The daughter of an Inupiat Eskimo mother and a French Canadian/Cree father, Irene Bedard was born in Anchorage, Alaska. Like most children, she grew up watching films and thinking how especially wonderful Disney movies were. Ironically, or perhaps appropriately, her first role as an actress came with Disney's "Squanto: A Warrior's Tale" (1994), and she went on to give voice to Disney's "Pocahontas" (1995) and a sequel (1998).
Bedard also appeared in "Lakota Woman: Siege at Wounded Knee" (1994), "Song of Hiawatha" (1996), "Crazy Horse" (1996), "Store, Flip, Det (1997), "Two for Texas" (1998), "12 Bucks" (1998), "6/29" (1998), "Smoke Signals" (a 1998 film based on a short story from Sherman Alexie's "The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven"), "Navajo Blues" (1998), "Wildflowers" (1999), "The Lost Child" (2000), "Your Guardian" (2002), "Paris" (2003), "Greasewood Flat" (2003), "Edge of America" (2003), "Tortilla Heaven" (2005), "Miracle at Sage Creek" (2005), and "The New World" (2005). Most recently, she was cast as Margaret Light Shines in the Steven Spielberg production for television, "Into the West."
The multi-talented Bedard also sings in a band in which her husband, Denny Wilson, plays guitar and writes the songs. Originally the group went by the name Irene & Deni, but her increasing visibility as an actress no doubt led them to add her last name as well. You can read more about their music at www.nativevoices.net. It's one of many ways that she brings a sense of Native culture to a wider audience. As an activist, Bedard also helped to found Guardians of Sacred Lands, which is devoted to educating the public about sacred lands and other Native issues.
Recently, Disney released a 10th Anniversary Edition of "Pocahontas," the story of the Algonquin Indian girl who saved the life of Capt. John Smith near Jamestown, and DVD Town got the chance to talk with Bedard and find out how she thinks the film holds up.
Plath: I understand congratulations are in order. You landed a part in Steven Spielberg's big TV series?
Bedard: I play Margaret Light Shines Wheeler in the story of a Lakota family and an Anglo family over a period of about 70 years, and it's been a real great part. I just finished two days ago.
Plath: Were movies a part of your life when you were growing up, or did you come to them late?
Bedard: I was really shy growing up, and movies for me were a really wonderful way for me to sort of be a part of the world in a different way than I was quite able to do at the time.
Plath: And did any movies leave a lasting impression on you when you were going through that phase?
Bedard: For me, I always loved the science fiction stuff—you know, "E.T.," "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," (laughs) all those really great ones—and for me, also, growing up with all the Disney stuff and Bugs Bunny and those things. They were a part of American history, by this point.
Plath: So it must have been a thrill to be a part of something like "Pocahontas."
Bedard: Oh, yeah, definitely, and it's something that I'm really proud to be a part of.
Plath: Disney caught quite a bit of flak, if I recall, because Pocahontas had such a voluptuous Barbie-doll shape, some people complained. And I have to laugh, because Disney has a habit of modeling their characters after their voice talents. I just wondered if you were aware of the criticisms when they came out, and, since she was modeled after you, what your take was.
Bedard: Most of the Eastern plains native people, as far as clothing goes, they're very covered from head to toe, and the representation is very dignified. There's such a dignity. I just crowned a Miss Indian World, and to see the dignity and the honor of this woman . . . . [With "Pocahontas,"] I think that Native culture was maybe worried that some of that was being taken away. But what you have to realize, when you look at Pocahontas from a modern perspective, if we had actually shot or filmed her at the time, she would have been frolicking around (laughs) with very little on. At the time they lived in Virginia on the Eastern seaboard there were very warm summers, and so as far as the way her clothing was, she was animated with more clothing than she would have been wearing historically (laughs).
Plath: Your bio lists you as 5' and a hair . . . is that true?
Bedard: (Laughs) Yes.
Plath: In that case, then Disney's Pocahontas was also quite a bit taller.
Bedard: Everybody is taller than I am (laughs) . . . so I am quite used to that. And if you do see a lot of Native women, they are taller than I am. For my Native culture, though, the Inupiat Eskimo, I'm pretty average.
Plath: Your fellow actor, American Indian activist Russell Means, said on the new DVD that he considers "Pocahontas" the best film made about Native Americans. You've been in quite a few yourself. What film would you rate as the best, or among the best, and how do you view "Pocahontas" now in retrospect?
Bedard: As far as animated features go, I think that, really, this is one of if not the best portrayal of Native culture. I've had a chance to portray Mary Crow Dog, who was part of the American Indian Movement with Russell Means, so I've had a chance to do that, and we've gone through sort of our "roots" era, with more Native American history being portrayed—I wouldn't even say more accurately, because so much Native American history was not portrayed at all—but I really do think that as far as something that will travel around the world and will open a generation of children's lives to Native culture, that "Pocahontas" is way up there.
Plath: Your filmography reads like a catalog of American Indian films, and that raises kind of an interesting question. I teach Native American literature, and Leslie Marmon Silko has almost scolded Louise Erdrich for not being political enough, which is not unusual. The same thing you see in African-American literature. I was just wondering what place ethnicity has in your own life and your own career, or how you feel about being an actress as opposed to being a Native American actress.
Bedard: The way I perceive it? Just like Denzel Washington does not ever stop being an African-American, that's the way I feel. I am all Indian. That will never change. It will never be something that will stray far from my perspective or perception. For me, to always bring that color or that perspective, whether the character is written as a Native American or not, I will always add that, because I think that it behooves me as an actor to be able to say to myself and to everyone else, "Yes, we are still here, and we are part of the fabric of American society, and we exist today and we're not stuck or marbleized in a museum, and we have something to offer a world community in a more modern context. So to be able to wind through American history and sort of right some wrongs or bring things more clearly to a perspective that is not so one-sided has been really a great opportunity for me—but also, now that I've continued on to do things like "Smoke Signals" or non-traditional casting, to be able to say, "Look at us now. Here's a little piece of who we are today."
Plath: I have to confess that the one thing about "Pocahontas" that drove me just a little bit nuts was her constantly blowing hair and the blowing leaves. Now, I do understand the symbolism, but it still reminded me of a Crystal Gayle concert with those stage fans keeping her floor-length hair in perpetual motion.
Bedard: (Laughs) I think Glen Keane was giving her hair and the wind sort of a whole character of their own.
Plath: That's what I understand. For me, though, it almost contributed to an idealized portrait, and I'm thinking maybe that's not a good thing—though I'm willing to be persuaded otherwise.
Bedard: Well, the truth is, I think you could say that the entire portrayal of Pocahontas and the culture, even, was idealized. Because if you really look at the nitty-gritty of it all, it was a lot messier than what was portrayed. But as far as something that's going to catch a child's eye and maybe give them a perspective on another culture. . . .
There were a whole lot of teachers who, at the time, said, "You know, this isn't right, Pocahontas was only 12 years old. I'm going to teach my kids the real story about this." And even something that maybe isn't historically accurate, to bring this up in schools and say, well, let's teach the right thing, that can only be a good thing.
Plath: Except we're probably not ready to hear about a 12 year old having a relationship with a 27 year old.
Bedard: When she went back to England and found out that John Smith was still alive and that he hadn't written her and let her know that he was still alive, she didn't speak for an hour when she did see him. And finally, when she did speak to him, she said, "When you were a stranger in a strange land, you called my father father. And now that I am a stranger in a strange land, I shall call you father." So I really think that their relationship was much more in that realm than in the realm of a love story. Historically, she did go on to marry John Rolfe when she was older, but that was strictly a political marriage rather than a love story.
But, you know, here we have on the other hand Terrence Malick's "The New World" (2005), which is the live-action story of Pocahontas, and I think that you're not going to get three year olds to see this movie. But you're going to get different tellings, and Terrence Malick's is one of them, so I think there are fortunes to be had.
Plath: Speaking of three year olds, I've got one downstairs, and this question is for the kids. We won't breathe a word to Meeko or Flit, but which one of those animals was your favorite, and why?
Bedard: (Laughs) Oh, no. That's like asking who your favorite kid is!
Plath: It is, and you can't cop out.
Bedard: Oh, let's see. Hmmm. Well, you know, Flit was always trying to get me to not do things, and Meeko was always getting me into trouble, so I'm not sure which one (laughs). Maybe I would lean toward . . . I don't know. They both have their good sides, but I would probably say that the name "Pocahontas" means "little mischief," so I think she was more apt to get into mischief. That would put her on the side of Meeko.
Plath: Do I understand that you sing in a band, with your husband, who plays guitar and writes the songs?
Plath: I'm curious. Did Disney ever consider letting you do the vocals for the songs in "Pocahontas," or did they have their sights set on a Broadway talent right from the start?
Bedard: They had Judy Kuhn before they had me.
Plath: So it wasn't a "Sorry, Irene, you're no Mel Gibson" situation, at least [Gibson sang his part too].
Bedard: (Laughs) No, not at all.
Plath: Do you ever wish that you could have done the singing?
Bedard: I love singing, but you know, Judy Kuhn, she was on "Sunset Boulevard," and "Chess," and at the time was doing extremely well on Broadway. I would love to know, actually . . . I know she had a child, and I know that does things to you, but I'd love to see her some more on Broadway and see what she's doing.
But we enjoy doing the music together. It's something we can all do as a family, and "Warrior of Love" and other songs that we do are so completely different from those sounds, so it's a completely different dinosaur (laughs).
Plath: As a non-actor, I've always been curious about something. I'm wondering if, in any of the films in which you've appeared, any of the characters you've had to play off of have reminded you of real people in your life—and if so, do you then find it easier to react to those characters, or more difficult?
Bedard: Very much so. That's all you can really pull on are the people that you know. When I was shooting "Lakota Woman," it was before I had had my son. I didn't know what it was like to give birth, and so I had all these women around me, giving me (laughs) clues on how to portray it correctly. I always think about my grandfather and my grandmother and my family, and I perform all over Indian country, and I'm always seeing my grandmother's smile and my grandfather's sense of humor. As I'm portraying Native cultures, I'm always having to go to where my character is supposed to be and learn from the people that I'm portraying. So it's always using and being a part of, as much as you can, the culture that you're portraying.
Plath: Any of the characters in "Pocahontas" end up reminding you of real people, or did you use real people to relate to those characters?
Bedard: Well, (laughs) Powhatan reminded me of Russell Means [the actor who portrayed him]. No, I think that with Pocahontas, and especially since she was not being portrayed as a 12 year old, that I really just thought about her real life and just that she was the daughter of the leader of the Algonquin Confederacy, so she already had been brought up with a knowledge that she would be a leader in her life. My portrayal was to give her as much strength and dignity, and yet, at the same time, her playfulness as well, so that both sides were portrayed. I really read as much as I could and tried to imagine that strength that it would have taken to live at that time and be the daughter of such a powerful leader.
Plath: Now that you have a child, are you waiting for the day that you can pop in "Pocahontas" and say, "Guess what?"
Bedard: (Laughs) He already has it! And, you know, he's got his favorites. He really loves "Finding Nemo." I'll tell you, I've seen "Finding Nemo" quite a lot. Now I understand when people say, "Oh, I've heard your voice so many times!" But, when he sees "Pocahontas," he always looks at me and says, "Mommy?" And then he wants to go on to "Finding Nemo" (laughs).
But he already knows it, and we were watching this edition of "Pocahontas," and I he really, think this time, seeing the making-of feature, was like, "O . . .kay, that's what this is all about. Yep, that's my mom. So for him, that's just an animated version of his mom. It's not Pocahontas (laughs). "It's my mom."
Plath: You've done TV, you've done live-action films, you've done animation . . . do you have a favorite medium?
Bedard: Well, they all have things that I love about them. I think that doing films and television I've had a chance to go out and just learn so much about Indian country, and learn so much from people who were there, or whose grandparents were there. But for me, I really hope that I get to do animation for the rest of my life, because it's like getting to be a big kid all the time. It's so fun and it's so all about your imagination—that you can kind of go ten thousand different places that probably would be just right there in the imagery and the reality of something. Truth and reality has one place—there's that tree, that tree exists, and I know I can't walk through it, right now, anyway—and in imagination you get to talk to the tree (laughs). So truth and reality has one place, and imagination has ten thousand, or ten million, or a billion . . . however you want to put that.
Plath: Did you have much studio time with the other voice talents?
Bedard: I did, especially with Russell. You know, actually, that's not true. Linda Hunt [the voice of Grandmother Willow] had a session right before I did, so I actually got to meet her, but I did not read with her. So actually it was only Russell that I did one session with.
Plath: I was just wondering about the experience itself, because you really came alive when you talked about wanting to do animation for the rest of your life, so of course I wondered what it was like. When you're in the sound booth, do you feel like you're locked in your own private world, the way the imagination operates within the enclosure of the mind?
Bedard: Yeah, well, working on an animated feature where most of us are film actors, you do do most of the sessions by yourself. You've got your "Star Trek" team behind this big glass window, and they're looking at you like you're some sort of alien, but on the other hand you hear the voices of the universe you're creating. You're looking at the script and they're telling you, "Oh, there's a ravine there, and you're going to jump over a waterfall," so you've got to speak in that way that you're speaking over a waterfall and down into a ravine. As opposed to when you're there [doing a live-action reality shoot], of course, you've got all of that for you, and you sort of naturally go there. With them, you have the director and writers and producer and everything painting a world for you, and then you go from there.
The other animation that I've done, doing episodic animation, you usually have all the actors in the room with you. That's a lot of fun as well, because you're getting to play off of these other crazy people in the kids way that you get to do.
Plath: Now, is that "Roughneck: The Starship Troopers Chronicles" that you're talking about?
Bedard: I did "Starship Troopers," I did an episode of "Higglytown Heroes," "What's New Scooby-Doo?," I did the "The Real Adventures of Jonny Quest," "Children's Book of Virtues." It's been really wonderful to do all the animation that I have. "Starship Troopers" was really great because I got to play a general—a woman general, a Native American woman general—in the future! It was just a really great experience.
Plath: One last question. What advice would you give aspiring actors? And "don't do it" isn't an option.
Bedard: (Laughs) No, I would never tell anybody not to do it. I would warn them of having to have the ability to stay strong in who you are, and to keep trying and keep doing it—because you will have to face the rejection, and persevere.