Amber Midthunder

Prey's Amber Midthunder Is the Action Star We've Been Waiting For

She might be the first Native American actress to front a major studio film, but she’s determined not to be the last.

While getting situated for our Zoom conversation in her parked car, I immediately remind Amber Midthunder that this virtual meeting serves as a bit of a reunion for us. She quickly recalls our last encounter during her time on a live-action kid's show, where I worked as a production assistant — a lifetime ago for both of us. Back then, it was extremely rare to bump into another Indigenous person on a Hollywood studio lot. We crossed paths long before there were Indigenous-led projects, like Reservation Dogs, Rutherford Falls, and the latest addition to the Predator franchise, Prey (out on Hulu August 5), in which Midthunder takes on a starring role.

Set 300 years ago, the film revolves around Naru (played by Midthunder), a young Comanche warrior who fights to protect her tribe from a predator. This project will make her the first Native American actress to lead a major studio film — a feat for the Native community that she is honored to be a part of, as she recognizes the opportunities that could follow and hopes for more Native talent and stories to come. It is a moment in her career that has easily become one of her proudest.

Like the Indigenous women we are, we begin our conversation by asking where we're from, as establishing relationships and kinship is an important value of many tribes across Turtle Island (aka North America). Introducing ourselves, we find that we have something else in common — we were both born in Shiprock, New Mexico, which is in the Navajo Nation, the tribe I'm from. Indian Country is quite literally a small world: Amber is enrolled in the Fort Peck Sioux Tribe, but she has also family from the Navajo Nation and lived there for the first few years of her life before moving to California.

Amber's travels across Indian Country, her Indigenous pride, and glimpses of her TV and film projects feature prominently on her social media. She captures her rare vantage point on sets and shares a behind-the-scenes look at Hollywood with her community, hoping she can inspire even one young Indigenous actor, actress, or creative to dream and do. Amber's passions for raising up Native voices and her career in filmmaking reverberate throughout our conversation. She hits salient points in regards to Indigenous visibility and representation in Hollywood, but also remembers to crack a joke, laugh, and stay grounded. Her one takeaway: "There's so much value in having Indigenous storytellers in front of and behind the camera."

On that note, she's looking forward to what's ahead for her career — and for Indigenous storytelling. To learn more about where she started, what inspires her work, her experience as a young Native actress, and much more, keep scrolling and get to know the star of Prey.

You've been active in the entertainment industry for a while now, can you recall your first project or on-set experience? What was that like for a young Native girl who rarely, if at all, saw any Native representation on the screen?

The most powerful first experience for me as an actress was Legion, a show I did a few years ago on FX. It was a Marvel series, and it was not a Native-specific role as it was written, but when I was cast, Noah Holly, the showrunner, changed it to be a Native role. It was never a big focus on the show, but it was included. That felt like such a big victory because Native representation historically is not great. It's not very accurate, or it's not super-respectful — either historically or for urban Indigenous people. So, to get to play a role that was strong and powerful — and being Native was a part of who she was, but she was also so many other things — felt like the beginning of what I hope is the future of Indigenous representation in entertainment.

Amber Midthunder
Lucas Passmore

We've been seeing some progress in terms of Native American representation in Hollywood, including your role in Prey, which makes you the first Indigenous actress to lead a mainstream film. What is your hope for Native representation in the coming years?

It makes me so emotional to hear that because it's such a huge feat for our people, especially Native women. For Native people to be seen again, strong, and as a fully fleshed-out person with emotions, desires, and characteristics that make you individual and somebody that you can relate to and identify with — and hopefully be inspired by. For rez kids to look at somebody who looks like them and be like, She was born in Shiprock, I'm from Shiprock. My reservation is Fort Peck, so to be like, Oh, she's enrolled at Fort Peck, I'm from Fort Peck, and know that it's possible. I think growing up in our parents' generation, it wasn't an option to be in film or live your dreams, whatever those might be, so to be doing it at all and show that it's possible is huge for me. And my hope for the future is that there's more.

I think that right now, what's being proved with our movie [Prey] and with shows like Reservation Dogs and Rutherford Falls is that there's so much value in having Indigenous storytellers in front of and behind the camera. I think that's a huge resource because going back, that's what we do. We are people of oral history, and that's how we tell stories, orally. We're traditionally storytellers. So, my hope is that this is the beginning of many opportunities for Native people in entertainment.

I like what you said about "especially Indigenous women." When I speak to folks about Native representation, I always say that something to keep in mind is that Indigenous women in Hollywood are the marginalized of the marginalized.

Already, as Indigenous peoples, our community faces incredible invisibility in Hollywood, and we are the most underrepresented community in Hollywood. Within that small community, Indigenous women are even further marginalized. There's certainly more content that exists about Indigenous men and their journeys, while Indigenous women are often side characters or characters that aren't fully fleshed out, so it's incredible to see you in this role.

Thank you! Yeah, I agree with you. It's about permission. I see Native youth, Native women, or just Native people in general, be afraid to take up space or feel like they can go somewhere and claim ownership or claim having a right to be somewhere or to do something. The more that we give ourselves that permission — to go there and not let anybody else tell us we can and see it for ourselves, I think that's so powerful.

For so long, we've just been in service to other people's stories or in service to other people's anything, and to know that we can do that ourselves and we can make our own stories. Or, we can make our own businesses and be successful. Nobody has to give us permission — we can just do it, and it can go over well and be successful. We can offer stuff to people is the most important thing.

It's been said that you're making your mark with your starring role in Prey. What makes this role different from anything else you've done so far?

The workload in and of itself is definitely the most responsibility that I've ever felt in my job. I've never been the lead of a big studio movie before, and that wasn't lost on me — the responsibility of the people who believed in me and trusted me with this. Also, the responsibility to the community that's the biggest thing for me about this — is to have the opportunity to be the person who represents this role and everything that it means.

I thought about that every day. So, having Indigenous communities like it or feel like it's a good representation that they can be proud of — and that we can be proud of — is also different, because I've never been given that opportunity or responsibility.

What were the action scenes like, and what kind of training did you have to undergo in preparation?

Oh my god, it was so hard. I read the script, and I remember at one point reading like 40 straight pages of action — and I still somehow did not understand how much action we would be shooting. It was every single day. We were in the woods somewhere, running up a hill. At one point, it was 90 degrees, full-buckskin outfit. I'm in a river swimming in literally arctic glacial runoff water. There was no point in shooting this film that was coasting. There was no day that I went to work like, "Ah, today is just chill."

We did a four-week training camp before we started shooting in Calgary altogether as a team. We worked with tomahawks, spears, and archery — and did a lot of team-building stuff. We created a sign language for the film because different tribes had different ways of speaking non-verbally. The Comanche did have sign language, so we incorporated some of their actual sign language into ours. Dan ended up putting it in the movie.

Just based on the trailer, I can already see the chemistry with the other actors in the film, and the young men who are in the film, they're up-and-coming Native actors, right?

Yeah! They were all really incredible. They worked hard and were so focused and dedicated. And there was not a day they showed up to work and didn't give one hundred.

It's pretty significant to see a story set in the world of a tribal nation 300 years ago, around the beginning of colonization. What is your hope for the message of this project, in terms of Indigenous worldview and knowledge?

I think this gives a different look at the Comanche, specifically, for that time. Often, when Natives are represented in film, it's either über-spiritual to help whoever the main character is, or it's like a super savage warrior, and the truth is — neither and both. This gives a really honest look at the Comanche, who were incredible warriors. Also, having a primarily Indigenous cast, you still have all of the things that you can relate to in a movie, regardless of ethnicity: different characters with motivations, relationships, structures, and thoughts — stuff like that.

To have a movie that is primarily Indigenous and see that you can relate to it even if you are not Native, is cool and really powerful. Also, to have a period piece that shows Indigenous people in a way that is so much more human than has been.

Did you have to take Comanche language classes to prepare for your role?

We had Comanche language speakers who helped incorporate the language into the movie. There was talk of the movie being in all Comanche or being in English —or being partially in both — and we ended up incorporating it into the movie while keeping it in English. But we are — I just finished, literally, last week — dubbing the whole movie in Comanche. All of the actors are doing that themselves. I just dubbed all of my dialogue in Comanche. It took forever.

For that, it was a much more intense language process involving several Comanche language speakers breaking down each scene and the language, and exactly the sounds and what certain words mean versus another one and how it changes. That opportunity, for me, was really neat and unique to be able to get such a close look at another tribe's language from people who are so knowledgeable, so I'm really excited about that.

That's really incredible and makes this film another first for the Comanche language. I'm sure the tribe will be excited. I think the only other tribe that has had a mainstream film dubbed in their language is Navajo — we've had Star Wars and Finding Nemo, and I know we were excited about that. So that's cool. We're also the first film to do it on release.

We're the first film to be releasing an all-Indigenous language dub on release, and it's also going to be on Hulu at the same time. So, when it comes out on August 5 on Hulu, you can watch it either in English or in full Comanche, which is really cool.

The poster is amazing! Did you get to collaborate with the makeup and costume teams on your fierce warrior look?

We had several days of hair and makeup tests before we started shooting, and that doesn't just go for me, that goes for all of the boys — they got to collaborate on their face paint or their war paint. Some of them incorporated their own family designs into the paint on their face or body, which felt really amazing and hugely respectful of the production to want to incorporate us and our cultures that way.

How do you balance your advocacy work for your community and your film and TV career?

As far as advocacy, I wish that I was doing more all the time. I don't feel like anything will ever be enough, but as much as possible, I try to think of the community and how what I do affects that in every way possible. So, whether I'm at work or in a meeting, there have definitely been spaces where I'm the first Native person that somebody has ever worked with or even met. So, to do a good job or leave a good impression so that, hopefully, the next time it comes up, that gives opportunities to the next person.

I always want to do as much as possible, and I never feel like it's enough. But I find, personally, a lot of meaning in what I do, and I know that it's not the biggest or most impactful thing, but I do think that it has a space. I do think that visibility — like you were saying earlier — matters. I find that I think of that constantly no matter what I'm doing.

Do you have any upcoming projects that you're allowed to share?

On July 22, I have a movie called The Wheel that is being released that I produced. It's the first time I produced anything, and I also starred in it. It was done mid-pandemic, August 2020, which was a wild time to be like, "Hey, this is a good time to make a movie!" But nobody was doing anything, and it was crazy to try to figure out covid protocols — but, we got a group of really talented people together, and we went out into the woods in Big Bear, California for a month. We had a really good script, and we made a movie. Last year, it premiered at TIFF [Toronto International Film Festival], and now it's being released for everybody this year. I'm really excited.


What's on your top three film or TV list?

I love Place Beyond the Pines. It hugely impacted the way I saw myself wanting to have a career and the type of actor I wanted to be. I think it's such a great movie. Friends is my comfort show. I love Friends — some people think that it's super basic, but I love that show. I have watched it since I was born. I think it's hilarious, and I love it. And my third — honestly, I am a big fan of What's Eating Gilbert Grape. When I first saw it (I was fairly young), I remember being so absorbed by everything. It was just like nothing I had ever seen before.

What are you currently watching?

Love Island. I am obsessed with Love Island. I'm a huge reality-TV junkie. I love it, and that's actually something Dan [Trachtenberg], and I share. That was a big thing for us — he's also a huge Love Island fan. He bought us matching Love Island hats while we were shooting the movie, so walking around Calgary, we would have the same little Love Island hats. Stranger Things, I'm also watching. And Reservation Dogs, obviously.

What's your recent "on repeat" song?

Probably "Die Hard" by Kendrick Lamar. I'm a recently turned Kendrick fan, but I think he's so amazing.

Is there an actor you've been dreaming about working with?

I mean, Meryl Streep is the queen of queens. There's nothing she can't do. She has done everything. She touches stuff, and it turns to gold, as far as acting.

If you could have dinner with one person, dead or alive, who would that be?

That's so hard. I could just give you a really deep colonial answer, like, "Custer, just to kill him again." Just kidding. Probably, Big Bear [Cree Chief]. I recently found out that I have ancestry from his band. I think he was an interesting figure in history, and I have questions for him.

What are your makeup essentials that you won't leave the house without?

Mascara, because you can turn it into eyeliner; a lip color; and a good concealer. I feel like with that stuff, you can kind of make everything happen.

What's your go-to summer 'fit?

I'm pretty simple. I like a pair of cut-off jeans and a tank top, with a fun headscarf or a cute pair of sunnies.

What's your favorite Indigenous-designed clothing?

Earrings. I mean, always earrings. I have some pretty badass beaded or quill earrings. If you know anything about Native women, it's that the earring game is always on point. And I aspire to be in that club, as well. I'm a big fan of Jamie Okuma. Jamie Okuma and Lauren Good Day — I think their stuff is really cool.

What's your favorite social media account?

I'm not a huge fan of social media in general, but I find that I spend most of my time on Instagram. But I'm recently getting into Twitter. I love meme pages. And honestly, I love Mark Ruffalo's Instagram. He's great. He's cool because he makes funny videos. I love how he outs the other Avengers cast and puts funny stuff up, but then, also, he's a good source of information. Also, if you're a Mark Ruffalo fan and you see photos of him and his family, it's really sweet. I think he does a great job.

What's one thing you wish more people knew about you?

Recently, I found that the more I work and the more people know me from my jobs, I consistently am reminded that this industry has a way of removing people's humanness. Everybody you interact with, no matter what they do, at the end of the day, is just a person who goes home and watches reality shows in their sweatpants. I feel like that's good [to know] for people on both sides. The internet or just people, in general, can be strange to one another. Remembering that everyone is equally human is grounding and important. If you're a politician, if you're an actor, if you're a musician, if you work at an ice cream store: everybody is equally human.

Well, thanks so much. It's been an honor speaking with you, and I'm so proud of you. I can't wait to see what you do next.

Yes, I'm so happy to talk with another Native woman who is doing well, and just know your career path and how much you're climbing and accomplishing — that just makes me so happy and so proud. It's super cool.

Photographs by Lucas Passmore. Styling by Jordan Gross. Hair by Kiki Heitkotter. Makeup by Melissa Hernandez.

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