On the theatrical release date of Martin Scorsese’s latest film, Killers of the Flower Moon, Lily Gladstone walked the picket line in Times Square. It was pouring rain, but Gladstone looked thrilled to be there as she danced and held up her SAG-AFTRA strike sign. “I chose that date for a reason,” she told me over Zoom. “I was so grateful that I got to do it.” I was lucky to meet Gladstone for the first time at the Gotham Awards last week, where she won the award for Outstanding Lead Performance for her work in Morissa Maltz’s The Unknown Country and, alongside her cast for Killers of the Flower Moon, accepted the Icon & Creator Tribute for Social Justice. Gladstone spoke beautifully about being entrusted to play Mollie Burkhart, Native representation in the film industry, and collaborating with the Osage community to bring an underrepresented community’s tragic story to life. She added, “Invest in the people that you’re telling your story about. Your film will be better for it. Your lives will be better for it.”
Gladstone’s breakthrough came in 2016 with Kelly Reichardt’s Certain Women, where her performance as Jamie, a rancher, earned her a handful of critics’ prizes and a nomination for an Independent Spirit Award. Like other entries in Reichardt’s filmography (Gladstone also had a supporting role in First Cow), Certain Women beautifully gives you the feeling that life goes on, both for the characters onscreen and the audience. There’s a quiet resilience and stillness to the film and Gladstone’s performance. She fits perfectly into Reichardt’s oeuvre and displays her ability to convey a sea of emotions without relying on dialogue. It’s fitting that Certain Women was Scorsese’s gateway to Gladstone. He had found his Mollie.
After multiple rewrites of the script, the role of Mollie, an Osage woman in 1920s Oklahoma, became more crucial than ever as she became the cornerstone of Scorsese’s reimagining of David Grann’s book Killers of the Flower Moon. As Mollie, Gladstone is the heart and soul of the film, delivering a heartbreaking performance filled with strength and suffering. Killers of the Flower Moon is one of the richest cinematic experiences of the year, with new layers revealed each subsequent viewing. Speaking with Gladstone, though, I realized there was so much within the world of the film, so much additional context that I had missed in my first few viewings. Gladstone used her Blackfeet heritage as a starting point and collaborated with Osage language teachers and community members to build her character. It’s an act of moving, historic portraiture. In a few months, she could be the first Native person in history to receive a nomination for the Best Actress Oscar.
There’s a warmth and an ease when speaking with Gladstone. As she logged on to our Zoom meeting, she excitedly leaned into the computer and said, “Hi, Sophia!” as if we’d known each other for years. She’s inviting and incredibly funny, with a wry sense of humor that comes up in the most surprising moments. That sense of humor proved necessary when portraying Mollie, a character with a dual nature and an inherent balance that Gladstone further illustrated throughout our conversation. Even though Gladstone is the actor of the year (she’s collected additional critics’ prizes since this conversation took place), when asked about her experience on Killers of the Flower Moon, she never failed to mention her key collaborators–from her late great-grandma Lily to her real-life cousin Janae Collins (Reta in Killers of the Flower Moon) to her company of actors. I was thrilled to speak with Gladstone as she shared stories of her family’s history and her connection to Mollie. The story that sticks with me most, though, involves the importance of listening to nature, specifically the rain.
Sophia Ciminello: Congratulations on your Gotham Awards and New York Film Critics Circle win! How are you feeling right now in this whirlwind?
Lily Gladstone: I’m having fun! I mean, this whole thing has been a glammed-up reunion with friends. That’s kind of what it feels like.
SC: Oh, I love that.
LG: Me too. You get so close making these projects, and then suddenly, you’re all together again and getting to talk about it and remember everything. It’s just really fun. But yeah (laughs), the New York Film Critics Circle Award…I was packing to get ready to move on to the next thing, and I got a text from Leo [DiCaprio] that said, “Congratulations, Lily.” I’m just like, “Thank you. What did I miss?”
SC: (Laughs) Oh my god, you didn’t even know yet…
LG: (Laughs) Yeah, then I went through my text chain and found it from my reps, and I thought, “Oh, no way!” Then I sent it back to Leo and said, “Congratulations to you too,” and he was like, “LOL, don’t change.”
SC: (Laughs) I love that you’ve been able to have so much fun with it and that it can still feel somewhat lowkey at the same time.
LG: Totally. Both of those awards this week were huge surprises. The Gotham was just such an immense category with those performances! It was nice to have a couple of surprises throughout the week and have friends to celebrate with.
SC: That’s great to hear. And I know that you’ve mentioned before that whenever you think about stepping away from acting or that it doesn’t want you anymore, the big job calls. Did you feel that way before Killers of the Flower Moon? How did it feel to hear from Martin Scorsese?
LG: I did, and I really appreciate the way that you phrased that question because, I mean, I think every actor kind of feels like you’re towing that line and toying with the idea of doing something different entirely. It’s just the nature of the work, but I had reached that point again, just like I did right before I got offered Certain Women. I knew I loved it. I knew I was good at it. And I also knew that Hollywood wasn’t going to change and put me in everything, you know?
I was in a position in my life right before Killers where it was the pandemic, and I’m the oldest daughter; I was my grandmother’s oldest granddaughter, so I was in a caretaking role and doing everything to keep COVID from coming to my household. I had just finished The Unknown Country, and we kind of created COVID protocol because we had an epidemiologist as a producer. Nobody got sick when we finished that shoot, and then it seemed to be what everybody was doing on set.
SC: That’s nice that you could have that during COVID.
LG: Yeah, it really was, and then I was looking at ways that I could at least have something that would be transitional enough and a skillset that I could do for short-term work. I knew Erica Tremblay was writing Fancy Dance over that summer, and that was how she spent her quarantine. But I know how long it takes to finance things, especially as a Native filmmaker and a Native woman filmmaker. Getting people to believe in your vision takes a long time. So, I thought, alright, in between now and Fancy Dance, what am I going to do? So, I figured data analytics was required for murder hornet tracking. I wanted to go after some really insidious colonizing forces (laughs).
SC: (Laughs) A connection to Killers already…
LG: (Laughs) Exactly. When I got the Certain Women audition, I had been managing a grant to take another film of mine, Winter in the Blood, into reservation communities around Montana and to do digital storytelling workshops with reservation youth. It felt like I was fulfilling a very sound purpose in doing that. And I was also like, “Right, I don’t want to move to LA because it’s going to be harder for me there because, at this point, I was kind of a medium-sized fish in a small pond.” But then I was also just thinking, “Get real with yourself. You’re almost 30. You’ve got to figure out something to do.” I went into town to check my email because I was house-sitting at a rural cabin and had no internet access that winter, and I had the Certain Women notice. And the night before, I was like, “Just give me a sign!” (laughs)
SC: (Laughs) Sometimes you just need that reassurance.
LG: Yeah, and then I was in the process of registering for my data analytics course at Shoreline Community College when the Zoom invite for Killers came in, and I was just like, “What? What is that?” (laughs). What is that formula when you’re ready to shut the door? It really is like one of those horribly codependent relationships where you can never get away. It’s like when you’re out the door, and then it wants you. But I’m really glad it happened that way. It felt a bit surreal, and it felt like it was something bigger than me each time. It kind of felt like maybe there is some greater purpose here than just my love for what this is.
Then, after auditioning and meeting Marty and Leo over Zoom and doing a couple of readings, the call came in. It was a week earlier than I was expecting to hear anything. Leo and I hadn’t even done a chem read at that point, and I was expecting that we were going to. He was shooting Don’t Look Up and said the second week of December was when he would have time to sit down and do some sides. So, when I got the call on December 1st, I was expecting that it would be to schedule that, but it was the offer. Marty was just so convinced. I screamed, threw my phone, and jumped up and down, and my parents were like, “What is it? What is it? What is it?” When I came to, I was facing my parents’ mantle, and I saw my great-grandma Lily’s photo up there, who would’ve been Mollie’s contemporary, and I was like, “Hi, Grandma.”
SC: Oh, wow.
LG: Yeah, and the first thing I did was download the Osage language app to do everything I could before taking lessons, but I noticed it was December 1st. It just clicked for me. I was like, “Oh my god. It’s Mollie Burkhart’s birthday.”
SC: Oh my god. I have chills right now.
LG: I know, right? I was reminded, “Okay, yes, this is great for you, but remember what you’re doing.” It’s always felt a little bit like something else, not me, reaching through time and just pulling me into these positions. So, yeah, it charged those moments with some real gravitas. You have a minute to be excited for yourself, but then it’s time to get committed and do the work.
SC: I love both of those tie-ins—to your great-grandma Lily and Mollie. And Mollie really became the film’s centerpiece in how the script was rewritten.
LG: Yeah, definitely.
SC: In thinking of your great-grandmother, were there lessons from your own background or your family’s history that you brought in to add details to your portrait of Mollie?
LG: Oh yeah, fully. I knew that Grandma Lily was going to be the starting point. Blackfeet and Osage are not dissimilar. Osage are Woodlands-Plains, and Blackfeet are Plains-Mountains. So we have some cultural overlap but very different languages. Grandma Lily was born in 1896. Mollie Burkhart was born in 1886, and I was born in 1986. It’s just (laughs) again…
SC: (Laughs) Another connection…
LG: (Laughs) Yeah, and I knew that everything I understood about Grandma Lily–being the oldest daughter and granddaughter at the time and as my grandma’s namesake—I was just given and feel like I absorbed a lot of her role in our family as the storyteller. So, I took a huge interest in our origins. I had written a screenplay during my senior year of high school about the era in which my grandma Lily and my great-grandpa Alec met. So, I already had a bit of insight into what a dynamic back then would have looked like. Grandpa Alec was Native. He was from Canada. He was Métis, Blackfoot, and Scottish. And you know, he was a fun-loving, raucous, heavy-drinking cowboy. He came down to the States as a former RMCP, running away from the RMCP. So it’s like, alright, there’s this dualistic sort of trickster nature in my great grandfather. And then, when he got to the States, he got kind of arranged into a marriage. My grandma, I should say, got put into a bit of an arranged marriage with this guy, and she loved him. She said he was the most handsome man she ever saw. But Grandma Lily wanted to be a nun and was married off when she was 16/17 to this 30-year-old cowboy. So, there were elements within their courtship and love that I’ve heard from my family and stories that felt similar to an Ernest/Mollie dynamic. I heard that she was very self-possessed, pious, and committed to her faith and culture. I was like, okay, that’s Mollie. She was also a very devout Catholic, and I thought there’s going to be some similarity and understanding there. There was also this really charming, larger-than-life, goofy cowboy in her life that she fell more and more in love with, you know? They ended up having nine children who survived. So yeah, there were definitely elements and some family stories that felt like they would have been there with Ernest and Mollie.
So, when I got to Osage country, I knew that that was a gateway for me, but that wasn’t going to be the only thing I could rely on because Oklahoma and Montana aren’t that far apart, but they’re worlds apart in a lot of ways. I was actually thankful that there was a common thread of Catholicism in both of our families because when you get to Oklahoma, it’s like it’s the Bible Belt. Natives here are all different faiths. And this is also the part of the world where the Native American Church is really prolific. It’s not as much up North, but it is down here. There are a lot of different worldviews and relationships with integrating Christianity and a new way of life.
There were a couple of good Osage friends I had down here before getting here, and when visiting with them and Margie Burkhart, Ernest, and Mollie’s granddaughter, I would share these stories about my grandma Lily and just kind of try and see how they landed. It seemed like a lot of my intuition and knowledge of her would just not get a thumbs up like, “Yeah, put that in the movie,” but instead be, “Yeah, I recognize that. That sounds like my grandma.”
In sharing these stories, my good friend, Wilson Pipestem, who was thanked in the credits along with his siblings, lent us a story of his grandma, Rose. The more I talked to Wilson, the more I thought, “Oh, my great-grandma Lily was best friends with Rose.” They called them the flowers of the valley. I know that Rose and Lily would’ve gone to church together and been close friends based on everything he told me. He lent us a story that influenced Mollie and changed the whole shape of the scene and, honestly, the way the film ended. It’s that moment when the storm blows through on their first date, and they’re getting ready to share whiskey, but Mollie puts it down. Originally, that scene ended with Mollie drinking Ernest under the table. (laughs)
SC: (Laughs) And that plays out so differently in the film.
LG: Yeah, the community shared, “Not Mollie.” We don’t want that. That wasn’t who Mollie was. It’s maybe how her sister Anna was, but that’s not how Mollie was. It doesn’t feel right to her, and it doesn’t feel right to her legacy in the community, you know? Being such a devout Catholic, she did drink whiskey, but she wasn’t a party girl. So that was one of the first scenes that the Osage said needed a little tweaking. Then, Wilson shared that story with me and, in another community meeting with Marty, of how his grandma would put on her blanket when a rainstorm would blow through—wearing your blanket kind of ups the situation. You don’t just casually wear it at a dinner table. So, a lot of Osage saw that first photo and said, “Hey, why is she wearing her blanket at the dinner table?” (Laughs). But it’s because the context shifts. The storm blows through, and you enter this very receptive, reverent, prayerful place, and you just let the storm blow through. Also, at that time, people still had the way of the pipe.
SC: Just like in that very first scene.
LG: Right, when the pipe is being buried, and this new way of life is coming. But you know, people with that level of connection and power can change the weather. So, when the weather is coming through, you just receive the storm because somebody may have sent it to you for some reason. But in any case, Mollie couldn’t really translate all of those things to Ernest. It just became this moment: The storm’s powerful. So we just need to be respectful right now. We need to not drink. We need to be quiet. And then we had Leo’s brilliant improv of, “Well, it’s probably good for the crops.” We knew that that scene was very much about how these two worlds would come together and that teasing back and forth. Nature is part of what sustains it all. And then, in the credits, people notice a rainstorm. It’s a moment to sit with and just let it wash over you.
SC: That connection to nature and the idea of receiving a storm is so beautiful. And you do feel that need to sit with it and be still. That dinner scene really highlights the key differences between her and Ernest. At one point earlier, Hale even tells him he’ll be tempted to fill the silence with chatter but that he shouldn’t.
LG: Yeah, totally.
SC: I want to go back to a word you used earlier in that story about your great-grandparents. You used the word “trickster,” which made me think of how I felt about Ernest when I watched the film.
LG: Oh, definitely.
SC: I love that scene when you’re talking with your sisters. You’re comparing the men to different animals, and you mention that Ernest is a coyote. There’s a line in the film, too, where Mollie says, “Coyote wants money.” How did you untangle that complexity—the fact that your character loves him but is also aware that he’s after her money?
LG: You really hit the nail on the head with it. So, all of the sisters sat down and reworked that scene together. We all ended up writing those lines and picking which animal was associated with each little man in our lives. Partly because our Osage language department was having a hard time translating the scene as it was originally written. So, the four of us as actresses sat down and were really thinking, “Okay, what is this scene saying about our characters and our relationships? Janae Collins (Reta) and I both come from Montana and were raised around some speakers and a lot of the same stories. We sat down and reworked the lines in a way that would not only be translatable into Osage but also show the same dynamics.
I had two language teachers, but my first teacher, Chris Cote, also shared their worldview, which is also encapsulated in these stories. Chris is younger than I am, and I love seeing a fluent speaker younger than me speaking in their language. He shared an Osage trickster story that sounds a lot like the trickster stories I was raised with growing up. There are lots of different purposes a trickster story serves in our oral tradition, and when you get those stories as a kid, a lot of times they’re, I don’t want to say sanitized, but they’re kind of just like Looney Tunes, you know? They’re made to be very entertaining. So for Mollie and Osage, that trickster figure that’s really self-serving, hedonistic, the goofy one that’s always tripping over his own two feet and never learns in the end, is “šǫ́mįhkase,” that’s “coyote.” Chris had told me a coyote story, particularly one where he was courting a woman in the form of a whirlwind, a tornado. When I was hearing that, I thought, that’s the story. That’s Ernest and Mollie right there. That is their dynamic. We got permission from the Nation because I did not want to take a community-specific story meant for the community and share it with the world. So when I heard that, I asked Chris if I could share it, and he said, “Yeah!” I talked to him because, you know, he’s a film lover too, and he really saw a clear correlation. I think that’s honestly why he shared the story with me; he saw the connection, too. So we ran it up the line, and our Osage consultants kept agreeing, “No, that’s okay to share. A lot of people share those stories with their white family members. A lot of these stories we’ve already published or are out there in the public domain, so yeah, those are fine to share.” Even though we don’t share a specific story, we did one scene where Mollie and Ernest are teaching their kids a trickster story, which would have given away the whole film. It would have given away the ending! (laughs)
SC: (Laughs) Oh, completely!
LG: This did shift for Marty and me a bit of how we looked at the shape of the story and Mollie’s relationship with Ernest. He and I are both so resistant to call this a Western. It’s sort of its own genre. For me, it really is a trickster story because when you’re given these lessons as a kid, you think they’re funny stories. They seem fairly harmless, but then you grow up and start interacting with tricksters in the world. You realize that tricksters are creators.
In Blackfeet oral tradition, our trickster figure is a man, but he’s created the whole world. A lot of it has to do with him being self-serving and how that affects everybody around him. So, in the end, when Mollie calls Ernest out in that very last scene, she says, “What did you give me, šǫ́mįhkase?” At the beginning, it’s like, “Oh, you’re goofy, you’re fun. I see what you’re about. I got your number. I’ll be fine.” And then, in the end, thinking, “Oh, yeah, I was just part of a trickster story. He just got the best of me, and even though he didn’t win, neither did I.” And then it’s that dual nature of a trickster in the Blackfeet language. Our word for white man and white woman is the same word as our word for trickster. That’s not the same in Osage, but that’s definitely a Blackfoot perspective that I applied to Ernest, and it felt like a real restorative moment.
SC: I bet there was a lot of clarity in that.
LG: Yeah, there really was, because Native people, not just as characters and presences onscreen, we’ve been so excluded or villainized by the Golden Age of cinema. We never had our leading ladies, you know?
LG: So, I was given Williamm Wyler’s The Heiress and Olivia de Havilland’s performance.
SC: I love that reference point.
LG: Yeah, that was what Marty wanted to emulate, mostly with Mollie. So, I got to pick this woman who came from high, high, high society in a Western context that was very patriarchal and very stifling of her as a woman and translate that into an Osage woman who’s mature, local, who owns everything, who has a sense of herself that’s very developed and very strong. She lets this trickster guy into her life, so I got to do that and then apply a trickster narrative to it. I applied a formula of a cautionary tale, really, that made sense to me and a lot of native people. I would joke with Marty that maybe this is a new genre, a “trickster noir.”
SC: Oh, a “trickster noir.” That’s perfect. I was also really struck by something you shared about your technique in a recent project for PBS. You said, “Your brain knows you’re acting. Your brain knows it’s not real, but your body doesn’t.” How were you able to manage that with a character like Mollie, who faces so much trauma and violence? Did you feel a sense of catharsis when you wrapped?
LG: You know, with Mollie, just knowing that trauma is stored in the body and in a lot of work I’ve done in theater as a way of addressing that, particularly theater of the oppressed and within that, rainbow of desire, it’s all about drama therapy in those instances. What just naturally happened on set with so many Natives together, it was like a party when the cameras weren’t rolling. Everybody was just so happy to be there, having fun. That’s been a counterbalance my whole life. We have memorials back home for people who were killed in the Bakers Massacre–that’s the Blackfeet version of Wounded Knee, where cavalry came in and wiped out a bunch of men, women, and children. When we remember that, the people that I run with, we sing happy and joyful songs during that memorial time because we say that those spirits don’t want to be reminded of everything. You know, it’s like we don’t want to dredge that trauma up over and over again because we’re still here. This is about survival.
That’s really a key component of Drama Art Therapy–understanding and really being aware of your instrument, your body, the way it plays in the world, and having restoring, building, and flexing agency even in an imagined way. I could choose to disengage from whatever I was carrying and engage with people in real-time, have fun, and laugh because that also turned up when those cathartic moments came on screen. I can’t hit catharsis if I’m sitting in trauma constantly on and off set. It happens when I come off set and see my beautiful real-life cousin, but sister in the film, Janae Collins. When we’re together, it’s just like, “Alright, put them in another room. We can hear them in the frame.” It’s just laughter. There is such immense laughter. So when I have a chance to text her, you know, “Miss you! Love you!” and she’d send me pictures of the kids, all of that. To then turn it off and have to get the news that it was Reta’s house? That moment surprised me. It was supposed to be an establishing wide shot. It was our first take, and it was supposed to lead into a slow punch on Mollie’s face, showing the reaction and the realization that it was Reta. At that point, on the day, it was just so obvious that she would have known it was Reta. It was just that moment of confirmation, and that just came out because I just love Janae so much, just like Mollie loved her sister so much.
In building Mollie, I noticed that she would cross her blankets with her left arm over her right arm, whereas all of her sisters did the opposite. So I thought, alright, I’m going to make Mollie left-handed. That was helpful. Some noticed that I was carrying more tension on my left side, and my right side was counterbalancing. So, just walking away noticing that, alright, my left shoulder is sore today, or this side of my body is where I’m storing trauma, or I’ve been grinding my teeth on my left side in my sleep.
We keep talking about dual nature, but dual nature is also a balance. So that’s kind of what it felt like. Lily had to take care of Mollie, and Mollie had to take care of Lily. It was just a lot of self-care by balancing the trauma with the laughter, by balancing the isolation that Mollie was feeling with spending time with community, and really taking every invite to come sit with people and have dinner. And to also really spend time with the Osage. It was all about community.
SC: Lily, I could talk to you for an hour, but I’m getting the signal to wrap up. Thank you so much for speaking with me today. This has been a great conversation. I’m completely in awe of you and your work on this film.
LG: Thank you so much, Sophia. And killer posters behind you, by the way! Those are great.
SC: Oh, thank you so much. Good luck with the rest of the season!
LG: Thank you.
Killers of the Flower Moon is currently in theaters and available to purchase/rent on demand.