Actress Lily Gladstone discusses her two collaborations with director Kelly Reichardt, Certain Women and First Cow. This is an excerpt of our Reichardt ebook, Roads to nowhere. You can download the full interview as a free preview here.
Lily Gladstone’s breakout role in Certain Women is so astounding that she won awards for her performance despite sharing the film with acting titans Laura Dern, Michelle Williams, and Kristen Stewart. Gladstone was awarded best supporting actress by the Los Angeles Film Critics Association and the Boston Society of Film Critics, and she was nominated by the Gotham Awards and the Independent Spirit Awards. Her performance as a quiet, lonely, unnamed rancher who falls for a teacher at a local night school (Stewart) is as heartbreaking as it is restrained. Gladstone is afforded very few lines of dialogue, but she tells all with her longing stares, the way she shuffles awkwardly from foot to foot, and her small, barely perceptible chuckles during conversations with her object of desire.
Gladstone is a trained theatre actor and a Montana local of Blackfeet and Nez Perce heritage. Before she was cast in Certain Women, she was an unknown who had played a few small roles in films but had mostly remained in the theatre world in Montana and Seattle. When she heard that there was a part going in a Kelly Reichardt film set in Montana, she was determined to take that part as her own. “I so deeply in my bones and soul knew that I could approach the character and felt like I just needed to show them that. A lot of times, you feel that you’re not quite right for [a part] when it comes in, but there was just no question in my mind that I needed that role.” Gladstone’s extensive preparation, professionalism, and passion for the part secured her the role of The Rancher, and as her small part in First Cow evinces, a part in Reichardt’s recurring troupe of character actors.
When Reichardt herself insisted to me that “there are no tiny parts” in her films, I was excited to chat to Gladstone, who played a lead in Certain Women and a one-scene part in First Cow that’s still so rich despite its brevity. There are plenty of actors, like James Le Gros, Will Patton, and the late René Auberjonois, who continually show up in small but significant roles in Reichardt’s films. Gladstone clued me in to what goes into the preparation for one of those roles in First Cow and how it differs from a leading part like the one she had in Certain Women. She also illuminated why her character in First Cow — a Native woman who acts as a translator between the Chinook people and her English husband, the Chief Factor (Toby Jones) — is so important to the film’s story.
Seventh Row (7R): When you first read the script for Certain Women, what were your initial impressions of The Rancher? How did you make your first steps towards understanding the character?
Lily Gladstone: I was floored when I first read the script, partly because it’s really few and far between that anybody writes the way that Kelly does. The screenplay was just as impactful on the first read as the film [is on the first watch]. Kelly’s also just got experience. She’s so specific with what she’s trying to say. Every film looks different from the screenplay to the final edit, and Certain Women absolutely did, but it’s one of the few projects that I’ve worked on where the feeling of reading the screenplay for the first time was so matched by seeing the film the first time. She’s so gifted at sustaining her voice from the page to the screen.
Getting into the character was kind of a gift, because the short story [which The Rancher’s segment of the film was adapted from], Travis, B. by Maile Meloy was so vividly drawn. What the audience experiences of The Rancher is, of course, what you see from the outside. But the story is so vividly drawn from the first-person perspective that a lot of my work was already sitting there, ready for me.
There was a bit of time where Kelly and I were just finding our language together on set. The more specific the directions got, the more in the weeds we would both get. The main thing that Kelly said to me that made it work — and then, after that point, every take in the can was just exciting — was she just told me to be more introverted. That was the only really solid note about the character development that the two of us sat down and worked through… It was kind of working around it until it just clicked. Then, it was simple. It was clean, like all of her work.
Watch our acting masterclass with Lily Gladstone and Frank Mosley
7R: I heard you say in an interview that you prepared a really extensive audition tape, then Kelly gave you some notes, and then you re-recorded the tape. How did you approach creating that first tape? Do you remember what those notes were?
Lily Gladstone: A lot of the groundwork for the character stuff we did before I even came on set. By the time I came on set, the notes and adjustments from the audition had kind of changed, and [what is on screen] was what remained.
Before the first audition, I so deeply in my bones and soul knew that I could approach the character and felt like I just needed to show them that. A lot of times, you feel that you’re not quite right for [a part] when it comes in, but there was just no question in my mind that I needed that role. A lot of times, I’ll just dig through my closet and see what I can find that kind of fits the character. But for The Rancher, I went to a second-hand store that had a lot of Montana-ranch wear and coldweather wear. I found her in the clothes and the shoes first. I wore them around while I was reading the story.
Luckily, I had something else going on in Eastern Montana. I was in Western Montana when I had the script, which is about a six-hour drive to where it takes place. So I was lucky enough to be able to get out there and spend some time in the landscape where The Rancher was from, and also in the community that she was from. I spent a lot of time with people from Crow and Northern Cheyenne Nations before setting up my tape.
Kelly Reichardt mug: ‘Sorrow is just worn-out joy’
It’s also not common that I’ll reach out to other creatives to help me with an audition. There was another filmmaker who was in Missoula at the time. She didn’t tell me until after we recorded, but she had met and had some really early seminal conversations with Kelly, and a lot of her style is very close to Kelly’s. So I enlisted her help to shoot the initial audition.
The notes and adjustments Kelly gave me were just to flesh the character out. One of the notes she gave me was to be more extroverted, actually.
7R: Oh, really?
Lily Gladstone: To have more confidence and be like, “I’ve won rodeos,” and just feel super cool about myself. You see Certain Women, and it’s hard to imagine that shade of her [The Rancher’s] personality, but Kelly and I certainly found it, even though that just remains in our preliminary work. We flexed and bent The Rancher in a lot of different directions. It really started working when we both sunk our feet into the text and made it simple.
Kelly wouldn’t even be able to tell you specifically why she chooses the stories in Certain Women to pair together. I think that’s one thing I really love about her approach to work. Of course, she’s helming it. Of course, she’s the creative force behind it. But [the film] itself has such an animism and its own will, and she’s so adept at working with that. She’s never working on her film. She’s working with her film… THIS IS A PREVIEW. DOWNLOAD THE FULL INTERVIEW FOR FREE HERE.
This is a preview of our interview with Lily Gladstone (First Cow, Certain Women) from the ebook, Roads to nowhere: Kelly Reichardt’s broken American dreams. We’ve made the full interview available as a free excerpt from the book. You can download it here.