One of the best and brightest young talents in Hollywood is about to impact the pop culture landscape. A second generation Native American actress, Amber Midthunder is a star on the rise. When talking with her, it only takes a few moments to realize she is laser-focused and wise beyond her years. In the past, she graced screens big and small with roles on The CW’s “The Originals,” Cinemax’s “Banshee” and A&E’s “Longmire.” Most notably, she appeared opposite of the legendary Jeff Bridges in David Mackenzie’s critically acclaimed “Hell or High Water,” which recently received four Academy Award nominations. It’s roles like these that allow her to study the process of some of the best working actors in the industry while upping her game as an actor.
This February she will showcase her talents in her most exciting and ambitious role to date as part of an ensemble cast in the FX drama “Legion.” Based on the Marvel character of the same name, “Legion” focuses on the life of a troubled young man who may be more than human. Jason Price of Icon Vs. Icon recently caught up with Amber Midthunder to discuss her blossoming career, her role on FX’s “Legion,” the challenges she encountered along the way and what the future may hold for this star on the rise.
How did you get involved with the arts early on and decide it was a path you wanted to pursue professionally?
My dad is an actor and my mom is a casting director, so the industry was something I grew up seeing and being aware of. It was never something that was suggested to me one way or another; it was just kind of there. It always interested me and, as a kid, it was always obvious to me that I wanted to act. I was the kid who had too many rules when I would play pretend! I would be like, “No, you didn’t do that right! You should do something different!” They would be like, “But … we’re playing pretend!” To which I would say, “That’s fine but you did it wrong!” [laughs] I think it was pretty obvious! [laughs] I also did school plays and things like that when I was in elementary school. I grew up in the casting office and watching my father act so, slowly, that built towards my own acting career and here we are today!
Having watched your parents and what they did in the industry, did you have reservations about pursuing a career in the business?
Never! They offered me plenty of guidance along the way. My parents have been very instrumental. I take my mom to everything I can and whenever it comes time to make a decision I ask for her advice because, you know, moms know everything! [laughs] When you are really little and you think about doing something like this, you don’t really consider the dangers and those weren’t presented to me. I like acting, so that is why I do what I do. It comes down to that and there are some important stories to tell. I think there are characters who are important to play and that is why I do what I do. If I didn’t do it, I would probably die.
Aside from your parents, who do you look to for creative inspiration?
I love people like Meryl Streep, Angelina Jolie and Leonardo DiCaprio. I really admire the work that they do. They are really great and passionate actors but also use their celebrity to be social influencers. When you have a lot of people looking to you and listening to you, I think it is important to use your voice to say something important. I really admire people who I have seen do that. I think it is also important to surround yourself with good, grounded people and I have been really fortunate to find some of those.
You have a big project on the horizon! I know we are excited about it. How did you get involved with “Legion” on FX?
Oh that! [laughs] An audition came to me and it was shrouded in secrecy! When I first auditioned, all that I knew was that Noah Hawley was the creator and showrunner and he wrote the script and would be directing it. I also knew that it was a Marvel property. I had three pages of dialogue that was not in the script and was my character, Kerry [Loudermilk]. It was so rich and amazing. All you needed was three pages to completely understand her and everything about her world. After talking to Noah, I knew the trajectory of everything she could possibly go through. To read writing like that is a gift and when you read it you know how special it is. The fact it was a Marvel show was a big selling point as well because I love Marvel properties. Noah, as a director, is just incredible and unlike anyone else! That alone was enough!
As you said, the show is very well-written. What did you bring to the character of Kerry Loudermilk that wasn’t on the original written page?
I’ve never thought about that! I don’t know. I’m not sure if I can answer that and perhaps someone on the outside would know that better than I would. With Kerry, she is such an interesting person. Every situation she is in and every scene I have with her, I try to take them one at a time. I think that approach allows me to really understand her. When you are on a show like this, you aren’t always provided with all the information you might want as an actor. When it comes to things like, “What was the character doing yesterday at 8 o’clock in the morning?” If you are playing someone normal, you could do that but when you are playing characters like these, sometimes it’s a little different. So, it’s a little difficult for me to say what I might bring to it.
In that case, what do you most relate to when it comes to this character? Is there a part of her journey that parallels yours?
She is very physical. That was fortunately something that I have grown up around. For example, I did Jiu Jitsu when I was a kid and I kickbox. I’m an outdoorsy, action kind of person! My family and I go rock climbing and shoot guns together, so it’s just kind of in my nature. I think the same is true with her life, even more so than in mine. That was certainly an avenue in which I could get to her.
What has been the biggest challenge for you with this role and on the project?
I guess it really depends on the day! Sometimes it is hard to be as strong as she is. She has this kind of thing; kind of like I was saying about being a kid and never really considering the dangers of the world around you. I think she has that and she’s so confident, brave and strong that she doesn’t really think about failing. That is something I really admire and wish I had more of. So, to answer your earlier question, perhaps I bring more vulnerability or sensitivity to the character. Sometimes balancing that vulnerability and sensitivity with somebody who is so strong is definitely a challenge.
The show has a dedicated and gifted group of writers, cast and crew. What have you taken away from the experience of being a part of this production?
This team is so wonderful. We are shooting in Vancouver and we have a lot of the crew who did “Fargo,” so they already had a really good working relationship among themselves. Coming in, with the cast, I felt we all immediately had a really good working environment. We knew we were there to be on this incredible show and to do the best art that we can. That resulted in us being really supportive of each other. We are all focused on the work first when we are working and when we are not working! We are there to support and help each other. We all have such different backgrounds as actors and as people. There was a particular scene that Rachel [Keller] and I were working on together. It was really interesting to find that the way Rachel looks at things is totally different than the way I look at things. Getting a peek into the way each actor does things the way they do, even though we get a similar result, was really interesting.
That leads to my next question. You have been a part of some great projects. What project had the biggest impact on you and your craft?
Without a doubt, “Hell or High Water.” Hands down!
I thought you might say that! It’s a great film and you had the chance to act alongside Jeff Bridges. What was that experience like?
He is a really, really kind man. What’s interesting is I also had a little scene with Ben Foster. They are so different but they are both so incredible. That was another great opportunity to look at two people, who are amazing at what they do, but do it really different ways. That was such a wonderful creative environment to be in. Although I wasn’t there for very long, so I can’t speak to what it’s like shooting an entire movie with director David MacKenzie, it seems like he’s very thoughtful and sensitive to his actors. If you look at “Hell or High Water,” it’s a very character driven movie, so it only makes sense for him to be thoughtful of what his actors want to do. To watch Jeff Bridges do his thing was amazing! He’s nominated for an Oscar for this performance, so to see him do that, be in it with him and have everything else melt away and be in that world with him was something I will carry with me forever.
While your career is just beginning to blossom, you put a lot of hard work in along the way. What stands out to you as your creative milestones?
With every single job that I’ve done, I’ve walked away a lot more knowledgeable and a lot stronger. When I was younger, I directed a couple of short films. That was the first time that I have really sat down and fleshed out a character from beginning to end. I never went to acting school, so this was a first for me. I thought about every single beat of who they were from their childhood to where they’re headed to where they want to go. It was even smaller things like what they like to have for breakfast or what their favorite color is. That was a very entry-level, eye-opening experience for me. With projects like “Hell or High Water” or “Legion,” I feel a lot of growth comes from working with people who are better than me at their craft. I think working with these talented people instinctively makes me level up and then I walk away with that and have it going forward.
You mentioned creating short films. Is that an area you hope to explore more in the future?
I think I will someday. I think it will take some more time for me to be ready for that. From what I hear of actors who also direct, it’s a lot! Acting is, without a doubt, the thing I love to do most. It brings me so much joy and it doesn’t bring me much stress in comparison. To have found my passion that way is really great. I only want to do something else if I found that same passion.
Looking to the future, is there a role or genre you’re interested in tackling?
A show like “Legion” was definitely something I wanted to do. As an actor, I think what you want to do is be as versatile as possible. I don’t think there’s one particular thing I want to do. However, I would love to do a full movie with David MacKenzie. That would be great! I think as long as there’s an interesting character and an interesting story, I’m open to all possibilities. When I read something I feel that I either have chemistry with it or I don’t. When there’s chemistry and you care, it feels really good and that’s when the performance turns out well. That’s the feeling I’m addicted to! That’s the feeling I want!
You can serve as an inspiration to many young actors. What is the best lesson we can take from your journey?
My parents always told me that when I leave a place, try to leave it a little better then it was when you got there. I think that’s something I’ve always kind of kept in my mind. Another thing that my parents have always instilled in me is that as people we want to change things. We often look at the world and think the problems are just too big for one person to change it. The thing is that individual people have a large influence over everything that’s happening in the world, no matter how big it seems. That is something I want to stress to people. When you care about something and you want to do something about it — just do it! Bringing awareness to something is the first step. For me, I feel very passionately about not using palm oil. Palm oil causes deforestation and is threatening the extinction of Orangutans. There are two types of palm out, sustainable and non-sustainable. Non-sustainable palm oil is the problem. When you start researching, you would be surprised by everything palm oil is in from dish soap to ice cream and everything else. There are many websites dedicated to the cause where you can find out more information [Check out www.saynotopalmoil.com and wwf.panda.org for more information]. I feel very, very strongly about that, so I talk to people about it and I don’t buy products that contain palm oil. It’s a small step but it’s all I have to do right now. It’s within my power and all I have to do. I don’t know how many people have stopped using palm oil since I started talking to them about it but more have stopped using it than had I not talked to them about it. I want people to understand that when they care about something they can change it and they should always be humble!
What else is on the horizon for you in 2017?
Well, hopefully “Legion” will have a Season 2. That will be exciting for us to shoot. In the meantime, I’m excited for everyone to experience the show and see all the hard work we have been doing. We finished shooting about two months ago, so it’s been a while for us. I couldn’t be more excited for people to see this! After that, I just see white and I’m waiting for the white to get filled in!
I’m sure it will! We can’t wait to see where the journey leads you next and wish you all the best!
Thanks, Jason! It was really great talking to you!
Follow the continuing adventures of Amber Midthunder when FX’s ‘Legion’ premieres on February 8th, 2017.