‘We’re really funny people’: Native American director Erica Tremblay on Lily Gladstone, laughter for survival and breaking Hollywood

<span>Erica Tremblay: ‘Our representation has never waned… we found ways to do it, and hold that knowledge.’</span><span>Photograph: Mike McGregor/The Observer</span>
Erica Tremblay: ‘Our representation has never waned… we found ways to do it, and hold that knowledge.’Photograph: Mike McGregor/The Observer

When Erica Tremblay was a small child she would watch her aunts and uncles making everyone laugh with their storytelling. “I noticed this physical shift in the audience, where people would lean in. And I thought, I want that power. I want to be a person that has other people leaning in.”

Among the Seneca Cayuga Nation, on the borders of Oklahoma and Missouri, near the small town where she was raised by her mother, communal storytelling was part of everyday life. But so were financial hardship and violence, the unsolved murders of women and the forced removal of their children. “It’s a massive bleeding wound that still exists,” she says. “From the first moment of contact, violence against Indigenous women has been an epidemic, and it remains one to this day. You can’t go online or on social media as an Indigenous person without seeing a poster being shared about someone who has gone missing.”

Three decades on, she has woven this enduring crisis into an affecting and quirkily funny debut feature film, Fancy Dance, which does not dwell on the horror so much as on the strength and ingenuity it takes for a community to survive it. It stars Lily Gladstone, Oscar-nominated for Killers of the Flower Moon, who gives a fine performance as Jax, an inscrutable lesbian hustler, who has unofficially adopted her 13-year-old niece, Roki (Isabel Deroy-Olson), after the disappearance of her sister.

Jax is not an obvious role model: she has a criminal record and teaches Roki how to shoplift when supplies are getting low. Her sister was a stripper and small-time drug dealer to the oilmen living in trailer parks near their home. “I wasn’t interested in telling a story of a model minority that does everything by the book and looks and acts a certain way,” says Tremblay. “I wanted Jax to have varying degrees of grey; I wanted her to be reacting to her situations in a way that her heart is telling her to, and might sometimes not look very smart. But she’s making all of these decisions because she truly believes that they’re what’s best for her niece and for herself. And, you know, I value those people in my life so much. Without people like Jax, I wouldn’t be sitting here talking to you in this version of myself.”

Tremblay’s friendship with Gladstone goes back to a short film they made together, Little Chief, which premiered at the Sundance festival in 2020. “People kept asking me: ‘Well, are you going to make this into a feature?’ And I had never really considered it because that story felt like a breath. It was written to be short. But I recognised that people were really interested in its world, and in the strong Indigenous character that Lily played. So I called her up and said: ‘Hey, would you like to do a feature?’”

At the time, Tremblay was in Canada, having committed three years of her life to a language immersion course in Cayuga, which has fewer than 20 remaining Native speakers. In her own community in Oklahoma, she says, the last person fluent in the language died in the late 1980s. One of the things she learned was that the word for aunt – knohá:ˀah – meant a little mother. “And it just snapped for me, seeing matrilineal kinship and the matriarchy that was destroyed by colonialism still so vibrantly intact in the language. I saw an image in my head of this auntie and her niece dancing, and so I embarked on trying to figure out how to get them there.”

Tremblay, who is now in her early 40s, is speaking over video link from upstate New York, where she lives on the original lands of the Seneca Cayuga Nation, before they were booted out and spread across North America. Growing up, she says, she was always the bossy girl in the neighbourhood. After her teacher mother bought her a video camera at a local Goodwill store, she started corralling her cousins into performing for her. But she didn’t even know there was such a job as a film director, so when she landed a scholarship to a state university, she assumed she was headed for journalism, “because that would get me as close to cameras as possible”.

It was only later that she had a eureka moment. It was the late 1990s: “I saw this queer film called High Art, just at the moment when I was coming into my queerness. And at the end of the film, it said, directed by Lisa Cholodenko. And, you know, it’s weird to think now – with the internet and everything – that back then, it was the first time that I realised a woman could even do the job.”

Native Americans have been telling stories for millennia. And those stories will always continue to exist

She started making these “crappy little short films” with her friends at the weekend, and got herself a job as a PA on a small film that was filming in the midwest, where she met a man from Los Angeles who had worked for David Fincher. “He was very nice and great at his job, but he was just a normal person. And it was another revelation that I could go to LA.” She saved up the $2,000 that she thought she would need and drove out there. It was all going pretty well until she realised that she needed health insurance and a livable wage – “and, you know, it’s hard to get that as an assistant when you’re working in Hollywood”.

So she cashed her chips in for a job in advertising and built a successful career in New York City. But the dream of becoming a film-maker kept nagging at her. “So I just took a chance to write a short film, got into a Sundance Indigenous lab and, when my short film got into Sundance in 2020, I thought, OK, this is the sign that I should really go for it. That’s when I quit all my day jobs, moved to a remote reservation and started learning my language by day and writing at night.”

While at Sundance, she read an Indigenous romcom by the woman who would become her writing partner for Fancy Dance, Miciana Alise. “I slipped into her DMs and said: ‘Hey, I’ve got this outline for this film that I want to do. Would you bring your romcom sensibilities to this relationship of an auntie and a niece?’” Though the themes are serious, the comedy is important, she says.

“We’re really funny people. I think when you survive as much darkness as Native people have, one of the survival mechanisms becomes laughter and finding the joy in things. We wanted to express the reality of what it means to be Native. And the two of them, Isabel and Lily, are so wonderfully funny in real life. From the moment they showed up, they were pranking each other and pranking the set; they really were Jax and Roki in many ways.”

As well as making her own films, Tremblay has worked on the groundbreaking Native American TV series Reservation Dogs and Dark Winds. In terms of representation, at least, it seems that things are looking up. “But, you know,” she says, “Native Americans have been telling stories as a part of vital culture for millennia. Those stories have always existed and have always been providing services to our communities. And those stories will always continue to exist.

“If we’re talking specifically about the western media, and the western distribution system, of course, we’ve been sidelined. So are we at a day where that version of Indigenous storytelling is healthier? Absolutely. Are we getting phone calls answered as Indigenous storytellers? Absolutely. Are we being hired into positions of leadership and power in Hollywood, in a way that we weren’t 10 or 15 years ago? Absolutely. That momentum is there. We’re seeing it with the success of all of these shows. We’re seeing it with the wonderful journey that Lily Gladstone was just on last year. But I think it’s always important to say that our representation has never waned. I mean, it waned when it was illegal for us to practise our ceremonies, but what did we do? We found ways to do it and hold that knowledge, so that we could still have those stories and tell those stories today.”

Her commitment to herself is to continue telling the stories of her people in any way she can. “For me, it doesn’t matter the space, it doesn’t matter the vehicle – whether it’s television or a feature. I want to make stories that get people to lean in. That’s my goal and that’s my dream.”

  • Fancy Dance will be in select UK cinemas and globally on Apple TV+ on 28 June