Photo by Yoav Gershon, Off Script Shooting. Source:

Marisa Quinn Discusses the Tonto-Johnny Depp Controversy

Simon Moya-Smith
June 19, 2013

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.



lucy's picture
Submitted by lucy on

This is just her opinion -- doesn't mean she's right. I beg to differ, as would many, many other Native men and women. Telling Native actors to 'chill out' is easy for her to say (and not cool) -- she's already sort of established in the industry.

Deborah Millette/Blais-Sanchez's picture
Deborah Millett...
Submitted by Deborah Millett... on

Johnny Depp is an excellent actor in any role he plays, I've known to believe he was part First Nation ever since he lite up the Hollywood lights in earlier days. And now that he actually has an adopted Clan that's even better, but I personally would prefer to be adopted by my own Nation..of which 5 Algonquin clans are in my ancestry lineage...Huron is also in there at the very first , First Nation direct ancestor, Nicolas Millette or Nicolas Millete many ways of spelling over the generations.But finally a 5th Algoquin Clan shows up in my lineage and I'm proud of all of them. From Trois River area of "Little Canada" in Yamachechi, Quebec noting the first Native mentioned about goes back to 1600's but does not stop until my dad's generation , the First Nation Heritage never stopped , neither did the French and Scot. so call me Debbie Metis/Millette if you prefer...what say you?

Wendy South's picture
Wendy South
Submitted by Wendy South on

I have been watching APTN TV station and they play Johnny Depp movies a lot, before they movie or during the movie they will give information about the leading star of their feature film (in this case Johnny) and every time they mention how Johnny has 1/8 Cheyenne or is it Cherokee?? anyway so why would they have this info in their bio of Johnny Depp and you guys don't?

Veronica's picture
Submitted by Veronica on

I found an old article back when Lou Diamond Phillips was slated to play Jim Chee in 1991's "Dark Wind". At the time, people protested because of his untraceable ancestry. Redford wanted a "Real Navajo" to play the lead role, so how could this happen? "He truly wanted to cast a Native American in the lead", stated Redford's rep, "but never found anybody who had enough experience to carry the film. Much of the cast and crew is Indian. If anyone is sensitive to their plight, it's (Redford), but he also has a responsibility to the film." (source: People Magazine archives: Sept 17, 1990 Vol.34 No.11)
Lesson: Unless there's an Indigenous actor out there with Depp's or Phillips' clout, this issue will repeat itself.

Oomva's picture
Submitted by Oomva on

Wow, what a great comment from a native actress who has assimilated to the dominate culture in identifying with the old stereotypic image of Native Americans. I like how she relates and justifies money and vanity, in the concept of power. Maybe, we as natives should just give up our stand against the use of native names used in sports and tell our children "Business is just Business". It is comments such as these by our own people that have thwarted our political efforts in Washington and the U.N. Her comments have just shown money can buy anything and anyone regardless of cultural identity. This movie is just re-enforcing the old inhuman image of an American Indian except in a comical view. Johnny Depp now goes from playing a comical alcohol ridden Captain Jack sparrow to a “Goofy Indian" portrayed as a noble savage. This is a film developed for a specific cultures entertainment. I wonder how many native children will be referred to as Tonto by their peers in reference to this film. Maybe, as a professional actress, she needs to reeducate herself in American Indian Studies and see why Native film critics are conveying their negative opinions.

Ravyn Deerinwater's picture
Ravyn Deerinwater
Submitted by Ravyn Deerinwater on

Just to get something straight - Johnny Depp is Native. He is 1/4 Cherokee. He's talked about it in numerous interviews; Depp has Native blood on his mother's side. Whether or not you want to debate if he's 'authentically' native is your choice. Natives come from all over the country and in different degrees of knowing their culture. Having Johnny Depp play the roll of Tonto is a great indicator of progress for getting Native people into Native roles.

Will G Rios 's picture
Will G Rios
Submitted by Will G Rios on

Marisa Quinn, you hit the nail in the head with your interview. I like the way you answered the questions. As I was reading it, I felt your words from the heart. We need strong Native American for instance Adam Beach to get more recognition.Thank you Marisa.

Leon Sun's picture
Leon Sun
Submitted by Leon Sun on

OK, I hear what you're saying and agree, for the most part. Still, the question remains: why this of all possible stories? At least, it could be rewritten, perhaps, as Tonto and the Lone Ranger, with the narrative told from Tonto's perspective and experience. Uh, oh yeah, I forgot, it's Hollywood.

By the way, in the story, was the Lone Ranger part of the notorious Indian killers, the Texas Rangers?

TStar173's picture
Submitted by TStar173 on

How about the bare facts here. Johnny Depp pitched this movie to Disney, not the other way around. That's a fact. It was HIS decision to have the movie made to supposedly "help" our community, bla bla bla, read all of his statements before the project even got the green light. Bottom line, we are NOT talking about a movie that they were going to make (Disney) and then needed to go out and find "star power" as she says, lol, for. So the comments above show she has not been following the progression of this film at all, and has no idea what she is talking about. The debate my friends, is over whether the movie ever should have been made at all. The answer is obviously, when you know or check out the facts, Johnny's project, Johnny's idea, Johnnny supposedly trying to "help" us, a resounding no! There is no casting debate, it was, from jump, his idea, and his project. Period.

BTW's's picture
Submitted by BTW's on

To follow a successful career on the rise in the Native Male category, as recently reported on ICTMN, follow TATANKA MEANS! He's kickin' butt and taking names :D

wehpush's picture
Submitted by wehpush on

I remember when she was Marisa Quintanilla the Latina actress, Johnny's not the only one "playing" Native. Twilight got so much heat for casting a non-Native to play Native they had to do an open casting for the next film.