To say the past several years have been life-changing for Eugene Brave Rock would be an understatement. It all started when he got the call that he would star in Wonder Woman as “The Chief,” an active participant and contributor to the heroine’s journey to save the world. He played a considerable part in the film and even brought his Blackfoot culture with him onto the big screen.
His role in this record-breaking blockbuster propelled him to fame. He’s been featured in hundreds of publications, newspapers and online sites across the globe, and has covered the front page of a handful of magazines already. However, Native Max is the first Native American publication he’s been asked to grace the cover, which is why he didn’t hesitate the feature.
I approached Brave Rock on Twitter, the social media network he’s regularly checking up on, with the question of if he’d be interested in being on our cover. Without thinking about it, he replied, “It would be an honor.” Fast forward a few weeks, and we’re coordinating the cover shoot. We settle on shooting in San Francisco, at some of the city’s iconic sites such as the Golden Gate Bridge. Our team picks up Brave Rock and his son from their home and drive to San Francisco to meet up with Joey Montoya, the photographer for the shoot. Although the shoot took all day, Brave Rock had fun. “So much fun in San Fran,” he admits. “Great locations and an amazing, beautiful sunny day. Views were amazing.”
This time is the second time I’m meeting with Brave Rock, but this time I’m interviewing him for his feature. The cover shoot was more relaxed. The interview is a little nerve-wracking. Studying Brave Rock and watching him on Wonder Woman three times seemed to set the bar higher. But his eagerness helps me calm down. “I just took some notes from the questions you sent me,” he says before we start the interview. “They were good questions. They made me think.” He tells me being featured in a Native American magazine inspires him to be more relatable.
Brave Rock is Blackfoot from the Blood Tribe of Siksikaissksahkoi, or Blackfoot Country. He was raised by his grandmother Florence on the Canadian side on the Blood rez in southern Alberta. “I’d rather represent who we are before there were borders. Blackfoot country” he says. He grew up with Chief Mountain –one of the most prominent and oldest peaks along the Rocky Mountain range– in his backyard. Brave Rock, whose traditional name is Natoiyiipiita, or Holy Eagle, is a self-proclaimed rez kid from the Blood rez.
And like other rez kids in remote areas, Brave Rock watched movies and idolized Native American actors on the tv screen. One of Brave Rock’s earliest people of inspiration was the late fellow Blackfeet actor Steve Reevis. “As a kid seeing him on film, I think it was Geronimo with Wes Studi,” he recalls. “I remember seeing Steve on tv and being inspired. I thought to myself, ‘if he can do it, why can’t I do it?’” Brave Rock watched other Native American actors that were on the big screen, and one day knew he would make it there. “I remember telling my sister, ‘you’re going to see me on television riding a horse’.”
Although it seems like an overnight success, this has been a trek Brave Rock has been on since the age of 17. His start into the film industry happened when he became a stuntman after training to ride, fall and fight in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show in Paris, France. He signed onto more tv shows, and films as a stuntman, most notably on the tv series Hell on Wheels as fellow Native American actor Moses Brings Plenty’s stunt double and the Oscar-winning film The Revenant. When asked if he favored being a stuntman, Brave Rock says he takes any opportunity that comes his way whether it’s stunts or acting. “You know, I got into the business being an extra, but I became a stunt guy right away,” he explains. “It’s progressed, and everything has become a stepping stone in my career.” He admits that both acting and stunts are just as challenging to each other. “Stunts are physically challenging, but so is the mentality of acting. I like to learn something new every day and challenge myself.”
I asked Brave Rock what his first experience working in movies was like, and the first film he took part in came to mind. “I worked on Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee where there were probably 50 to 100 extras, so I got to meet a lot of people,” he answers. “What stands out to me the most are the people I got to meet.” I then asked what his experience was like working with The Revenant. “It was cold!” he laughs. “It was so cold, but it was amazing as well. So thankful to be apart of such an epic movie. With what Alejandro [G. Iñárritu] and Chivo did, I’m so thankful to be apart of that stunt crew.”
Brave Rock reflected back to when he auditioned for the role of Chief in Wonder Woman. He had no idea it was for Wonder Woman when they gave him a ghost script to read off. “I thought I bombed my audition,” he laughs. “It was my first time in L.A., I was so nervous, and I forgot my lines. I was overwhelmed.” Brave Rock ended up walking out feeling down and wished he could redo his audition. “But I had to rub it off, and I had to take it for what it was. I got a free tour of Warner Brothers’ Studio, and I had the opportunity to go to Hollywood.” Brave Rock never thought he’d hear from the casting crew again. A couple of months later they called him and not only told him he nailed his audition but what the audition was actually for. Brave Rock was with champion fancy dancer Luke Whiteman getting ready for a performance when he got the good news. “I got the call, and I let out a war cry. It was surreal and to be honest, and it’s still so surreal. I still can’t believe it.”
After hearing the news of his role for Wonder Woman, he got to work right away. Brave Rock met with the film’s director Patty Jenkins, who broke some bittersweet news to him. “Patty was amazing and respectful. My first meeting with her, she brought that up. I didn’t know my name was ‘Chief’” He considered that “fighting words.”
Something Jenkins did allow Brave Rock to change was his language. As you may have noticed in the movie, as Chief greeted the group when they arrive at the campsite, he said something to Diana (or Wonder Woman) in which she answered, “and I’m Diana.” There were many languages spoken in the film accompanied with English subtitles, except for when Brave Rock’s character spoke. This was no accident. Out of respect for me and my culture, she said, ‘do you speak your language?’ I answered ‘yeah,’ and she said, ‘in spite of calling you Chief I will let you introduce yourself in your own language.’” And that is why Brave Rock introduced himself in his Blackfoot language. To see the director of the film even consider Brave Rock’s concerns speak volumes. Brave Rock likes that the movie didn’t put any subtitles. “It was a little mysterious. The only people that would understand me are Blackfoot people who understand and speak the language.” I shared with Brave Rock how tens of online forums and discussion popped up online theorizing what he said and why the film didn’t have subtitles. He also agreed with me when I suggested how that helped create a positive buzz and a fanbase for his character.
What makes this situation more incredible is who his character in the movie was. If you hear him clearly, Chief referred to his name as “Napi.” Napi in the Blackfoot culture is a storyteller, the first man the Creator created. For Brave Rock, he gave Napi another breath of life, bringing a huge part of his culture and his roots with him on the big screen. This is unlike anything seen before in the world of entertainment. It was significant for Brave Rock to include the Blackfoot in the film. “For me, growing up I would hear Napi stories,” he recalls. “Napi and the rock, there are hundreds of Napi stories.” In each story of Napi, there’s a lesson to be learned. Napi teaches you a lesson through everyday scenarios. “Again, I’m so thankful that I not only got to share my language but also a part of my culture by sharing the Blackfoot Demi-God Napi in the story.”
Napi is everything to Brave Rock. When he goes into an audition, he puts down tobacco and prays to Napi. “Napi is our storyteller, and he’s my educator. Being that storyteller, I ask Napi to walk in my shoes.” This then highlights Brave Rock’s mission and journey as an actor. He doesn’t only consider himself an actor, but a storyteller also. “Those stories were strong when I was a kid, but we’re losing that oral tradition and I think acting and doing what I’m doing in the movie business is an extension of that oral storytelling in a contemporary way.” Brave Rock admits that many people in Indian Country think that Native American actors are selling out our culture, but he looks at it differently. “In the tradition that’s how we told our stories and that’s how we keep our traditions alive. I think that’s very important.”
I ask if his role as Chief, or Napi, taught him anything about himself. “Ikgakimat. In my language we call it, ‘you never give up, stay strong and it’ll all be worth it in the end.” He adds that dreams do come true, even for a kid from the Blood rez. Brave Rock’s participation in Wonder Woman is unforgettable as he was a Native American actor who owned his character. According to Brave Rock, he was able to bring some dignity to “the Chief” by not playing stereotypes.
The success of Wonder Woman was not a surprise to Brave Rock. “I anticipated it was going to be huge.” I ask him why he thought that. “First of all, Wonder Woman is 75 years old, and she hasn’t had her major blockbuster movie yet, right?” He continues, “Female superhero, I was like, ‘wow, this is going to be huge!’” Brave Rock adds that adding Patty Jenkins to the table just brought more to it, on top of featuring a top-notch cast and crew. Of course, I asked Brave Rock how it felt to work alongside these famous actors you see in movie theaters. “The cast was amazing. Everybody was so down to earth and so knowledgeable, it was like going to school. Watching them behind the camera doing their scenes was like sitting in class getting educated.” Another unforgettable moment for Brave Rock was when he got to drive a 1916 Rolls Royce in the film. “That was a cool part, to drive that 1916 Rolls Royce, trying to find a way to get into that castle. Not too many people get to drive a Rolls Royce.”
Another passion for Brave Rock is his language. I recall mentions of a book releasing soon during the cover shoot. “A children’s book, I’m trying to get my language out there,” he explains. “It’s hard for the younger generation to learn the language and its importance. Our language is who we are.” His children’s book, titled Hello… Fruit Basket is a backyard visit like no other. The story follows Eugene and his son Colt, and their daily journey as they take a morning stroll and appreciate the fantastic world around them. The book also features the Blackfoot language. “We get to share our language. It’s an educational thing.” Brave Rock adds that the book will be released in the U.S. on February 9th and in Canada on March 9th.
The last few years for Brave Rock have been overwhelmingly busy. On top of his upcoming projects and releases, Brave Rock is also a family man. “It’s a tough balance when I’m away from my family working,” he says. “Because my son is accustomed to being with daddy every day, Facetime is great for catching up and getting to see him.” I asked if the last few years, from working on Wonder Woman to its release, have been transformative for him. “Yes most definitely,” he answers. “The fact that my character was portrayed in the light of a hero has probably made the most impact. Because our people are never portrayed in a positive light, being on screen speaking my language. There’s a lot of power in that.”
Of the whole conversation with him, I can’t help but notice how humble and soft-spoken Brave Rock is. He’s worked with Hollywood movie stars in a film that grossed more than $100 million and may potentially star in the Wonder Woman sequel. There’s no doubt that this opportunity opened more doors for him. Yet, he never forgets to mention how grateful he is throughout our talk. I ask him how he remains humble. “Never forget where I come from and giving thanks for the footsteps I’ve taken and asked for guidance in the footsteps I’m about to take. Faith and gratitude are key.”
I poked at Brave Rock, trying to get some exclusive information on if Napi or Chief will have his standalone film. “Nice try!” he laughs. I asked if there’s anything he’s personally working on. “I have so many productions in film and television coming up,” he answers. “I’m also releasing a flute CD.” Brave Rock admits he had big dreams and big goals when I inquired about what his future looked like. “I see the opportunity to share our stories through our own eyes, and it’s happening. And I’m so glad to be apart of this change.”
His words of wisdom for the Native youth are just as encouraging. “When it comes down to it, I’m just a kid from the rez. I live and work around the world now,” he continues. “I want the younger generation to know to keep their cultural values close. I wouldn’t be where I’m at without them.” Brave Rock reminds the youth to get out and learn their language and never to forget where they came from. “No matter what tribe we are, we come from a long line of warriors and chiefs. Be proud of that. Dreams do come true.”