Lily Gladstone, 'Fancy Dance' director talk Indigenous representation in Hollywood: 'We're not gonna go back'

Seeing audiences fall "in love with an Indigenous woman" in "Killers of the Flower Moon" opened the door for more Native stories, Gladstone said.

Lily Gladstone and Isabel Deroy-Olson in a movie scene.
Lily Gladstone, right, and Isabel Deroy-Olson star in Fancy Dance, opening in select theaters June 21 and streaming on Apple TV+ on June 28. (Courtesy Apple TV+)

Lily Gladstone has had quite a year — and it’s only June. In addition to winning the Golden Globe for Best Actress (in addition to a slew of other awards) and getting an Oscar nomination for her role in Killers of the Flower Moon, the Native American actress has also starred in a Hulu limited series and served on a jury at Cannes.

But it's Gladstone’s latest project, Fancy Dance, which opens in select theaters Friday and streams on Apple TV+ beginning June 28, that has kicked off this string of high-profile successes.

“My year actually started in January [2023], when Fancy Dance premiered at Sundance ahead of Killers of the Flower Moon,” Gladstone, who is Blackfeet/Nimíipuu, told Yahoo Entertainment. “I knew I was kind of kissing my indie cred goodbye that year, so it was nice to start out on a movie that was so close to my heart.”

Fancy Dance, directed by Erica Tremblay, of the Seneca-Cayuga Nation, stars Gladstone (who uses she/they pronouns) as Jax, a woman on the Seneca-Cayuga reservation in Oklahoma who is taking care of her niece, Roki (Isabel Deroy-Olson), after the girl’s mother goes missing. When child protective services takes Roki from Jax to live with her white grandparents, Jax and Roki head out on a road trip, hopefully finding answers along the way.

The film takes on not only the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women crisis but also other Native issues like poverty and adoption policies as well. What’s different here, though, is that it’s told from the Native perspective of its Indigenous director, writers and stars.

“Oftentimes whenever you see a true crime case around an Indigenous issue or case, it's always the white cop, the white savior that's coming in and solving the case. And you just see a very kind of small sliver of the actual lived lives of the Indigenous people that the case surrounds,” Tremblay told Yahoo Entertainment. “So, Miciana [Alise], my co-writer, and I really set out to do the exact opposite of that. We really center this story around the two Indigenous women that are at the core of this film.”

Isabel Deroy-Olson and Lily Gladstone in a movie scene.
Isabel Deroy-Olson stars as 13-year-old Roki, while Lily Gladstone plays her aunt in Fancy Dance. (Courtesy Apple TV+)

Gladstone said that Martin Scorsese's high-profile film Killers of the Flower Moon helped create an appetite in global audiences for more Indigenous stories.

Killers kind of carved a space, I think, in what audiences wanted to see. They wanted more of that,” Gladstone said. “They wanted more of [Osage protagonist] Mollie's experience. They wanted more of her community's experience from an inside-out perspective.”

Being on the awards circuit, Gladstone said, “was a great opportunity to highlight and talk about Killers of the Flower Moon, the performances from the Indigenous actors in it, and to really witness and experience firsthand an audience falling in love with an Indigenous woman.”

That exposure, Gladstone added, paved the way for Fancy Dance, which, like Killers, is being distributed by Apple TV+ — that is, after a vocal campaign and op-ed from Tremblay highlighting the challenges of Indigenous filmmakers getting their work distributed.

“People who got a chance to see Fancy Dance in that crazy year-and-a-half would constantly talk about how those two films really contextualize each other and kind of need to be seen together,” Gladstone said. “How what you ache for in one, you're given in the other.”

So is the wide release of Fancy Dance a step forward in kicking down the door that’s been blocking Indigenous representation onscreen? After all, the numbers in Hollywood have been historically dismal. According to a study from the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative that specifically called out the importance of Gladstone’s role in Killers of the Flower Moon, 99% of top-grossing films from 2007 to 2022 “featured zero Native American female-identified speaking characters.”

“We’re just starting,” Gladstone said, not taking the credit alone. “I think it’s a lot of people kicking it in. I think I had a big platform because of the immensity of Martin Scorsese and that film.”

Tremblay, too, said she doesn’t want to take credit for the arguable shift either.

“I guess I don't necessarily think about it that way because I feel like all of my mentors and so many people that I look up to are like the ones breaking down the door and I'm just kind of like in their tailwinds, hanging on,” said Tremblay, who also directed episodes of the critically acclaimed series Reservation Dogs. “I feel so grateful to be a part of this moment where we're seeing Indigenous representation in Hollywood grow.”

Deroy-Olson, who belongs to Tr'ondëk Hwëch'in and the Ebb and Flow First Nations, said she was “grateful” to embody the kind of character she rarely got to see in media growing up.

“It was great to get to step into that because I grew up without much representation in media. I couldn't look at the TV and say, that's me,” she told Yahoo Entertainment.

“So the fact that I get to be a part of moving that representation forward, especially for such young Indigenous audiences, they get to look at Fancy Dance and say, that's me,” Deroy-Olson added, “and the fact that they get to see such an empowering and proud character, I'm so grateful to be a part of it.”

When it comes to a major shift in the industry, in a year that has seen Gladstone’s historic wins and nominations, along with arguably more Indigenous-led projects like Fancy Dance, Tremblay said she has “guarded optimism.”

“I'm hopeful that when these large studios and when these companies talk about their commitment to inclusion and diversity, I'm hopeful that they're gonna keep those promises,” she said. “But I think one thing is for sure: We're not going backward, you know. We're not gonna go back.”