Native actor sees success in film

By Isaiah Montoya
Special to the Times

ALBUQUERQUE, July 9, 2010

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(Times photo)

Tatanka Means

Tatanka Means, originally from Chinle, is 25 and already becoming established as an actor and comedian from Albuquerque to L.A.

The Navajo/Oglala Lakota/Omaha plays a would-be thief on the July 11 episode of "Scoundrels" on ABC.

His character, Oscar Altsoba, is a tough guy who is later harshly reprimanded by his aunt played by Carla Rae Holland, Seneca/Mohawk. The episode is named "Mary, Mary Quite Contrary."

The show premiered with "And Jill Came Tumbling After" on June 20.

"When auditioning for 'Scoundrels' I felt good and the producers must have liked me," said Means. "When auditioning for the role I practiced hard with my cousin, Jeremiah, who is a regular on the series 'Breaking Bad.'
"We ran the scene over and over, so I went in feeling pretty well prepared, but you never know what will happen once you get in the room with everyone," he said.

The series is based on the New Zealand TV series "Outrageous Fortune," which was created by James Griffin and Rachel Lang.

Virginia Madsen plays the main character of the show. She hit it big in 1984's "Dune." She has also starred in "Candyman" and "Ghosts of Mississippi."

Filming began March 16 in Albuquerque, where Means now lives.

Means was pleased to work with Madsen as was Holland.

"Working with Virginia Madsen was a joy," said Holland. "She is an absolute pro who is genuine and sweet."

Means mirrored those compliments.

Holland continued, "It was too much fun to play Tatanka's aunt in 'Scoundrels.' I got to hit him many times with a purse because he was stealing and shaming the family and our people. On the third take I hit him so hard that the expression captured by him was used in the episode."

Holland was in the mini-series "We Shall Remain," which also starred a young Means.

Means has been on movie sets since he was a child. His father, Russell Means, helped establish the American Indian Movement.

Means said, "My dad was an actor in 'Last of the Mohicans' and I was on set with him often. I remember hanging out with Daniel Day Lewis."

In 2004 he secured first on-screen role as a stunt man in the movie "Black Cloud."

"This inspired me to pursue acting," said Means. "Later, I was in the mini-series 'Into the West' and I played Oglala Lakota chief Crazy Horse. I learned that his style and tactics were amazing. I got to learn more of my language because all of my lines were in Lakota."

Means is also a comedian who is currently touring with Ernest Tsosie III, Pax Harvey and James Junes with the 49 Laughs comedy troupe.

"When I was small I would watch stand-up comics and I wanted to be like them and to try it," said Means. "When I was in high school I would watch stand-up comics and I tried doing a few living room shows for my family. My mom laughed at my jokes but I don't remember anyone else laughing.

"I looked up to James Junes and Ernie Tsosie and Vincent Craig locally," he said, "and national favorites were George Carlin, Charlie Hill and Jerry Seinfeld."

Recently, Means met one of his comedic heroes.

"I was at the Navajo Nation Fair last year and I got to meet Charlie Hill, and a couple months later I got to perform in front of him!" he said. "I was opening a show for James and Ernie in Tuba City and he came out to watch. He was really distracting because he was taking notes on my performance the whole time.

"After the show he gave me some great pointers and still gives me advice to this day," he said. "I really respect him because he was one of the first Indians to do stand-up comedy. He started back in the 70s. He's been on Letterman, Pryor and he played at the comedy store. He tells me different ways to approach a joke, stage pointers and other veteran advice."

Means was advised to be leery of roles that may paint Indians in a demeaning manner.

"When reviewing a script, I look out for roles that may portray a negative image of Indian people," explained Means. "Some Indian actors are scared they will not get another role so they go for them, but I have seen my dad turn down scripts and big movies because they were culturally demeaning and stereotypical."

Another of Means' inspirations is Junes, who has known Means since he was a kid.

"At first I thought I'd never see him again. He was down on himself and his abilities," said Junes. "Lo and behold he is now a successful actor and comedian. I kept calling and encouraging and told him to never give up.

"It, to me, is beyond anything I'd ever expected from Tatanka now that he is on 'Scoundrels' and ABC," he said. "Now I look up to him. He has the motivation, talent and humility to succeed."

Tsosie said of Means, "I like that he is young and hungry. It sounds cliché but he reminds me of when I was young and pursuing a career in the performing arts."

Tsosie was an actor on a PBS show called "Thief of Time" where played opposite of veteran actor Wes Studi.

"Ninety-nine percent of local actors are rejected by the mainstream but Means keeps working and does not give up," Tsosie said.

Junes said Means participated in a sun dance to be a "servant of the people."

"Tatanka did not drink water for four days and that showed me how committed he is," said Junes. "He has stayed on the right track and found his way. We are all born of greatness. Only it is up to us to find it."

Means obviously listened to his mentors well. When regarding auditioning for roles, he said, "I just stick with it and do not quit. I have been to thousands of auditions and I'm only on my tenth movie role."

Upcoming projects for Means include a leading role in an indie feature movie called "More Than Frybread" and also "Intertribal Car" where he will play his own father.

"In 'More Than Frybread' I play a character named Buddy Begay who represents the Navajo Nation and goes to the Arizona frybread making championship," said Means.

It is a mockumentary from Holt Hamilton Productions.

Means feels Albuquerque is a more than suitable place to support his career.

"Once studios were being built in Albuquerque I knew the industry would be booming here," he said. "I was usually auditioning in LA but Albuquerque was gaining. Also, I can go back home to the reservation and be back the same day from Albuquerque."

On top of his show-biz success Tatanka maintains a clothing company called Tatanka Clothing. The casual wear outfits are created and marketed by Means.

"It is clothing of resistance," said Means. "The designs are created with certain educational, inspirational, and motivational motives in mind. This company was formed with newfound ideas and creative ambition to make an impact on yesterday's, today's and tomorrow's seven generations."

What is next for Tatanka Means? Where will his future lead to? According to Junes, "Tatanka will soon be a mainstream actor even though he just wants to be seen as a regular guy."

"Tatanka's goal is to be a mainstream actor and he will succeed, he will let nothing stop him," concluded Tsosie.

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