“It’s such an important part of history that people are so unaware of”: Lily Gladstone on Killers of the Flower Moon

The star of Scorsese's historical epic on the response from the Native American community to the film’s depiction of the ‘reign of terror’, working with the Osage people to craft the character of Mollie Burkhart and taking inspiration from Olivia de Havilland.

8 December 2023

By Catherine Wheatley

Lily Gladstone as Mollie Burkhart in Killers of the Flower Moon (2023)
Sight and Sound

Lily Gladstone caused a minor stir in Hollywood in September 2023, when she announced she’d be campaigning for the 2024 Oscars in the Best Actress category for her part as Mollie Burkhart, the Osage woman with oil headrights who falls victim to the machinations of white settlers, in Martin Scorsese’s Killers of the Flower Moon.

Most pundits had expected her to submit for Supporting Actress – perhaps because Gladstone’s is a subdued, often silent performance, especially by contrast with the bravura showmanship of the film’s two male leads; perhaps because Gladstone, who is of Siksikaitsitapi and Niimiipuu heritage, would be only the third Indigenous lead actress Academy Award nominee, after Keisha Castle-Hughes (Whale Rider, 2003) and Yalitza Aparicio (Roma, 2018), and the first from the USA. But while Gladstone may take third billing to Leonardo DiCaprio and Robert De Niro in the film’s promotion, it’s her performance that’s been singled out by many critics for praise since the film’s premiere at Cannes this year. Anthony Lane, in the New Yorker, lauded her as “unmistakably the movie’s most compelling presence”, while the LA Times’s Justin Chang described “an actor who can set off more emotional reverberations with a barely cracked smile than some performers manage in an entire monologue”.

There’s no doubt that Gladstone is both the film’s heart and its face. The frantic, testosterone energy so familiar in Scorsese’s works quietens when the camera encounters the lines and planes of that face, at once impenetrable and heartrendingly open. Gladstone herself cites Olivia de Havilland as an influence, but there’s something here, too, of what the philosopher Stanley Cavell described as Garbo’s “power of privacy”: a sense of an inner life that lies just beyond our grasp. One suspects this is what drew Kelly Reichardt to cast Gladstone in two films, Certain Women (2016) and First Cow (2019) – the former widely heralded as Gladstone’s breakthrough despite the fact that she’d already put in a luminous turn as a grieving widow in Alex and Andrew J. Smith’s Winter in the Blood (2013). She’s subsequently appeared in several films and TV shows, including Sterlin Harja and Taika Waititi’s FX series Reservation Dogs (2021-23), the first US series to feature all Indigenous writers and directors, along with an almost entirely Indigenous North American cast and crew.

Gladstone graduated from the University of Montana with a BFA in Acting/Directing, minoring in Native American Studies, and when not acting herself spent much of her early career teaching performance to native communities. In that context, and with the lessons of Killers of the Flower Moon – which refashioned its source material to decentre the ‘white saviour’ narrative and foreground the Osage perspective – in mind, the decision to run for lead actress takes on political significance: a further step towards bringing Mollie and her fellow Osage out of the shadows and into the limelight. Whether that’s a conscious move on Gladstone’s part or not, she’s a more than deserving candidate.

Catherine Wheatley: Congratulations on Killers of the Flower Moon winning the Sight and Sound Critics’ Poll for the best film of 2023. Were you pleased to hear the news?

Lily Gladstone: Oh, I’m just so happy. Everybody poured so much into it. It was such a labour of love for everyone. And when I was watching it, it really, truly felt like one of the most epic films I’ve ever seen. I think it achieved what I was hoping it would, in that it felt like one of the great films of the 30s, 40s, 50s. Back then native peoples were relegated to being the bloodthirsty savage – and now we have Mollie. People just fell in love with Mollie Burkhart. And that had the impact that we were hoping for.

Killers of the Flower Moon (2023)

Obviously, the response among international critics has been terrific. Do you have any sense of how the response to the film has been among the Native American community? I saw your tweet warning certain audiences to exercise caution about watching the film. What’s the feedback been like?

It’s mattered most to me what Osage people, especially the descendants of the victims and the survivors of the Reign of Terror, felt about the film. The response has been really overwhelmingly positive from everything that I’ve seen. We had an Osage premiere, exclusively for the Nation, before the strike, which was such a blessing. It was the last time that all of us were able to get together until the strike lifted.

One response that really, really stands out to me was Everett Waller’s, who plays assistant chief Paul Red Eagle in the film. He has that exceptional monologue in the middle, talking about how we didn’t ask for the good life, we just asked for life. Everett has a huge presence. He’s such a strong man. And he was just speechless afterwards. He came up to me and he was wiping tears out of his eyes. And he just said it was perfect. That was a wonderful moment.

As far as my tweet was concerned, that also came from a lot of conversation that took place after the Osage screening. There were resource lists that were blasted around at the time that the film premiered by established organisations in Indian country, like IllumiNative, but they didn’t have a whole lot of interaction. And I had already been having those conversations with people in the community. Osage women particularly were so grateful they were able to see the film with their families and with other people. Because they’re not certain they would’ve been able to do it alone.

Watching it with a broad audience sometimes can be a really difficult thing. Some of my closest friends have gone back to a cinema to see it by themselves without community. And they say the experience is entirely different because you’re in an audience with anybody: people who are commenting about the length, people who are laughing. Perhaps they’re laughing out of discomfort. But if you’re watching a traumatic event from your history and you hear that, it feels like they’re laughing at you.

So I found myself in conversation with people, hearing that Osage women were really hoping that people knew they had resources [to refer to, before or after] seeing it. That they would see it with other people, to be able to unpack it and talk about it. But overwhelmingly, what I was hearing from a lot of Osage people was they were just really hoping people still saw it. Because it’s such an important part of history that people are so unaware of. And engaging with it like this is such a meaningful and unforgettable way of doing so.

Killers of the Flower Moon (2023)

I was really interested, watching the film, in what was and wasn’t translated. And the role of translation for the film as a whole, actually. On the one hand, you have Scorsese, DiCaprio and De Niro, and their associated team of great white Hollywood filmmakers. And on the other hand, you have a completely different community, with their own hierarchies and their own structures. How did you go about trying to forge a new hybrid community? Did you feel that you were occupying a translator role as you were doing it?

I think a lot of projects I’ve done, I have felt that way. My father’s Blackfeet and Nez Perce, and I was raised on the Blackfeet reservation. But transitioning and moving from the Blackfeet res, where most of my peers were Blackfeet, or at least knew how to be around Blackfeet people if they weren’t, to a city, I’ve always felt like I’ve been in a position like that. When I moved to Seattle, oftentimes I was the only Native kid in my class. So would be put on the spot, sometimes, if Native history would come up in the curriculum. And a lot of times I didn’t know. I couldn’t speak for everybody.

I think a lot of Natives, when they’re working in any environment – not just film – may many times be the first Native person in that environment, so that can get really, really lonely. It can get really heavy. So coming in at this level, and being positioned in the cast where I was, there was some residual worry about, ‘Am I going to have to be a big bridge-builder here?’ But what was so wonderful about [Killers of the Flower Moon] is there was immense Native talent in this film. There were so many of us above the line, a lot of the background actors, the crew. We were there with each other and it felt like a community event. It felt like all of us getting together to do something.

And what was cool is everybody on set, including Marty and Leo and Mr. De Niro, everybody followed their lead. As Leo’s said elsewhere, we were really there to listen. Me, having had that period of my life where I felt like I was building bridges whether I wanted to or not, when I got here, I was so grateful that there had been people in production who were here that had already established multiple bridges. So I knew I wouldn’t have to do any heavier lifting than what I needed to do with this character. That’s been the case on other projects: people assume, for example, that there’s just one language that we all speak, one way of behaving, one way of life, all of that. But I had so many Osage connections that the [people behind the] film had worked so hard to create, and those relationships were built.

When I got on set, it really felt like everybody was here to learn from [the Osage]. So then it was just my job to be as I was raised to be when I’m going to visit an elder. You go, you bring a gift, you sit, and you let them share whatever they want to share. I didn’t want to go in looking like I was on a treasure hunt or mining for details.

Tantoo Cardinal, who’s been at it for decades and decades, so much longer than any of the other Native talent in the film, said she was really taken by the leadership in this film. And it was great to hear that from her because this is still relatively new for me. I hope that it sets the precedent for this kind of work, that it really gets taken seriously, that whole bridge-building thing.

Killers of the Flower Moon (2023)

How did you go about preparing to play Mollie herself? Did you draw on any of your own background?

Yeah. My clearest innate response to who she could have been came from my understanding of who my great-grandmother Lily [Gladstone’s father’s grandmother] was. When I was reading [David Grann’s] book, long before I got the scripts, I was hearing and feeling elements of maybe who Grandma Lily would’ve been in that. A very community-oriented woman, loved her kids, very devoted to Catholicism, traditional in an indigenous way and traditional in a very Catholic way. My family talks about Grandma Lily remembering the buffalo days, and then seeing the rise of the horse-drawn wagon and the car. She was alive during that period when trails were becoming roads, and people were integrating new things into our way of life, and learning how to navigate that in some pretty major ways. So I didn’t want to just be like, “All right, I’m just going to try and emulate everything I’ve heard about Grandma Lily.” It was a starting point for me.

You have those moments where you’re like, “Wow, why did this happen to me?” I remember when I got the role – I was offered it on December 1st, about a week earlier than I thought I would be hearing about anything. And December 1st was Mollie Burkhart’s birthday. Nobody designed it that way. But it felt like maybe Mollie was reaching through, had tapped my shoulder, and was picking me for something, just because of that timing. So with that, in approaching Mollie, I just asked myself, “All right. If I were some other actress and this were Grandma Lily, how would I expect her to approach my community? How would I expect her to approach my family?”

And we sat down with Margie Burkhart, [Mollie’s] granddaughter. There aren’t many people alive today who ever heard Mollie’s voice. She passed away in 1937. So we asked as many questions as we could, and were given many stories about her, thankfully, and about Cowboy and Lizzie, who were Mollie and Ernest’s kids. And that gave us a lot of clues as to how their early childhood would’ve been, how their parents may have been. They were both described as being very fun-loving and also very eccentric people. Lizzie was always throwing parties, hosting things, purchasing the newest, finest living-room sets. But she would never unpack them. She would never settle her homes in. I thought that was interesting. She never planted roots; she was constantly just going through life as if she was in transition.

Same thing with Cowboy. And he maintained a relationship with Ernest after the trial. After Ernest got home from prison, Cowboy would be with everybody hanging out and then excuse himself, saying he “had to go pick up dynamite”. That was the nickname he gave his dad in later life, when he would go spend time with him. He spent time with him, knowing that Ernest was complicit in blowing up his auntie’s house when he and his mom could have been in it. It was pure fate that they weren’t.

[So] piecing together how Mollie and Ernest would’ve been was a huge part of it. Leaning on my understanding of Grandma Lily, and then checking against community stories of grandmothers of that generation. And I just kept hearing affirmation that that was probably a good way to go.

I spent a lot of time sitting with Mollie’s photos, just absorbing them, the way people sit in front of the Mona Lisa. There are two photos: one as a younger woman, before she met Ernest – that really informs the first-act Mollie. And then I kept driving toward the last image of Mollie you see. She was closer to the end of her life and she looked very strong. She looked very peaceful. She looked like she had survived and won. So that was important to me, that I play somebody who had the fortitude to survive what she did.

The other element was folding in nods to those great films of the 40s and 50s. A lot of the performance was informed by Olivia de Havilland in William Wyler’s The Heiress (1949). That was to do with pacing, with holding a frame. The performance very much came from who I understood Mollie to be, but also was emulating de Havilland in a number of ways, restoring a Native woman to the kind of leading lady position we were excluded from in that era. And it was also taking de Havilland’s position in this high society that’s intensely patriarchal and makes women subservient, and translating that into an Osage woman, who comes from a natural local society where women own everything, where women are in charge of their money and their finances. And then translating that into how she would view Ernest: “This is a good white man for me because he could be my guardian. And he’s just going to do what I tell him,” basically. So that was fun, taking these old, classic leading ladies from the golden age of [Hollywood] and translating them to a Native woman at the time.

Killers of the Flower Moon (2023)

My favourite scene comes right at the end of the film. It’s the last time that we see Ernest and Lily together, and the penny drops for Lily, or at least something shifts between them, and it’s such a masterclass of subtext. The questions hover: what does Lily know? How long has she known? And what’s changing in that moment? How did you and DiCaprio approach that incredibly complicated dynamic?

Well, as soon as I’d seen it, I texted him, like, “Wow, we did it!” Because we didn’t have full faith the whole time that we would be able to faithfully translate this relationship that did exist in the real world. There was enough evidence that there was real love in that marriage. So we knew it was there. It was just: how do we find it? In terms of that last scene, and the subtext, one performer outside of the golden age of actresses that I really studied was Philip Seymour Hoffman, particularly his performance in Doubt [the 2004 film by John Patrick Shanley]. You’re wanting the audience to believe whatever they’ve been led up to believing until that moment. Or going back and watching it again with new information and seeing if it shifts. Or all of the things together.

So in regard to that last scene, and the question of how much she knew, there were a lot of versions that we shot. And in some of them, you see suspicion rising in Mollie a bit earlier. We always had to make sure there was somewhere for that to go. If it was landing somewhere, it was going to Hale. And understanding maybe, at most, Ernest was just protecting his uncle and not sharing everything. Or maybe Ernest was just unaware of things that were going on. But also that she was in a position where: who do you tell? [Hale] is the most powerful man in town. And there is enough evidence above ground that he actually does love our community. There’s enough evidence that he fronted this money for the investigation. So it’s that insidious nature of being manipulated. Your subconscious and your heart may be telling you one thing, but you’re being lied to so deftly that you just keep pulling up these seeds of doubt as they’re sown.

And in regard to Ernest, just not thinking that he was capable of it. But really, when Mollie starts gaining control of her mind again… there’s the element that in the beginning, she is a diabetic without insulin. She was one of the first five people on the planet to get insulin. That’s a historical fact. It was more that she was being poisoned with a combination of arsenic and morphine. So the arsenic, I was playing with the havoc it was reaching on the neurological system. The ability to hold onto and form thoughts, that had a lot to do with it, and just the physical toll, obviously.

But really where I found the clue to how Mollie would’ve not seen, even at that moment when her subconscious mind and her heart are speaking more, was the morphine. Morphine is so highly addictive. And she had an addiction she was unaware of. So she’s transferring that physical addiction of, “This is the only thing that is making me feel better right now. I must be dying because the medicine’s not working, but it’s also making me feel better,” to Ernest. Ernest was the one that was delivering it. Every time he injects her, she gets her hit, even if she’s unaware of it. In those last moments, when she’s cognizant and gaining her mind back… morphine addiction actually does leave a person’s system pretty early, but you still have that space of addiction. That’s how I was able to colour in her love for Ernest at the end as well, because they go hand in hand.

So those last few scenes, I really also emulated and modelled it on a lot of my friends who have sought treatment and came out on the other end. And I thought of times in my younger years, nowhere near as insidious as this love between Ernest and Mollie, but when I’ve had loving relationships that were really more of an addiction than real love. And what it took to just walk away from them.

► Killers of the Flower Moon is still playing in selected UK cinemas.

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