Marisa Quinn Discusses the Tonto-Johnny Depp Controversy
Actress Marisa Quinn knows what it takes to land a role.
The Brown University graduate’s rich résumé includes the stage and screen as well as numerous TV spots. You may recognize her as Huilen from The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 2, or from her guest appearance on FX’s Sons of Anarchy or CBS’s Criminal Minds.
Earlier this year, Quinn (who’s also a vocalist) landed the part of Dorothy Dark Eyes in Distant Thunder – a musical about Native American identity, written by Shaun and Lynne Taylor-Corbett.
A Lipan Apache, Quinn currently lives and works in Los Angeles and has followed the debate surrounding Johnny Depp’s role as Tonto in Disney’s The Lone Ranger, slated to open in theaters July 3.
ICTMN recently spoke with Quinn about the controversy. Quinn says she hopes that one day there will be an American Indian movie star as prolific as Johnny Depp, so there will no longer be a need to give Indian roles to white actors -- but in the meantime, she encourages the Native critics to "chill out."
What’s your take on the Tonto controversy?
You know, I think that there are a lot of levels to it, and there’s a lot of different ways you can look at it. This controversy specifically, I think, is different than what you might see on a television show or a smaller part in a movie, or something like that, when a smaller part doesn’t go to a Native American. That’s something that would upset me, because there’s just no reason for it. You don’t need a white person with a big name to do a small part in a TV show or a movie or something – any actor can play it, so why not a Native American actor? In [the case of The Lone Ranger], this is a huge blockbuster movie; you need star power. I mean, that’s just the way of the world – it’s a fact that you cannot get around. And the fact is, in the Native American community, we do not have a star as big as Johnny Depp. We just don’t. And does that mean that we can’t have a character that’s a main character in a huge Disney blockbuster summer film? If that were the case, that would be really sad because then our culture would not have a character who could be represented. There are two ways to go there: either A. you have to wait for some Native American actor to get really famous before you can have a main character in a big movie who’s Native American, or you can just chill out a little and realize that these Disney people, and Johnny Depp in particular, are trying to do a good thing here and they’re bringing a Native character – a character of color that’s going to speak to a lot of people – to the forefront and really honoring that character by giving that character not only a lot of lines but also a lot of depth and a heroism, a sense of that heroic nature [who] kids can look up to. I want to be that kind of character! That’s the cool character. So often, in past films and over the ages, the Native was always that bad guy and they were the ones always getting killed and all that. I feel like this is a really great opportunity to turn stereotypes on their heads and also to sort of inject honor into the character of tonto.
Do you think Johnny Depp is injecting honor into the character of “Tonto”?
I really believe he is. You know, I wasn’t there on set; I haven’t even read the script, but from what I’ve heard, my industry friends say – people who have read the script, people who were on set – they’ve told me that it really is well-written; that Johnny brings so much depth to the role, so much heart to the role, and he believes that “Tonto” is an honorable character and so he’s bringing that to the screen, and I think that’s a beautiful thing. So what he wasn’t born Native. I would rather have the story of an honorable “Tonto” brought to the big screen for everybody can see it rather than it just getting locked in a box and thrown away forever until maybe one day we finally get a huge Native American star, which may or may not ever happen.
In your opinion, how does Hollywood treat Native American actors and culture these days?
In so many ways I’ve seen the industry change, like exponentially in the past 10 years, with how sensitive Hollywood is to that issue. You know, back in the day, they really didn’t care who was playing what race, you know, it didn’t matter. And nowadays they really do care and want things to be authentic. But at the same time it’s a business, and you have to toe the line between both, but ultimately I feel like if it’s the goal is to honor the culture then that should be what’s focused on because the fact is, when that culture is being honored, that means eyes and the spotlight and attention is on that culture, and that gives that culture a voice. All of a sudden our culture gets a bunch of recognition, and I think it’s a good representation. It’s a positive association.
How does Hollywood search for the ‘authentic’ Indian?
It’s pretty huge how detailed [casting directors] are. They actually ask you for your tribal affiliation. They want to know if you’re enrolled. I’ve been interviewed, actually, on multiple occasions while I’m auditioning for something, about my heritage, about my tribe. They want to hear what you have to say. In any of those cases, if I haven’t gotten the part, the people who have were also authentic. [Casting directors want] to make sure they honor the culture and the community.
So why is it important for Natives to play the Native role?
I believe that there is a certain connection to a culture that you can only have if you are that culture, and not only in culture but also in lifestyles and everything. I feel the same way about people playing gay characters who are not gay. Sure you can do it, but there’s just a truth that is resonant when you are that person, that culture or that lifestyle, and it resonates most with people who are that, [too]. And I think that’s what’s so special about it. It’s such a huge triumph for our community to see one of our own play those characters, to see a representation of ourselves authentically represented on screen. It’s very validating, I think, as a culture. There’s something about a human being seeing another human being, whether it be on screen on the web or the theater, seeing them as a reflection of themselves live out this adventure. It’s really awesome. It’s not an ideal situation, this whole Johnny Depp thing; it’s not ideal to have a white guy playing a Native character, but at the very least we do get to see this heroic character go on this heroic main journey. He’s the main guy, well one of two main guys. We get to go on this journey [with him]. That’s awesome. It’s huge; it doesn’t happen everyday. It’s a step in the right direction. You’re not going to get it all right the first time, but it certainly, I think, leaves room for the next step to come. Maybe … Chaske Spencer, in the next couple of years, will blow up and get huge and maybe then he will do a huge Disney blockbuster film.