While the full cast has yet to be announced, Martin Sensmeier, who is also executive producing the Jim Thorpe biopic, will star as Thorpe. (Photo by Dave Starbuck/Geisler-Fotopress/Picture-Alliance/DPA/AP Images)
For several years, Hollywood production teams have been working on putting together a biopic about Jim Thorpe, the legendary athlete, Olympic gold medalist, and member of the Sac and Fox Nation. While it’s still in its early stages, the film has already amassed a roster of top names who have signed on to be involved with the project, including Angelina Jolie, Todd Black, and Steve Tisch as producers.
One innovative aspect of this film in particular is the Tribal involvement in its financing. Currently, several Tribes have joined together to support it, including the Tuolumne Band of Me-Wuk Indians, the Mohegan Tribe, the Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation, the Tonto Apache Tribe, and the Bear River Band of the Rohnerville Rancheria.
According to Abraham Taylor, another of the film’s producers, “To tell an authentic Jim Thorpe story, we have to maintain control of the project. The only way to do this is with the help of Indian Country.”
A preliminary synopsis of the film on www.brightpathmovie.com describes the story as “a young Native American struggles to hold onto his identity in the face of a nation that attempts to strip him of his culture. Spurred on by the last words his father ever spoke to him, ‘Son, you’re an Indian. I want you to show other races what an Indian can do,’ Jim Thorpe transcends every obstacle to become a beacon of hope for his people and ‘The World’s Greatest Athlete.’”
While the full cast has yet to be announced, Martin Sensmeier, who is also executive producing the project, will star as Thorpe. Sensmeier, an Alaska Native of Tlingit and Koyukon-Athabascan descent, is perhaps best known most recently for his roles in The Magnificent Seven and a recurring part on HBO’s Westworld.
Late last year, Native Business Magazine spoke with Sensmeier about the status of the project, his role as a producer, what it means to play Jim Thorpe, what it means to be a Native entrepreneur, and a variety of other topics.
A version of this article ran in the November “Entrepreneurship” issue of Native Business Magazine.
Native Business: What is the status of the project and can you tell us how it’s coming along?
Sensmeier: Right now, it’s not even in pre-production yet. It’s been announced. They still need to lock down a director and a few other things. But it is mostly financed. A lot of that financing is happening through the Tribes and also UTA Independent. Obviously, they have a production team and my production team is working on it as well. I’m executive producer so I’ve been instrumental in getting a lot of these people to the table to sit down and have a conversation about getting this film pushed forward.
The script had been brought to me two years ago by a member of one of the Tribes who is funding it and one of the producers named Abraham Taylor. He’s been going around and raising money for the film, and he approached me, and I signed on. I was able to make a connection with Angelina Jolie and Todd Black, who produced The Magnificent Seven, so I’ve worked with Todd before. He also produces all of Antoine Fuqua’s films and all of Denzel Washington’s films. Todd brings along Escape Artists, and his producing partners are Steve Tisch, owner of the New York Giants, as well as Jason Blumenthal I think. They’re a powerhouse production team and they produce a lot of A-list movies that are in theaters every month.
Obviously, Angelina is a very accomplished filmmaker. She did Unbroken, which got nominated for three Oscars, and that’s a film about an Olympian named Louie Zamperini, who was a prisoner of war. That was based on a true story and it got nominated for three Oscars, so she knows how to make these types of movies.
Angelina actually has some Native ancestry through the Iroquois and Huron Tribes, I believe. She’s always wanted to do a movie about something that’s related to Native people. She saw this as an opportunity to do that, so I’m just super grateful and incredibly thankful that she’s chosen to be a part of it. It’s what’s taking it to the next level and putting it on the map in terms of movies that are being made out there. We’re going to be able to make it at a very high production value because she’s involved and because Todd’s involved as well.
Native Business: How do you think the Jim Thorpe story translates to today?
Sensmeier: I think it translates a lot because we’re still fighting for exposure as Native people. We’re still looking for that exposure, on whatever platform that might be – whether it be sports, or entertainment, or what have you. I think that we’re still looking for that representation. I think that translates today because there’s still a lot of false stereotypes that exist about Native people. There’s a lot of Native kids that will benefit from seeing that type of representation on screen. It’s not just the warrior role, which I have no problem with because I’ve played it a couple of times. I like playing the warrior. But I think people are more able to identify with someone who lived in the early 1900s rather than someone who lived in the 1700s or 1800s because this person goes to school and they encounter other people.
Jim Thorpe went to Carlisle with a bunch of other people, and then he played professional sports and was in the Olympics. So he competed against athletes from other walks of life, other nationalities, and whatnot. There are so many levels that people can relate to this story on, whether you’re Native or not. I think it should be a story about a man and an athlete, and I think a lot of people can identify with that. What it will mean to Native kids to see that type of representation – they need that.
Native Business: From the business angle, what is the impact of so much of the investment in the film coming from Tribes?
Sensmeier: Well I think we’ll have to wait and see how the film does. If it’s a success, that can open up a lot of doors, so there’s some pressure to succeed, obviously. We have to show up ready to work.
From a business standpoint, I think it’s an opportunity to help tell our own stories and believe that this isn’t just something where they’re throwing money away. Tribes can invest in storytelling to help change the narrative and put quality stuff out there for people to see. That’s what I hope for. I’m not going to talk about what would happen if it didn’t work out, because I plan on making a good movie.
I just think there are so many stories within Indian Country that don’t just include Native people. Someone asked me that question recently. They said, “would you like to see an all Native cast in a TV show?” And I said, “you know what, that would be cool. But what would be cooler is to see a TV show with all Native leads and some strong supporting characters who are from other races.” That’s kind of like my life. I have strong Native leads in my life, but there were strong supporting characters who were white and black and other ethnicities I grew up with. But the main ones in my life were Native. So that’s kind of how I see it. I’ve never lived in an environment where there’s only specifically Native people, so I can’t really envision a TV show about that.
Native Business: What does it mean to you on a personal level to play Jim Thorpe?
Sensmeier: To play Jim Thorpe? Oh, man, it’s an incredible honor. It’s huge. I honestly can’t even put it into words, because I don’t know how to fully express how big of an opportunity it is. I don’t know if I can find the right words for that. I just have to show people. I just have to do the part and do the work.
You know, I have a lot of plans. I’m training hard, working out every day – sometimes two times a day. I’m eating right. I plan to travel to Oklahoma because I’ve got to figure out the right dialect. All of these things, it’s all the work that goes into a role like this. I have to do the best that I can do and actually do the work, so that requires all this preparation.
The best thing that I could do to honor the legacy of Jim Thorpe and his story is to do that work. And aside from that, I can’t really speak much more. At the end of the day, this isn’t about me. This is about the people I’m giving this to. It’s about the people that are going to watch it and the people that are affected by it. For me, the gift is to be able to play the role, but once I do it, I’m performing for other people.
For me, it just comes down to doing the best I can, and that’s what I’m going to do. That’s what I’m doing because that’s what it means to me. It means I have an incredible responsibility, and I have to fulfill that responsibility to the best of my ability. If I fail to do that, it doesn’t matter how I feel or what it means to me.
Native Business: Is this the first film that you’ve produced?
Sensmeier: This is the first film I’m producing, but I’ve worked with Todd before, and I was able to make the connection with Angelina. We had a conversation about it, and she was really interested, and we had just kept that conversation alive. Somewhere along the line she decided to believe in me and in the project and help give it wings. She has pretty good intuition as to what the right projects for her to be involved with are or aren’t, so hopefully we can do the story justice.
Native Business: How did you end up becoming a producer? Is that something you’ve always wanted to do?
Sensmeier: It is something I’ve always wanted to do. You know, I had studied acting when I first started out. I had taken acting classes because I just had a general interest in it. But I also was very interested in filmmaking, and so right around the end of my oil field career, I had applied to a couple of different film schools and got accepted. Filmmaking was something I had originally wanted to do.
But with this particular project, it was an opportunity and I was at a big, powerful agency, and they back me and believe in me, so that’s been great. I also had some connections that I used to get some meetings and I was able to bring some people to the table.
You can have all the money in the world, but that doesn’t mean you’re going to get a movie made. It’s about getting the right pieces and somebody like Todd Black who has the ability to market a movie, and someone like Angelina Jolie who is a master storyteller herself. She’s an incredible filmmaker. She knows exactly what she’s doing. She knows what a story should be and I believe in her vision because she’s been doing it for so long.
It’s pretty cool listening to her talk about story and stuff like that. I think she wanted to do something with a Native project and was looking for something that was a meaningful story, and also she has a thing about doing films and making it authentic. With her last film, First They Killed My Father, they shot it entirely in Cambodia with Cambodian actors. She had a Cambodian writer, so she’s really supportive of the communities she’s telling stories about.
That’s obviously something that us as a Native people, we think about that kind of thing. I think we’re protective over a lot of our stories, as we should be. We’ve been struggling for a long time to get authentic representation in film. I look at it like if we do a good job, and it does come across as being authentic and something that could stand the test of time, then it’s like I did my part in helping that shift in Hollywood that’s needed. I think Hollywood is starting to realize that there are talented Native actors and actresses and filmmakers. It’s just cool to see people working.
But I’ve always wanted to produce. Eventually, I’d like to direct at some point. I’d like to write. In my mind, I think that’s a long ways away, but I’ll get there someday. Every time I’m on set, it’s like film school for me. I’m watching, asking questions, and genuinely interested in what I’m working on. So I think that it’s a great opportunity.
Native Business: So you see yourself moving beyond acting and doing a little bit of everything at some point?
Sensmeier: Oh yeah. I mean, if you think about it, if this film is a success and it’s funded by several different Tribes, which a large part of the funding will come from several different Tribes, if it’s a success that’s going to open more doors for future opportunities. Future stories can be told where we’re the ones telling the stories. We’re the ones controlling the narrative. And we have yet to really do that on a large scale.
To me, what I hope for is that it just helps open doors for other Native filmmakers and other Native actors to get more work and to share and tell more stories. That’s what I hope for it. And that it stands the test of time. I think that’s important too. If they’re going to invest this much time, studios are going to get behind it. If you’ve got A-list producers behind it, then we’ve just got to execute and show that we belong in this space. That’s the biggest thing. You’ve just got to do a good job.
Native Business: Tell me more about your production company, Box of Daylight.
Sensmeier: Box of Daylight is actually something that I started with Thorpe. And with the fact that these people came to me and they had the script. They said that they had raised money and they were in the process of raising more money to tell the story of Jim Thorpe. And I was just thinking about it because my manager had talked about Jim Thorpe and how I was going to play Jim Thorpe in a movie one day. I felt like he had just manifested it in a way.
Native Business: What are your plans for Box of Daylight beyond just Bright Path?
Sensmeier: We’re going to produce more movies! I just met with some investors here in LA about a project that I’m doing with some friends of mine in Seattle. And we’re going to tell some stories from that area. I think that’s what I’m going to start with – probably some indie films. I might do some short films.
I think that it’s important for tribes to get behind Native artists, because we’re storytellers by tradition. As a people, we’re storytellers. Our culture has never been static. It’s always evolving, always changing. We adopt technology as it’s readily available. I think that filmmaking is the evolution of storytelling. I think it’s important that we tell our own stories so that we can create positive new stereotypes about who we are and have authentic representation and have a voice in mainstream media and mainstream entertainment.
I’m going to produce a lot of stuff. I’m going to produce stuff that I’m not even in. I want to give opportunities to filmmakers that I believe in that can help tell great stories and get behind them and fund them. That’s what it comes down to.
Native Business: Is it important for Native actors to get involved in the business side of filmmaking?
Sensmeier: 100 percent. I think there are great programs out there, like Sundance has a fellowship program. You can go out there and create opportunities. It’s important for people to learn about everything. People want to get into filmmaking and they don’t know where to start. I think we definitely need more Native actors and actresses. If there are kids that want to pursue it, if they daydream about it and think about it, I think as adults and mentors and teachers, if those kids are daydreaming about it and if they have that itch, we need to support those dreams even if they seem farfetched.
To me, I don’t see why you can’t make it. If you do the work and learn the craft, then anything is possible. I know there’s not a lot of us doing it. I go to auditions and there are only a handful of actors. I know who’s going to get the part. If I don’t get the part, I know who’s going to get the part. So I always encourage people to pursue it.
I’m very supportive of other Native artists on any level – even if they suck. Even if the films aren’t good, at least they’re doing it. To me, failure is not the opposite of success, failure is a part of success.
Native Business: How did you decide to become an actor and an entrepreneur?
Sensmeier: You have to understand I was in an oil field for 8 years. I spent 5 years on an oil rig. When I quit, I was 26. I did a 180 and went the other way, and it was like I was pursuing a fresh start completely. I think a lot of people are afraid of starting fresh. I just had an awakening at one time and thought I was going to pursue this. I applied to film school and I was in New Mexico and it was kind of serendipitous because everybody that I met was telling me I should be in acting. I had auditioned for a couple things, but it wasn’t something I was really pursuing. I thought it was realistic for me to go to film school because at least you can get a degree and have a skill and learn it.
In the midst of all that, I got a chance to go work on Longmire for a day or two and that was really inspiring. So I was like, alright, maybe I can do the acting thing. And then I got some modeling gigs and next thing you know, people wanted to take pictures of me and wanted me to audition for their movies. So I thought ‘This is cool, I could do this for a little bit.’ And I just stuck with it.
Native Business: How has acting helped you become a better entrepreneur?
Sensmeier: I’ve learned how to handle rejection in the process of auditioning for project after project that I never booked. If you can learn to handle that, then you can handle pretty much anything, I think.
Basically, an audition is a job interview. I go in and audition and then walk out of there and forget about it. It’s the same thing with business. When I’m doing business now, I know what I want. I know what I’m pursuing. I know what my goals are. I believe in my ideas. I work really hard. I show up on time. I’m honest. I’m committed. And I follow through on those commitments. So if an opportunity is there and it slips through my fingers, I think at least I exhausted everything I could, so on to the next. I’ve learned not to be emotionally attached to my business as much, and I think as an entrepreneur that’s important because some of it works out and some of it doesn’t. And that’s what being rejected with the acting stuff has helped me with.
Sports has also helped. Working out, playing basketball, and pushing myself to the limit every day in the gym. All of those things give you strength and sturdiness. So I believe in my product and I feel a lot of good things happening in the future.
Native Business: Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Sensmeier: I just think that this is a great opportunity for a lot of people, myself included. Sterlin Harjo wrote an amazing script, and he’s from Holdenville, which is 30 minutes away from where Jim grew up. He’s a great writer, and he’s a good director, and he’s doing some good work in Indian country. He’s Muscogee (Creek) and Seminole, so he did an amazing script.
A lot of times, this work and being an entrepreneur is like starting a fire. You’re going to start with small pieces of wet wood, and it’s going to be hard to get it going. Once you get it going, you just throw a little bit on there, and it keeps going and burning hot and you feed it a little bit.
That’s back to being an entrepreneur. You ain’t never arrived. You ain’t never arrived. You’re always trying to make it every day. It’s a challenge. You’ve got to wake up and push yourself. That’s a challenge.