Could Lily Gladstone win the best actress Oscar?

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By Tom BrookFeatures correspondent

Getty Images Lily GladstoneGetty Images

The first Native American to be nominated for the best actress Oscar, Lily Gladstone is building momentum in the weeks leading up to the Academy Awards – could she win?

A week has passed since Lily Gladstone made history by becoming the first Native American to be nominated for a best actress Oscar and since then, she’s been crossing continents in a tightly orchestrated campaign to win support for her film, Killers of the Flower Moon, and secure her chances of winning an Oscars trophy.

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In recent days, Gladstone has conducted media interviews in the US and flown across the Atlantic to do more press and photo shoots in London, where she spoke with the BBC. Although a novice to the Oscars campaign trail, she appears poised, warm and thoughtful in responses to questions.

Emma Stone might be favoured to win the best actress Oscar for portraying the uninhibited and wild Bella Baxter in the dark comedy Poor Things, but many pundits believe the best actress race is very close and that Gladstone could win. That’s why these coming days are crucial.

We’re kicking a door down and the impulse is to just run through it. Sometimes what we need to do is just stand there and hold it open

In Killers of the Flower Moon, Gladstone plays Mollie Burkhart, an Osage woman in 1920s Oklahoma who finds herself in the midst of a nightmarish situation. Greedy white men are poisoning Indigenous people in a bid to claim the oil-rich lands of the Osage Nation. 

Oscar voters always like to be seen to be doing the right thing, and in this era of inclusivity on the part of the Academy, the fact that Lily Gladstone is Native American might alone bring her votes. “I know that a lot of people want to say that,” she says. But the actor believes she has support from Academy members because of fundamental change: “Times absolutely are changing; people’s perspectives are broadening. The Academy has gotten much more diverse in the last 10, 20 years. I think it’s also because Native and Indigenous filmmakers have been continually blowing audiences away with what we’ve been making… people are ready.”

Lily Gladstone: Everyone benefits from Native American representation, not just us

In many of the actor’s media appearances, Gladstone speaks eloquently on how Killers of the Flower Moon, which included 63 credited and named Native American roles, is a landmark film for her community in terms of representation. Historically, studies show that significant Native American speaking roles in Hollywood films are extremely rare. As for next steps, Gladstone quotes the comments of her Native American filmmaker friend Sterlin Harjo who, she says, told her: “We’re kicking a door down and the impulse is to just run through it. Sometimes what we need to do is just stand there and hold it open.”

But make no mistake: she definitely sees Killers of the Flower Moon as very significant. “By bringing Indigenous performers into a place where we’re leading ladies, we’re leading films that people are feeling they’re resonating with from all walks of life. That’s proving that we belong in these places and we have a lot to offer. Like the stories that we have to tell are ones that everybody can benefit from, not just us.”

A sincere trailblazer

Killers of the Flower Moon is intrinsically a Native American story and a chronicle of a terrible wrong perpetrated on the community by greedy white men. But this Native American tale of injustice has been shaped into a Hollywood narrative by white men from the movie industry: principally Martin Scorsese, the film’s key actors Leonardo DiCaprio and Robert De Niro, and screenwriter Eric Roth. Lily Gladstone admits she was concerned by how these white men might craft a story that was so much a part of the Native American community. “There was apprehension about all of it and all aspects of it”, she says.

Leo had invited me over for dinner beforehand to get through the ‘star-struckedness’ of it all – he ‘unstruck’ me

However, she found reassurance that the story would be done responsibly because her co-star Leonardo DiCaprio was involved in the production. “You know, Leo with his climate activism in the way that I know his organisation centres grassroots, Indigenous people, I had a feeling that that’s what he would be like to work with on this project, and certainly was.”

Lily Gladstone: How Leo helped me get over being starstruck

For Gladstone, certainly the presence of many Indigenous people in the production did a lot to increase her comfort level: “The film had built such a strong safety net of Osage voices in every department around the whole production. So I never felt like I had to be alone or speak out of turn or speak for Osage people.”

Gladstone comes across as self-assured but she admits she did become a little starstruck, getting wobbly or “the shakes”, as she puts it, when she first stood before the camera for the first time doing scenes opposite movie legends Robert De Niro and Leonardo DiCaprio. But she says Di Caprio put her at ease: “Leo had invited me over for dinner beforehand to get through the ‘star-struckedness’ of it all – he ‘unstruck’ me,” she laughs. “Later down the road, [the] shakes came back when I was in front of him… and really quickly, you just find yourself embraced and invited in and just part of the collaborative process to get to the truth of what these scenes are about.”

Unlike some Academy campaigns designed to serve an actor’s vanity, Gladstone appears to be participating in something bigger. She comes across as a very sincere trailblazer in her efforts to get the US film industry to represent the Native American people fairly and responsibly – and that authenticity, as much as her highly praised acting, may well help her win an Oscar.

Talking Movies’ Tom Brook’s interview with Oscar nominee Lily Gladstone will be on BBC News throughout the day on Thursday 1 February.

The 96th Academy Awards are broadcast on ABC on 10 March.

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