Roger Willie (2002 Interview)

Based on an exclusive December 8, 2002 interview at the 26th Annual Pueblo Grande Indian Market held at Steele Indian School Park in Phoenix, Arizona, Roger Willie comments on his experience acting in Spike Jones' Adaptation and John Woo's Windtalkers.

 

 


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Among the most intriguing and inspiring stories to arise from WWII are accounts of the Navajo code talkers, descendants of the men and women driven from their homes between the four sacred mountains in Navajo country less than eighty years before. Steadfastly loyal and patriotic U.S. citizens, numerous Navajos volunteered for the Marines and ended up serving as secret weapons in the Pacific campaign. Fluent in English and expert code breakers, the Japanese had been easily deciphering messages, but they were finally stumped by the complexities of the Navajo code. Thus, the code talking Navajo Marines were able to pass on military communications without the Japanese tapping into the information, finally giving the Allies a chance to capture Japanese island strongholds.

Despite the vital role the Navajo code talkers played, their mission still remained a military secret until they were publicly honored twenty-five years after the end of the war. It was another thirty some years before Hollywood recognized their contributions with the 2002 release of John Wooís Windtalkers. After many years of using white men and women to play Indians, and more recently adjusting with more sensitivity by casting Indian actors for these parts, itís fitting that Windtalkers did cast an actual Navajo for a major role in this film. The man selected was Roger Willie, who plays Charlie Whitehorse.

But Willie almost never tried out for the part. Born to the Wateredge clan and raised in Continental Divide, New Mexico, Willie was a self-employed artist when two of his nephews urged him to audition for an open casting call in 1999: "They basically talked me into it. I thought about it, but if it werenít for them, I probably wouldnít have auditioned."

Having never acted before, the producers arranged for Willie to come to Los Angeles to study with an acting coach for a week where he went over various scenarios, played them out, and occasionally discussed the scenes. But the main idea that Willie gained was the importance of understanding his character:

"When I say understand the character during that acting workshop, Iím saying that acting is about understanding your character. But as far as Charlie Whitehorse . . . he was a very spiritual man, yet I think there was a lot of strength He was very patriotic. He was very reserved in a lot of ways."

Thatís the way that Willie does play Whitehorse, who serves as a ďmentorĒ and support for Adam Beachís character in the film. Willie didnít have a particular code talker in mind when he played the part, mostly focussing on the inward feelings and attitude of his character, but he did spend a great deal of time talking with the code talker consultant (Albert Smith) hired for Windtalkers, who was ever present from Day 1 to the end of the shoot.

Navajos who see the film pick up very quickly on subtle inaccuracies, notably with the language itself, which is rated among the most difficult to learn by linguists. Although native Navajo speakers have no difficulties with the varied tones, glottal stops, and other unique sounds of the only language that the Japanese could never master, non-Navajo speakers really canít be expected to speak the language perfectly. In the old days of Hollywood westerns any Indian language would suffice for any other, so at least this project does its best to incorporate authentic Navajo language. As Willie points out, "In my opinion, Adam [Beach] has done a fairly good job, given the circumstances that a lot of these dialogues were pretty much determined at that moment. Maybe not at that moment, but not enough time to really master it."

Willie did find the filmmaking process very collaborative despite the large numbers of crew members required for the filmóthat the project required using each otherís "talents and strengths and knowledge." He describes John Woo as being especially understanding and sensitive, a man that he felt he could talk to about anything. One day on the set, Wood instructed Willie, " Roger, if there's any problems that you have, just let me know!" That enabled Willie to relax and give a more natural performance. As Willie relates, "When John Woo tells you that, it makes you feel very comfortable working around him." In spite of feeling comfortable with Woo, Willie does note a major difference between Hollywood filmmaking and more familiar Indian projects:

"Here at this art show, I know a lot of the artists, and weíre like a family. At the end of this show a lot of us continue to stay in touch. We meet again, and itís a lifetime friendship. But in the film business, itís like most people just come in and take care of business and 'boom'ógone."

Windtalkers isnít the only film on Roger Willieís resume. In addition to recent work for Showtime on a film about the Shiprock (N.M.) championship girls high school basketball team, he also has a cameo role in Spike Jonesí movie Adaptation, just released theatrically nationwide that is getting excellent reviews. A casting agent called Willie in to audition and he accepted the part. Although Nicholas Cage (star of Windtalkers) also headlines this film, Willie has no idea if Cage had anything to do with his getting the part. As he joked, "If Nick Cage said, 'use Roger Willie,' I'd sure like to know."

The biggest difference between the two movies that Willie noticed (besides the fact that he had a much larger part in Windtalkers and was needed for the entire shoot) was in the completely different directing styles between Spike Jones and John Woo during the actual filming:

"Adaptation was really fast. . . quick. The director, when they said 'Action' you could still hear the director talking to certain people, giving them suggestions. In Windtalkers there was complete silence until they said 'Cut!'"

Even though Willie has become one of the more recognizable Navajos on the reservation, he maintains an unpretentious life as he continues to work on getting his Masters degree from the University of Arizona in American Indian Studies. He handles his new "fame" in stride:

"I'm only going to use Windtalkers and this whole experience in the most positive way I can . . . that I know how. And it's basically sharing it with people. And if that brings me recognition or whatever, you know it's the audience out there. Those are the people that are going to take you somewhere. And I have to recognize that, appreciate that, and respect that, and give back to them as much as I can. . .

That's where notoriety, being successful, whatever is really attributable to the audience. They are the ones that take you places."

 

 


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