Lily Gladstone on Welcoming ‘Flower Moon’ Criticism, Mollie’s Agency and Scorsese’s Limitations While Telling an Osage Story

Photographs by Celeste Sloman

There’s a story Lily Gladstone likes to tell about a Blackfeet man and a flower.

“He pulled it from the ground and shook the dirt off. He exposed the root system,” she says. “And he said, ‘This is like a story. If this flower is a story, then all of these roots are the different versions. They twist around each other; they go off in opposite directions. But that’s what gives it its strength. That’s what makes it hard to uproot. That’s what keeps the story going.”

The man was speaking to 20th-century historian James Willard Schultz, who was struggling to make sense of the varying ways Blackfeet people had told him the same stories. In an oral tradition, Gladstone emphasizes, there’s no one way of seeing things; each person’s narrative is the truth.

Gladstone returns to the Blackfeet man and the flower, to its roots, as she makes sense of the infinite feelings Native people may have about “Killers of the Flower Moon.” “That’s how reality is shaped. The universe is the shape of all of these different stories, even if they conflict.”

She pauses for a sip of her espresso, into which she’s stirred a dollop of honey — “a Montana thing,” she says, then remembers that she’s met people from other places who sweeten their coffee that way. But it reminds her of home, so it’s a Montana thing nonetheless — another flower root.

Celeste Sloman for Variety

Gladstone, 37, is the slow-beating heart of “Killers of the Flower Moon,” the Martin Scorsese-directed epic that examines the Reign of Terror, an insidious string of murders in 1920s Osage County. Robert De Niro plays William Hale, the self-proclaimed “King of the Osage Hills” who betrays the tribe he says he loves, leading a crime ring that circles in on their wealth with the help of his nephew, Ernest Burkhart (Leonardo DiCaprio). Ernest marries Mollie (Gladstone), an Osage woman, at Hale’s recommendation, because of Mollie’s oil money. He then spends the film’s 200-minute run time telling her, himself and anyone who will listen how much he loves her. His declarations only become more desperate as he brings unthinkable trauma on everyone she loves.

From Apple Studios, Paramount Pictures and Imperative Entertainment, with a production budget of $200 million, “Killers of the Flower Moon” is nothing like the small-scale indies Gladstone saw herself making when she decided to become an actor. But to be fair, that was before a name as big as Scorsese made an equally weighty effort to learn from and collaborate with a Native community, instead of entering Indian country with no relationship to the locals and leaving the same way.

The first indication of Scorsese’s care came when Gladstone met with casting director Ellen Lewis, who relayed to her that “Killers” would also be holding a local casting call to bring Osage actors into the production. “That’s what started my career: producers choosing to cast local Native actors instead of bringing in someone from Los Angeles,” she says. “I got my SAG card out of Montana.”

For the central Native role, though, Scorsese knew he wanted Gladstone.

“I saw her in Kelly Reichardt’s picture ‘Certain Women,’ and I couldn’t take my eyes off of her,” Scorsese writes in an email. “Lily’s character was quiet, she spoke very little, but she commanded the screen with her presence, with every move, every gesture. There are very few actors around who know how to hold the screen like that, and it was perfect for the character of Mollie.”

Since “Certain Women,” Gladstone has become known for that silent power. It’s also present in indie dramas like “Fancy Dance” and “The Unknown Country,” in the FX series “Reservation Dogs,” and now in “Killers of the Flower Moon.” In person, that self-possessed nature remains, while the quiet falls away.

Gladstone speaks with a slight drawl and wandering eyes, in long, slow, carefully constructed circles. While thinking back to a conversation in “Killers” between Mollie and her sister, Reta, she makes a point of mentioning not only her co-star JaNae Collins, but Collins’ mother, who handcrafted the beaded blue earrings she’s wearing now. It’s less a tangent than a choice to honor her loved ones every chance she gets.

“I’m long-winded,” she says with a smile, at once apologizing for her detours and luxuriating in the practice of being thorough.

So naturally it was difficult to sit by while discourse began to swirl around “Killers” when it debuted in theaters on Oct. 20 — three weeks before the end of the SAG-AFTRA strike that put actors into a silent limbo. It helped that reviews were largely positive, with Gladstone’s performance receiving universal praise. Still, “Killers of the Flower Moon” isn’t without its critics.

Some of those critics were Osage people who had worked on the film, and Gladstone welcomed their dissent. In lieu of actors, the red carpet premiere in Los Angeles on Oct. 16 highlighted Osage voices like that of Christopher Cote, one of the language consultants who helped Gladstone and her castmates learn Wazhazhe. “As an Osage, I really wanted this to be from the perspective of Mollie and what her family experienced,” he said that night. “But I think it would take an Osage to do that. Martin Scorsese, not being Osage, I think he did a great job representing our people, but this history is being told from the perspective of Ernest Burkhart.”

Celeste Sloman for Variety

Gladstone doesn’t disagree with Cote, even if she frames her ideas differently. “Chris and I have had that exact conversation in his living room,” she says. “Marty is a titan, but he’s not bigger than history. He’s a major shaper of it though. It’s the tricky nature of a story like this. You have more representation, but coming from somebody who’s not from the community. So you always have to look at it with a different angle. And there’s nothing wrong with that; you just have to be very aware of the film that you’re watching and what lens it was made through.”

And in response to criticism that there couldn’t have been any real love between Ernest and Mollie, Gladstone says, “Love is complicated. I’ve certainly loved people in my life that were not good for me, and I couldn’t really free myself from it.”

She also points out that while Ernest married Mollie for the money, having a white husband offered Mollie some pragmatic benefits too.

But on the day the strike ended, these weren’t the thoughts on Gladstone’s mind. Instead, she posted across her social media accounts that Native people should see “Killers of the Flower Moon” “when and only if” they were ready to, followed by a list of resources that could support them through their “generational grief.” Being from another tribe, in that moment, Gladstone found it most important to highlight the needs of the Osage Nation, knowing that there would be room for her own feelings later.

“That’s the strength of community,” she adds. “You’re one voice of many.”

Gladstone comes from the Blackfeet Indian Reservation in northern Montana. Her skepticism about the studio system was homegrown. “I grew up in a place where we would get big Hollywood film crews rolling through once in a while,” she says. “I was very familiar with what it felt like to have people coming in from the outside wanting to tell a story with your community. And they’re not always there in the best interests.”

Gladstone studied drama at the University of Montana, where she became fascinated by Theatre of the Oppressed. Developed by Brazilian playwright Augusto Boal, the practice aims to erase the lines between actor and audience, leveling the playing field and allowing all to commune over social and political truths. In her early postgrad days, Gladstone taught acting camps and workshops to Native children and college students and brought Boal’s lessons to her community.

“We would talk about the issues that affected us in our daily lives, and pull out key words: colonization, assimilation, family, home,” Gladstone explains. Then she would give the students a word and ask them to strike a pose. She called it a “sculpture garden.”

It’s been years since that stage of Gladstone’s career, and still, her memories punch her in the gut. Gladstone recalls walking through a sculpture garden she facilitated at her alma mater and  seeing Indigenous students meditate on the word “assimilation” by ducking into fetal positions, covering their mouths, stiffening their fingers into scissors made for chopping off long hair.

Perhaps most upsetting, though, was the pose taken by a professor — a well-meaning white man who pantomimed a big, warm bear hug. “He was scooping people up,” Gladstone says. “Bringing everybody into this embrace was assimilation in his mind.”

“He said everything you would expect,” she adds. “‘It’s everybody coming together!’ The Native students said, ‘No. This is actually a really oppressive concept for us. We have to put something of ourselves away in order to belong.’”

Gladstone eventually began working with the National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center, a grassroots organization addressing the disproportionately high rates of violence against Native women. With the NIWRC, Gladstone taught sculpture garden workshops as a means of violence prevention. “Their work provides the resources necessary for grassroots cultural organizations to tackle these issues,” she says. For example, the NIWRC developed a database to help families and advocates easily search for legislation relating to missing and murdered Indigenous women by state. “It is very much designed for Native communities in a culturally sensitive way that centers women, who are the backbone of sovereignty.”

At the same time, “the resources are available for everybody,” she says. “I think people hear ‘for us, by us’ as ‘not for you.’ But it’s something that affects everybody, and that deserves everybody’s attention.”

Most actors, upon finding themselves written about as the highlight of a film that also features DiCaprio and De Niro with direction from Scorsese, would take the hint to move to Los Angeles or New York and embrace stardom.

“You know, I’ve never lived in either of those places longer than couch-surfing for a few weeks at a time. And that seems to work,” Gladstone says. She’s lived in Seattle since the start of the pandemic, when she moved in with her parents and uncle and became her grandmother’s caretaker. “I had a responsibility, as the oldest girl in my family, to see to her. That kept me very grounded here in the last years of her life.”

“I’m probably going to have to end up in L.A. for a long stretch of time, and there’s a community down there too — all the Natives taking over Hollywood that I’ll finally get to hang out with,” she says, her eyes growing bright. But that prospect is only exciting because it’s temporary. “It’s been a different journey growing a career from independent film and then having a big studio breakthrough. I know the possibilities are limitless, but I get one family.”

“The clothes have gotten nicer, and the shoes have gotten more uncomfortable,” Gladstone adds, but besides that, she wants to hold onto her regular life. In that sense, she’s guided by a piece of Blackfeet wisdom passed to her by her father: “Prey runs to the hunter.”

In various Indigenous hunting cultures, Gladstone explains, “young men go out and find their trapline, and then follow and hunt that trapline. Any animal that crosses it is entering into an agreement that you’re sustaining one another. You only go after the ones that cross your path. You don’t divert from your path — because that’s the one that you’re meant to walk.”

Gladstone’s father was telling her to stay the course — to stick to her moral compass and understand that what was meant for her would come to her.

But it turns out his words weren’t a Blackfeet saying after all. “I found out later — it was actually a Carl Sagan quote,” she says, laughing. “Which was also really cool. Carl Sagan and Blackfoot ways of knowing are actually pretty complementary of each other.”

As with the honey in her coffee, having multiple perspectives on this story suits her just fine. It’s another root of the flower.

Styling: Jason Rembert; Makeup: Nick Barose/Exclusive Artists/Cheekbone Beauty; Hair: Jameson Eaton; Look 1 (Print dress look): Dress and blazer: J. Okuma; Boots: Gucci; Earrings: Weomepe; Look 2 (Black dress): Dress: Lesley Hampton: Earrings: Weomepe; Look 3 (Stripe sleeves) Coat: Gucci; Earrings: Asep Design