Saturday, June 04, 2005

Skeet Ulrich - A June 2005 Interview

When Steven Spielberg speaks, I tend to listen and learn. The award-winning filmmaker served as the executive producer on TNT's new six-part epic miniseries "Into the West." He defined the production as follows: “We’re painting this on a huge canvas in order to tell a story that explores the Gold Rush, the transcontinental railroad, the wild west and the Indian wars leading to the tragedy at Wounded Knee. These are all facets of the American and Native American experience. It’s the story about opportunity and the clash of cultures and the eventual overwhelming of one nation’s way of life over another.”

I was lucky enough to view the first three episodes last week. It is absolutely one of the most accurate movies about early settlers and Native Americans that I have ever seen. Each side in the struggle for American land is shown as complex groups of people who cannot trust each other enough to co-exist in the same spot.

Matthew Settle stars as Jacob Wheeler, a young man who decides to head west for a better life after hearing traders talk about all the fortune and land that can be found on the trip to California. His decision to leave the nest influences other members of his family who also don't realize that a wagon train adventure across the country can be such a dangeous journey, one that brings death to family members and friends. When his brother, Jethro Wheeler (Skeet Ulrich), thinks that Matthew has been killed, he agrees to look after Matthew's new Indian wife, Thunder Heart Woman (Tonantzin Carmelo), and their children.

A proud Lakota tribe stands between the Wheeler group and the West Coast. Thunder Heart Woman's three brothers all have their own opinions about the white men and women who enter their lands. Loved by the Buffalo (George Leach) knows what's in store for his people because he has been given a vision of the future. Dog Star (Michael Spears) wants to avoid the new settlers and travelers from the East because he is convinced that Native Americans will conform to some of the white man's ways and lose their own identity and traditional Lakota values in the process. Running Fox (Zahn McClarnon) believes that the only way his people can survive is to adapt to the white man’s ways.

As in all countries, both sides of the equation have members who want to do harm to everybody who disagrees with them. Their bloody confrontations and private wars threaten all the whites and Native Americans. What happened on the American plains is nothing new to Planet Earth. When one country tries to take over land and resources owned by another country, there are very few winners in the process.

I had a chance to talk with Skeet Ulrich last week about his work in the TNT miniseries and some other career matters. He cares passionately about "Into the West" because he understands a part of American history that shaped how all of us live today.

The Skeet Ulrich Interview with Tony Bray

You spent a lot of time in Concord, North Carolina. How did you get from there to David Mamet in New York City?

It was a direct flight. I was building sets. I had gone to school to study marine biology, but I was building sets. I had sort of built stuff my entire life, so I was designing and building and taking drafting. I would watch plays and got real interested in performing. I wanted to do it the best I could, so I went to the theater department at UNC-Wilmington. They handed me the brochure about NYU's summer program. Mamet's was the only one you didn't have to audition for because he believes that anyone can be an actor with enough will. He gave me written questions. It took me about ten days to research them and find the answers. He was really just testing my will power. I flew to New York, did an interview and went to their summer program. One semester later I transferred to NYU. Mamet and Bill Macy were teaching there at that time. It was mostly Bill, but David was still there. I would take William H. Macy as a teacher any day of the week. He's incredible. He's got a lot of hard earned experience.

When I was watching "Into the West," I was struck by how tough the wagon train guides could be on everybody, yet seemed to be compassionate too.

I think it was more of a general philosophy of those guides at that time. They weren't border ruffians like you'd see in Kansas and Missouri. They'd been around and seen their share of trouble. Historically, they were very compassionate people, especially towards women. I think everybody was looking for a little bit of hope at that time. When somebody fell in love, no matter what the scenario, everybody embraced it to sort of keep their own hopes up. Anything that lifted the spirit drew them in.

Ernest Borgnine once told me that riding a horse-drawn wagon can be rough on the rump.

It certainly hurts your back after a while. In the research I've done, I found out that riders would hang a bucket of cream on the back of the wagon and by the end of the day it was butter. That's how rough it was. It would actually churn it. Our experience was about eight hours at a time sitting on those things. It's not comfortable. We got banged around and bruised.

The scene with the wagons in the river amazed me. It had to be one rough shoot for the entire crew.

We shot that in two different sequences, two different rivers about a month apart. It was definitely brutal. There were massive rocks and the current was pretty darn strong. Being pushed downstream the entire time and trying stay at the right angle was not easy.

It's a tribute to the director, the cinematographer and the editor that they got those sequences together.

I know. It's a really a powerful sequence. Someone told me that travelers would see about twenty graves a day in just a few miles of travel. It was a tragedy. It was just an unbelievable time. The Native American side was equally as tragic ... if not more so. I think it's just unbelievable what has happened to them.

I want to ask Spielberg if he was trying to pay tribute to the Trail of Tears exodus from North Carolina and Georgia to Oklahoma. The two male leads, you and Matthew Settle, both have strong connections to the area. Matthew is from Hickory.

I know, it is bizarre. The whole Indian thing ... I always say it's really the American holocaust. It's something we need to look at.

I don't celebrate Columbus Day, so you know my point of view.

I found these tee-shirts at that are great. They say, "Homeland Security" across the top. It has a picture of Geronimo and three other Native Americans on it. At the bottom, it says "defending against terrorism since 1492."

"Into the West" is almost as good as "Lonesome Dove." The territory of humanity covered is far more expansive. The storm sequence on the plain was exceptional. How was that one filmed?

We shot the first three episodes in Calgary. We were down by a river that was a glacier waterfall river. The crew would pump water out of it into massive rain machines. It was freezing.

A good deal of shooting all of the episodes was done in cold weather. Because of the need to remove all modernism, we stayed in the middle of nowhere all day long, living out of tents. It rained a lot, but that particular night, it wasn't raining. They pumped the water out of the river. It was cold. It definitely set the scene for viewers.

That scene was well done. Simon Wincer, who directed that episode, also did "Lonesome Dove." His episode is really indicative of his style of directing. He's just an incredible story teller.

The whole story I've seen so far is incredible. Keri Russell and you have now worked on two major projects together. She has the "Into the West" female lead and starred with you in Hallmark's "The Magic of Ordinary Days." She recently said that you remind her of herself because you both took time off to raise the kids and other things.

I think you have to refill the well at some point. I had done numerous plays in New York and fourteen or fifteen films before I took a couple of years off. I was just a little worn out on it. I took some time off and then I was dying to get back to it. It really sort of refills your passion for it. It certainly did for me.

You've got the passion, that's for sure. "Into the West" proves that in spades.


I think that I've used up my time. I really do appreciate the fact that you shared some of your experiences with my readers. They will love "Into the West." Don't be a stranger to North Carolina.

I won't. Thanks for the kind words about "Into the West."

End of the Skeet Ulrich Interview