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For lead actor, long wait worth it for 'Winter in the Blood'


Story courtesy of The Missoulian

If it felt like a long wait to finally see “Winter in the Blood” at its Montana premiere Saturday in Missoula, imagine how Chaske Spencer feels.

The lead actor was attached to the project for upward of a year before filming began on the Smith brothers’ independent adaptation of the late James Welch’s novel.

“The research was done, I did all my homework. I was just waiting to shoot,” Spencer said in a phone interview ahead of his trip to Missoula. “I felt like a racer, because you’re already on the starting point, just waiting for the gun. So I was ready to go.”

Spencer plays the lead role of Virgil First Raise, a man searching for an heirloom gun, his estranged wife and reconciliation with his past on a Montana Indian reservation. Spencer, best known as the werewolf Sam in “Twilight,” says he signed on because it’s a type of role he hadn’t been able to play yet.

“As an actor, I just thought the character was very rich,” he said.

The narrative style of Welch’s book posed some challenges for him, particularly when it comes to his character.

“I that think for me, the book is very much in his head. There’s a lot of inner dialogue going on, and to try to do that I had to contain a lot, myself,” Spencer said.

“You want the audience to be able to grasp whether your character might be going through significant pain and significant times in his life.”

He said Alex and Andrew Smith’s commitment to shooting the film on the Hi-Line, where the twin brothers grew up with Welch as a family friend, made a key difference in several ways.

For the actors, there was no substitute for the real setting.

“You can feel it — as an actor, when you’re in Havre, you know you’re in Havre. And you know you’re in Montana,” he said.

The brothers also gave the landscape a crucial role in the film, he said, comparing it to the way director Michael Mann makes Los Angeles an integral character in films like “Collateral.”

The financial benefits to shooting in Canada were discussed, but Spencer said the decision to shoot here paid off.

“I think in the end it produced a really rich movie, which you will feel when you watch it on the big screen,” he said.

It also “felt like coming home,” for Spencer, a Lakota Sioux who lived on the Fort Peck Reservation as a child. His mother’s side of the family is there, he said, and he goes back frequently.

“When I found out we were going to film in Havre as well, I was pretty excited,” he said, saying the whole Highway 2 area feels like a place “where time stopped.”

The shoot was fast-paced compared to big-budget films, he said.

Spencer compares the Smith brothers’ vision to the new wave of character-driven films with large budgets that swept through Hollywood in the 1970s – “Scarecrow,” “Taxi Driver,” or “Chinatown.”

“We’re in that same vein. It has that essence of a ’70s film,” Spencer said.

The actor came of age during the ’90s independent film surge, led by “Sex, Lies and Videotape,” “Pulp Fiction” and “Slacker,” and repeatedly cited the genre as the place to find “rich storytelling” in movies.

The opportunity for Spencer to participate in independent films came about because of the multi-million dollar “Twilight” movies and the attendant name recognition, for which he said he’s very lucky.

He’s also shot another independent film, “Desert Cathedral.” Like “Winter,” he says he believes it has a “fighting chance” for a theatrical release.

He’s going to begin work soon on a film to be shot in Scotland called “Indian Summer.” These projects are all “very smart, very endearing, intelligent,” and character-driven films.

He has a useful criterion for vetting the pitches now as well. If he gets to page five and his character takes his shirt off, he throws the script out.


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