Arrow-right Camera
The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Lily Gladstone’s path from Seattle theater to an Oscar nomination

Lily Gladstone poses in the press room at the 81st Annual Golden Globe Awards held at the Beverly Hilton Hotel on Jan. 7.  (Jason Armond/Los Angeles Times)
By Gemma Wilson Seattle Times

SEATTLE – Overnight success takes years, sometimes decades.

When Lily Gladstone lit up the stage accepting her Golden Globe Award for her role in Martin Scorsese’s “Killers of the Flower Moon” – the first Indigenous woman to win best actress – she became a bona fide celebrity.

“This is for every little rez kid, every little urban kid, every little Native kid out there who has a dream,” she said.

On Tuesday, the 37-year-old made history again when she was nominated for an Academy Award for best actress – the first Native American ever nominated for a competitive (nonhonorary) acting Oscar. But long before she was captivating viewers opposite “Flower Moon” mega-costars Leonardo DiCaprio and Robert De Niro, Gladstone – a graduate of Mountlake Terrace High School – was acting and directing on stages around the Seattle area.

According to those who know her, Gladstone’s seemingly meteoric rise from working actor to household name isn’t a sudden lucky break; it’s the result of many years of dedicated, thoughtful work, executed with the joy, generosity, integrity and advocacy that Gladstone has always possessed, and which seem to have taken her to Hollywood’s heights without sacrificing her values or sense of self.

“She’s worked so hard, she’s so talented, she’s so focused and discerning,” said Fern Naomi Renville, the former executive director of local Native-youth-focused theater organization Red Eagle Soaring, where Gladstone directed summer shows in 2014 and 2015. “The choices she’s making are so self-respecting, it’s wonderful to see the impact she is having right now.”

Growing up on the Blackfeet reservation in Montana, Gladstone’s first performing love was ballet, she recently told the New York Times. Some early negative experiences with body-shaming soured her on that particular art form, but her love of performing only grew.

Native representation in film was thin on the ground in those days, but Gladstone found early inspiration in the 1992 Sam Shepard/Val Kilmer film “Thunderheart,” and the performance of Native actor Sheila Tousey. “She’s one of the reasons I actually got super-interested in theater, specifically, as a way of getting into film,” Gladstone said in a 2023 conversation at Google called “Elevating Inspired Natives,” hosted by Gladstone’s high school friend (and Google employee) Grace Perez.

As two of the few Native young women at MTHS, Perez and Gladstone were often confused for one another despite coming from very different tribes (Perez is Nooksack, Gladstone Blackfeet and Nimi’iipu). The two became good friends, and later roommates when their Shakespeare class visited the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland. “There’s a photo of us both in, like, super colonizer stance, one leg up on our beds,” Gladstone said at Google, in her throaty, musically deadpan alto. “Like, here are two Native girls claiming Oregon Shakespeare Festival.”

In a wonderful full-circle moment, Gladstone returned to OSF in 2017 to appear in its first Native-written play, Randy Reinholz’s “Off the Rails,” co-starring Sheila Tousey.

When Gladstone was 11, her family left the Blackfeet reservation in Montana. Landing in the Seattle suburbs was a tough transition for young Lily, said Maureen Miko, the founder of local youth theater organization Stone Soup Theatre. Stone Soup became something of a home for the preteen during a tumultuous time. “It was where she felt safe, where she felt good, where she felt nurtured,” said Miko, who remembers being on the phone with Gladstone’s mom, Betty Peace-Gladstone, a lot in those days. Gladstone, in Miko’s memory, was a standout as far as her desire to learn, to do the work of understanding her characters.

Jeannie Brzovic, who has taught drama at MTHS for more than 20 years, echoed that assessment. Gladstone was one of her many students over the years who found meaning and belonging in the school’s theater community.

Rather than striving to be the center of attention, Brzovic said, Gladstone’s demeanor was more watchful, preferring to observe, listen and occasionally drop a perfectly timed, wry one-liner that brought the house down.

“She was always a very grounded person,” Brzovic said. “She always had a real sense of self about her and a real determination.” Gladstone, she said, wanted to develop and deeply understand her characters, which in high school included the plum lead role of Emily from “Our Town.” Always an advocate, she also infused roles with elements of her Native heritage, when fitting, Brzovic said. In a production “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” set in turn-of-the-20th century Pacific Northwest, Gladstone wore a Native cape to portray the Amazon queen Hippolyta.

“She’s always used a moment in the spotlight, if she had someone’s attention, as a learning moment,” Perez said.

(And yes, in her senior year, Gladstone was voted “Most Likely to Win an Oscar” by her classmates, along with fellow student Josh Ryder.)

“She was an old soul,” said Gladstone’s high school friend Stephanie Rios. “She’s also so funny and so goofy, and I’m starting to see more of that in interviews. You know how sometimes people gain popularity and you see them change … or they get, I don’t know, they get kind of tarnished by it? Ever since school, I’ve followed her career and I’ve never once seen this girl waver in her message or the things that she works toward.”

Renville, who was executive director of Red Eagle Soaring from 2009-2017, first saw Gladstone on stage in 2013 at Seattle’s Museum of History & Industry, performing a one-person show as part of the history-focused Living Voices program. (Gladstone came to Spokane in 2014 with the Living Voices production “Within the Silence.”) In 2014, Gladstone helmed her first of several Red Eagle Soaring’s two-week summer intensives called SIYAP (both the Coast Salish word for esteemed friend and an acronym for Seattle Indian Youth Arts and Performance, Renville explained).

Gladstone, Renville remembered, had a gravitational force that the students responded to, and she often caught them mirroring their director’s body language, so strong was their desire to emulate her.

“Lily’s going to get a lot of acclaim as an actor, as she rightly should,” Renville said. “But their impact as a theater artist working with young Native people is something to be celebrated on its own.”