‘The English’ Star Chaske Spencer on Almost Quitting Acting—and What Kept Him Going

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Photo Source: Nathan Arizona

In the late 2000s, Chaske Spencer was about to throw in the towel, frustrated with the lack of roles for Indigenous people in Hollywood. Then, he was cast in the “Twilight Saga” films as Sam Uley, the leader of a werewolf pack. Since then, he’s starred opposite Jessica Chastain in 2017’s “Woman Walks Ahead” and Emily Blunt on the 2022 Prime Video miniseries “The English.” The latter earned him a BAFTA nomination for his portrayal of cavalry veteran Eli Whipp. 

What advice would you give your younger self?

Just stick with it. Don’t be so hard on yourself. Being a young actor and exploring your craft, you’re always trying things, and you’re full of fear and anxiety to try to land a job and do a good performance in the role you’ve been given. You’re trying to find that competence as a young actor. Find how you work and what works for you—and what doesn’t.

What have you discovered over the years that has worked—or hasn’t—for you as an actor?

I would say that trying to keep up the energy of being in character 24/7—everyone should try that, but it didn’t really work for me. I liked trying to do that. But I [found] that a lot of it was based on fear and not having the competence at that time to be able to make choices. I don’t regret it; it was fun. One of the things that really works for me is just being relaxed because then my imagination opens up. It helps open some other doors that maybe you weren’t allowed to open because of fear or anxiety.

RELATED: How to Audition 

What’s your worst audition horror story?

Every single one of them! Because of my day job, I wasn’t able to memorize my lines as fast as I wanted to or get off-book at times, and those were always horrible. I remember going to a Bob Krakower class on auditioning years ago, and I advise every young actor who is starting off to take his class on auditioning, because the audition process is very much its own craft…. After taking that class, I started landing more and more gigs. What I’ve learned to do is be ready for anything. Be ready to flow; be ready to adapt.

“I advise every young actor who’s starting off to take a class on auditioning, because the audition process is very much its own craft.”

I read that you were ready to quit acting before you booked “Twilight.” What kept you going?

It was rough, because, at that time, there were not a lot of Native American acting roles going around. I knew that it was going to be an uphill battle and I might not make it, just because of the way Hollywood was working at the time. I figured I’d probably made a wrong choice. I love acting, but I looked at it realistically: Is this actually going to happen for someone like me and what I bring to the table? Maybe that’s just not in the cards at this time. [It] was very heartbreaking. I had been on several auditions, and I wasn’t right for a lot of the Native American parts that were going around at that time. When “Twilight” came along, it was just a breath of fresh air, because it was [set in the] modern day. They were more like rock stars than anything else. When I went in, I thought, Well, I’m going to give it my all, but if I don’t get this, I’ll pack it in. Then I got the role, and it rejuvenated a lot of inspiration and motivation to stick with it. “Twilight” got me to be a full-time working actor. That was the springboard that I needed…. I started at 22 years old; there were not very many Native American roles going around, and [those that existed were] stereotyped, and you had to conform to that role. It’s nice that I have been around long enough to see that change so much.

Which role shaped you most as an actor?

My whole career has been one big acting class. I took classes, but when I started really working, I was fortunate to work with some phenomenal actors, and I picked up a lot from them and talked to them and watched how they operated. I would ask from time to time, “How do you do this?” or, “What would you do on that part?” And they would tell me a trick they would use. It’s a never-ending learning story. You can try the short game, but it never works out. This is a long-game business. You’re constantly pulling things and bringing stuff to the table from what you’ve learned.

The English

“The English” Credit: Diego Lopez Calvin/Prime Video

How did classic Westerns inform your performance on “The English”?

In the breakdown, it said what inspired the character of Eli was Paul Newman’s [performance in] “Hombre.” Once I watched it, I was like, I know what they want. Talking with Hugo [Blick, who created the series,] a lot about the backstory on Eli helped. I watched a lot of Western movies—some of the stuff that inspired Hugo and what inspired me, as well, when I was a kid: Clint Eastwood, Gary Cooper, Charles Bronson. And another guy I looked at a lot, as well, [was] Eric Schweig from “The Last of the Mohicans.” I feel like he steals the movie from everybody. I have to apply something to my life to have a correlation to that character. I grew up with a lot of Vietnam vets, and I could pull from that. Eli, to me, is a Vietnam vet who rides around on a Harley-Davidson in the Southwest, listening to Creedence Clearwater Revival. When I look back on the trail of Eli and Cornelia [played by Blunt], it’s almost like I’m not really that character. I don’t recognize that person. It’s like he’s an old friend of mine. But that’s not me. 

Has that happened with other characters you’ve played, where you don’t recognize yourself in them?

Yeah, because I’m nothing like the characters I play. I have to substitute a lot. [My role in] “Wild Indian” is also [one] that I am very uncomfortable watching, because I’m not that person. I see the pain in that character, but I don’t see myself.

What’s your dream role?

I’m pretty happy with the roles I’ve gotten so far. I’m very lucky to [have played] roles [in projects] from “Twilight” to “The English” to “Wild Indian” to “Winter in the Blood.”

What performance should every actor see and why?

Ron Leibman played Morgenstern in this movie called “Night Falls on Manhattan”—it stars Andy Garcia, and it’s a Sidney Lumet movie. There’s a scene in the very beginning where a couple of cops are shot and it’s a big mess, and there’s a lot of chaos happening. [Leibman plays] the district attorney; and he comes into this room, he gets on this table, and he says, “We had a fuckup of historical proportions.” How he delivers [that] monologue just blows me away. 

This story originally appeared in the June 15 issue of Backstage Magazine.

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