From ballet dancer to zombie slayer: Cree actor Michael Greyeyes on his prolific career
This episode originally aired on February 21, 2021.
In many ways, Michael Greyeyes said his career happened "entirely by accident."
The Plains Cree actor and performer from Muskeg Lake Cree Nation in Saskatchewan has appeared in more than 50 films and TV shows, ranging from prominent Indigenous leaders like Sitting Bull, to Gooch in Dance Me Outside, one of his most well-known roles.
But before becoming known as a tough guy with a soft heart on-screen, Greyeyes first caught the performance bug as a ballet dancer.
A young Greyeyes snuck into his sister's dance class and said it looked easy within earshot of the dance instructor. The instructor invited him to take the class.
"That's how it started," Greyeyes told Unreserved host Falen Johnson. "[A] precocious, Cree boy pushing his way into a dance class that he hadn't signed up for."
Greyeyes doesn't remember much from that early training, but guesses he stuck with it because he was the only boy in a class full of girls. "I was the centre of attention from all these little girls because I was an oddity," he said.
He proved to be so talented that his family picked up and moved from Saskatoon to Toronto so the young dancer could study at the Canada's National Ballet School.
The training was tough, but it took him from a recreational dancer to a professional.
"I remember just sweating — like a little sweaty kid, dancing my butt off," Greyeyes said. "I earned my stripes ... at a very young age."
During his training, Greyeyes was one of three Indigenous dancers at Canada's National Ballet School, performing in many productions, like The Nutcracker.
"I thought that was what my path was going to be," Greyeyes said.
But little did he know, his career — and his hair — were about to experience some serious growth.
Greyeyes was working with legendary choreographer Eliot Feld in New York when he injured his leg, forcing him to take time off.
Being out of work, Greyeyes struggled, he couldn't even afford to get a haircut. At this time, Indigenous actors were landing roles in big-budget films like Dances with Wolves and Last of the Mochicans and Greyeyes was looking to get into the acting game. The long hair helped.
"I kept it long. That made it a little bit easier ... to transition into those period roles," he said.
I'm proud that the work that I do is public. I hope it makes an impact not only for my girls but for other people.- Michael Greyeyes
The dancer-turned-actor would go on to play many Indigenous leaders, including Geronimo, Crazy Horse and Tecumseh.
But it would be the role of Gooch in Dance Me Outside that would make Greyeyes a household name. The film about contemporary Indigenous life still resonates with Indigenous communities today.
"Indian Country just ate this film up," he said. "To this day, when I meet people, some people go, "Gooch!" Which to me is like, wow, what an honour."
'My zombie phase'
In his more contemporary roles, Greyeyes has spent a lot of time fending off zombies on the big and small screens.
"[It's] like Picasso's blue phase or his cubist phase … my zombie phase," he said. "I'm a big fan of the genre."
In 2017, Greyeyes landed the role of Qaletaqa Walker in AMC's zombie series Fear the Walking Dead, which he called "a dream come true."
Two years later, he was cast as Traylor in Mi'kmaw filmmaker Jeff Barnaby's zombie film Blood Quantum. That was his "crowning achievement in the genre."
He's also found a lot of success in big-budget television shows like True Detective and the HBO miniseries I Know This Much is True, but he says that he will always be drawn back to his performance roots on the stage.
Theatre his 'artistic home'
"Theatre is an incredible arena for creativity and expression because the theatre … is where we have much more autonomy and agency to create narratives, tell stories," he said. "[It] will always be [my] artistic home."
He's also written, acted, directed and even taught for the stage — and has since passed his love of performance onto his daughters.
His daughter Lilia followed in her father's footsteps by training at Canada's National Ballet School, while his daughter Eva has taken an interest in performing on-screen and can be seen in the film Indian Horse.
"I'm so proud of my girls. They're better than us in every way. Smarter, more empathetic, more creative," Greyeyes said.
Even as his daughters follow his footsteps, Greyeyes is far from being done with performing. He's set to show his comedic side in the upcoming TV series Rutherford Falls, a sitcom with Indigenous writers and showrunner.
"I'm a goofball, and I love to laugh and make people laugh," he said. "But I don't get cast that way."
The show was created by Sierra Teller Ornelas, Mike Schur and Ed Helms, and Greyeyes hopes the role he plays can show different sides of not only himself, but of Indigenous actors in general.
"I'm proud that the work that I do is public," he said.
"I hope it makes an impact not only for my girls but for other people."
This week's playlist:
Foreigner - Cold As Ice
Keith Secola - NDN Kars
Bon Iver - re: Stacks