Eugene Brave Rock is not your conventional Hollywood star. Raised in Southern Alberta, Canada, Brave Rock has been chasing his dream of making it big in Hollywood since he was 17 years old. His career kicked off when he accompanied a friend to an audition. There he was chosen out of line of hundreds to be cast as an extra. Fearless and laser-focused, he soon found himself moving up the ladder in the business. He honed his skills as part of Disney’s “Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show” where he began a stint singing, dancing and performing various stunts in the larger-than-life production. After establishing himself as a truly well-rounded stunt performer, Brave Rock found more doors opening for him around every turn. It wasn’t long before found himself working as a stuntman and actor major studio projects like the Academy Award film “The Revenant” and the Emmy nominated series “Hell on Wheels.” His hard work and dedication to his craft paid off in spades when he landed a pivotal role in the Patty Jenkins’ helmed summer blockbuster, “Wonder Woman.”
In the film, Brave Rock plays “Napi,” who joins Wonder Woman’s World War I squadron to fight the raging conflicts and evil of the outside world in a “war to end all wars.” Highly influenced by his culture, Eugene opens his first scene in the film by greeting Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) in his native Blackfoot language, playing an undercover superhuman character with an origin in the Blackfoot creation myths. This small but key detail broadens the mythological background of the Wonder Woman franchise, flirting with the possibility that there may be more god-like figures to come in the DC universe. The third-highest grossing film for Warner Bros. of all time, ‘Wonder Woman,’ slayed at the box office. With the breakout role, Brave Rock hopes to honor his elders and inspire the youth holding true to his values and let people know it’s OK to be proud of who you are and where you come from. Staying true to his Native American roots, Brave Rock returns to his home often to speak and encourage young people to get out and chase their goals, but to keep their culture close to their heart.
Jason Price of Icon Vs. Icon recently caught up with Eugene Brave Rock to discuss his journey as an actor/stuntman, the challenges he’s faced along the way and the experience of honoring his heritage with his captivating role as Napi in “Wonder Woman.”
How did you initially get involved with the entertainment industry?
Honestly, I just kind of walked into it. I was discovered by a casting agent, at the age of 17, who was casting for a theatrical project about suicide. She liked my look and my long hair. I fit the profile and that was my introduction into acting! It was a very educational experience. We started off with about 6 months of rehearsals, 5 days a week. It was pretty intense and that is how I got introduced to acting! From there, I just took the best steps I could and opportunities came my way. I grabbed them and ran with them! One thing led to another and one of my first movie productions was “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee.” I actually brought a friend with me to do the casting call and I stood in line with him. I was picked from the back of the line and they hired me on as an extra. My first day on set, I was approached by a stunt coordinator and a horse wrangler. They asked me if I knew how to ride a horse. I said, “Sure!” That experience brought me up to a stuntman right away! From that project, I met somebody else who was involved with Disneyland Paris. They introduced me to the director over there and I did a small audience. I ended up being in “Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show” at Disneyland Paris, which is the world’s largest live dinner theater! Those are just a few of the stepping stones in life that have been a big part of my career. I have so much gratitude for the footsteps I have taken!
When it comes to acting, who are some of the people who had a big impact on you?
You know what? When the “Dances with Wolves” came out, it was huge for me. There were so many Native American actors in the film! There were people like Graham Greene, August Schellenberg, Wes Studi and Eddie Spears. It’s great because so many of the people I looked up to, when I was younger, I have now had the opportunity to work with! It’s been such an amazing experience! I worked with Wes Studi on several projects now and the same with Eddie Spears. There are so many! There is even one local guy, local to me, who really stood out because he is from where I grew up. He is from the Blood Tribe and his name is Leon Goodstriker. When the “Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show” started up again about 25 years ago, he played Sitting Bull at Disneyland Paris. When he came back home, he told me stories of “Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show” in Paris. Being a young kid, it was a dream job! Who wouldn’t want to play cowboys and indians for a living! [laughs] Or riding horses or chasing buffalo! He was a huge influence on me as well!
Speaking to your work as a stunt professional, I’m sure you have certain expertise. What do you consider your specialties?
My expertise includes riding horses — riding and falling. Most of my training came from the work I did at “Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show.” I did the fighting, riding horses, shooting guns and the choreography of different fight scenes.
I know a lot of hard work goes into all those aspects of the job and it doesn’t happen overnight!
Yeah! It was a process! To be honest, that process lasted me that whole year. It was something we did on a daily basis. You have to work your way up. Chasing live buffalo isn’t very easy! [laughs] It’s very unfortunate that a Native American would have to go to Europe to learn how to chase buffalo but it’s something I am very thankful I had the opportunity to do.
You are now instantly recognizable from your role in one of 2017 biggest films. How did you get involved with the DC Universe and land such an awesome role in “Wonder Woman”?
I had an invitation to come in an audition for a part in LA. I was on hiatus from working on “The Revenant” and I was coming down to California to visit and have a little vacation. I took a little detour through LA and did the audition. At the time, I had no idea it was for “Wonder Woman.” Honestly, my audition was horrible. I had driven down and it took about a day and a half. I had memorized my lines but once I got to the studio, I went blank! I’m used to auditioning in a small theater in Calgary, Alberta. This was my first time to LA, so there was a lot of anxiety and I forgot my lines! They offered me the chance to read it right from the script with a little bit of direction from Laura Kennedy, the casting director. On the spot, she said, “Oh my God! You got it! You nailed it!” I didn’t take it literally because I’ve been in hundreds of auditions and they’ve said the same thing! I never got a call back, so just took it for what it was. At the time, I just brushed it off and moved forward, which is hard when you feel you could’ve done better. I just thought, “Well, at least I got to come to LA and have a tour of Warner Brothers Studios.” I just took the good out of the experience. A few months later, I got a call! It was then when they revealed to me that they wanted to cast me for a role in “Wonder Woman.” It was amazing and I couldn’t believe it. I still can’t believe it! [laughs]
Your Native American heritage plays a huge role in your life. Did you have any reservations about taking on this role or how the character would be handled on screen?
That was the first conversation I had about the project with director Patty Jenkins. She came forward and asked me what I thought the negative stereotypes were about Native Americans portrayed in Hollywood. I mentioned that we aren’t all medicine men and certain things about the wardrobe. Patty was very respectful! One of the biggest reservations I had was that I didn’t want to be called “Chief.” That was something she brought up and out of respect for me and my people, she said, “You don’t ever have to call yourself, Chief.” That was something they couldn’t change based on how the character’s name had appeared in the comic book and stuff like that. She also gave me the opportunity to introduce myself in my own language, which is Blackfoot. That is where the creation part of Napi came from. I brought that forward, it went through the chain of people and it was approved! I was very honored! Napi, in my culture, is a demigod and a hero. He is a storyteller and an educator. It’s kind of ironic because every time I go into an audition or even go on set for a big scene, culturally, I pray, give thanks and gratitude. I put down some tobacco to Napi and ask him to walk in my shoes to help me portray this character the best way I could. It’s nice to share my culture and language with the world!
That’s awesome! How did your people, family and friends react to seeing you on the scene as this character?
You know what? When I went home and after everyone had seen the movie, it was a hero’s welcome! It was such a great experience to be able to honor our elders and inspire our youth! It’s given me a platform to speak to our youth and to tell them that dreams do come true and never stop believing in yourself. A lot of it has to do with my cultural values and I think many of these cultural values are pushed to the side these days, and many people feel we don’t need them or should not use them anymore. I don’t feel that way. For me, I need them! It’s a lifestyle. To be able to share those cultural values of speaking my language, riding horses, having long hair, singing and dancing traditionally, with our youth is an amazing opportunity. It’s those values that have brought me to where I am today! That is something I keep close to my heart and something I want to share with my people, my tribe, and the rest of Native America as well! There aren’t too many times you see a Native American brought to life as a hero figure, so I’m very thankful!
We are seeing more and more about the push for more diversity in Hollywood. As an actor and stunt performer, you are on the front lines of the entertainment industry. Are you seeing a difference as you move forward in your career?
Yes, definitely! As a Native American, I think a lot more of our stories are being told from our perspective. There are so many great stories out there and it’s exciting to see that a lot of them are being told! So, yes, I do see things changing.
You mentioned bringing your native language to the character. What else went into fleshing out Napi and bringing him from script to screen?
I had a little bit of say when it came to my wardrobe and armor, along with Lindy Hemming, the costume designer. They let me add little embellishments to my wardrobe that made it a little more unique, a little more Blackfoot and a little more Napi-style, you could say. I had been researching World War I and Native Americans at that time when I saw an old picture of a Native American holding a rifle. On that rifle, he had some brass studs. Usually, those would indicate certain accomplishments in battle or deeds that he has done. I kept that in mind and showed the picture to the armorer, John Baker. I came up with the design of a medicine wheel, which represents the 4 seasons, the 4 elements and all the races in the world. It represents so much in our culture — the mental, physical, emotional and spiritual well-being of someone. I got to put that on the stock of my gun, which was awesome! There were also little embellishments, like the Blackfoot designs I was able to put on my gun belt and stuff like that! It was really amazing!
You’ve been a part of a lot of large scale productions in your career. How did “Wonder Woman” compare to the films from your past?
The magnitude was 10-fold! It was huge! The whole production was unbelievable. One day I was testing my guns in the middle of an open field in Leavesden Studios and a week later there was a town built on that same spot for the production! It was amazing! I felt like I was back in 1918! It was ridiculous! [laughs] The magnitude of the film was something I hadn’t expected and something I had never experienced before! It was amazing! Being on set every day was a blessing. There wasn’t much tension on set when we were shooting and it flowed very well. The hardest part for me was being away from my family. At the time, I had a pregnant wife back at home and I actually missed the birth of my child by about a week. For me, that was the hardest part. Living in London was crazy! I was in central London with millions of people all around me and there was so much energy happening there! It was hard for me being in London but it has made me appreciate where I live now and being on the little farm where we live. It was hard living in London but it is an experience for which I am truly grateful.
You are building a truly unique resume. Are there any specific types of projects you are anxious to tackle in the future?
You know what? I’m just very content in taking the next steps and making the most of the opportunities that come my way. Again, in the spirit of Napi, I just want to be able to tell a story and educate at the same time! I think that’s where my heart is and I hope to continue to honor my elders and inspire the Native American youth.
Where will we be seeing you next on the silver screen?
The next project I have coming out is called “Hard Powder” with Liam Neeson. I have some other projects that I am working on right now but, due to disclosure reasons, I can’t divulge any information. I’m really excited for “Hard Powder” to come out. Liam Neeson was amazing!
What is the best lesson we can take from your journey as an artist?
Again, I think it comes down to taking advantage of all the opportunities that come your way. That’s what I’ve done. It’s scary to get offered a position or role on the other side of the world, away from your people and your family. However, it’s important to get out there and explore the world and take each opportunity which presents itself and make the best of it!
Are there any causes close to your heart which we could help shine a light on?
For me, water is life. Every morning I get up, take a drink of water and I give thanks for this fresh water. That is a huge thing for me. There is a lot of pollution going on in the world right now and I think we all need to take a step back, take a look at our lives and realize what is really important. Water is the blood of Mother Earth. It’s a gift and it helps us survive, so we need to pay respect to that. There is also an organization, The CANA Foundation, which I support. They’re an organization focusing on saving wild horses from slaughter and reconnecting them to wild. You can visit their website at www.canafoundation.org/projects/horses or learn more via Facebook (http://www.facebook.com/canafoundation) and Twitter (http://twitter.com/canafoundation).
Thanks for your time today, Eugene! I really appreciate it and I wish you continued success!
Thank you, Jason! Take care!
Jason Price founded the mighty Icon Vs. Icon more than a decade ago. Along the way, he’s assembled an amazing group of like-minded individuals to spread the word on some of the most unique people and projects on the pop culture landscape.