in there, with the French trappers… it took me three weeks to learn.

But the dialogue changed quite a bit.

Yeah. Actually, they changed the dialogue through the whole movie. I didn't notice that until I went to the premiere. The story changed.

Did you like how it turned out?

It was good, I loved the way it ended up. That's not the way it was in the beginning, when I got the first script, and then the second script, and then the third script. Literally, two weeks before the premiere I was in ADR [Automated Dialogue Replacement] re-recording everything. In the beginning, I wasn't looking for my daughter, I was just after these French trappers. It didn't dawn on me — When did I lose my daughter? Even watching the movie [for the first time], I didn't even remember how my daughter got lost.

Duane Howard and Melaw Nakehk'o

Howard and Melaw Nakehk'o attend the Yellowknife premiere of The Revenant at the Capitol Theatre. (Shannon Scott/CBC)

What was it like working with Alejandro G. Iñárittu, who's nominated for Best Director?

He's amazing. I love and respect that man for what he does. He's a brilliant man to watch. To be beside him and work for him and be directed by him. It's just amazing how he is with the actors, with all of us. All of us on set, he worked with individually.

How do you think you influenced him?

By delivering what he wanted.

What did you think of Leonardo DiCaprio's speech at the Golden Globes, in which he called for the recognition of indigenous rights?

It's an honour. I'm proud — like, what he said, standing us up like that, and acknowledging us as other actors.... Nobody does that, right? It kind of tells you where he's at.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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