There is no denying that Atticus Todd (Anishinaabe) is an imposing presence at 6'2" and 250 pounds.
Yet before the actor dropped 200 pounds to his current weight, he mainly played roles that were non-Native American in a career on film and in television that stretches nearly 20 years.
"At 450 pounds, I was a human building," Todd says. "I never booked Indigenous. I booked Chinese a couple times. Now that I'm down to 250 pounds, people say, 'Look at those cheekbones.' That's worked for and against me."
The conundrum lies in his belief that only Natives should play Native characters, yet he and other actors should have the freedom and opportunity to play other ethnicities as he has.
"You cannot do a Native role unless you are Native," he says. "But the reverse is then you can't play Mexican, Hawaiian - and that's the trap. That means you can't play something else. I don't want to be told I can't play an Indian of New Zealand, which I've played convincingly."
Todd's filmography includes a long list of appearances in hit television shows like The Shield, ER, Malcolm in the Middle, Nip/Tuck, The Mentalist, Law & Order: Los Angeles, Big Love, Bosch, Criminal Minds, It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Hawaii Five-0, Stumptown and Yellowstone.
In Yellowstone, he's been in the recurring cast for all three seasons, portraying tribal police officer Ben Waters. Although Waters is stationed at the fictional Broken Rock reservation, he often works with local police chief Thomas Rainwater to punish the Dutton family – led by Kevin Costner's character – for stealing his ancestors' land.
Todd has found the entire experience with Yellowstone's cast and crew to be an utter joy.
"Yes I am a Native playing a Native, it's the story, that's the whole point," he says. "I absolutely love Ben Waters, and am so happy to have that as a highlight of my career. Captain Waters is completely loyal to Chief Rainwater, and his primary concern is the reservation. All else is secondary to the health and safety of the reservation. He's done stuff that may not be completely legal. Even he sometimes functions in the gray."
Growing up as a farm kid in southwestern Minnesota, Todd says he always wanted to be an actor, but it seemed like an impossibility unless you were the son of a senator or of an established actor.
But his early interest and expertise in martial arts led directly to the path he wanted to take. Todd was teaching at a martial arts school when a casting director came in looking for "big guys who could move."
"Jokingly, I did a cartwheel and a cartwheel round-off, landing on both feet. She hired me on the spot, and I got booked for a McDonald's commercial," he recalls.
"That was the moment I saw I could pursue it, and started taking acting classes. In Minnesota, I booked several things. I was a big-size fish in a little pond. I had to move because I wanted to do film and TV. Agents told me I had to be in LA, saying you have to audition -- you can't commute. So I moved."
Todd says the first year was really brutal and that he even lived in his car for a time before landing on his feet. Things turned around after his agent pointed him in the direction of acting teacher Eric Morris.
"I feel indebted to him. He made me understand my instrument and how to access it," says Todd. "It's a simple concept: you don't act, you just be. He called it experiential acting and everyone watching would have to experience it with me. People have said, 'I so believe you.' I attribute it to him. You don't want to be convincing, you don't act, you have an experience. It's very method.
"Another great teacher I had is Brian Reise. Brian covered it with two words - be specific. He said you need to show someone you're of value and be on point immediately. There's rarely a second read."
Concerns of the Native community are never far from Todd's mind. He recently posted on Twitter: "Native women are more than twice as likely to experience violence than any other demographic. Statistically, a native woman is SIX TIMES as likely to be straight up murdered compared to non-native women.
"They need our love and protection. The first step is awareness," and then pointed his followers to the National Indigenous Women's Resource Center.
In today's climate of racial reckoning, Todd is circumspect about what it means for the Native and Indigenous communities. "Everyone sees great possibility around the corner, but is always looking for the other shoe to drop. Yet it's out there and it's happening. I'd say I have reserved excitement, or hesitant optimism."