Actor Adam Beach's Long Road to Stardom

American Indian actor Adam Beach made his debut in the Sundance hit Smoke Signals, and he recently delivered a well-reviewed turn in Clint Eastwood's WWII epic Flags of Our Fathers. Beach talks to Farai Chideya about his latest role in the new HBO film Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, as well as the tragic childhood that led him into acting.

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

I'm Farai Chideya and this is NEWS & NOTES.

Hollywood is a tough town for actors. But if you're black, brown, red or anything other than white it can be downright cruel. That's why Adam Beach's career is so exciting. A Saulteaux Indian from Southern Canada, Beach has defied convention. Rather than playing stereotypes, he's taken on a series of American Indian characters as complex as they are compelling.

Beach exploded onto the scene with the Sundance hit "Smoke Signals." But you're most likely to recognize him as the tormented Ira Hayes from Clint Eastwood's "Flags of Our Fathers."

Beach's next movie is HBO's "Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee." He plays Charles Eastman, a Sioux Indian taken from his family as a boy and forced to assimilate. As an adult and a trained doctor, he moves to the reservation to help his people. There, Eastman collides with his well-meaning mentor, U.S. Senator Henry Dawes played by Aidan Quinn.

(Soundbite of movie, "Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee")

Mr. ADAM BEACH (Actor): (As Charles Eastman) I simply do not see how placing each Indian man on the desolate 168-acre parcel of land is going to lead his children to medical school.

Mr. AIDAN QUINN (Actor): (As Henry Dawes) It will in time. But first, this must pass or I guarantee you destitution is all the Sioux will ever know. I have many opponents, Charles, in the press, in Congress.

Mr. BEACH: (As Charles Eastman) You have an opponent before you, sir.

CHIDEYA: I recently sat down with Adam Beach to talk about "Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee," his meteoric rise and the tragic childhood that stirred him into acting.

Mr. BEACH: As a kid, I was just led out in the morning to go spend my day with my friends and just run in the woods. And I'd only come home to eat or when I was thirsty. But if you were a real Indian, you wouldn't come home till the evening because you were already hunting and starting a fire and cooking your own food out there. And if you consider, like, me during that at seven years old. Now…

CHIDEYA: Did you hunt?

Mr. BEACH: Oh, dude, I would go…

CHIDEYA: At the age of seven?

Mr. BEACH: Yeah. I would go - my dad taught me how to snare and you just kind of, you know, find your own way to eat. Like, I remember as a kid, I'd follow the rooster and the chickens and watch what type of grass they'd eat. And me and my friends would eat that grass, like that was our lunch. We'd do berry picking and we'd always have an older relative with us who was a couple of years older who was able to, you know, shoot. And we'd just, you know, build a fire next to a big tree and we'd cook partridges or we'd catch somebody's snare and strip a rabbit and cook the rabbit. You know what I'm saying? It's a whole different lifestyle growing up where I was, you know.

CHIDEYA: Did that change when you lost your parents, or did you continue, you know, when you were raised by other relatives, pretty much living in the same way?

Mr. BEACH: Yeah, well a lot, like - growing up, a lot changed definitely when my parents died. Like, my mom was eight-months pregnant, she was hit by a drunk driver in front of our house and died in a ditch. And then, two months later, my dad drowned, and he was just depressed by the loss of my mom and the baby she was carrying. And a lot of people don't realize, growing up I was sexually abused. And when my parents passed away, it took me out of that the next day and I grew up in the city with my Uncle Nat. So there was a lot that I had to deal with growing up that's become my strength today.

CHIDEYA: Is that what led you to acting, that you…

Mr. BEACH: Oh, yeah. Yeah, acting definitely has been - well, it started out as a way to run away from my aches and pains and creating a new identity. But then, after about five years of working in film, I found myself starting to work with characters that related to my personal story. And "Smoke Signals" was the first one where it was dealing with the death of a father, and my personal dilemma was I was expected to say something to them once, just even if it was in anger or in utter love. But I'll never get that opportunity. And here I was living my life through a movie called "Smoke Signals," dealing with alcohol.

Like, I remember my family, my parents when they were alive. They were like the social butterflies, they'd always have parties. And I was always surrounded by, you know, beer bottles and relatives or friends that would, you know, crash out and hang out. So I'm very comfortable around the alcoholic nature, you know. But I always grew up understanding that, you know, I didn't have to become an alcoholic to notice my problems, because I was already a child of an alcoholic.

There's a lot in my life that I talk to people about and they still try to figure me out, because I'm still trying to figure out who the hell I am. I came - my biggest change in my life was when I turned 28, and it was the age that when my parents passed away and I always told myself when I was younger that I wouldn't live past that. I just didn't have the energy to move forward with my issues in abandonment, et cetera.

And I realized that Adam Beach was just an emulation of stories that my family told me about my mother and my father. And I tried to emulate them as best as I could, so I basically found out that I was my mother and my father, and I was like, well, who the hell am I?

So I took two years to deal with the loss and the issues I had with growing up in the anguish of losing my parents. And I told myself that at 30 I'm going to start living and finding out who Adam is. So I'm 34; I tell people I'm four years old. And if you could tell me something about me, please let me know because every day is a new experience. I feel like a child.

CHIDEYA: So what was it like throwing yourself into Charles as a character who lost his parents young, someone who, like you, was put from one situation to the other, and to also deal with the bigger issues that the movie brings up about the history and the pain and the genocide of native peoples?

Mr. BEACH: Well, the hardest thing for me on this film was trying to get rid of the victim portrayal that comes so easy for me, you know. Because of my own experience, I could say easily, oh, poor me, you know. I've lost some much, oh, I can cry. When I was talking to Eve, Eve was like, Adam, we have to find the strength in Charles. Because there becomes a strength in him at a young age to being able to adjust so fast, leave his father to be assimilated, and accept it all while maintaining his identity through it all, you know.

So we had to capture the strength in Charles, and that was the hardest for me. Because I know how to vent emotion, I know how to feel sorry for myself, but to find the strength to go through all of that, that's something that I've never really portrayed before.

So, for me, it was just to get a sense for the audience to let them realize you have the strength in you. You have the strength to hold on to your spirit, because nobody can take that away from you. And that's the strongest message I hope people get from this behind the effect of seeing what had happened to the Indian people, you know.

CHIDEYA: Part of my families from southern Africa, and so I have a tribal affiliation. I have a totem animal, which is the zebra. I understand that your folks, it's a bear totem, is that correct?

Mr. BEACH: Yes. I'm from the Bear clan.

CHIDEYA: Right.

Mr. BEACH: And my spirit name is Ogimawmakuk(ph), leading bear man.

CHIDEYA: Wow.

Mr. BEACH: Yeah.

CHIDEYA: How did you choose the path that you ended up taking through the world of film?

Mr. BEACH: When I initially started acting, all I wanted to do was to be in one movie. That's it. That was my goal. And I so happened to get an audition for a movie. I didn't get it, but I got an extra role; and I was paddling a canoe and I was in front of Graham Greene. And, for me, that gave me so much gratitude and to have accomplished something that I'd press pause to watch my scene that lasted 10 seconds paddling this canoe. And just that image gave me a sense of understanding that there's something out there. And I always believed in if you give your best, people will see it and it moves to the next level. I got my first movie and I gave it my best. Before I was done that movie, I was offered my first feature film.

CHIDEYA: Why is it important for you to do films like "Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee?"

Mr. BEACH: Well, number one, it's who I am. And I believe there's a knowledge in our peoples that needs to be shared amongst the world. There's a perception and image that Hollywood has created in the past that kind of really reflects the opposite of who we are as people. That needs to change. So I feel very strong in changing that image and that perception. And I feel at a young age that I was the guy, the role model, the one to be aware of that, so I stayed away from alcohol, drugs, I don't smoke, kind of square. But it's important to acknowledge ourselves in that positive light.

CHIDEYA: Adam, that's perfect. Thank you so much.

Mr. BEACH: Thank you.

CHIDEYA: Adam Beach has just been cast as a regular on a new season of "Law and Order: Special Victim's Unit." We were talking about his most recent film, "Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee." It premiers on HBO this Sunday.

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