Lily Gladstone and the ‘Magic’ of Stillness

The star used both quietness and physicality to land her historic Oscar nomination for “Killers of the Flower Moon”

One of the most poignant moments in Martin Scorsese’s true-crime epic “Killers of the Flower Moon” is soundtracked solely by the sound of rain. An Osage woman, Mollie Kyle (Lily Gladstone), welcomes wily World War I veteran Ernest Burkhart (Leonardo DiCaprio) into her home for the first time. It isn’t until later in the film that the two marry, and later still that Ernest becomes embroiled in a plot to murder Mollie’s family in order to gain their oil-rich land. But in this scene, the two just sit and listen to the rain.   

“A storm, it’s, uh…well, it’s powerful,” Mollie tells Ernest. “So we need to be quiet for a while.” 

“That scene hadn’t ended that way originally,” Gladstone tells us. She remembers reading a draft of Eric Roth and Scorsese’s script that instead saw Mollie drinking Ernest under the table. But Gladstone felt that this choice didn’t sit right with the character—or with the real-life woman she’d gotten to know through her research. “That could have been Anna,” she says, referring to Mollie’s wild-child sister, played by Cara Jade Myers. “But that wouldn’t have been Mollie.” 

More importantly to all involved, the character choice didn’t feel authentically Osage. The version that ended up in the film came directly from Osage lawyer Wilson Pipestem’s memories of his grandmother, who used storms as occasions for quiet contemplation. 

“Stillness is something that I know a lot of people, period—even outside of the acting realm—just struggle with,” Gladstone says. “But it’s really magic, what happens when you can sit and receive and just allow things to happen. It’s like, out of stillness, really authentic movement can rise.” A quiet moment means that “you have a chance to process what you’ve just seen, what you’ve just heard. That’s what art allows us to do, is process things.” 

For Gladstone, quiet moments are hard to come by these days. She was already an indie favorite thanks to her work in projects like Kelly Reichardt’s 2016 pastoral film “Certain Women” and Morrisa Maltz’s 2022 road trip drama “The Unknown Country.” Now, she’s been thrust into the awards spotlight thanks to her remarkably self-possessed performance in “Killers.” 

Lily Gladstone photoshoot

We met just two days after she won a Golden Globe; in her acceptance speech, she dedicated the award to “every little rez kid, every little urban kid, every little Native kid out there who has a dream.” Less than 24 hours after our conversation, Gladstone added a SAG Award nod to the list; a week later, she made history as the first Native American woman to be nominated for a lead actress Oscar. 

Between interviews, ceremonies, and awards announcements, she’s been trying to make time for herself to check in with friends and family, play a few minutes of the mobile game “Merge Mansion” (“It’s insane; it’s ridiculous…. You just keep going, and it’s stupid addicting”), and simply be. “There’s a life away from all of this, too,” she says. 

Gladstone’s ability to project poise amid pandemonium is emblematic of who she is as an actor. A self-described “movement-based performer” with a background in ballet, she received her formal training at the University of Montana. There, she gravitated toward physicality-focused acting techniques like those developed by Brazilian dramatist Augusto Boal for his Theatre of the Oppressed. In particular, she was drawn to his concept of “image theater,” which sees performance as a form of protest. To practice it, actors sculpt their bodies into a physical expression of a concept or single word. 

“The theory…is [about] using acting techniques and theatrical techniques to tune
the instrument of the actor, which is your body,” Gladstone explains. “If you have autonomy over that, then you have stronger autonomy over shaping the stories that shape your world.” 

She also studied biomechanics at UM, a technique developed by Russian theater director Vsevolod Meyerhold that emphasizes external gesture. The practice encourages actors to find their character through rhythm and movement, starting big and then scaling back. Gladstone explains that it’s “like taking a gesture and putting it on a scale of 1 to 10, which would be the fullest, farthest expression of whatever that emotion is.” 

“I felt very protective of Mollie the [same] way I think a lot of the audience does. You’re just like, ‘Girl, get out of there.’ ”

She finds biomechanics particularly helpful for on-camera acting. “If you go big and then can make it more minute, then it really feels like the smallest little movements convey the biggest moments,” she says. “Your 1 in theater is your 8 on film. Sometimes on film, Level 1 is you’re just thinking, and then there’s a mild temperature shift that happens just in the eyes and the face.”

When a scene calls for it, Gladstone isn’t afraid to employ more uncommon methods. Her role as a rancher in “Certain Women,” for example, was “very, very informed” by an animal study of horses. 

So when Scorsese came calling, she started pulling these disparate techniques together: gesture, subtle movement, and the idea that how someone talks says more than the words they use. “I wouldn’t say that there was a specific animal that I studied for Mollie Burkhart; but that still, observational quality—it’s a rare thing to find in a human,” Gladstone explains. “It’s a very specific thing to a very specific culture…. Whenever I talk about [animal study], I remind everybody that humans are animals, too, and our expression of humanity is so shaped by culture.”

David Grann’s nonfiction book “Killers of the Flower Moon” was published in April 2017; later that month, Scorsese announced that he would adapt it for his next project. The film’s six-year journey to the screen is a testament to the director’s dedication to accurately representing the culture that shaped Mollie. The film chronicles the Reign of Terror, a series of unchecked murders that white settlers committed against the Osage Nation in 1920s Oklahoma. 

Scorsese and his co-writer, Eric Roth, originally envisioned the story as a mystery; but they pivoted after receiving input from members of the modern Osage Nation. The filmmakers decided to place less emphasis on the investigation into the murders—one of the first major cases from the early days of the FBI—and instead put Mollie and Ernest’s complex relationship front and center. 

Lily Gladstone photoshoot

Now the movie’s beating heart, Gladstone dove into her role. True to her training, she wanted to feel what it was like to talk, stand, and move as Mollie. Her first step after getting cast was to download an Osage language app. As a member of the Blackfeet Nation, the actor grew up hearing her own tribe’s Indigenous language. “But Osage was a completely different story,” she says. “The more fluid I would get just with the sound [of the language], and hearing, particularly, Osage women speak, the more I could feel Mollie.” 

Even in scenes that didn’t call for it, Gladstone asked for her lines to be translated into Osage so she could learn her dialogue in two languages. After all, Mollie would’ve understood it both ways. 

“Leo’s very demonstrative. He’s getting it out before going on. With Mollie, I kept her very shrouded and close to the chest until the camera was rolling. I wasn’t going to show any indication of how I was getting there.”

Gladstone discovered her character’s courage through that language. Mollie was a diabetic who was among the first people in history to receive insulin injections, a technology that began to be used in 1922. “Just metering the level of energy that she would’ve had with this illness and the words that she would need to speak, I always found her strength in Osage language,” Gladstone says. 

The same goes for her costumes. Following her first fitting for Mollie’s spine-straightening ribbon skirt, the actor turned to Julie O’Keefe, the film’s Osage wardrobe consultant, and said, “I get why the Osage Nation gave birth to America’s first prima ballerina.”

But Gladstone didn’t truly feel like she was walking in Mollie’s shoes until she set foot in Osage County, Oklahoma, where “Killers” was shot. The film employed a massive ensemble of Indigenous actors; Gladstone notes that, altogether, more than 200 tribes were represented on set. “Indigenous perspective is a very place-based thing,” she says. “And a lot of Mollie came from the land. Just being on the land with the people a hundred years later, there’s a transference there that you can’t really articulate.” 

Killers of the Flower MoonCourtesy Apple TV+

The actor found her footing in early scenes she shared with the three actors playing her siblings: Myers as Anna, Janae Collins as Reta, and Jillian Dion as Minnie. “It was just hearing what it sounds like to be around family and in community, the laughter of my sisters—particularly Janae Collins. My God, that girl’s got such an infectious laugh,” Gladstone adds with a smile. 

She kept that energy in mind as the story grew darker and more tragic for Mollie’s entire family, just as it did in real life. “The first scene with the sisters, their giggling and laughing—that was the soundtrack in my head as Mollie starts losing them one by one,” Gladstone says. “It was that echo of their laughter and the life that they all had.” 

The reverberations of these losses reach a fever pitch in the most heart-wrenching moment of the actor’s performance. Midway through the film, Mollie and her children seek refuge in a basement from a bombing. When she learns that Reta, her last surviving sister, has been killed in the blast, her reaction is a pure, primal scream. “No one planned that,” Gladstone reveals. The scene was originally designed to be a wide establishing shot that would slowly train in on her face; but her anguished cry quite literally stopped the camera in its tracks. 

“It surprised me. It surprised, you can see, all the kids in the basement,” she says. “But that is because, at that moment, all I could hear was Janae.” 

That willingness to discuss and adapt was at the heart of the film—not just in the creative team’s conversations with members of the Osage Nation, but in Gladstone’s individual collaborations with DiCaprio and Scorsese. Initially, she and her scene partner had to navigate what she calls “complementary, but not similar” ways of finding their characters. 

Lily Gladstone photoshoot

“Leo’s very demonstrative. He’s getting it out before going on,” Gladstone says. “With Mollie, I kept her very shrouded and close to the chest until the camera was rolling. I wasn’t going to show any indication of how I was getting there. It felt like I was protecting her and was carrying her under my coat like a baby until I was ready to bring her out and show her.” But she and DiCaprio eventually found a trust in each other that added immensely to their portrayal of Mollie and Ernest’s off-kilter relationship. 

“It was kind of the heart of the chemistry—these two seemingly opposing processes working together,” Gladstone says. “It was really heartening and lovely. It just reinforced how powerful that stillness of Mollie is in contrast with the shiftiness and duplicity
of Ernest.” 

Gladstone shared an equally fruitful partnership with Scorsese. “A very quick way to annoy me as an actor is a director trying to tell me what my character’s thinking,” she says. Thankfully, the filmmaker usually gave her quick, incisive notes. Most commonly, she remembers with a laugh, he would say, “Lily, can you look like you like [Ernest] a little bit more?”

“What’s nice about that is, like, OK, that’s an action,” she explains. “It allows the space for me to articulate what that would look like as Mollie. It also clued me in to how [I] was coming across on film.” 

Examining her character’s actions brought Gladstone back to her roots in Meyerhold’s biomechanics. “Scaling [Mollie’s] level of interest in Ernest—what does it look like at a 10? What does it look like at a 2?” she says. “And then, where are [the characters] in [their] journey? The fire of whatever that attraction is was still there; it’s just, you give it more gas or you take it away.”

All of that research, training, and collaborating came together in Gladstone’s final scene, in which Mollie asks her husband one last time if he knew what was in the medicine she now knows was poisoned, which he’d been administering for months. “In rehearsal, as soon as he says, ‘insulin,’ I would stand up and leave. [Mollie’s response] was sharper. It was more punctuated, and that was my instinct,” she remembers. 

Lily Gladstone coverIn the final version of the scene, the character’s reaction is devastatingly quiet—more in line with the woman Gladstone had come to know and love. The actor lets the weight of the betrayal play out entirely on her face—an expression that could be considered a Meyerhold Level 1—communicating generations’ worth of pain.  

“I’m grateful that Marty brought that back around and let that answer hang for a minute before she leaves,” Gladstone says. “At that point, I felt very protective of Mollie the [same] way I think a lot of the audience does. You’re just like, ‘Girl, get out of there.’ ” 

The scene leads into the film’s finale, which reminds viewers of the fact that history has largely tried to forget (and even forgive) the Reign of Terror’s attempt to eradicate an entire culture and people, culminating in a shot of a modern-day Osage dancing circle. It’s a heavy sequence to process. 

Which is why it’s a gift, Gladstone says, that the last thing you hear as the credits come to a close is the sound of rain.

“That’s really emotional, seeing that the last moments of the film [give] the audience a chance to sit in silence, listen to the rain, and let what they just saw wash over them,” she says, taking one more opportunity to praise the woman who understood what it meant to do the same. “It’s one of the things that made Mollie so precious in the story, the way that she is.”

This story originally appeared in the Feb. 15 issue of Backstage Magazine. To hear our full conversation with Gladstone, listen and subscribe to In the Envelope: The Actor's Podcast.

Photographed by Ramona Rosales on 01/09 at the L’Ermitage in Beverly Hills, CA. Hair by Marc Mena for Exclusive Artists. Makeup by Fiona Stiles. Styling by Jason Rembert and Wilton White. Cover designed by Ian Robinson.

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