This article is part of our 2021 Rewind. Follow along as we explore the best and most interesting movies, shows, performances, and more from this very strange year. In this entry, Shea Vassar explores the incredible performances we saw from our Performer of the Year, Michael Greyeyes.
It was a great year for inspired storytelling, and with that came many memorable performances. But who can embody the title of Performer of the Year for 2021? There is only one correct answer, and that is Michael Greyeyes.
While the Nêhiyaw (Plains Cree) actor has been working in the business for decades, both on-screen and on the stage, 2021 has now made him a familiar face. His work in the movie Wild Indian and on the TV series Rutherford Falls made Greyeyes’ gracious smile recognizable and his acting ability something to admire.
Wild Indian stunned audiences at the start of the year during the Sundance Film Festival. The debut feature of Lyle Corbine Jr., the movie begins with a murder of a boy committed by young Makwa. Fast forward a couple of decades and Makwa has grown into a tech boss who wears tailored button-down shirts with his long braid and now goes by the name of Michael.
But a name change and an attempt to appear normal don’t hide violent urges. Slowly, the real Mawka seeps out from the thin veneer of “Michael” in a true test of Greyeyes’ ability to control his emotions while digging into something sinister. For a human who is generally warm, this role is chilling and intimidating.
A moment from Wild Indian that has stuck with me is when Makwa’s wife (Kate Bosworth) announces she is pregnant with the couple’s second child. No emotion appears on Greyeyes’ face, which is completely opposite to what one would expect. The couple isn’t necessarily in a position not to support another kid but the Makwa character is only that, a facade. He goes through the motions of life and his family is just another part of his scheme to hide what truly exists within himself.
On a completely different tonal note, Greyeyes drops the hard guy act to pick up the goofy yet business-minded tribal casino boss of Terry Thomas in Rutherford Falls. Terry acts as a voice of reason for the main character of Reagan while also trying to balance the sitcom’s many ideas about capitalism, beading, and all-around “Indian-ness.”
There is a great subplot that involves Terry’s daughter, Maya (Kiawentiio) who loves to bead. Thinking about the economics behind the artistic skill, this naive father attempts throughout the entire episode to make a deal to score some cash for Maya’s creative talent. But the prices Terry throws out don’t interest the preteen whose passion for creating something beautiful is more focused on blessing those she loves with a handmade gift. The final moments of the episode show Terry at the bead store, buying supplies for Maya, and it makes for a truly heartwarming moment.
Both Makwa and Terry are family men in name, as they are married with children, but the difference in these two characters shows Greyeyes’ range as an actor. He pulls off cold-hearted and psychopathic in Wild Indian and a warm and comedic nature in Rutherford Falls. It’s no wonder he was recognized with acting nominations for his work in both projects at this year’s Independent Spirit Awards.
“But the view from the inside is actually that they’re incredibly similar,” Greyeyes said in an interview with the Los Angeles Times. As dissimilar as Makwa and Terry appear, the characters have much more in common than being different sides of the same coin. According to the actor, both roles gave him an opportunity to be challenged in a way he had not yet been as an artist.
While these two performances got people talking about Greyeyes, he also made two cameos this year that are just as brilliant, including an appearance on Star Trek: Discovery. And in Wildhood, a movie by two-spirit filmmaker Bretten Hannam about a teenager trying to figure out his Indigenous identity and sexuality, Greyeyes plays a free-spirited uncle who offers a ride to the main trio of characters. The coming-of-age drama explores some deep themes of belonging, existence, and generational trauma, and the warmth of Greyeyes’ eyes and smile offers a moment to unload from the heaviness and take in some wisdom.
Think that’s it? Nope! The best aspect of Greyeyes is his authentic and warm self. Ever want to see something wholesome? Look at his Twitter feed, where he takes the time to reply to fans, journalists, and even publications. He also is unafraid to speak out against inequalities in the everyday world and retweet people who are uplifting different causes. Each interaction is heartfelt and genuine, reminding the world that celebrities are people, too.
Greyeyes’ hard work through the years has led him to this moment and 2021 was the year for people to finally know his face. Thankfully, we have a plethora of content that features this talented actor (I recommend the 1994 film Dance Me Outside for those who don’t know Greyeyes as Gooch) not to mention an upcoming Season 2 of Rutherford Falls, a remake of Firestarter, and a first-look deal with Blumhouse. What more could we look for in a Performer of the Year?
Congratulations on a wonderful 2021, Michael!