LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - It took “Twilight” to do what Hollywood’s major studios have struggled with for over a century -- treat Native American teenagers like normal kids.
No leather loincloths, no hair feathers, no dancing around campfires, no tales of woe on reservations.
Sure, “The Twilight Saga: Eclipse,” which opens in theaters on Wednesday, is pure fantasy with its tale of romance among vampires and the werewolves who sometimes stalk them, but for the actors of the “Wolf Pack” their roles seem very real.
When they aren’t battling vampires with their razor-like claws and sharp teeth, the werewolves take the human form of Native Americans from the Quileute tribe.
Chaske Spencer, who plays the leader of the pack, told Reuters that working in the “Twilight” movies has been exciting because it portrays Native Americans in a new and positive light and is aimed at a young audience.
Members of the Wolf Pack dress like modern kids at the mall in denim jeans and shirts -- when they are wearing shirts because the pack is famously bare-chested in much of the movies -- and they posses a quick wits and generous spirits.
“There’s a lot of stereotypes that have been squashed,” Spencer said. “We’re part of this pop culture phenomenon, and we’re put in a different light. And the kids see that, and they’re digging on it. They love that vibe.”
The Native American said many times actors like himself are forced into “leathered and feathered” roles, meaning parts that require them to portray historical Indians of the Old West.
Going back to Hollywood’s roots in the early 20th century, Native American roles seem mostly confined to cowboy and Indian movies. Even in modern times, many of the characters were dealing with life on a reservation.
“The leathers and feathers thing is something that is a staple of film and TV, but it’s not one that is driven by Indian country,” said Chris Eyre, who directed the 1998 independent film “Smoke Signals” which took a contemporary look at the lives of young Native Americans on a reservation.
About 2.5 million people in the United States identify as Native American, according to U.S. government census figures.
Two of them, Julia Jones and Alex Meraz are members of the Wolf Pack, and they said “Twilight” films have allowed them to showcase their wide-ranging talents.
Meraz also said “Twilight” borrows from Quileute creation stories, and that has been good for the tribe because fans are learning more about the tribe’s culture.
“They want to learn where this germinated from,” he said.
But Tracy Rector, executive director and co-founder of Washington State-based Longhouse Media, which encourages Native Americans to create their own media, said that because the actors in the Wolf Pack are often shirtless, it reminds her of stereotypical portrayals of hyper-sexualized Indians.
“Honestly, is it really for the storyline or is it eye candy for the audience?” she said.
Eyre, however, said any negative effect has been eclipsed by Native American actors working in a big-budget Hollywood fantasy that will be seen by millions of moviegoers.
The original “Twilight” and it’s sequel “The Twilight Saga: New Moon” raked in a combined $1.1 billion at global box offices, and “Eclipse,” the third film, is widely expected to be one of the biggest blockbusters of the summer.
“As long as the werewolves don’t have loincloths on them, it’s fine,” he joked.
Reporting by Alex Dobuzinskis: Editing by Bob Tourtellotte