Wes Studi was so convincing as the murderous Magua in The Last of the Mohicans and a vicious Pawnee in Dances With Wolves, you might be forgiven for thinking the actor must be as mean as the movie characters he plays.
In New York City, I entered an elevator on the 19th floor of a building right after Last of the Mohicans, and I was still looking kind of like I did [in the movie], with the hair, he says with a chuckle. I stepped into the elevator and, lo and behold, six or seven ladies in there punched to get off on the next floor.
Studi, 63, who lives in Santa Fe, N.M., when not working on location for movies or television, also portrays good guys. He starred as Lt. Joe Leaphorn in three PBS movies based on Tony Hillerman mystery novels, and was recently seen in computer-generated form as a noble Navi warrior in the blockbuster Avatar.
But his antagonists seem to leap off the screen.
His villains seem like real, living, breathing people, and that makes them all the more threatening, movie critic Leonard Maltin says. They are not fantasy figures. They are genuine, not cardboard.
Behind the villainous acting image, however, is a good guy U.S. Army veteran who served 18 months with an infantry division in Vietnam and who further expresses his creativity through music, writing and stone carving.
Studis deep well of creativity springs from his childhood in Nofire Hollow, Okla., where he spoke his native Cherokee language until entering the first grade. His father trained horses for ranchers, and young Wes grew up in the saddle, where his imagination soared.
I would make up things that I would play act, he says. I was lucky to have as my companions the horses and dogs, and able to play out my fantasies and stories with them.
Years later, some of his childhood tales sprang to life in two childrens books about a Cherokee youth named Billy Bean, which originated from short stories Studi wrote for a Cherokee Nation newsletter.
After a divorce, Studi turned to acting workshops in Tulsa in the mid-1980s. Then he moved to Los Angeles and, within two years, landed his first big role in Dances With Wolves. Today, his resume includes roles in more than 50 TV shows and movies, including Geronimo: An American Legend, Comanche Moon and Kings.
He is a very intense person and focuses on everything he doeslike Magua, says Maura Dhu Studi, his wife of 18 years. But hes also a very easygoing person. He enjoys family and home and doing ordinary things like trimming the trees on our seven acres. Most people would be surprised to find out he has a great sense of humor.
Maura shares the stage with her husband in the band Firecats of Discord, in which Studi sings and plays bass.
Weve performed all over the United States, but mainly play at Indian casinos and around Santa Fe when we have the whim, he says. Firecats plays an eclectic mix of Top 40-influenced pop music, reggae, country, bluesy stuffthings that people our age are influenced by.
The actor volunteers his horse-training skills for his neighbors and also carves traditional pipes and fantasy figures from soapstone and alabaster. He has two grown children and a son, Kholan, 16, who may be following in his dads steps.
Our son is an up-and-coming actor himself, doing theater and comedy improv, says Maura, the daughter of the late character actor Jack Albertson. Hes like a combination of my dad and Wesa Cherokee vaudevillian.
Studi says he enjoys everything he does, but he particularly appreciates being a part of the creative process of bringing a charactergood or badvividly to life.
That time you have after the word Action! he says, thats when you are able to become a working part of a larger enterprise, telling a huge story, being part of something larger and giving meaning to someone elses idea of what life is all about.