Confronting the norm
In Desiree Akhavan’s new film, The Miseducation of Cameron Post, actor Forrest Goodluck plays Adam Red Eagle, a Native American teenager sent to a homosexual conversion camp after confessing to his father that he’s winkte and two spirit, words that exist on a Lakotan spectrum of gender.
It’s here, in a conversion camp called God’s Promise, where the film’s protagonist, Cameron Post – played by Chloë Grace Moretz – is sent after being found making out with her best friend, a girl named Coley, and meets Goodluck’s character Eagle and Jane Fonda (not that one), who brilliantly conceals her weed in her prosthetic leg, played by Sasha Lane.
While set two decades ago in 1993, the film addresses issues of today. Not only do conversion camps still exist, but America now has an administration that includes politicians who openly endorse the use of such antiquated practices. This attempt to reverse the effects of “gender confusion” and “SSA” (same sex attraction) reflects a wider struggle, that of young people finding, and fully owning, their identity, especially when it is questioned or criticised. And here’s the beautiful irony of the film: while Cameron is supposed to be learning to live a ‘pure’ life – by ‘unlearning’ her homosexual urges – the experience actually facilitates Cameron discovering her first queer friendship group.
Here we talk to the film’s star Forrest Goodluck about his Native American roots, concepts of homosexuality and idenity, and casting his dog as Snoopy in his school play.
Alex James Taylor: When you first read the script for The Miseducation of Cameron Post, what attracted you to the script and to your character?
Forrest Goodluck: You don’t get that script like, ever. One as an actor, but two as a Native actor, it’s something that’s a very rare occurrence to get something that nuanced, that challenging, and that specific to character. The fact that Emily M. Danforth, the author of the novel, included that in the book, and then Desiree adapting the character very gracefully for the film, it’s special. So getting that initial email about a Lakotan who is winkte and gets sent to a gay conversion camp, that’s so much to work with. Like, you don’t really get that, ever [laughs].
AJT: I can imagine. What was your knowledge of these gay conversion camps?
FG: I knew about them, but I didn’t know the extent of them. It was never anything that was in the foreground of my mind until the film came along. As a Native person, I’m familiar with the boarding school system or the residential school system in this country, where the Catholic church stole Indian children from their families, legally up until 1996, and assimilated them and, you know, killed a lot of them through disease, or mistreatment, or whatever. So it wasn’t a big surprise to me, to learn about the church’s horrific twisting of their values to serve themselves. It’s interesting, through the course of this film of course Chloe is on her whole campaign for trying to put a stop to conversion therapy and she’s meeting some survivors and hearing about what their work is to try and use this film as a platform to end gay conversion therapy. I think that with films like this coming out, and films like Boy Erased, this subject is definitely coming to the forefront in a way that is super important now just because the current administration, in particular Mike Pence supporting gay conversion therapy, as well as electroshock therapy treatment. It’s a lot of different thinking to what I’m used to.
AJT: Absolutely. I think sometimes with things such as gay conversion therapy, as horrific as they are, they almost become the accepted norm because they’ve been around for so long. So we need films such as The Miseducation to shake people a little and remind, or tell them, that this isn’t right.
FG: Exactly, I think sometimes the crazy becomes the norm because we’re desensitised to it but it’s also far away from you and your thinking. We’re in such a large population of the world, you have to not look at it all the time or else it’ll drive you crazy.
“…this subject is definitely coming to the forefront in a way that is super important now just because the current administration, in particular Mike Pence supporting gay conversion therapy, as well as electroshock therapy treatment.”
AJT: In the film your character recognises as winkte and two-spirit, which are words that exist on a Lakotan spectrum of gender. Can you explain the meanings of those terms?
FG: Yeah, so winkte is specifically a Lakotan term that literally means ‘man killed by woman’, I think it’s a really poetic way to put it, rather than just like cut and dry terms that lead to the truth. English is an interesting language because our words don’t necessarily mean something poetically, like ‘gay’ or ‘lesbian’, it’s very cut and dry. As English speakers we get caught up in not wanting to be labelled, which I think is really important, but I think what’s cool about the word winkte is that it’s a poetic description, so it’s less about this person being attracted to this person, the description for Native people is like, I literally feel like my male spirit is being attacked by a female spirit and there’s this constant turmoil inside of me, and it’s a feeling versus a label. For me, I think that’s the language that points more towards the feeling of identity and the feeling of what it means to feel different to everyone else.
AJT: There’s a movement to the definition, there’s an action.
FG: It has energy to the word, absolutely. I think it’s really cool to have that as the basis for starting with a character, because you can work with that. Like, wouldn’t that be so helpful, if it didn’t just say ‘gay character’, instead it said something like, ‘this character feels as if their male spirit and masculinity is being attacked by this need to be feminine’, I can work with that [laughs]. I tip my hat to the Lakotan people.
AJT: Has it got negative connotations?
FG: I think yeah, absolutely. I was about to say, back in the day there was a pride in being winkte, I think, at least from the amount of texts that we do have, and the oral history passed down through generations. There was acceptance for the winkte people back in the day, but I think as western influence infiltrated and colonised our people’s culture, that our way of life was kind of changed in a way. Through the early 1900s, I don’t know if this is entirely correct, but a winkte person was describing to me how that kind of culture of it was very much forgotten for the early 1900s until the 70s and 80s, then the term winkte started to be synonymous with the term faggot on the reservations, where I think the tradition of hating people like that started to take root in Native culture. And still to this day, I’ve heard people use two-spirit and winkte as a putdown, it’s really interesting that today people are reclaiming those words and definitions, and that tradition is being taken back, and I think that’s very important.
AJT: That’s why this film, and specifically your character, is so important, because it educates people about these terms in a positive way and in context.
FG: Exactly, I think it opens up the world of the struggle so much more.
AJT: Watching the film you get a real sense of the bond between the characters, it must have been a really fun experience to film.
FG: It was amazing. Sasha Lane and Chloe are two incredible people and they just made it so easy to step into the reality of the friendship, because they’re just very real and interesting people. I guess it was easy to step into that space and, I mean, all that hatred and anger towards that sort of establishment, it’s not hard to feel that way when you already do [laughs].
AJT: And I guess you were all able to have these conversations with each other about the subjects addressed in the film. I mean, you’re all young people living in today’s America.
FG: Yeah, exactly. It’s interesting, I think young people will really resonate with this film even though it’s such a very independent and almost low-key film. Hopefully it becomes a cult film or something.
AJT: I can totally see that being the case. In terms of your own life, how did you first get into acting?
FG: I guess I’ve always just performed in a way, and my grandpa used to teach me card tricks, so I was always showing people those. So, for me, the narrative flow of a film is basically like a magic trick. I think the earliest forms of filmmaking, like Georges Méliès, were just magic shows, they were image trickery. It’s the ultimate medium to express how you feel, anything can exist on the screen. For me, learning about that, I then started making my own films when I was a teenager and started screening them at festivals and some small things. From then on I acted in my own stuff and shot simultaneously.
“I think sometimes the crazy becomes the norm because we’re desensitised to it but it’s also far away from you…”
AJT: What kind of films would you make?
FG: Just silly things with my friends. We would make videos for our school just because we wouldn’t want to write an essay for something so we’d make a film instead [laughs]. It kind of started as little projects here and there, like we’d use Photobooth on Mac as a green screen by replacing the background with a filter.
AJT: [laughs] And the filter would go in and out and keep messing up.
FG: Exactly [laughs], it was terrible. So then I started doing improv groups and acting classes. It was fun, I just enjoying messing around and being someone else for a little bit. I think I was very obsessed with what other people’s reactions to stuff were, so like if I did this, how would people react?
AJT: I read on your Wikipedia page that in school you put on A Charlie Brown Christmas and you wrote down all the lines from the film and you had your dog playing Snoopy, is that true?
FG: Yeah [laughs], it was so ridiculous.
AJT: Did your dog put on a good performance [laughs]?
FG: I mean, what’s amazing about animals is that they are an animal. Like, if you tell a person to act like a person they will fuck it up. The cool thing about animals is that they don’t need to act, they just are. So yeah, he did a good job [laughs].
The Miseducation of Cameron Post is out 7th September.