Jessica Chastain, one of Hollywood's most outspoken stars, knew exactly why she was drawn to her new film, the female-led Western Woman Walks Ahead. "I want to work with female filmmakers," she states, simply. "I'm so tired of seeing the same faces over and over again. Women aren't given the opportunities to direct.
While Woman Walks Ahead is scripted by Steven Knight – the creator of the BBC series Peaky Blinders – it is directed by Susanna White. The British filmmaker has adapted John le Carre's Our Kind of Traitor for the big screen, as well as directing episodes from such high-profile television as Generation Kill, Parade's End and Trust, all masculine-driven stories, but Woman Walks Ahead is different. "It's a true story of a woman who is a New York painter in the 1880s who had a relationship with Sitting Bull," explains White. "It's a political story about Native American land rights."
Chastain plays the painter in question, Catherine Weldon. Canadian actor Michael Greyeyes (The New World) is the legendary Native American and Hunkpapa Lakota leader who famously led resistance against the United States government.
It begins as the wealthy widowed Weldon travels from Brooklyn to the Dakotas in the hope that she can paint the ageing Sitting Bull. He agrees, as long as she pays him US$1,000 (Dh3,600). “The only portrait of Sitting Bull is the one she painted,” says Chastain, who admits she knew nothing of the story until she came across Knight’s script. As the story unfolds, their bond grows. “They had this incredible friendship,” the actress adds.
In Chastain’s eyes, the film offers the ideal lens onto America’s social and political upheavals. “This is four years before women had the right to vote, so women didn’t have a voice in society and also Native Americans didn’t have a place in society,” she says. “It’s the beginning, the making of the country.” Nevertheless, the subject matter meant it was anything but easy to get off the ground.
While Chastain was attached for a "long time" to the project, she says, the script has been circulating in Hollywood for the past 15 years. It was only the second script Knight had ever written – originally penned for The Last Samurai director Ed Zwick to film. "At that point it was actually frankly hard to finance a film on an actress and a Native American," says White.
Fortunately times have changed. When the budget finally came together, typically it arrived with a real sense of urgency. “It was ‘We got financing, we gotta go now!’” Chastain recalls. “It was one of those situations – either do the film or let it go. And it was so important to me because of what it was about … I wasn’t just going to say, ‘I’m sorry guys, I’m not going to make the film.’”
Working with the indigenous actor Greyeyes was vital for Chastain. “It’s the first time he’s ever really been able to play a lead character of a big movie, because they don’t have lead roles for Native American actors in scripts. It’s really important for me to create stories that have characters of all ethnic backgrounds and allow gender balance. For me, it’s way more interesting to tell a story from a point of view that’s not my own.”
Greyeyes is not the only impressive male talent supporting Chastain. Irish star Ciaran Hinds (There Will Be Blood) cast as James McLaughlin, the Unites States military boss who – despite being married to a Native American woman himself – warns off Catherine from meeting Sitting Bull. Then there's Sam Rockwell, who recently won an Oscar this year for his role in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.
Rockwell’s sly soldier Silas Groves demonstrates contempt for the Native Americans and Sitting Bull in particular. “I’m this guy who is warning her about him and I’m the mediator in the film,” says the actor, whose character is something of a turncoat – “an ex-Confederate soldier who is a union soldier now, which did happen occasionally”.
While New Mexico doubled for the Dakotas, White was keen to create as authentic an experience as possible. Production designer Geoffrey Kirkland even built Sitting Bull’s cabin to its exact dimensions using real logs. When one Native American, Bob Morina, arrived to play one of the elders, he burst into tears. “It was taking him back to this place where his grandparents had lived,” says White.
During the film's US release, critics rounded on what Rolling Stone called "Hollywood airbrushing" – not least the fact that Chastain and Greyeyes are 15 years younger than Weldon and Sitting Bull (who died in 1890) were. And yet it can't be denied that Woman Walks Ahead fulfils Chastain's desire – to "create more opportunities for more voices in American cinema". In that way, she truly walks ahead.