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Before Film Festival, Lily Gladstone Visits the Indian Canyons

Ahead of her appearance at the Palm Springs International Film Festival, “Killers of the Flower Moon” breakout star Lily Gladstone reflects on family, her love of theater, and the power of restraint.

Jessica P. Ogilvie Arts & Entertainment

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Lindsey Thornburg “Abiquiu Sky” shearling duster; Aldo knee-high boots.

Photography by Patrick Maus
Styling by Jason Rembert
Hair by Marc Mena
for Exclusive Artists
Makeup by Nick Barose
for Exclusive Artists using Cheekbone Beauty
Photographed at  Andreas Canyon, Palm Springs

When Lily Gladstone was a child, she and her father communicated in their sleep. 

“My mom said on more than one occasion my dad and I would call back and forth to each other, like we were having the same dream,” the actor says, leaning forward on a small couch, her long dark hair falling behind her shoulders. “We’re still like that, no matter where I am in the world.” 

Today, she happens to be in New York for the Gotham Awards. Her latest project, Killers of the Flower Moon, won the Gotham Historical Icon and Creator Tribute Award. And for her role in the 2022 indie thriller The Unknown Country, which she co-wrote with director Morrisa Maltz and Lainey Bearkiller Shangreaux, she received the Outstanding Lead Performance Award.

After this trip, she’ll jet back to Los Angeles to attend the Academy Gala before an early drive to the desert to take photos at the Indian Canyons in Palm Springs for this story.

It’s not Gladstone’s first visit to the Coachella Valley, and it won’t be her last. For Jason Momoa’s The Last Manhunt (2022), filming took place in and around Joshua Tree; filmmakers involved the Chemehuevi and other area tribes to ensure authenticity in the retelling of a tribal story. She will return to Palm Springs Jan. 4 to attend the Palm Springs International Film Festival’s annual Film Awards, alongside Killers of the Flower Moon director Matin Scorsese and co-star Leonardo DiCaprio to accept the Vanguard Award, a group honor given to a cast and director in recognition of their collective work on an exceptional film. 

As we talk over Zoom about the trajectory that led to this breakout moment in her career, Gladstone returns to her father and an early lesson in acting. After dancing in The Nutcracker at age 5 in her hometown of Browning, Montana,  Lily watched a videotape of the show to see where she could improve. To her surprise, she saw herself zoning out onstage midperformance, mindlessly rubbing her legs with a prop. 

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“It just looks like I’m standing up there scratching myself,” she says, laughing at the memory. “[My father] broke it down, man. He’s like, ‘You’re onstage all the time. So even when it’s not your turn to dance, you’re still watching, you’re still part of it.’ I remember internalizing that as always being in character. That’s something I definitely carried through [to today].” 

That would become one of many lessons leading up to Killers of the Flower Moon. The three-and-a-half-hour epic, released theatrically in October and for digital purchase in December, features Gladstone, 37, as Mollie Burkhart, an Osage woman whose husband (DiCaprio) participates in a plot to murder her family members to inherit their oil money. Gladstone’s performance has been widely heralded for its silent power and is garnering buzz for an Academy Award. 

But Gladstone’s professional ascent, much of which has taken place in Montana and the American West,  isn’t a tale of  local-girl-makes-good. It’s the story of a person with such a strong internal compass that they’ve known what they wanted do with their life since age 5. She knew when the Missoula Children’s Theater came to her hometown and staged plays with her school. She knew, as she first pursued a career in ballet, that her true purpose onstage was to act. She knew as she cut her teeth in black box theaters and independent films while still in high school. 

“I used to choreograph dances and cast all my friends in [them], and it was always about the storytelling,” she says, her eyes gazing up and away as if watching the past play out on a faraway screen. “Every ballet teacher I ever had would point out that I was ‘their actress.’ I wasn’t getting cast as the Sugar Plum Fairy, I was being cast as the Rat King. That kind of dance was very fun for me.”

All that experience and training is layered in Gladstone like waters in the ocean, allowing her to express emotional depth in no uncertain terms with a look, a movement, a laugh. It’s a singular performance style on the big screen that requires trust in oneself and one’s art, and a willingness to take risks in the name of finding a character and their truth.

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Lily Gladstone was born to parents who met as next-door neighbors in a Browning duplex. Her mother moved to the area from Colorado to take a job with the then-burgeoning program Head Start. Her father, who is Blackfeet and Nez Perce, spent his childhood between the Browning reservation and Seattle. He took seasonal work but was largely a stay-at-home dad to Lily, an only child. 

The first house her family lived in was, she says, “essentially a log cabin” with a wood-burning stove as the primary source of heat. They lived below the poverty line, although Gladstone says she had no awareness of it. Her father hunted much of the food they ate, and though her grandmother bought the family a color TV when she was 4, they had to drive 20 miles to a friend’s house to pick up a strong enough signal to watch The Simpsons every week.

The family had a collection of  VHS tapes, though, and watching them together became a beloved pastime. Gladstone particularly enjoyed The Nutcracker (1977), starring Mikhail Baryshnikov, and  Ewoks: The Battle for Endor (1985).

“I loved watching ballet,” she says, “[and] I wanted to be an Ewok. I knew I wanted to be onstage performing somehow.”

A local woman taught ballet in a church basement, and Gladstone’s mother signed her up for lessons. Around the same time, she began performing with Missoula Children’s Theater when the company came to her elementary school.  

“That was the best part of my whole year,” Gladstone says. “Just get through the school year because MCT is coming at the end of the year, and then we do the play, and then it’s summer break.”

She was still studying ballet and theater at age 11 when her family moved to Seattle to live with her paternal grandmother. Circumstances eventually led Lily to choose a singular pursuit: At age 13, when she began training in the second level of pointe, she was put on a diet and began developing patterns of disordered eating. It was time to quit ballet. 

“I couldn’t do it anymore,” she says. “I look back at 13-year-old me like, Wow, I can’t believe that you had the fortitude to realize this was unhealthy, and what needed to go in your life. 

By the time Gladstone enrolled in the acting program at the University of Montana in 2008, she had already performed in a few student and indie films and spent her teenage years developing credible chops in black box theaters like Seattle’s Stone Soup, which had a stage that was “maybe the size of a king-size bed,” she says. She’d been introduced to the work of Sam Shepard and Harold Pinter and counted Cate Blanchett and the late Phillip Seymour Hoffman as role models. 

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Gladstone poses at Andreas Canyon in Palm Springs.

From her ballet training, she infused performances with a subtlety and stillness that spoke volumes. 

“So much of ballet is … in the restraint and in the pauses as much as it is in the movement itself,” she says. “So much of it is gesture based. So much of it is pacing. Your silences say as much as your words do, like the angle of your head, the way that you’re sustaining a moment, your proximity, the tension that you’re holding.” 

The role of Mollie Burkhart called for depth, composure, and confidence, all of which Scorsese saw in his initial interview with her. 

It was in black box theaters that Gladstone was able to blend that foundation into acting, and, although she didn’t realize it at the time, hone the techniques that would make her famous. 

“That was when I realized that it’s really nice to be on this tiny stage where the audience is on top of me, because I don’t have to be quite so performative,” she says. “I can just commit to the scene.”

Gladstone’s first big break came in the mid-2010s in Kelly Reichardt’s Certain Women (2016), which tells the story of four women forging their own paths in the American West. Casting director Rene Haynes, who specializes in working with Indigenous actors, had known Gladstone for several years and thought of  her immediately for the role of The Rancher.

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“I said, ‘Oh, it’s Lily Gladstone,’ ” Haynes recalls. “I’m always looking for that special quality of someone who actively listens and takes in the information they’re hearing and is able to make it seem as if it’s the first time they’ve heard it. That’s a real gift. Lily really excels at that.”

For Gladstone, the film was a chance to test her instincts. The Rancher called for long, deep silences, but leaning into that as a relatively unknown performer ran the risk of seeming unprepared. 

“The Rancher was one big movement piece,” Gladstone says. “One big study in tension and space and pauses and listening. When you’re doing that on film, and you don’t have these big moments of character catharsis or lengthy monologues, it’s easy for people to miss the performance.” 

“She was so committed to getting to the truth of her character that I don’t think she was really capable of a false moment.

Martin Scorsese

No one did. Upon the film’s release, Gladstone was hailed by critics. A writer for Rolling Stone declared her “a talent who can hint at greater depths of  feeling than most performers could ever hope to show.” A profile in The Guardian proclaimed that “you cannot take your eyes off her.”

It was Gladstone’s performance in Certain Women that drew the attention of Martin Scorsese. The role of Mollie Burkhart called for depth, composure, and confidence, all of which Scorsese saw in his initial interview with her. During filming, he says, Gladstone demonstrated those characteristics and more.

“She’s so committed to her craft, and she was so committed to getting to the truth of her character, that I don’t think she was really capable of a false moment,” Scorsese says. “When you’re working with an artist like Lily, you’re constantly surprised — because she’s surprising herself. That’s true of all gifted actors, I think. They want to get to a place where they go further, where they surpass their ideas, where they become one with the character. I saw that happen again and again with Lily.”

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It is in this type of space, where breathing room is given to artists, and creativity and trust flows between collaborators, that Gladstone’s training, natural talent, and internal compass are brought to bear. When working with a new director, she says, especially one of Scorsese’s stature, it can be tempting to overdo the performance.

“I understand that impulse,” Gladstone says. “It does feel like a certain level of pressure to show the work just so they know you’ve showed up. But every time I give in to that impulse, it just doesn’t feel right.”

What audiences see on screen, then, is not just the mountain of work Gladstone has done to hone her craft, not just her ability to hold silence, not just her passion. They’re seeing Gladstone’s trust in herself, and her willingness to take chances in the name of finding the truth. They’re seeing the exploration — and realization — of a dream. 

Being there was incredible,” Gladstone says of the Indian Canyons. “Realizing that Palm Springs is Agua Caliente’s turf.  It was lovely to see a new world.