From Costner to Custer, Actor Rodney A. Grant Is Rewinning the West for Native Americans
Grant, 31, a broad-shouldered six-footer with a black banner of hair and a powerful, downturned mouth that suggests deep anger and stern pride, has fought since the very beginning—battles that include not only prejudice but alcoholism, family troubles, one failed marriage, unemployment and scrapes with the law.
He was born, the youngest of five children, on a reservation near Winnebago, Ncbr. When he was 6 months old, his grandparents took over his upbringing. "All I know," says Grant, a member of the Native American Omaha tribe, "is that my parents were having problems and left me and my two brothers and two sisters with my grandparents." When his grandfather died three years later, he continues, "My grandmother became my mother and father—and sometimes the devil in beaded moccasins. She was the world to me (she died in 1982), but there was always that deep, lonely longing for something more."
He has, perhaps, found that something with his second wife, Ka-Mook Nichols, an assistant extras-casting director he met during the shooting of Dances with Wolves. They married last November during a stop-off on the way to the movie's L.A. premiere. Nichols, who was born on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, says they'll have a traditional Sioux wedding this summer. "I never met anyone like Rodney," says Nichols, whose first husband was Native American activist Dennis Banks. "Through Rodney I learned to talk about my feelings—he would just drag them out of me. We talk all the time. He calls me Maggie," says a laughing Nichols, "because I talk as much as a magpie."
Life with Grant means not just emotional percolations but constant rounds of coffee—although he has cut back from 10 cups a day by drinking the more potent espresso. Coffee is one way Grant stays clear of the drinking problem that began around age 12. "My grandmother would lecture me about it, and I would say, 'Yeah, I'll straighten up,' " says Grant. "But alcohol never tells you when it's coming. You think, 'I can handle this,' and the next thing you know, you're dead drunk. By the time I stopped, I must have been drinking a case of beer a night." Then there were pills, pot, hashish, glue sniffing. "It's a wonder I can still think," he says. Ten years ago, after being caught breaking into a liquor store in Lincoln, Nebr., Grant was ordered to undergo counseling. He stopped drinking, moved into a halfway house and found work moving furniture.
Show business, says the high school dropout, was hardly something he dreamed about on the reservation. "I never had aspirations of doing anything more than having fun." Movie Westerns, at least, did foster one fantasy. "I wanted to see some Indian whip John Wayne's ass." With a role in a Nebraska public-television documentary about Native Americans, and a part as a traitorous Indian scout in his first movie, 1989's War Party, Grant moved toward fantasy fulfillment.
"I wish I could say I spent thousands of dollars honing my craft," he says, "but I didn't. I spent $125 getting my picture taken and developed so I could show it around. When you don't have money, that's a lot. I'd been spending money to get my car fixed because I always thought I might have to live in it."
Dances with Wolves, a triple Golden Globe award winner, should keep him out of the car for a while. For Grant—who was cast, he says, "because they liked how I looked, how I conducted myself'—what was most important in Wolves was that "Costner had the confidence of the Native American community." What Costner did not have—at least temporarily—was confidence in Grant. Wind in His Hair almost ended up Cut from the Movie when Grant had trouble learning the Sioux's Lakota language for the English-subtitled film. But with Costner on the verge of eliminating Grant's part, casting director Elisabeth Leustig stepped in to rescue the actor with daily coaching sessions ("I had to help," she says, "both as a friend and as a casting director").
In Morning Star, dialogue isn't a problem. Playing the Sioux leader who, along with Sitting Bull and Gall, demolished George Custer and the Seventh Cavalry at the Little Bighorn, Grant has virtually no dialogue. Even so, he says, this was his hardest acting job so far—not the least because there are no known photos or paintings of the real Crazy Horse. Then there was the vision scene, filmed in Wyoming, in which Crazy Horse, wearing nothing but a breechcloth and moccasins, rides through a bluish blur of ice and snow (temperature:-25°F). Even though costumer Cathy Smith stood by with blankets and dry moccasins, Grant wound up in the hospital with pneumonia for two days.
At the moment Grant, who would like to break out of warrior typecasting, is choosing his next role carefully. He hasn't even formally retired from furniture moving. For now, he and Nichols share a rented three-bedroom tract house outside Albuquerque, N.Mex., with Walter, Grant's 3-year-old son by a former girlfriend, and Ta Canunpa Waste ("Good Pipe"), Nichols's 6-year-old son by Banks. (Grant's three children by his first marriage live with their mother; Ka-Mook's three daughters live with Banks.)
Nichols stills seems a bit surprised that she and Grant have settled down. "He is quite a nomad," she says. But even nomads can learn responsibility. "Since I've had Walter," says Grant, "I've improved in that area 100 percent."
Some lessons in responsibility, Grant has learned, can have a bit of a sting. He recently agreed to pay back $660 to the government for unemployment pay he received in 1988, when he in fact was working. The misdemeanor, he says, was just a misunderstanding of the rules.
But Grant has taken on not just responsibilities, but a mantle. "There's a lot of Indian politicians who try to spread a message of hope and unity," he says, "but they speak to small groups. Acting in Dances, I spoke to millions of people. With Son of the Morning Star, you can add on many more millions." And his message? "I know it's too much to have our land back, yet to have our self-respect restored is a step in the right direction."
His own self-respect seems to be stepping that way. "A lot of people told me I was never going to be anybody," he says. "But here I am."
Tom Gliatto, Lois Armstrong in Albuquerque