Phoenix Wilson’s most prominent acting role is in Wild Indian, which will debut later this month at the Sundance Film Festival. Photo courtesy the Wilson family

Anishinaabe actor hits Sundance screen

By 
  • January 16, 2021

Martha Wilson first noticed the performing gene in her son Phoenix when he was just two years old.

“He would always act commercials at the table for us,” said Wilson. “He’s probably embarrassed with me sharing this but he performed the music and mimicked the actions of the Pull Up diapers commercials. I figured he had the acting bug.”

Phoenix has come a long way since those earliest performances at the family home. He’s performed in film and television productions, and Phoenix’s role as Makwa in the upcoming American thriller Wild Indian is poised to be his most prominent yet as the feature film debuts Jan. 30 at the prestigious Sundance Film Festival, a celebrated launching pad for independent productions.

The Canadian Indigenous/Anishinaabe actor, now 15, was born in Sudbury, Ont., but raised on the M’Chigeeng First Nation on Manitoulin Island. He started auditioning for roles at age four and has built a resume that has featured supporting roles in films such as Two Lovers and a Bear and Indian Horse, and guest television spots on Letterkenny and Longmire.

Phoenix is a Grade 10 student at St. Charles College, a Catholic secondary school in Sudbury (currently studying remotely). His first experience with the Makwa character came during 2018 at the Sundance Institute’s Directors Lab in Utah. Wild Indian’s writer and director Lyle Mitchell Corbine Jr. recorded scenes from the film, one of which featured Phoenix, and received feedback from the legendary filmmaker Robert Redford, the founder of the Sundance Festival.

“It was amazing to shoot one short two-minute scene and then to be invited back by Lyle when he decided to expand Wild Indian into a feature film because he is such a good guy to work with and he brings great energy to set,” said Phoenix.

Makwa, a young Anishinaabe boy, was a plum role that offered Phoenix some rich dramatic material. This excerpt describing Wild Indian on the festival website illustrates some of the harrowing scenes Wilson performed:

“(Makwa) often appears at school with bruises he says he got falling down, but no one believes him. He and his only friend, Ted-O, like to escape by playing in the woods, until the day Makwa shockingly murders a schoolmate. After covering up the crime, the two boys go on to live very different lives.”

Phoenix enjoyed bringing this character to life during a two-week shoot in central Oklahoma in late 2019.

“(Makwa) is really complex I find. He comes from a very dysfunctional family — not a good home life at all — so he was really difficult to play considering I had never gone through his life experiences,” he said. “This film, of course, is super terrifying and scary, but filming it was just a lot of fun.”

Shooting a gun, as you would imagine for a teen boy, was a highlight of Phoenix’s time in Makwa’s skin.

“It was a real shotgun and there was a gun handler on set who taught me how to hold the gun, walk with it and how to fire. I think it was a shell that I fired, not even a rubber bullet.”

The heaviness of Wild Indian’s content was balanced by a humour-filled rapport between cast and crew on location, said Phoenix. His chaperone, maternal grandfather William, was a popular on-set presence.

“It is super fun to have him there. He loves talking to everybody and making them laugh.”

Phoenix will see Wild Indian for the first time at Sundance.

Michael Greyeyes portrays Makwa as an older, modern North American man who is forced to confront the terrible deeds of his past. Academy Award nominee Jesse Eisenberg, Kate Bosworth and Chaske Spencer — who played Phoenix’s father during his two-episode Longmire guest appearance — round out the ensemble cast.

The advance buzz for Wild Indian is considerable as it’s only one of 10 features competing for the coveted U.S. Dramatic Grand Jury Prize.

The ongoing COVID-19 crisis continues to halt feature film and television production to a large extent so Phoenix awaits the opportunity to pursue another opportunity. He keeps his zest for acting sharp by watching plenty of movies, particularly the filmography of Meryl Streep.

He looks forward to diving into another role soon. A cherished part of his performance prep is working through the script with his mother, who teaches drama at St. Charles College.

The Sundance Film Festival runs from Jan. 28 to Feb. 3.

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