Michael Greyeyes started out his career as a dancer and has since become one of the go-to actors to play Indigenous icons onscreen, including Crazy Horse (in a 1996 TV film) and Sitting Bull (in 2018’s Woman Walks Ahead). But while he has built up quite the rep in playing gravitas, one thing he didn’t have much experience with was comedy, up until Rutherford Falls. On the Peacock comedy series, Greyeyes, who is Plains Cree, throws himself into the goofier world of the sitcom, playing a casino manager named Terry Thomas who turns out to have a grand scheme to bring an old contract between his tribe and Ed Helms’s family, the Rutherfords, to court.
Greyeyes described the experience of joining the show — led by Helms and Jana Schmieding, who plays Reagan, the woman running a cultural museum within Terry’s casino — as a bit like “stepping into a NASCAR race” to keep up with the comedians. He clearly took to the comedy and gets to show off his range as both an avuncular figure for Reagan and an antagonist to the Rutherfords. With the series out on streaming, Greyeyes caught up with Vulture over Zoom to discuss acclimating to comedy, working with Indigenous decision-makers, and why he feels a need to push the envelope in his own work.
You’re mostly known for dramatic roles. What was it like to suddenly step into comedy with Rutherford Falls?
People were flying and they knew what they were doing, and in comedy they were like fish to water. So I was like, I have to speed up. I’ve got to bring it.
Were there things you picked up from your co-stars about how to approach it?
They’re brilliant actors. Although their experience is primarily in comedic roles, that’s a technically harder realm of acting because, in order for things to work, there are minute adjustments that need to be made all the time. I think I’m a good listener and watcher, so I watched them. But what really helped me was Sierra Teller Ornelas was always there, our directors were savvy, and Mike Schur was there. Sometimes they’d be in my ear after a take and would give me options [for the next take]. What I realized was that flexibility was one of the primary attributes I had to bring to work every day. They’d throw lines at me. They’d go, “Michael, try this line!”
You’ve played a number of famous Native figures onscreen over the years, but the show is focusing on a fictional tribe, the Minishonka. How did you all think about what the tribe’s specific identity would be?
It was really important that we brought in the intricacies of the families we know and grew up with and were part of our community. That’s the part of the culture that’s really specific and not made up. It’s the way we operate. One of my nicknames on the set after a couple weeks was Uncle Mike, and nobody calls me Mike, except my sister, and my parents when they were alive. I was delighted that they recognized my uncleness on the show. They’re fictitious characters, but the truth always comes from who we know we are.
The show’s fourth episode gets into Terry’s backstory and basically his whole worldview, which ends with this big monologue you have to deliver about how he intends to game the capitalist system in order to benefit his tribe. What was it like filming that?
That one, I actually had a terrible day on set; I was dissatisfied with my work. I’m a bit like that anyway, because I feel like one of my jobs at this point in my career is to push the envelope of Indigenous performance. I realized that a character like this had never been written for TV before — someone as complex and nuanced and smart and righteously angry. But also soft, too. I had to, like, kill it. So I left the set kind of down, but when I saw the final cut, I was like, Okay, that was all right.
But for me personally, these are lines that Indigenous people have wanted to say in our encounters with settler culture year in and year out for our entire lives, to be able to simply and bluntly speak our truth to power and be unapologetic. To say, “You’ve called me ‘marginalized,’ but I’ve been in the center of my cultural experience” — what that speech and what that episode did was recenter our viewing frame dead into the middle of where we’ve been living all this time. When I first read that speech, I practically cried.
It’s also about Terry’s own relationship to power and how he thinks about using a system for his own people. It’s interesting in the context of a show that’s about Native culture and made through the system that is Hollywood.
If you understand our industry, you have to speak about the dynamics of power and about access. That really is the end goal of power: Can I access that script? Can I access that role? Since its dawning, we’ve been outside the access. So when I’m on the Paramount lot filming a Universal TV series with all the benefits of that, I recognize that this is a unique position for me as an Indigenous man. I know that it cannot be squandered in any way. We have an opportunity, and we have eyes on us. Maybe it’s a burden that I don’t need to give myself, but we have only a few chances to change the dynamic, and I’m hoping that this show is one of those.
It seems like you’re also interested in the question of what system you can build on your own. You founded Signal Theatre, which produces its own work. How do you think of that in relation to what you do in Hollywood?
My theater is really important to me. That’s where I became the artist that I am. What’s interesting about theater work and having my own company is that we are an Indigenous company. We make the decisions, we decide who’s cast, what shows are done, what we present. So in that sense, we are empowered, in the theatrical community, as decision-makers.
When I came to Rutherford Falls, I expected a previous dynamic, in which we might be centered in the narrative or within a scene but often the decisions above our pay grade are made outside of the community. It was different because the show was written by Indigenous people. Often, we had Indigenous writers, and every day Sierra was on set there to answer a question. I had never worked on a show where a decision-maker had been Indigenous. I wrote to her to say, “Every day you had my back. I’ll never forget that.”
Were there things you got on the air in Rutherford Falls that you think you never would have in a typical Hollywood production?
Countless moments like that. There’s one in episode four, with Terry’s family at the tailgate of a lacrosse game. It’s the four of us celebrating a victory and talking about what we were going to eat for dinner, and we have a beautiful SUV. I remember saying, “We don’t see Indigenous families like this on TV.” It’s how we live, but it’s never filmed. Usually it’s something else filmed: Perhaps it’s about our history, or cultural or historical trauma, but we don’t see that kind of joyousness and positivity very often.
I watched an interview you did about playing Sitting Bull in Woman Walks Ahead where you talked about how it was important that he had a sense of humor because it reflected a kind of “survivalist humor” in Indigenous communities that’s often missed in depictions of them on film. What defines that Indigenous humor for you?
It’s really about awareness. I’ve traveled all over NDN country, and I’m always blown away by the people I meet. They’re so smart and savvy and knowledgeable. I always feel like I learn whenever I travel and meet my people. That’s what the humor was. The humor was smart like we’re smart. The humor was sly, the way our humor works. I think Indigenous humor has always been based on that awareness of the precariousness of our political situation, the precariousness of our economic situation. Despite all this, we find humor in the moment. In every page of Rutherford Falls, that complex humor was present.
In the first set of episodes they sent out in advance, we only get a glimpse of Terry’s past in a rock band. Is there going to be more of that?
I won’t spoil anything, but that was really the first glimpse of Terry’s backstory. Of course, the ongoing situation between the Minishonka and Rutherford, Inc. continues to unfold, and there’s another speech Terry’s given that’s one of the most thrilling short pieces of dialogue I’ve ever seen. So we do get lots more of Terry, but I hope in upcoming seasons — I hope there’s many more — we get a lot of the backstories of the characters. I’m actually learning how to play the bass, just in case. [Whispers] Don’t tell anyone.
In a very different vein from comedy, you also have a role in the upcoming adaptation of Firestarter. What drew you to that?
I’m so excited to play John Rainbird. Firestarter’s one of my favorite Stephen King books. It also allows me to play a character that was previously played by a non-Indigenous actor. Although I’m a big fan of George C. Scott [who played Rainbird in the 1984 film], I’m excited to rewrite not only history, in this case, but to help reshape how people perceive this character, because he’s incredibly complex.
Are there aspects of Rainbird that you’ve homed in on as what you’d like to bring out, as opposed to Scott’s performance?
What I love about Rainbird is that he’s so utterly single-minded in his pursuit of what his character needs. To play someone that driven is new for me. He’s also terrifying. Working off of what I had done with Makwa in Wild Indian at Sundance, this was another way to expand the envelope of my own personal work but also to lean into the terror that Rainbird brings to the story. It’s an interesting place for me to inhabit, especially after Terry.
You’ve really pushed yourself to go into different genres and types of characters, whether comedy or horror or what have you.
It’s something I’m pursuing with my reps and with what I want with my career, but it’s also something that’s been denied to us: the opportunity to work within a larger range. I advocate for it for myself personally, and I’ve been fortunate to be able to land the roles.
Do you have a type of character or a genre that you haven’t yet landed that you would like to do?
Ooh. I love sci-fi, and … I can’t say much more about it, but there’s a little sci-fi coming down the pike that I’m very excited about as well.