SIX NATIONS — Gary Dale Farmer was born June 12, 1953, at the old Lady Willingdon hospital in downtown Ohsweken to Shirley (nee Fraser) and Ronald Orval Farmer. He was whisked off to Texas with the family soon thereafter following his father’s work with the U.S. Army Core of Engineers, and later they moved to Buffalo. But Gary, the oldest in the family, always retained his close connection with Six Nations of the Grand River Territory.
“Ohsweken is my home and I visit it as often as possible,” says the veteran actor, now living in New Mexico.
He has a 45-year career as an actor and has graced the screen with some of Hollywood’s biggest names.
To date, his highest acclaims are from his 1998 role as “Nobody”, in the cult classic western, Dead Man alongside Johnny Depp. Acclaimed writer/director Jim Jarmusch, talked about his choice of Farmer for that role.
“When I write I usually have someone in mind,” says the award-winning screenwriter. “I saw Gary’s work in other films and I wrote the part with him in mind.”
Farmer’s role is of a wisecracking spirit guide to Depp as he makes his way through a kind of purgatory after shooting and killing a man in self-defense. It is filmed in black and white and has the look of a classic 1950’s western, except the traditional roles are reversed. Depp is a soft, bumbling white man from the east on his first encounter with the hard and wild west. Farmer’s character teaches Depp in his understanding of life and death.
Dead Man was nominated for the best foreign film in the European Oscars with Farmer winning best-supporting-actor honours.
“For some reason, Jim couldn’t make it to the awards show in Germany so Johnny and I went,” recalls Farmer. “We spent several days just walking around Berlin looking for the best wienerchnitzel in Germany.”
The role of “Nobody” was later reprised in the Jarmusch film, “Ghost Dog – the way of the Samurai”.
In Dead Man, he appeared as the drifting Indigenous spirit guide who thinks Depp is the reincarnation of the poet, William Blake. He appears with stars Billy Bob Thornton, Iggy Pop, Crispin Glover, John Hurt, Michael Wincott, Lance Henriksen, Gabriel Byrne, Mili Avital and Robert Mitchum, in this one.
The raw and iconic musical score for the film was done by Neil Young with one guitar and an amp set up in a hastily converted warehouse.
“I think I saw Neil and Crazy Horse, maybe 30 times,” says Farmer. “I’m a big fan. Once I was standing backstage watching and I noticed this little guy standing beside me, watching too. It was Bob Dylan.”
In Powwow Highway he worked alongside fellow Six Nations actor Graham Greene, with another Six Nations contributor to the film, Robbie Robertson, providing the soundtrack.
Something a lot of people do not know about Johnny Depp is that he is a very accomplished blues guitarist in his own right, and Farmer got to jam with him a few times during the filming of Dead Man.
“After the shoot was over, I held what was kind of a cast and crew party at some hall. Johnny pulled out a silver dobro,” recalls Farmer. “I have been playing blues harp for my whole life, so I pulled out my harmonica and we jammed along with other cast and crew who could play. Johnny jammed on the drums as well. It was great.”
In a recent interview with Jim Jarmusch, he talked about the movie and the relationship he developed with Farmer. Jarmusch, who does a great Gary Farmer impersonation, by the way, tells of his first meeting with Farmer at his Canadian home in the bush, totally off the grid. He came to talk with Gary about the film. They immediately hit it off and have been good friends ever since.
Dead Man was nominated for best foreign film in the European version of the Oscars, and is now on YouTube in its entirety. Farmer was nominated as best supporting actor for his work.
In other work, Farmer portrayed Cowboy Dashee in the Robert Redford – produced thriller, The Dark Wind in 1991. He also starred with Corey Feldman and Corey Haim in the drama Blown Away (1993). Lou Diamond Phillips cast Gary in his directorial debut Sioux City (1994). Earnest R. Dickerson cast him in the horror classic, Tales from the Crypt: Demon Knight (1995) with Billy Zane in which Gary plays a small-town deputy.
In what is to date his biggest movie, Frank Oz cast him alongside Marlon Brando and Robert DeNiro in the 2001 movie, The Score.
But that certainly does not represent his entire 45-year acting career. In fact, his longevity may well be his best agent as new job offers are coming in much more regularly than in the beginning.
“It was hard to be a Native actor back then,” he said. “I was only getting a good role offer every six or seven years. But now, things are a lot different,” when it comes to how Natives and native culture is being depicted.
At first, he was taking small bit-roles in movies like Police Academy, The Believers with Martin Sheen. He appears with Forest Whitaker in the gangster movie, The Big Town, with Dillon and Tommy Lee Jones.
Earlier, he starred in the film, Powwow Highway, which got many high accolades from important people in the industry and still does.
In the George Harrison productions, Powwow Highway, Farmer worked alongside fellow Six Nations actor Graham Greene. Farmer appears with another Six Nations contributor to the film, Robbie Robertson, doing the soundtrack.
International Film Critic, Roger Ebert, called Gary Farmer’s performance “…one of the most wholly convincing I’ve seen…”
When he is without film, TV, or theatre projects, Farmer creates by writing scripts, producing short films, as well as encouraging Indigenous school kids in and around his New Mexico home with personal appearances and lectures.
Although very busy these days, Farmer promises to do everything he can to come home for Bread and Cheese Day, known in the white world as Victoria Day.
“Because of COVID restrictions, and schedules, I haven’t been home for a year. That’s the longest I’ve been away,” he says.
When he returned to Six Nations a little more than a year ago he ran an acting camp for Six Nations talent while here. Through these camps, he is able to help other Native actors and writers develop their chops. Farmer is also a contributing writer with the Two Row Times, when he has time.
“I gotta keep the water flowing,” he says about his creativity. “You know, keep that fire burning. I have been self-employed since 1975 and I’ve found that the longer I live, the better my roles are getting.”
It takes both talent and tenacity, to be successful in anything and Gary Farmer has already proven he has both.
His latest role in Sci-fi TV’s Resident Alien has him and his small community dealing with an alien whose mission is to kill everyone on earth. Problem is, through his interaction with Native people and small-town citizens, he learns the ropes of what it really is to be human.
The show has been renewed for at least 18 more episodes and will offer him more scenes as they focus a lot on Indigenous wisdom to help the Alien discover that humans are in fact worthy enough not to be exterminated.
“I was really happy about that,” Farmer told Two Row Times, “I know that next season will be shot on a reservation in Vancouver, so there will be a lot of Native content as the Alien learns about humanity from an Indigenous perspective.”
“Vancouver has become like, Hollywood North,” says Farmer. “When we started shooting Resident Alien, there were 89 other productions being shot in or around Vancouver at the same time.”
Farmer also carries the role of “Totillicum” in the 2020 production of “First Cow”, a drama about the impact made by the introduction of the First Cow in the west. It’s not what you might think, and takes a few twists.
He has also directed a few projects, including an episode of Forever Knight TV series, and an episode of ‘Father Figure’ (1992).
He plays the role of Robert Spottedbird in the 2020 release of the film, Cowboys, starring Steve Zahn, Jillian Bell and Sasha Knight.
In the 2020 film, The Dark Divide, Farmer plays a character only known as Densmore in this contemporary journey of self-discovery.
It looks like it’s going to be a very busy next couple of years for Farmer. Along with shooting more Resident Alien, he will be heading to Spain to take part in a BBC historical series about the real taming of the west.
After this long in the business, Farmer says bigger roles are starting to come for the actor as his resume and travel log fill with larger and larger parts being offered. All the while, he is still the same Gary Farmer you might meet walking around in downtown Ohsweken, any day of the week.