By MICHAEL GINGOLD
The historical horror/drama MOHAWK, opening today, is a rare genre film to feature Native American leads. RUE MORGUE got an exclusive chat with stars Kaniehtiio Horn and Justin Rain, along with co-star Eamon Farren, about this intense and topical thriller.
Directed by Ted Geoghegan (WE ARE STILL HERE) from a script he wrote with MY BEST FRIEND’S EXORCISM author Grady Hendrix, MOHAWK is playing select theaters and iTunes from Dark Sky Films. Set during the War of 1812, it casts Horn and Rain as Oak and Calvin, Mohawk warriors in a polyamorous relationship with the British Joshua (Farren). They become the targets of a vicious band of American soldiers led by the vengeful Colonel Holt (THE HILLS HAVE EYES’ Ezra Buzzington), with whom they play a deadly cat-and-mouse game through a dense forest. MOHAWK marks a reunion for Horn and cinematographer Karim Hussain, who directed her in the “Vision Stains” segment of THE THEATRE BIZARRE. (See our review of MOHAWK here, and a conversation with Geoghegan and producer Travis Stevens here.)
Can you each tell us about your roles?
KANIEHTIIO HORN: Oak is Mohawk, though her father is non-native, and she is with Calvin, whom she grew up with. Then this new, interesting person, Joshua, came into her life, and they ended up as this trio. She’s trying to keep everything together; everything that’s falling apart, she’s trying to fix, and every time there’s a problem or an obstacle, she doesn’t take time to think about what the next move is, she just knows that she has to make it. She’s basically the brains of the group, and the one who’s carrying this trio. She’s the matriarch of the gang.
JUSTIN RAIN: Calvin is kind of the hothead of the trio. I act before I think, and it triggers this series of events that unfortunately gets us into a lot of trouble.
EAMON FARREN: Joshua is a British agent who’s come over from the UK, working on behalf of their government as a kind of diplomat to the native tribes, and he has found a friendship/loveship with Oak and Calvin. They become three Bonnie and Clydes. He is a very pragmatic, diligent, by-the-book kind of guy, with a heart that stands with the preservation of the Mohawk people and their culture. He’s trying to do the right thing, and sometimes he’s a bit ill-advised in what he does. Essentially, he’s an outsider who’s looking for something different in his life, and has found himself in love with a people and culture he never expected.
How familiar were each of you with this period of history before you took on the film?
KH: I grew up on a Mohawk reservation, and in my high school, this was all the history we learned about. My mom was very much involved in political activism and is a bit of a history buff, and knows all about the treaties and that sort of stuff, so I’ve heard this spoken about my whole life. I can’t tell you dates and details like that, but I knew generally about a lot of the events and the horrible things that happened. We’re always encouraged to know what we went through, what our ancestors went through.
JR: For any indigenous person raised in a traditional household, or a First Nations household, it kind of comes naturally to know about that history—being told about it and the things they went through, and the genocide that came down on us.
EF: As an Australian, I had absolutely no idea! [Everyone laughs] Having said that, it was an incredible experience to meet these two and learn from scratch, essentially, about First Nations culture. I find the parallels between many indigenous cultures around the world are very close, and I have the knowledge of my own country’s native people, and the war and suffering that were brought upon them. I’m really grateful for this film and getting to know more about its subject, because it’s such an important story to tell. And also, the time period was a lot of fun to play in, running around in the forest, shooting muskets and so on. We’ve got the political and social heartbeat in this movie, and also the action, horror and thriller side going on, so it’s a great combination.
JR: This is the first period film I’ve done, and I love it for that too, because I hadn’t had the opportunity to play an 1800s-era First Nations character before.
It’s also a very relevant story, in the way it addresses prejudices and what it means to be a true American.
EF: Absolutely. You’ve got Americans, an Englishman and First Nations people in this tussle with each other.
KH: And it’s so intimate, which is what’s cool about it. You’re not watching the whole Mohawk as a people, and the British as a people, and their warfare. It’s just individuals who meet up in one particular part of the forest. I like that it’s so small, but all these huge things are being said within that.
EF: The beginning of the film deals with these three friends in this relationship, and then the reality of war comes down on them within the first 15 minutes. It’s about how, on both the micro and macro level, when war is thrust upon people, how they deal with it and react to it. It’s essentially a humanist piece, and it’s so relevant to what’s going on everywhere in the world today.
How was the shoot on a physical level, running around the woods for a month or so?
KH: Hard! We were getting our ankles wrapped, and it was a lot more athletic than I thought it was going to be. I knew it was going to be difficult, but I didn’t realize it was going to be that kind of difficult.
EF: It was a tough shoot, not just for us but for everybody. Every single person was run ragged. I think those are the fun ones, though, where it’s rough and everyone feels it, but at the end of the day, it’s worth it. I think everyone saw that.
JR: It was very physically demanding and also emotionally demanding, and that takes a physical toll on you too. We were doing these emotional scenes where we’re fighting for survival, and we felt it when we got back to our hotel that night, trying to stay awake to finish our meal so we could go to bed!
EF: But it was good, because that makes you feel super-present, you know? We were telling a story that has no comfort level, so it was nothing but honesty out there. We just threw ourselves into it.
KH: I want to add that usually, I’m pretty good about going back to normal after they call “Cut.” But one time I couldn’t get out of the scene, and had to shake it off, was after watching Justin as Calvin after he has been tortured. I remember looking at him, and thinking about the things that our men went through—obviously not just Mohawk men but native men in general—and seeing him crawling on the ground with blood coming out of his mouth, my heart just fucking broke. I had to cry a little bit, because I knew that somebody, one of my ancestors or one of his ancestors, had seen that for real, just in the last few hundred years. There were many other things that were hard too, but I’ll never forget that.
Tiio, did you know Karim Hussain was involved when the movie was first pitched to you?
KH: Yeah, I knew, because my agent sent me the script and then two minutes later, I got this follow-up e-mail saying, “We really want you to know that Karim Hussain is the DP on this project.” I e-mailed him right away, and I was like, “You and I need to talk. Give me the lowdown on all this, as a friend.” We scheduled a little meeting, and he told me about the director and producer and how he had worked with them before. He knows how I work, so I thought, “If Karim says it’s good, then I’m in.”
What was the highlight of the project for each of you?
KH: For me, it was being able to portray a Mohawk woman as a kick-ass yet emotional and compassionate person. Getting to speak my own language was also a huge deal for me. I wanted to make it right; I wanted native people to watch this movie, Mohawk people in particular, and be proud, and know that a real Mohawk woman was part of it and tried to make it a true representation of us. This is one of the first projects where I’ve really felt like myself as an actor, and able to express everything I’ve done and studied over the past 11 years, and myself as a woman, and a Mohawk woman; it was a perfect marriage in this project.
EF: One of the things I enjoyed when I first read the script was the relationship between the three, and how that’s represented, both individually and as a collective. I loved the scenes the three of us did together; they’re emotional, they’re kind of action-y, sometimes they’re a little silly; we did a bit of everything together. I like the family aspect of the three of them in the context of this setting.
JR: Right off the top, as soon as I got the offer to join this project, knowing that Travis was attached was like, “Oh, sweet!” I’m a fan of his from some of the movies he’s produced; CHEAP THRILLS is a favorite of mine. Then I watched Ted’s previous film and became an instant fan. He was a great, easy director to work with. And then Tiio and Eamon and just hitting it off with them, and making the new friends I made on this project—I couldn’t have asked for more. There were challenging scenes where I’d never had the opportunity to go to that level of commitment to exude the amount of pain and suffering that Calvin goes through. I walked away from that feeling proud: “OK, I know I can do that now. I know I can go that far.” I’m going to take those lessons and friendships and carry them on to the next thing.