Graham Greene and D'Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai in Reservation Dogs
Graham Greene may be Hollywood's most celebrated indigenous actor, but it's a label he gently resists. "I'm a working actor," says Greene, who has accrued 175 acting credits in a career spanning forty-five years. "I've played judges [Molly's Game], New York City police officers [Die Hard with a Vengeance] — a lot of characters that have had nothing to do with a Native North American."
Greene, whose television credits include 1883 and the upcoming Disney+ series Echo, has a knack for making even the smallest role memorable. In HBO's The Last of Us, he and Elaine Miles (Northern Exposure) steal episode six in their one scene as a cantankerous married couple whose isolation is disrupted by a threatening visit. "Funniest girl I ever worked with," he says of Miles.
In season three of Reservation Dogs, the FX comedy about four Indigenous Oklahoma teenagers, Greene guest-stars as Maximus, a conspiracy theorist and hermit. He calls the part "an interesting character study with many layers and depths."
In one scene, Maximus calms Bear (series regular D'Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai) when the teen believes he's hallucinating. "It turns out Maximus is communicating with aliens from outer space," Greene says, "and he teaches Bear about aliens and how things relate to the future, past and present."
As the self-described elder on set — "everybody calls me Uncle," Greene says — the actor found himself in a mentor role. "It was time for me to pass on to them the knowledge I had acquired in this business," he says. "I tell them, 'You want to learn how to be a proficient actor? Take a couple of years off and do only theater. You'll learn the discipline, the hardships, the misery.'"
An Oneida who grew up on the Six Nations Reserve in Ontario, Canada, Greene was a steelworker and welder before acting caught his attention. "A star landed in my path, and I picked it up and said, 'This looks interesting,'" he recalls. Dissatisfied with his first TV performance (The Great Detective, 1979), he immersed himself in theater for the next few years.
In the late 1980s, as Greene's TV career was picking up, Kevin Costner cast him in Dances with Wolves (1990), which earned Greene an Oscar nomination. The actor says his challenge was learning Lakota, the Siouan language spoken throughout the film. "I don't even speak my own language," he says. "We were taught not to speak it. It's like forgetting your heart." He recalls studying "eight hours a day, seven days a week" until "every scene worked word for word."
Greene now lives near Toronto in Stratford, Ontario, with his wife of more than thirty years and their two cats. He hints at impending retirement and expresses a preference for screen work. "Theater's hard work," he says with a chuckle. "I'm too old to do hard work."
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine issue #8, 2023, under the title, "Credit Score."
The interviews for this story were completed before the start of the WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes.