By Danielle Vienneau

Of Plains Cree, Métis and French Canadian descent, actress Jillian Dion belongs to the Saddle Lake Cree Nation and appears as Minnie Kyle in the upcoming Martin Scorsese-directed feature, starring Lily Gladstone, Leonardo DiCaprio and Robert De Niro.

Killers of the Flower Moon premiered at the 76th Cannes Film Festival on May 20, 2023, and will be released exclusively in theatres in October. Written for the screen by Eric Roth and Scorsese, the film is based on the 2017 fact-based book Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann. The story is set in 1920s Oklahoma and details the serial murders of members of the oil-wealthy Osage Nation—a string of brutal crimes that came to be known as the Reign of Terror. The book details the formation of the FBI; however, the film adaptation focuses more on the Indigenous side of the story and the people killed after oil was discovered on tribal land.

In this Western crime drama that depicts American greed and the injustice and cultural erasure of Indigenous Peoples in the United States, Mollie Burkhart, played by Lily Gladstone, is married to a white man named Ernest Burkhart, played by Leonardo DiCaprio. Dion plays Minnie Kyle who is the youngest of Mollie’s three sisters and the first to be murdered by poison because of her oil wealth inheritance.

SAY Magazine recently had the pleasure of speaking with Dion about her upbringing, acting career and experience making this extraordinarily poignant film.

SAY: Tell us about your childhood and family.
Dion: My parents divorced when I was young, so I was raised primarily by my father. My mom is Cree and Métis. She spoke the language fluently but unfortunately didn’t pass the language on to me. My father, who is my adopted father, is Dene from Cold Lake, Alberta, so I grew up around Edmonton, Calgary, Bonnyville and Cold Lake. My dad started taking me to pow wows when I was eight years old, which was a really integral part of my life now that I look back. It really taught me a lot about the culture and the importance of dance. Being a single father, my dad would get some of the other moms to braid my hair and help me get ready. I have a really fond memory of this family whose last name is
Snow—I remember the Snow women always doing my hair. I’m so glad my father did that for me. I still love hearing pow wow music—it really transports me back to that place.

SAY: Tell me about how you got involved in acting, and how going to the Gathering of Nations Pow Wow was integral to the beginning of your career.
Dion: So this is a really serendipitous story involving a casting director whose name is Rene Haynes. When I was seven or eight, I was on a bus shuttle in Edmonton with my mom, and this woman on the bus noticed me and said to my mom, “I think Jillian is really energetic; has she ever considered acting?” Until that point I’d never considered it—I had never done theatre or anything similar—but we took the card anyway. Fast forward a few years and my father, his partner at the time, and I drove to Albuquerque for the Gathering of Nations Pow Wow in an RV, which was a huge adventure in itself. We went to the pow wow where my mind was blown! There was so much beautiful regalia everywhere, and it was the biggest pow wow I had ever seen. My dad happened to look through the local Albuquerque paper one morning and came across a tiny square ad calling for Indigenous girls around my age to attend an open casting call. For whatever reason, he told me I should go, regardless of the fact that I had never acted before. But because I have such incredible trust in my father, I went. I remember walking into the space, the assistant greeted me and then introduced me to the casting director, Renee Haynes. I went into my wallet where I still had this business card from two years prior, and I was like, “Is this you?” Following that, I had my first official audition.

Image from Killers of the Flower Moon, Courtesy of Apple TV+

SAY: Since you had never acted before, what was your first audition experience like?
Dion: The initial audition was fairly simple. It was more about getting to know who I was, gauging my comfort level on camera and my personability. After that, I was given material to practise and memorize. When I went back into the second audition I remember, for the first time ever, really embracing the imagination and the magic behind the experience, and behind that particular scene. It was descriptive of where I was—within the four walls around me I was able to see a bright soaring sky above me, and I somehow managed to transport myself into that moment in an authentic way. I really challenged myself at that audition because I wanted to make my dad proud. Two months later, I got a call from Rene about going to LA to audition for a Terrence Malick movie. I didn’t end up getting the part, but it was my first foray in a professional setting and it really opened the door to this new world of acting that I definitely enjoyed right off the jump.

Image from Killers of the Flower Moon, Courtesy of Apple TV+

SAY: I understand you took a break from acting to pursue school and travel for a while, but now you are appearing in a Martin Scorsese film! Tell me about your recent experience at the Cannes Film Festival in France.
Dion: Cannes was insane and super unexpected—just a magical whirlwind and beyond anything I ever thought was going to happen when I got back into acting seven years ago. It was the first time Killers of the Flower Moon was shown on a global level, and I couldn’t be more proud of our team. Marty (Martin Scorsese) is of course amazing, so I’ve never felt anything but extremely welcomed and comfortable since day one of stepping on set, even at my initial audition. There’s just been a level of respect for the story, the lives of the people we are portraying and the tragedy that encompasses all of it.

SAY: What does it mean to you to be involved in this film?
Dion: It’s massive. It holds a lot of weight and responsibility that I’m honoured to carry. I feel like the universe chose the people that it did to be in this film because we are strong women. But we understand that there is a responsibility to truthfully tell the story because it’s a reality for a lot of Indigenous families, everywhere. I get choked up because I know people whose immediate family members have been affected by the missing and murdered Indigenous women, girls and 2SLGBTQI+ tragedy that is still ongoing. There’s a responsibility to tell the truth, and I’m glad that it’s being told on a larger scale. Hopefully this will help it get more traction and more eyes on the story.

Image from Killers of the Flower Moon, Courtesy of Apple TV+

SAY: It must have been an emotional experience.
Dion: It absolutely was. It was of utmost importance to really protect myself. Before going in and doing the performances that I did, I took prayer and ceremony practices very seriously before going and doing these scenes. I brought sweetgrass with me everywhere, and I gave everyone in Oklahoma a braid of sweetgrass.

SAY: You worked alongside many talented actors on this film, including Tantoo Cardinal. Have you worked with her before?
Dion: Tantoo Cardinal is a legend, trailblazer and movie mamma extraordinaire. She’s fantastic! I’d never worked with her before this film, and it’s so funny because when we were all cast (the four sisters) there was speculation about who would play our mom, and then it was announced that it was Tantoo and we were beside ourselves with excitement. I’ve always admired her and her work and everything she’s done for the community. It was so awesome to see her so happy on a world stage where she belongs and deserves to be. I consider her a friend outside of this, and I look forward to working with her more in the future because there is no sign of her slowing down.

SAY: Any other memorable moments you wish to share? How was working with Leonardo DiCaprio and Robert De Niro?
Dion: I was truly in awe of the calibre of the talent I was fortunate enough to work with on this film. The whole experience was incredibly relaxed. Marty has some sort of movie magic where it is such a calm, inviting and peaceful environment—Oklahoma also feels that way to me. You couldn’t help but feel at home and welcomed just because of the people who were around, and I mean that in terms of the celebrities, but also Osage is a super welcoming, wonderful community. On that same vibe, I remember when I first talked to Leo, we talked about the UFC fight the night before, and in one of the scenes that I have with Robert De Niro, he cracked a joke that made me laugh so hard! Those were really cool moments.

SAY: What do you say to the young Indigenous girl who dreams of becoming an actress or working in the film industry?
Dion: I would say have fun with it. Live in that imaginary world. Don’t take crap. Once you know where you want to go, hard work will take you a long way, and it doesn’t matter where you’re from just as long as you keep going and pursuing your goals. There’s a space for everyone in the industry, and you might hear “no” 10,000 times before you
hear “yes.” I remember clearly, Lily (Gladstone) was on the precipice of giving up acting when she got this role. It just took some time and the right character to come along, so don’t give up. Keep pushing forward and make sure you stand up for yourself, and never forget who you are and where you’re from because it’s what will make you stand out in the industry.

SAY: Talk about Indigenous representation in film and what you see for the future.
Dion: Shows like Rutherford Falls, which was amazing, and obviously Reservation Dogs are setting standards and breaking down borders and winning awards for being so unique. We have amazing stories to tell and we’re funny as heck. So I think the world is going to see that now, and again with this movie—in addition to other productions focusing on Indigenous issues or with an Indigenous cast—it’s just another stepping stone for Indigenous Peoples. Not only that, but I think we’re being seen more in other scopes as well, like Ashley Callingbull who won the Mrs. Universe pageant in 2015. I respect her quite a bit because she broke down barriers for Indigenous women and what beauty standards are. Even Ethan Bear in the NHL is breaking those standards down. We’re coming and we’re coming fast and strong—there’s no stopping us. I think this is just the beginning, the beginning of it all.

Killers of the Flower Moon will premiere in select theatres on October 6, 2023 and worldwide on October 20, before streaming globally on Apple TV+.