Kevin Costner wanted genuine Native Americans to play his Sioux friends in Dances With Wolves but where to find that many qualified Indian actors? ''It wasn't easy,'' says Elisabeth Leustig, the film's casting director. ''The pool of Indian actors is very small.''
The first thing Leustig did was ''watch as many TV shows and movies starring Indians as I could find.'' Then she contacted Indian theater companies throughout the U.S. and Canada to let them know she was shopping for talent. Next stop was South Dakota, where she held auditions at two Indian reservations. ''We saw about 2,000 Indian actors,'' she says. ''Most had no experience whatsoever.'' Moreover, those who did were often wary of her. ''Indians aren't always portrayed positively in movies,'' she says. ''We had to convince them this wasn't going to be another shoot-'em-up Western.''
Leustig eventually picked 150 Indian actors. Some, like Rodney A. Grant (who played Wind In His Hair; see Entertainment Weekly, Feb. 1), were veterans, others newcomers. Three of the most notable:
Nathan Lee Chasing His Horse
''I'm a lot more serious than he is,'' says Nathan Lee Chasing His Horse of Smiles A Lot, the chronically happy brave he plays in Dances With Wolves. ''I don't smile nearly that much in real life.'' Not that the 15-year-old doesn't have a lot to smile about: He has become a local celebrity around the Rosebud reservation in South Dakota, where he attends high school, has had a chance to work with one of his biggest screen idols (''I've seen everything Costner's ever done''), and in May will start shooting his second movie, another American Indian epic called Thunderbird. ''It was all just a lucky break,'' he says. ''I saw an ad in the newspaper for an audition at the local college so I decided to give it a try. I was the only one who turned up that day, so they gave me the part.''
It wasn't a big role-she's only on-screen a few minutes but Tantoo Cardinal wanted to play Black Shawl, Kicking Bird's sweetly sardonic wife, more than any role of her career. ''The minute I read the script, I knew this was something special,'' the 40-year-old Alberta-born métis Indian explains. The minute that casting director Leustig saw Cardinal's face, she wanted her, too. ''There's a certain hardship in her face that's very appealing,'' Leustig says. ''You can tell that her life has not been an easy one.'' Cardinal's career, in fact, hasn't been easy. She struggled for years playing bit parts in fire-prevention spots and race-relations documentaries. It wasn't until recent years that things started taking off. In 1986, she starred in Loyalties, a hit Canadian movie, and this May she'll be seen in The Black Robe, an Australian-Canadian production set in the 1600s.
How does it feel to be nominated for an Academy Award? ''Good.'' What's it like working with Kevin Costner? ''Fine.'' Will Dances With Wolves help change the way Hollywood portrays Native Americans? ''Maybe.''
Like Kicking Bird, the character in Dances that brought him a Best Supporting Actor nomination, Graham Greene is a man of very few words. The 38- year-old Canadian-born Oneida Indian is the first Native American to be nominated for an acting Oscar since Chief Dan George played opposite Dustin Hoffman in 1970's Little Big Man, but ask him if the film has changed his life and all you'll get is a terse ''Yup.'' Greene's penchant for monosyllables hasn't hindered his career, however. He's been acting professionally for 17 years in such Canadian films as Captain Power and Lost in the Barrens. U.S. audiences may recognize him from PowWow Highway and from his part alongside Al Pacino in the 1985 Revolution (he played a Huron Indian) or from his role as an attorney on a recent episode of L.A. Law. Leustig recognized him from his work in Canadian regional theater. ''He's the kind of guy you meet on the screen and you know he's intelligent,'' she says. ''Right away you know there's a mind at work.''
Greene is now rehearsing in Ottawa in Dry Lips Oughtta Move to Kapuskasing, playing a drunkard who coaches a female hockey team. ("It's about how women are put on Earth to help" is all he'll say about the plot.) Later this year he'll play a villain in the Canadian thriller Clearcut, about a lawyer who gets kidnapped in the Northern wilderness. You can also catch a glimpse of Greene as himself at the Academy Awards on March 25. What does he think of his chances of winning? He's not saying.