Former Juneau resident Gene Tagaban, an Alaska Native who was raised in Juneau and moved to Seattle two and a half years ago, has found success starring in Native author Sherman Alexie's new film "The Business of Fancydancing."
Alexie said Tagaban, a first-time movie actor, was ideal.
"It was intense for him, I'm sure, and tough," Alexie said. "He was great. He was very easy to work with. He did anything I asked, he didn't question it. I said, 'Try it this way,' and he would do it. He was amazing that way."
Tagaban, a familiar local face whose acting skills were honed in Perseverance Theatre and Na Kahidi productions, still had to learn how to fancydance for the role.
"There's a little cut of it in the film," Tagaban said. "It's kind of hilarious. To the people who don't know about the dancing, they see it and they think it's cool, but anybody else who sees it goes, 'What the hell is he doing?' "
"He was our Fred Astaire," Alexie added. "He's an incredibly talented dancer and singer, and he adapted quickly. And of course, editing helps. We didn't show the part where he fell."
Since its release early this year, "Fancydancing" has been lauded, taking home audience and film awards at major festivals in San Francisco, Victoria, British Columbia, and Durango, Colo.
"It's crazy and exciting at the same time," said Tagaban. "I think it's going to be one of those sleepers that just slowly makes its way through the country."
Among other honors, the movie took Tagaban to the Sundance festival where James Cromwell, an Academy Award-nominee who played the farmer in the hit movie "Babe," praised his efforts.
"He came up to me ... personally and said, 'You did a great job. I really enjoyed your work,'" Tagaban said.
In "Fancydancing," Tagaban plays Aristotle Joseph, best friend to lead character Seymour Polatkin (Evan Adams). The men are reunited for the wake of a childhood friend, Mouse (Swil Kanim), whose funeral service takes place on the reservation where the three men grew up.
During the years since their last meeting, Polatkin has become a successful poet in Seattle. In contrast, Joseph, who returned to the "rez" after college, has seen his prospects stagnate. This divergence, Polatkin's sexuality and the presence of Polatkin's onetime-girlfriend Agnes Roth (Michelle St. John) results in deep resentment between the men.
"That's my part," Tagaban said. "I'm kind of the bitter character in this, and I definitely think Seymour Polatkin has sold out. We used to be best friends, childhood friends, and inseparable. (Now) he's using our stories, he's using our lives to get success and he's not giving anybody any credit for it."
"Fancydancing" is based on a collection of poems Alexie wrote in 1992. The low-budget film, made entirely with digital cameras, was shot in April 2001 at locations around Seattle. Alexie served as writer and director.
Tagaban, who divides his time between acting and working as a trainer in motivational workshops, met Alexie at a basketball court dedication in Seattle.
"I remembered him because he's so beautiful," Alexie said. "We talked and he had that very Alaskan (quality). They're much more polite than we Indians down here are, more formal."
About a year later, Tagaban was brought in by a Seattle theater company to audition for the film.
"It was a pretty grueling audition process," Tagaban said with a laugh. "It was like me, sitting on a park bench, and he said, 'Hey man, you're an Indian. Do you want to file for this part?' He knew nothing about me, about my abilities or anything. They put me through the wringer and I was able to come out of it."
Once cast, Tagaban had to adapt his traditional knowledge to the customs of the Spokane Native community.
"We share a lot, of course, but there were very specific things, the specific style of dancing and songs," Alexie said. "You would hear him singing and you would hear Alaska rhythms come in and you would have to say, 'Gene, no.'
"He was Conway Twitty compared to our Nirvana," Alexie added with a laugh.
Since filming wrapped, Tagaban has been juggling several prospective projects, including a new Seattle-based theater group he hopes to found and plans for a second film with Alexie.
"Fancydancing" will open in New York and Los Angeles in September and may screen in Juneau later this year. Tagaban has had several discussions about the film with the Juneau Arts and Humanities Council and plans to return to town when a showing takes place - despite his nerves.
"My hometown," Tagaban said with a laugh. "I could perform in front of thousands of people on stage down here, but you put 10 people from my hometown there and I'm a nervous wreck."
Genevieve Gagne-Hawes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.