Sterlin Harjo‘s new film Mekko has started a successful run on the film festival circuit, where it had its world premiere at the Los Angeles Film Festival in June and its international premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival in mid-September. The film tells the story of Mekko, a Creek man who’s been paroled after serving a 19 year prison sentence for killing his brother. With nowhere to go, Mekko begins living on the streets of Tulsa, where he is absorbed into the local homeless Native American community. The local homeless population is terrorized by a man named Bill, who Mekko believes is an evil spirit.
The film’s star, Crow/Cheyenne actor Rod Rondeaux, takes his first leading role with Mekko, after years of working as a stuntman in Hollywood and taking small parts in other films, like Kelly Reichardt’s Meek’s Cutoff. With Mekko, Rondeaux seems to be joining the ranks of character actors whose work stands out because of their unique backgrounds and unconventional qualities as performers. I first saw Rondeaux in the documentary Reel Injun, which was a survey of decades of Native American misrepresentation in the film industry. He was featured briefly in Reel Injun and talked about his life as a horse trainer before working on film sets as a stuntman. Rondeaux stood out in Reel Injun because of an unnameable authenticity generally lacking from the performances of well-known leading actors. Later, when I saw him in Meek’s Cutoff, he once again stood out as a performer who had an unpolished authenticity that unconventional character actors often bring to roles that make the studied acting techniques of more famous leading men appear transparent and obvious.
Like some great character actors, Rondeaux has the unique ability to add real-life texture to his performances. And realism was important to the way he approached playing Mekko. In an interview with FourthCinema he says of his role, “I tried to bring the reality to the part. After all, 19 years in prison would have changed you as fast as times are now moving. Fear, intimidation, and the uncertainty of how my family would take me in had to be real.”
In a recent interview with Tulsa Public Radio, director Harjo cited Werner Herzog‘s odball masterpiece Stroszek (1972) as an influence on Mekko. A direct line can be drawn between Mekko and Stroszek, where Herzog used Bruno S., a formerly homeless street musician, to play the film’s title character. Like Rondeaux, Bruno S. was in possession of the type of rough-hewn demeanor and acting style that gave the film its sense of realism. Bruno S. and Rondeaux come from hardscrabble backgrounds, and they both posses a lack of formal acting training that sets them apart from conventional leading men. Look for great Termite Art tendencies in the few leading performances from Rondeaux, including Meek’s Cutoff.
Rondeaux stressed the importance of realism for the role when talking about parts of his own personal life that informed how he played Mekko: “…for a time I was homeless when I moved to LA, staying in a shelter for a few weeks until a friend of mine took me to Kansas for a movie.”
Outside of his stunt work, Rondeaux had no previous training as an actor. He grew up on the Crow reservation in Montana, where he worked on the rodeo circuit for most of his life. Recalling the path that led him to his current stunt/acting career, he says, “I rodeo’d for 40 years -team roping, riding bulls, steer wrestling -and a friend of mine drug me to an audition for core riders in 1996 for TNT’s Crazy Horse, shot in South Dakota. I got the role of stunt double for the lead, Michael GreyEyes. I moved to California in 1997 and got into the stunt business from there.”
As a director, Harjo himself must have recognized the great, unconventional acting qualities that Rondeaux possesses. Rondeaux says, “Sterlin saw a picture of me leaning over a fence looking at horses in a corral and decided then and there that I was Mekko.”
Mekko has gotten positive reviews from Variety and a handful of online publications. For Rondeaux, his reception as a leading actor at the Toronto International Film Festival has been equally positive. About his experience at TIFF he says, “The attention [was] somewhat overwhelming. But I believe the crowd and the people that watched the film were genuinely surprised that we had such a realistic, modern-day kinda dark movie coming out. Real real real.”
–Scott Pewenofkit, Jr.