Eugene Brave Rock’s grandmother Florence Brave Rock, used a nickname for him when he was a child: Giipeetaapoogaa. Technically it means “grandchild” in Blackfoot, but is also a term bestowed upon the most special grandchild. “You might have 50 grand-children, but Giipeetaapoogaa is the one that’s raised by the grandmother. So, it was a big honour for her to give me that name,” says the Edmonton actor and stuntman who recently appeared in the superhero blockbuster movie, Wonder Woman, as the character, Chief. “I never realized what she taught me and the values until now in my life. She was my Wonder Woman.”
Florence not only taught Brave Rock Blackfoot culture and language, she encouraged him to look to the outside world. Those teachings came to a head in 2007, when Brave Rock was offered a part in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show at Disneyland Paris. He had already spent some time outside his community – in Calgary for school, work and a few minor acting and stuntman jobs. But Paris was so big, so different and so far away. He was excited, but very apprehensive about going.
And then Grandmother Florence became ill.
“I told her, ‘I’m gonna stay here and take care of you,'” he says, his voice cracking slightly with the emotion of the memory. “And she pushed me away, told me, ‘No, this is an opportunity of a lifetime, you gotta take your gifts and live your life, no matter what happens.'”
Brave Rock took the gig in Paris where times were hard in the early days. “It was tough because I didn’t have anybody, I didn’t have my family, I didn’t have my grandmother,” he says, noting she passed away in 2008 while he was in France. “But, at the same time, it was such a great experience to work with live buffalo and ride horses. It made me understand more of who I was as a Blackfoot person because the spirituality had to become a lot stronger, and so my prayers were always a lot stronger. I’d go and sit with the buffalo and the horse and offer some tobacco and say a little prayer. I also want to say it was weird and unfortunate that a Blackfoot would have to go to Paris, France to learn how to chase live buffalo.”
Back in Alberta after Paris, Brave Rock had skills and a reputation that were in demand. He became a go-to guy as an Indigenous stuntman, especially one who could ride a horse, appearing in movies including The Revenant, mini-series like The Klondike and The American West, and 11 of the 55 episodes of AMC’s television show Hell on Wheels.
In early 2015, not long after he married his girlfriend, Jolene, and during a break from filming The Revenant, he got a call from his agent saying there was a request for him to audition for a Warner Brothers movie called Nightingale. He was told nothing about the movie or the role, but he recalled his grandmother’s advice about opportunities and drove to Los Angeles for the audition.
“I was used to doing my auditions in Calgary in some small little room, right? So, there I was in L.A. for the first time in my life and it took my breath away,” he says. “As soon as you drive in, you have the iconic Warner Brothers water towers, so my anxiety was huge and I couldn’t remember my lines and went blank. So I walked out of that audition very bummed out.”
Much to his surprise, he was offered the part a month later, and it was then revealed that Nightingale was a pseudonym; he would actually be a key secondary character in the highly anticipated Wonder Woman movie. Because the studio wanted no leaks about the details of the plot and the characters, he could tell people he had a part in a movie but he couldn’t tell anyone, not even Jolene, the name, any plot details or what character he was playing.
Filming Wonder Woman began in the London, England area in November 2015 and lasted for five months. It was a hard slog; many scenes were shot at night, his costume and gear weighed almost 150 pounds and it rained constantly. He also missed the birth of his son.
But there were, of course, a lot of positive experiences. Director Patty Jenkins wanted his input on the cultural appropriateness of his character, how he acted, how he spoke. Brave Rock helped design Chief’s costume to respect the proper regalia, and he researched Mike Mountain Horse, a Blackfoot First World War hero who was wounded in the Battle of Passchendaele, for reference.
“I was a bit intimidated, but became really good friends with all of them,” he says, adding the lead actress, Gal Gadot, was very interested in Blackfoot culture and language, costar Chris Pine was “very cool, very intelligent” and costar Ewen Bremner even helped him run lines for an audition for another movie.
“It was like going to school, watching these actors when you’re on the side, seeing what they’re doing. It was amazing to see, you know,” Brave Rock says. “Also for them to give me some feedback on my role on who I was and how to portray what I needed to portray, was just great, awesome.”
One scene, in which Chief introduces himself as Napi, the Blackfoot creator/trickster God, to Wonder Woman in unsubtitled Blackfoot, hinted at something more for the character. Possibly more work for Brave Rock in future DC movies?
“I have to leave that up to the gods, the business gods at Warner Brothers to decide,” he says. “I hope so.”
And though Wonder Woman is one of the great box office successes of 2017, with accolades for Brave Rock and more offers coming in, it hasn’t been an easy year for the actor now living in Lodi, California. In late August, one of his brothers passed away and Brave Rock revealed the cause of death to be suicide. Brave Rock says there’s a crisis of suicide in Indigenous communities and he hopes that making the cause of his brother’s death public can help create awareness of the issue.
“It was a big blow to me to have this happen to my brother; it makes me think a lot about it and I need to get more out there, get back into the community, try to give our children hope and inspire them,” he says. “We need reconciliation and people need to know the atrocities that happened to us instead of living in an ignorant world. There’s so much knowledge out there, it’s at our fingertips, but we’re dying of ignorance.”
For Brave Rock, reconciliation is about being open to his Blackfoot culture, open to the language and the ceremonies and the roots of his people, the things his grandmother taught him when he was her Giipeetaapoogaa. “We’ve got to get out there and explore and find our gifts and share them with the world,” he says. “I think about going back to that cultural aspect of cultural values that I believe in; having long hair, speaking my language, riding my horses, singing and dancing traditionally. Those are all values that have taken me around the world. It’s the way you live, right? It doesn’t matter where you are, it’s good to have those values close.”
Looking back, Brave Rock counts his move to Paris as a key moment in his life and career. “I think if I would have stayed home, the footsteps that I’ve taken would have drastically changed. Life is a fine line to walk sometimes, and you gotta take those opportunities. That’s one of the values that my grandmother taught me.”