Whether the makeup on the set of prospective Oscar darling The Revenant was that convincing or her Christi Belcourt/House of Valentino dress was that outstanding, Melaw Nakehk’o was unrecognizable to the film’s director at its Dec. 16 red carpet premiere in Los Angeles.
“On set, the story is we’re in this time (in 1823), the winter is coming, everybody is kind of struggling on this epic journey, so we look like that, like we’ve been going through a really hard time,” she told the Journal Friday. “When I saw Alejandro (González Iñárritu) at the after party, I went up and I was talking to him and he was just kind of looking at me. Chivo, one of the photographers, was like ‘Alejandro, that’s Melaw!’ He didn’t recognize me at all! It must mess up your head a little.”
Nakeh’ko said she was honoured to be able to use her Hollywood exposure to celebrate indigenous artists. Belcourt, the dress designer, is Métis and lives in Espanola, north of Manitoulin Island in Ontario. Nakehk’o was also wearing the jewelry of New Mexico-based artist Keri Ataumbi.
Social media was abuzz with Nakehk’o’s jaw-dropping look on the red carpet, a reaction that was hoped and planned for, she said.
“I worked with some friends, knowing if I get to go to the red carpet event, I’d really like to use that opportunity to show culturally appropriate fashion, that it’s possible to be able to collaborate with indigenous artists at a high level and make beautiful, beautiful work that honours indigenous artists’ motifs in a respectful way,” she said.
Nakehk’o knows Belcourt through social media, and had been bantering with her beforehand that she would love to wear one of the Valentino dresses on the red carpet should she be invited to the premiere. When the official invitation arrived, Belcourt arranged for Nakehk’o to wear the dress, which is from a line based on her painting Water Song.
“You don’t have this type of opportunity that often, (as) indigenous people,” she said. “The work I do in my life is for my people and for my culture and where I’m from, for the land. I teach moosehide tanning and study moosehide tanning and do my best to be out on the land as much as I can. I’m also a visual artist so it was a bit of, ‘of course this is what I’m gonna do with this opportunity.’ I have to honour who I am and just give mad props to the other artists that are out there.”
Authentic actors, natural light
Raised in Fort Simpson, the mother of three was discovered at an open casting call in Yellowknife, an event that was part of the moviemakers’ plan to find authentic indigenous actors. The Revenant, an epic 156-minute period piece set in Montana, was Nakehk’o’s first Hollywood role.
“It felt really authentic,” she said. “(Iñárritu) went out and got indigenous and Native American talent to play all of these roles, which is also a huge thing for a Hollywood movie where today we are still working toward being in roles that depict Native American people correctly, historically.”
Based on actual events, the movie follows frontiersman and trapper Hugh Glass, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, who sets out on a path of vengeance against those who left him for dead after a bear mauling. It is nominated for four Golden Globes including best picture and best lead actor for DiCaprio, and is being widely released on Jan. 8.
Nakehk’o plays Powaqa, a character with a small amount of screen time but a pivotal role in the plot. She worked on the film, which was shot in Alberta, British Columbia, Montana and Argentina, from October 2014 until last August when production wrapped. There are special effects used but notably, the film was shot using only natural light.
“The cinematography is so beautiful and epic, the landscapes and everything, it was so beautiful to see it all put together in the film,” Nakehk’o said. “I spend a lot of time on the land, so it was so beautiful (seeing in the film) how the light comes through the trees during that time of the day and appreciating how they captured those moments in nature. It was really cool. It was like art.”
Within 48 hours of tripping the light fantastic in tinsel town, Nakehk’o was back home in Yellowknife picking her oldest two sons up at school. She does not have any other acting work lined up and she is okay with that.
“The whole time I was travelling, like on Tuesday in Los Angeles, there was this huge amount of love and support from the North,” she said. “The First Nations community in Canada was huge. I felt I had to sway, go out there and represent and do the best that I can. I think we’ll see how it goes from here. If any opportunity arises that would be great, but if this is just a Hollywood one-off, it’s not that bad of a career, right?”