The Spears Brothers—Rising Stars Call Bozeman Home
BY PAT HILL
Bozeman may seem an unlikely home for working film actors, but that's precisely the draw for brothers Eddie and Michael Spears, Native American actors who say they prefer the mountains of Montana to the Hollywood Hills.
Eddie Spears currently plays Joseph Black Moon in AMC’s popular new TV series Hell on Wheels, a post-Civil War Western immersed in the building of the transcontinental railroad, and Michael just finished filming Winter in the Blood, the screen adaptation of Montana author James Welch's first novel, set on the Fort Belknap Reservation. Eddie and Michael’s projects in the works this year include a second season of Hell on Wheels for Eddie and both actors will be involved in new films. It's safe to say Hollywood and the wider film world will be keeping the Spears brothers busy for some time, but until filming kicks in this spring, they will be keeping the home fires burning in Bozeman, where they took time to talk with the Pioneer in February at a downtown coffee shop.
“I love being able to say I work from home,” said Michael, who has lived in Bozeman for the last three years. Michael and Eddie both grew up on the Lower Brule Sioux Reservation in South Dakota. Michael broke into films in 1990 as the young Cheyenne boy Otter in the groundbreaking movie Dances with Wolves. Eddie followed his older brother into the movie world in 1993 at age 10, in Geronimo on cable television's TNT network. Both actors have appeared in many films and television shows since then.
“Montana's my home now,” Michael told the Pioneer. “I have two beautiful sons I'm raising here. I hope to be building a house and planting roots here some day. And Eddie's here now.” Eddie moved to Bozeman in October after shooting the first season of Hell on Wheels in Canada, where he said he became captivated by the Rocky Mountains.
Though both Eddie and Michael had been through the area previously, it was Bozeman's Hatchfest film festival that first allowed them to spend quality time in the Gallatin Valley nearly 10 years ago.
“I really fell in love with the area when I got to spend some time up in the mountains at Jennie's house, and got to experience some of the Bozeman buzz,” said Michael, referring to Jennie Saks, the brothers' film agent, manager and friend. “Right now we're just living life and loving the area…hunting, fishing, the atmosphere itself… there's just a good energy here.” Eddie and Michael said they have met fellow Lakotas in the Bozeman area, and feel fortunate that they are able to carry on with some of their Native traditions, such as sweat lodge ceremonies.
“But you've gotta go where the work is,” Michael said, and the film industry keeps actors and other professionals on the move.
“I've been staying pretty busy,” Eddie told the Pioneer. “I just finished Hell on Wheels, premiering the first 10 episodes of season one. It went really good…we opened up with the second-biggest television premiere in AMC history [4.4 million viewers, behind the network's other hit series, The Walking Dead], and stayed up at four and a half stars for all the episodes. So, I'm very happy about that.” Eddie said filming for season two is slated to begin in April.
“I had a good feeling about Hell on Wheels, because of the camrad-erie of the cast,” said Eddie. “I knew a lot of my fellow actors, and they all said they've never felt such a feeling of family on a project. The hype was there after the first few days of shooting…you could just tell it was going to be a great project. Everyone was very passionate about it, and I'm humbled to be a part of it.” Eddie's character, Joseph Black Moon, is a Cheyenne, and a character Eddie said he can relate to.
“I'm Lakota, and the Cheyenne and [Lakota] were friends from long ago,” Eddie said, “and while many things were different between us, many of our traditions are similar. There were many things I could relate to…[my character] leaving his homeland is like me leaving the reservation for the city. Joseph is very curious and he wants to fight for his people as much as he can. If that means learning the ways of his enemies inside-out, and eventually even becoming friends with them, and understanding every aspect of where they come from, it will help him better understand how to help himself and his people. He has a long way to go yet, Joseph…he's just figuring out what he stands for and what he believes in. He's being forced to show that, recognize that, in front of people he doesn't even know, and he's caught between two worlds. I'm excited to see where we're going to go with that [in the second season].”
Eddie said a Native American's struggle between two worlds is a commonality even today, as people struggle to retain their culture while at the same time existing in the realities of the day. And many Native Americans still experience a sort of “rez racism” that discounts their culture and makes it more difficult for young Natives to want to retain it.
“A lot of it is just ignorance,” said Eddie. “Entertainment is a great vehicle to show our beautiful cultures, our beautiful ways of life, and hopefully bridge those gaps. That's what I would love to do.”
The project Michael recently finished, Winter in the Blood, has been brought to the screen by brothers Alex and Andrew Smith, who were born and raised in Montana and grew up knowing the book's author, James Welch. Eddie worked with the Smith brothers on location in 2002, on the The Slaughter Rule, which was also filmed in Montana, and happened to be Eddie's first trip to the state. Michael said he enjoyed working with the Smith brothers up on Montana's Hi-Line.
“We did Winter in the Blood up in Havre,” said Michael. “I had a great time up there, and was able to incorporate a couple of my friends into some scenes. I had worked with many of the actors before…the Native American acting community is very small…so we all melded pretty quickly. I like the story…basically a story of self-discovery.” The story principally takes place in Montana Indian country, and some common themes about reservation life, including alcoholism and racial identity, are examined.
“My character is a rough-and-tumble drunk…a cowboy…who just got out of the pen,” said Michael. “He’s always out to have a good time…to get one over on somebody. I don't want to ruin it for you…the end is a real kicker. But in the end he finds himself, and a lot of the elements of the story come together.”
Other recent productions the brothers participated in are slated to hit the market this year, including The Legend of Hells Gate: An American Conspiracy, set in post-Civil War Texas, distributed worldwide by Lionsgate Productions, and Yellow Rock, a film Michael described as a “period piece,” set in the 1880s, in which he and Eddie got to work with several of their fellow Native American actors. Yellow Rock won a Best Picture award at the 2011 Red Nation Film Festival, and Michael won Best Actor for his performance in the production. The brothers will also both appear in a Freefall Films production, Guns, Girls and Gambling, set for release this summer.
“I'm just looking forward to this year, to see what it brings,” said Michael. “I've made a lot of wonderful friends along the way, and this career choice I've made has strengthened my ties to my family, and to back home [in South Dakota].”
“This is only the beginning,” said Eddie. “Entertainment is a great vehicle. We can help save the earth, have an opinion about what goes on in the world…we can help our youth, even create jobs for them. I'm glad Natives are taking the initiative to tell their own stories. But I won't be completely happy until Native Americans are writing Native American pieces about their own culture. I would love to see the day when we have our own TV sitcoms, our own radio and TV stations…doing our own feature films, and having our own companies. That is something for our youth to strive for…it could snowball into anything.”