Canadian-born, Native American actor Gary Farmer served as the moral conscience and spiritual center of Jim Jarmusch’s film Dead Man (1995), a cosmic reimagining of the American Western. Farmer portrays a Native American who had been abducted as a young man by English soldiers, taken to London and then returned to his homeland, only to be given the mocking name of Nobody (or Xebeche:”he who talks loud, saying nothing”). David Stewart talked with Farmer about the lasting influence of Jarmusch’s film
The Hollywood Western is as complex and expansive as the sweeping vistas of the American Southwest. In 1995, Jim Jarmusch, one of America’s revered independent filmmakers, defied the traditional conventions of the Western with his cosmic celebration of Native Americans, Dead Man. Inspired by Native American literature, the poetry of William Blake, and the revisionist Westerns of screenwriter Rudy Wurlitzer (Two-Lane Blacktop, Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid), the film stars Johnny Depp, who plays William Blake, a naively meek accountant who is expected to work in the industrial town of Machine for the cigar-chomping industrialist, John Dickinson (Robert Mitchum in his last onscreen performance).
Machine, the nightmarishly Dickensian town, does not welcome Blake with open arms after a romantic encounter with a woman selling paper flowers (Mili Avital) leads Blake to shoot her murderous fiancé (Gabriel Byrne), who happens to be Dickinson’s son. With a lead bullet embedded in his chest, Blake wakes up in the woods being tended to by a mystical Native American named Nobody, played by Gary Farmer (who was born into the Cayuga Nation and Wolf Clan of the Haudenosaunee/ Iroquois Confederacy). Uncertain if Blake is dead or alive, Nobody sees Blake not as a meek accountant, but as the 18th-century English poet seeking redemption through gunfire as they travel through the Northwest while a bounty is on Blake’s head. Along the way, they encounter a series of vile characters, including a bonnet-wearing Iggy Pop (his character’s name is Sally) and the Philistine-ravaging Billy Bob Thornton and Jared Harris.
Upon its initial release, Dead Man received little reverence from critics and audiences. Disgraced Miramax founder and convicted predator, Harvey Weinstein, released Dead Man to a small theatrical audience after Jarmusch refused to allow him to interfere with his final cut. This led to the film losing out on awards consideration and laurels from Hollywood. Twenty-five years later, the film stands as a testament to not only Jarmusch’s independent spirit but as a warm embrace of Native American culture; a far cry from the vilification and demonization of Native Americans seen in Hollywood dating back to the silent films of D.W. Griffith up to the forgettable 2015 Netflix comedy, The Ridiculous Six, which led to Native American crew members walking off the set in disgust. According to Gary Farmer, “Jim Jarmusch is the farthest thing from Hollywood.”
Calling from Washington State, the 67-year-old Canadian-born actor reflected on one of his most iconic performances along with the continued ignorance towards Native Americans in the wake of Donald Trump’s July 4th fireworks celebration at Mount Rushmore. Farmer says, “The ignorance is profound in America on a lot of things—certainly their own history is probably the most relevant one—and they’ve been lied to for so long that they actually have a liar for president. That’s America: they’ve never been able to deal with reality and it gets absurd with me. When you think of that whole Fourth of July celebration on Mount Rushmore, you just think ‘How fucked up is that?’ They literally had to self-identify themselves on a mountain and then brainwash the people for so long and we’re still not even in the news; they don’t even consider us.”
I was arguing with Jim a lot as we grew closer to the ending and realized that ‘Hey, I’m supposed to die, too?! It wasn’t Dead Men, Jim. It’s Dead Man.’
Raised in the Northeast (mostly in Buffalo, N.Y.), Farmer’s worldview was shaped by the political and cultural events that surrounded him. “I went to a community college for police science and lied my way into Syracuse because Attica had just happened [the deadly riot at Attica State Prison in September 1971] and I realized, ‘This is fucked up!’ As a young native guy, I really had it going on to think that and realize that I’d have to conform to society to be a cop. So, I became a filmmaker and went to Syracuse, but I had to lie to continue getting my tuition reimbursed, so I told them that I wanted to be an FBI agent in 1973, the year of Wounded Knee, you know? But it worked out.”
After years of acting on stage, Farmer gained recognition for his performance in the George Harrison-produced film, Powwow Highway.
While penning Dead Man, Jarmusch remembered Farmer’s performance and traveled out to his home. “Looking back,” Farmer recalled. “I was pretty impressed that I got him to travel outside of New York and come to Ontario out into the bush, where I was. I used to say that I had my own reservation; I had about 400 acres there, a pretty, unadulterated forest and water. It was kind of the end of the Ice Age stopped just miles up the way.”
Before filming got underway, Farmer did extensive research with James Red Cloud, whom he met while working on Powwow Highway. “I went back to Northern Cheyenne and I did a fasting there with Jimmy Red Cloud at the time, who is now gone, for three days. I did it for other things to, but I did it for the film. You know, trying to find my way through that. At the time, I wasn’t thinking it was a regurgitation of American film culture, a twisting of it, I never even thought of that before making the film.”
When it came time to shoot the film’s final shootout between Nobody and Lance Hendrickson, Farmer questioned Jarmusch’s decision for Nobody to die. “I was at the age, fifty-two, I guess, where dealing with your own death is quite significant, especially for men, I think, more so than women regarding your own legacy and all of that. So I was arguing with Jim a lot as we grew closer to the ending and realized that ‘Hey, I’m supposed to die, too?! It wasn’t Dead Men, Jim. It’s Dead Man.’ Then, I argued that the meek inherited the earth. I was trying to quote him the Bible and all of that to argue my point (laughs). I thought it had a great ending.”
Farmer would briefly reappear as Nobody opposite Forest Whitaker in Jarmusch’s 1999 hitman film, Ghost Dog: Way of the Samurai.
After the shoot wrapped, Farmer formed a strong friendship with the film’s composer and fellow Canadian, Neil Young. Like Ennio Morricone’s music for Sergio Leone’s westerns, Young’s raw, electric-guitar-fused score became the centerpiece for Dead Man. Farmer was planning on forming a radio network that would broadcast all over Canada and Neil Young was in his corner: “People thought I was trying to be Ted Turner even though what I was doing on the network was non-profit. Unlike CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation), I couldn’t get public funding. So, Neil put me on a concert along with three other non-profits and he gave me $35,000 four days later. No one’s ever done that. Neil’s a good man. After Dead Man, I followed him and Crazy Horse around.”
Farmer shows no signs of slowing down; he has recently been seen in Kelly Reichardt’s widely-acclaimed film, First Cow, and is planning to record new music with his band, The Troublemakers, for a forthcoming album. When reflecting on the legacy of Dead Man, Farmer’s excitement is evident in our phone call: “There are not a lot of films to talk about from the Native American point of view, but I think it’s certainly one of the biggies. For me, for my own career, I’m certainly grateful for it. Personally, I’ve been sitting here waiting to be in Jim’s next film.”
Neil put me on a concert along with three other non-profits and he gave me $35,000 four days later. No one’s ever done that. Neil’s a good man. After Dead Man, I followed him and Crazy Horse around.
For Farmer, working with Jarmusch holds special meaning to him. “Having worked with Jim long enough, I think there is a larger theme in his whole canon of films, which is his ongoing search as an artist. Not a lot of people can see that or I haven’t seen a lot of people write about that. So I’m just sitting here with bated breath waiting, not so much because it’s a gig, far from it! It’s because I feel like I’m a spoke in his wheel throughout his career and I just feel like part of his family, which I love.”