Lily Gladstone's casting in Killers of the Flower Moon has become a lore of its own: As the story goes, before Scorsese called, she'd nearly quit acting. In truth, the actress, who broke out in 2016's Certain Women, was hit by the pandemic like so many others, and at one point in 2020, looked to enroll in a data analytics course to take on seasonal work at the Department of Agriculture; however, she had never forsaken her love of performing. Gladstone never did get around to registering for that course, because that was when she got an email on behalf of Martin Scorsese, requesting a Zoom meeting.

It's also true that when she originally auditioned for Killers of the Flower Moon, Gladstone's character — Mollie Burkhart — was only in three scenes, to say nothing of the other Osage characters.

"The draft of the script that I auditioned with, Mollie's sisters would've been fairly non-existent and Mollie would have been a very tertiary character," she recalls. "So, I was brought into the leading lady role, and in a film of this magnitude."

During Gladstone's lengthy audition process, the film underwent a page-one rewrite. Adapted from David Grann's 2017 nonfiction best-seller, Killers of the Flower Moon initially centered on Tom White, the proto-FBI agent who led an investigation into the murders of Osage Nation members in Oklahoma during the 1920s. The rewrite shifted the focus to Gladstone's Mollie, an Osage woman who unknowingly marries one of the perpetrators of the Reign of Terror. Leonardo DiCaprio plays her husband, Ernest, who carries out murders on the bidding of his uncle, Robert De Niro's William Hale, in order to inherit Osage oil headrights. (In this version, Tom White is a minor character, played by Jesse Plemons, who appears in the final act of the film.)

Gladstone's quietly powerful performance is the heart of the movie. The actress, who is of Siksikaitsitapi and NiMíiPuu heritage and grew up on the Blackfeet Reservation in northwestern Montana, studied acting, directing, and Native American history in college. With Killers of the Flower Moon, she's made history of her own.

At the 96th Oscars, Gladstone became a first-time Oscar nominee for Best Actress in a Leading Role. She is the first Native American woman to be nominated in the category.

Gladstone recently attended the Oscars Nominees Luncheon with her mom, Betty Peace-Gladstone. "She finally got to meet Jon Batiste. He's like her favorite in the world," the actress reports back. For Gladstone, there's comfort in having her parents by her side as she navigates awards season for the first time ("all this stuff feels lonely when you don't have family to share it with"), but it is also a chance for her to show them the fruits of their labor.

"My folks were so committed to my love of performance," she tells A.frame. "They'd drive me two hours every weekend, 160 to 180 miles round-trip, just to take ballet lessons... So, it's great that mom gets to step on these carpets and meet all of these people that she idolizes, and she loves all the clothes she's getting to wear. We're both very thrift shop ladies who just wear the same thing year after year after year, so it's been really fun for both of us to embrace some fashion."

Lily Gladstone at the 96th Oscars Nominees Luncheon with her mother, Betty Peace-Gladstone. (Left photo by Matt Sayles/AMPAS)

A.frame: What does it mean to you to be nominated and to be making history by doing so?

Oh, man. I think it still hasn't fully sink in. There are little moments here and there that have been a reminder; like, the announcement that my film with Erica Tremblay, Fancy Dance, had sold to Apple, just the headline and how it's now attached to my name — Academy Award nominee — and the way that feels. I remember how much it meant to me when Whale Rider came out, it was my junior year of high school... and as a teenage Indigenous girl, I was just developing my love of film. So, when Keisha Castle-Hughes was nominated and nominated for Leading Actress — I know there were conversations about her being supporting, which is insane to me if you know that film — I just remember what it felt like for me, that halfway across the world there was this girl who was really gifted and brought so much vulnerability and truth to the screen in a way that I could access it. Even though she was from New Zealand, and she's Māori, I still felt like I was watching my home. I understood everything in that film so deeply.

I think that's how it will continue to evolve and mean something for me, is if there's other little girls that see themselves and see what's possible, what stories are being made at this level and the recognition that they're getting... I feel like this film is going to really stand the test of time, and it's fantastic that it reached audiences in such a meaningful way that people were moved by it. That's what this nomination feels like in the present: It feels like there's going to be a bit of a legacy with it.

When you think about the film now, is there a scene that you are particularly proud of because of your work in it?

Each one is so different and came together in such a unique way. There are elements of the process that were very much rooted in intense research and a lot of physical work — a lot of just bringing Mollie into my musculature, my bones — and then there were some scenes that really came about in the moment, because the truth of what was happening to her only made sense in the moment that we were filming. It was nothing I could try to plan for or intellectualize. I just had to be there to receive it. Particularly, the discovery of Anna's body and the news of Reta's death, both of those were not planned. That was just me creating who Mollie was walking into that scene and then letting the camera discover the same thing she is.

But I think the scene that I'm probably most proud of and will always be most proud of is the one that the four sisters sat down and rewrote together. It's the scene where we're gossiping about these men and talking about Ernest's intentions with Mollie.

You rewrote that scene with Cara Jade Myers, JaNae Collins and Jillian Dion?

We kept the same number of beats but it felt like a very missed opportunity if the other three girls didn't get a chance to showcase this diversity of personality and the dynamic of these four sisters. So, after having spent so much time in the Osage Nation with Osage people, we learned about this very specific birth order in Osage families. There's a personality and a treatment that each sister and each brother in a family will get based on their birth order that really informed our characters, because it would've informed how their personalities would've been shaped. So, the oldest sisters, mįną́, and son, iⁿgthóⁿ, you'll notice them in the film, because they're the ones wearing red. Firstborns have the right to wear red. Secondborns wear blue. The firstborn is the spoiled one. All their needs are met. All the light shines on them, and their parents love and affection shines on them.

That perception of the firstborn seems to be the same across a lot of cultures.

Yep, yep! And then all the responsibility falls on the secondborn — taking care of the parents, taking care of the younger siblings, being a little bit more pragmatic. They're the most responsible. And then you get to the baby, and of course the baby's just beloved by the whole family.

But yeah, we rewrote that scene together — the four of us — with this new device that had been introduced by my language teacher, Chris Cote. He had shared this trickster story with me about Coyote, and these stories just sounded like Ernest. It gave me a framework that Mollie would've been able to see Ernest through, which also gave Mollie a blind spot for him to hide in. She had him figured out as this trickster figure — as this self-serving, pleasure-seeking funny entity — and it's like, "Oh, I know this story. I know how this ends. I can stay ahead of this guy, and he'll be an easy white husband to have sign my checks." Because Osage people needed a white guardian appointed to handle their finances. So, it was mutually beneficial for Ernest and Mollie to be married, because then Mollie could have her guardian in her household but he was a simpleton, so it was easier for her.

But in any case, painting Ernest as this trickster figure in the form of Coyote, it gave the other sisters a chance to dive into teasing about these other men in their lives. And this all sheerly came from the original lines in that scene not cleanly translating into Osage. So, the four of us actresses knew what our lines were trying to say, but they were being said through Western idioms and turns of phrases that didn't really cleanly translate into the Osage language. When we four sat down together and recrafted that scene, we were all responsible for the lines that we had. We were just throwing things out and I was taking notes and then we sent it along to our language teachers, and they translated it rather quickly. So, that one I loved, because it was so authentic to the characters based upon who they would've been based on birth order, what people remember about their families, and then what we each individually had to bring in as actresses.


This movie demands a lot of you as an actor, but also just as a person and a Native person. On those most demanding days, what do you need to get through and get the performance you need?

I know it's different for every actor, but I specifically thrive on the 180. So, when it's traumatic, I need humor behind the scenes. I don't like living in the trauma of these things, because then it starts feeling like I'm exploiting another person's trauma for my own actor's catharsis in any given moment. And there were a lot of tribal nations that were on set working on this film, and we all have similar histories. We didn't all have Osage resources — we weren't all the richest people per capita in the world like Osage were, which made them particularly vulnerable — but we all had these relationships with exploitation for our resources, for our land.

Because we were all together, naturally that many Natives coming together, it's just going to be a good time. People love laughing and teasing. And I actually remember Leo commenting on that when we were filming the scene where Lizzie is passing away. That scene is two girls losing their mother, but it's also so heavily loaded with the shifting of time and of people having their culture eroded from them, generation by generation, because of this outside grab — grab of land, grab of language, grab of children, everything. So, it was a heavy scene for all of us, me, Tantoo [Cardinal], and JaNae.

But when they would call cut, we would be shaking out of it and Tantoo would say something so rye and funny and observational and we would just bust out laughing. Or JaNae would crack a little joke and we would start laughing, which got everybody else around us — all the Natives — cracking up. In between takes, we were laughing and enjoying each other so much and then when it was time to cue up again, everybody would just snap right back into it. And that made the trauma feel more immediate and real, because while the scene is about generations passing away, we're also surrounded by Native people who have survived everything. The way that we've done that is sticking together and embracing the humor in things. It makes you very resilient.

What was Leo's reaction when he saw that?

He was a little bit blown away by it being like, "We've got to get more of this in the movie. The way you guys are just laughing and enjoying each other, we got to show this more." I'm like, "I know!" Films make us so stoic and that's not what it's like when we're around each other. And also, Leo and Marty and Bob and I, when you need to stay in it and keep a tone, we very much respect what each actor needs to do. But there were days on set where it was just goofy! We were definitely getting the shots that we needed, but man, it got goofy. The scene where we're sitting around the dinner table, I still can't watch that scene without busting out laughing. When I'm in a theater, it would be so inappropriate if I start laughing, but it's only because I understand the inside jokes around shooting that scene. But I still haven't been able to watch that scene, because I just started laughing too hard. I try to stifle my laughter for respect for the people around me, but I can't! [Laughs] I just had to bury my head and my lap and I was just cracking up and I could hear Marty and Leo starting to giggle again.

It was just one of those crazy days where everybody got the giggles. Partly because Leo was improvising, and it was so Podunk. It was so country. Where we were in a wide, we could say whatever we wanted, and when we're delivering the news that Mollie's pregnant, Leo went off script and says, "We got some news! Mollie just bought a hog farm." Marty was giggling too. That was just a stupid day on set. But it was the day that I got to work with Bob the most, and it was wonderful. We very much bonded around how much we just enjoyed each other's company.

By John Boone

A.frame, the digital magazine of the Academy, is excited to celebrate and honor the nominees of the 96th Oscars across several branches by spotlighting their nominated films, craftsmanship, and personal stories. For more on this year's nominees, take a look at our Oscars hub.

Editor's Note: For parity, A.frame reached out to every nominee in the Best Actress in a Leading Role category for an interview.


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