For all of the trauma and turbulence that describe his character’s inner life, the most striking thing about Ajuawak Kapashesit’s performance in Indian Horse is his stillness.
Taking his first-ever lead in the much-anticipated feature, based on the near-iconic Richard Wagamese novel and opening Friday (April 13), the 27-year-old actor dominates a lot of his scenes by doing virtually nothing, all while telegraphing the bitterness, pain, and anger that will eventually devour Saul Indian Horse and reduce him from super-talented NHL hopeful to hungry ghost haunting the streets of Canada in a stupor of addiction.
“When I was first doing my research for this character, I was thinking about the communities I had seen and grown up in, and I was wondering what or who this character was,” explains Kapashesit, calling the Straight from his home turf of Minneapolis–Saint Paul. “Had I met this character? Had I interacted with this character? And for me the truth was, yeah, there’s this group of Native people, it’s a subset in every community—they’re the quiet ones.”
As Kapeshesit notes, the quiet one in this case “had to repress” and otherwise internalize the brutal psychic wounds of residential school and the violent or even more insidious racism of the outside world.
There’s a small irony to all this. Prior to his relatively late arrival as a near-silent actor, life experiences divided between the Cree side of his family in northern Ontario and the Ojibwa side located in Minnesota fostered a passion that eventually led to Kapashesit’s work in the field of language endangerment and revitalization. The acting bug came after he saw a big screen filled with Aboriginal faces in 2015’s The Revenant.
“I realized: that’s a job!” Kapeshesit quips. “That’s a cool job idea!”
Wasting no time, he sent his first audition tape to the Indian Horse production team in January 2016. By August he was officially the young-adult version of Saul—a role he shares with (then) nine-year-old Sladen Pelletier and Revenant veteran Forrest Goodluck, who embodies Saul in his teenage years. (The consistency and seamlessness of these three performances is perhaps the film’s greatest virtue.) “You’re not going to be the same person at 90 years old as you are at 25,” says Kapeshesit, adding that while he swapped a few notes with Goodluck, the congruency of the three Sauls nonetheless seemed to happen naturally.
More to the point, this post–Truth and Reconciliation film arrives inside a climate of rising consciousness and growing Aboriginal nationalism, suggesting—along with all the movie-world buzz it’s attracting—that the time of Indian Horse is very much now.
“I’m not entitled to the part any more than anyone else,” says Kapeshesit. “I was just happy the movie was going to be made, no matter who got cast. Because it’s an important story and for a lot of people it’s a very true story. A concept like this needs to be made, for a lot of people. Not just Indigenous people, but for non-Indigenous to know the story. The fact that it’s out there is really the most important thing.”