You’d think that after learning what Leonardo DiCaprio endured during the bear-mauling scene in The Revenant that Duane Howard would want to avoid a similar fate.
However, a week after wrapping his final scenes as Elk Dog for Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Oscar-nominated film in Argentina last year, the Nuu-Chah-Nulth actor flew to the Northwest Territories to play a character who survives a bear attack.
“It’s an independent film, though,” Howard said, as if to explain why he had it easier playing a solitary hunter who becomes a troubled inner-city teenager’s wilderness mentor in Kirsten Carthew’s The Sun at Midnight.
To his relief, the Vancouver Island-born actor didn’t get violently thrown around by a bear as DiCaprio’s character did.
Howard, 52, said that playing Elk Dog, the Arikara warrior searching for his daughter, was as much an honour as it was challenging.
“He’s a very creative, very brilliant director, and to observe him going through the scenes every day with his director of photography [Emmanuel Lubezki], was a great experience,” Howard recalled.
It wasn’t until the second week of shooting he began to grasp the project’s magnitude, he added.
“I ended up watching Birdman after seeing Alejandro get the Oscar for that, and that’s when I realized this was a really big thing,” recalled Howard, who was born on Esperanza Inlet, the traditional territory of the Nuu-Chah-Nulth Nation on Vancouver Island’s northwest coast.
He moved to Gold River and at age three to Port Alberni, where he lived until age 14. After his parents separated, he moved to Vancouver. He tried to go home at age 18, “but it just wasn’t me,” he said.
Howard, who started drinking at age 10 and also became addicted to drugs, lived on the streets of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside for years, even contemplating suicide before becoming clean and sober when he was 23. After completing Grade 12, he received his substance-abuse counselling diploma, drawing upon his own experience to help other troubled youth, before pursuing his acting career.
It began with stunt work followed by roles in TV shows including The X-Files, Smallville and Arctic Air, and in films such as Johnny Tootall, filmed here 10 years ago, and Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee.
After Howard took a break from acting, his agent told him about the casting call for Elk Dog in the film for which he had been hired as a stuntman.
Iñárritu was reportedly so impressed with Howard’s audition in Calgary he asked him to repeat it for the whole crew.
To create his stoic character, Howard candidly admits drawing upon his own troubled past, including physical and emotional abuse, and a sense of loss and alienation.
“He has a very deep emotional baggage inside that you can easily perceive,” Iñárritu has been quoted as saying.
“I had to dig deep down into myself and go to that dark side of my life that I had lived and experienced,” said Howard, explaining how he brought Elk Dog alive.
“Elk Dog actually brought Duane alive, you know, because when I looked at it, he really motivated Duane,” he said, chuckling at the realization.
Howard travelled to Alberta, Squamish and Argentina to shoot his scenes for the survival epic plagued with production delays.
His biggest challenges included speaking in the Arikara tongue, although he said he appreciated the availability of Arikara consultants as dialect coaches and translators.
While most of his scenes with DiCaprio were non-verbal, they chatted off-camera.
“We had our moments just talking, just being brothers on set, talking about each other’s family,” he said.
The other major challenge was working in extremely cold weather every day.
“Oh, it was cold, even the scene where I was standing in the river. It was all outdoors. Everything.”
Howard has been in the business long enough to know this goes with the territory, however.
“I’ve just got to do what I need to do. It’s what I was hired for,” said Howard, who to his delight knew most of the film’s 20 stunt co-ordinators.
“Alejandro didn’t want non-natives dressed up as Indians. He wanted the real McCoy,” he added, commending Iñárritu for hiring 20 native stunt performers, many making their screen debut.
“Stunt people are their own family,” he said. “It’s really tough to get into, especially in Vancouver.”
It stirs memories of how he discovered his passion for acting in 1994 when he was hired as a background performer for The Scarlet Letter, then promoted to stunt performer.
“I’m just crazy, actually,” he said, explaining why he became a stuntman first.
It’s his humility that shines through in conversation, however, as when he recalled the thrill of watching last Sunday’s community-organized screening of The Revenant with “about 200 of us natives” in Burnaby.
“For me, it’s all about community and supporting one another in that community to achieve what we want to achieve in our lives,” he said.