Jessica Chastain, Sam Rockwell Are at Odds in Relevant Western ‘Woman Walks Ahead’

Politics and shifts in society have always influenced art, and in our turbulent times, the western film genre has becomes surprisingly relevant, as audiences have seen with “Hostiles,” “Damsel,” and now “Woman Walks Ahead.” Inspired by a true story, this latest film from director Susanna White follows Catherine Weldon (Jessica Chastain), an idealistic 1890s Brooklyn painter who, following a requisite year of morning for her husband, decides to take her destiny into her own hands and travel all the way to South Dakota. Catherine is not seeking an escape, per se, but to resume her career as a portrait painter, and for her first subject she has set her sights on Sitting Bull (Michael Greyeyes), the elusive leader of the Lakota Sioux.

Sitting Bull proves to be more affable than one would think, and he agrees to sit for Catherine, for a sum of $1,000, which he uses to help his people. The relationship between the two is the strength of the film, but before it can turn into an all-out star-crossed romance, politics set in, as the American government pushes the Lakota people to agree to a treaty that would take away much of their land, and it’s not long before Catherine gets caught up in the cause.

Predictably, “New York liberal” Catherine arises suspicion and scorn from the local white people; they call her a prostitute and spit in her face, and in one truly harrowing scene, resort to physical violence. Recent Oscar winner Sam Rockwell plays one of her biggest adversaries, Silas Groves, a U.S. government official who cites past incidents of violence perpetrated by the Lakota as a reason for why they should their rights limited. However, unlike his boss, James McLaughlin (Ciaran Hinds), he does not wish to resort to war..

“I’m really a big fan of Jessica Chastain’s and I wanted to play this character,” Rockwell revealed to Entertainment Voice. “The juxtaposition of him is really interesting.”

One of the more intriguing characters in “Woman Walks Ahead” is Susan, McLaughlin’s Lakota wife and interpreter who finds herself caught between two worlds. According to Rulan Tangen, the Native actress who portrays her, Susan McLaughlin is based on an actual historical figure, a published author who advocated for the rights of her people.

“When she speaks, she has something to say, both in Lakota language and in English,” Tangen told Entertainment Voice. “I think it’s indicative of women at that time, especially women of color. They’re holding strong as they could, but not always asked to speak, but when it’s time, they have a lot to say, because they’re sitting, observing.”

Authenticity was a priority for the cast and crew of “Women Walks Ahead.” White and her producers hired multiple Lakota consultants to make sure their portrayal of that culture was correct and respectful.

“We had a wonderful advisor, Yvonne Russo, who invited me out to Rosebud in the Dakotas, and I got to attend ceremonies with her family,” recalled White to Entertainment Voice. The  director also met with with multiple experts to learn about the Lakota language and aspects of their culture such as dress.

“One way into it for me, was having people speak the proper language, having people speak Lakota in the movie, because it’s their world, not our world,” explained the director. “Jessica is our eyes and ears as she journeys in there trying to learn about the culture.”

Added Tangen, “Our biggest thing was, not so much what the director wanted, for us, but to listen to [the advisors to learn] what would be most appropriate and respectful and honorable. Also the way Michael carried himself as a representation of the chief, it made everyone stop and listen and think, ‘Okay, if he’s going to make sure he gets the language right, everybody must.’ It took everybody really taking the time and the focus. I think it probably began with Jessica Chastain, because she said that she would not accept the role unless a First Nations person was cast as Sitting Bull.”

“I think it says something. It’s a really thoughtful film,” said Rockwell when asked about the message of “Woman Walks Ahead.” “I guess that it’s an anti-western. It’s not your typical western. The movie ‘Little Big Man’ inspired me to do this movie. It’s a great movie that I saw when I was a kid about this same topic.”

While Catherine is certainly different from the Lakota people in many ways and enjoys a degree of privilege that they will never know, she too has experienced oppression in her life, first from her domineering husband, and then from the husband he chose for her.

“Do not get me started,” Tangen said with a laugh when asked how “Woman Walks Ahead” speaks to today’s struggles in American in terms of race and feminism. “All these people who are under the struggle with these big governmental forces that are not doing the right thing, and I think that we can learn from all [these characters] to be like, ‘We are stronger together than we are pigeonholed and separated.’ And that, to me, is the lesson about standing together in our oppression, and suddenly, we becomes the people in power.”

Tangen revealed that the filming of “Woman Walks Ahead” coincided with the Dakota Access Pipeline protests, a pivotal event that reminded the masses that the struggle between Native Americans and the U.S. government is far from over.

“We were filming this around the time of Standing Rock, and we dedicated a lot of these scenes to the struggles there. That was embedded into the film as well.” Tangen pointed to a particularly powerful scene in which she and Greyeyes perform a moving dance with spiritual significance known as the Ghost Dance. “You can’t carry off a scene like that without investing in something.”

Continued White, “There’s also a bigger environmental message in the film. The Lakota people traditionally lived in harmony with nature. They followed the migration of the buffalo herds. They knew just how much to take take from nature and and how much to give back, and I think we can learn a lot from that now.”

Woman Walks Ahead” opens June 29 in New York and Los Angeles and is available on DirectTV.