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June 2017 - Cover Story: Amber Midthunder

A relaxed Midthunder during our photo shoot. Photo by Michel West of M. West Photography

A relaxed Midthunder during our photo shoot. Photo by Michel West of M. West Photography

Determination defines actor Amber Midthunder. On a visit home, the day after a snowstorm, Midthunder sat down with me to discuss career, projects, and lessons learned. Born into an acting family, she knew that film would be in her future, and New Mexico, her native home, the backdrop. Even so, Midthunder says she experienced a regular childhood. “I was born on the Navajo reservation, and then we moved away for a little bit and came back when I was 8 or 9,” she shared. “We grew up in the country—a mile and half down a dirt road. We had ducks and horses and dirtbikes and sticks, big brothers, and stuff like that. So, I got to grow up being a real person.”

Rather than simply following in the family profession, Midthunder’s decision to become an actor blossomed from her true passion for performance. “I grew up in my mom’s casting office—my mom’s a casting director and my dad is an actor. I grew up watching him act and not as a business or anything. The film industry was never anything suggested to me by my parents or my family. ‘Amber’ plus ‘film industry’ was never an equation that entered my life until I thought of it. I loved acting for a long time before I ever knew being in the film industry was a real thing. So, it’s just that I loved acting in so many different ways, and when I found out you could do it as a job, I thought, ‘Ha, I’m done! I found it!’”

Her decision to follow her dream landed her roles at a very young age. Midthunder was 9 when she played her first part as Candy Store Girl in the Albuquerque-set movie Sunshine Cleaning. She shared a funny memory of when she got the role. “I thought I was super cool for being part of a big movie, and they had to pull me out of school early for a table read, so I paid my best friend to be my publicist. We were at lunch one day, and I was like, ‘Look, they’re gonna pull me out of math class, and Ms. Hathaway is going to ask where I’m’re gonna tell her that I got a part in a big movie,’ and she was like, ‘Okay.’ So, we did that, and the teacher didn’t even ask where I went.”

Sunshine Cleaning is one of many productions in which Midthunder has been involved that has been filmed in the state of New Mexico. She says that staying close to home while fulfilling a dream is both important and a bonus. “I have a unique history as far as my career path [has gone] so far….I started auditioning locally and doing my parts, here, instead of going to L.A. right away and trying to do it that way, which to me was very helpful…..I got to ease myself into the industry and what it is—what acting can be both an art and a business—and grow as I felt ready for it.”

Longmire, currently in its final season, is one of Midthunder’s projects that holds a dedicated place in her heart. She spoke with admiration about the show. “The Longmire family truly is a family. I’ve never seen a production be as close or [its members be] as loving to each other. I was part of the first and third seasons, and still, I can walk on the set, sixth season, and be welcomed by hugs and open arms….[E]veryone is just truly kind of a family, and I feel really fortunate to have been a part of that. They just really care about the art they’re making. I think Longmire’s a show that’s based, in my eyes, on earnesty and strength. So, it was great to be a part of that, too.”

Midthunder with David Koechner (middle), Jim Parrack, Joel Smallbone, and Bianca A. Santos in Priceless (2016)

Midthunder with David Koechner (middle), Jim Parrack, Joel Smallbone, and Bianca A. Santos in Priceless (2016)

In 2016, Midthunder embraced a difficult yet rewarding project. Priceless addresses the topic of sex trafficking, and Midthunder, as Maria, played a pivotal role in the film. “There were a lot of challenges to [the project],” expressed Midthunder. “It was a challenging movie, I think, as a group, because we carried the weight of knowing that we were dealing with a very important subject and want[ed] to deal with it respectfully and represent it in a certain light....[T]he point was awareness. It’s not to just say, ‘Oh, look how terrible this is,’ and to shock people, which could be a goal for other people, but for us, it was to say, ‘Look at how terrible this is—we can change it.’ That was the important thing, and, of course, [to] work hard and do that character justice. That was a movie with a mission. We were all on board and behind it. Even still, today, when I make decisions, I think I’m representing the Priceless movement well as somebody who is a part of that. I think that is the thruline for the Priceless crew.”

Amber recently had the joy of working on the Oscar-nominated film, Hell or High Water. The experience stayed with her and made her appreciate her time on the production. “It was the most impactful and amazing experience that I ever had in my life as an actor, and I will carry it with me forever. Just to see him [Jeff Bridges] and Ben Foster... just to see those two actors who are so just divinely talented do what they do and do it so differently is just something I will carry with me forever. To watch it now, I feel really privileged to be a part of it.” Midthunder has worked with the likes of such greats as Alan Arkin, Jeff Bridges, and Lou Diamond Phillips. Her list of those she would like to perform with on-screen continues to grow. “It’s really long—I’ve sent it to my team. [Laughs.] Walking away from Hell or High Water, I would love to do a full movie with Ben Foster or Jeff Bridges. But even directors—I love Scott Cooper. He’s amazing. I would love to work with the obvious ones—Meryl Streep...anybody that I can get my hands on and say, ‘Just share your wisdom with me!’’”

Midthunder’s current project, an FX television series called Legion, is a mind-trip of a show. To many viewers (certainly to this one) it is unclear, especially at first, whether what you’re witnessing in each episode is a dream, a drug-induced occurrence, or an actual event. Midthunder agreed that was how she felt nearly every time she stepped on set. “We would get a script and get into a little group, cast-wise, and ask, ‘Okay, does anybody know what’s going on? No?’ I think we were provided with the information that Noah Holly felt it was necessary that we’s not carelessly done that way, it’s intense. He intentionally gave us as much or as little information as we needed and left it up to us to ask or to explore. I think that was something that was really encouraged—he wanted us to kind of play the moment and make that as rich as we could without having the larger scope because maybe you explore less if you know where it’s going or you feel a certain kind of safety that doesn’t give you the same quality of work, otherwise, but we certainly had long conversations.” Midthunder’s character on the show, Kerry Loudermilk, added an extra challenge, being both intense and physically demanding. Midthunder shared what the character meant to her and what drew her to Kerry’s storyline. “Kerry is the greatest challenge to face as an actor. Everything that we do is really grounded in honesty and the humanity of the situation. And it’s like, how do you find that? How do you honestly tap into somebody who...has a really close relationship with somebody who is the core of who she is. She actually can’t conceive living without him. She’s never had to think like that. Then, she has this side of her that’s got the emotional maturity of an 8-year-old, but the boundless confidence of a UFC champion. How do you balance those things? That was the greatest question for me—balancing the strength and the tenderness and immaturity [of the character]...[T]here was a lot, but every second of it I loved.”

The two Loudermilks; Midthunder with Bill Irwin in Legion (2016)

The two Loudermilks; Midthunder with Bill Irwin in Legion (2016)

Midthunder took something valuable away from each project on which she has worked. She discussed some of those lessons with us. “I think I would be doing something wrong if I didn’t learn from every job I did. Every day I leave from work, I feel a little more knowledgeable than the last. They [the lesson] are all kind of hard to articulate because acting is based on experience. It’s a weird job that way because your jobs are your feelings, and your job is interaction, as an actor. If anything, I’m an expanded person each time, and I can feel more comfortable in knowing how to explore that because it is a strange environment to have to be vulnerable in. Hell or High Water, for example, was a completely different environment than it is on Legion, which is a completely different environment than it was on Priceless. So, to have to do relatively the same thing in all those different environments...I learn a little bit better how to do that.”

Amber’s passions go beyond acting. She has truly found a love helping her community, both locally and globally. “I’m a youth ambassador for a non-profit called Return to Freedom. They save horses from round-up slaughters to clear land for grazing cattle, so they save those horses and give them a place to live. Also, in my personal and public life, I am an endorser of Conscious Consuming. My two big causes are boycotting crude palm oil and buying cruelty-free products.”

Midthunder takes her projects one day at a time, allowing her focus to be crystal clear. She is currently working on the second season of Legion and joked, “as things go with the schedules and contracts, you tend to commit to one [project]...[R]ight now, that’s all the time and attention I can handle.”

Midthunder chuckled when I asked what piece of advice she would give to someone just starting in the business. “I don’t know if I’m the person to be giving advice. [Laughs.]. You have to do it because you love it. That’s what I’m proud of, because I came from an industry family, but I never looked at the industry. I only looked at the acting because I loved it, and it’s very much a real possibility.”

Amber Midthunder has accomplished more than most actors do before they turn 30, proving that with moxy and determination, age is just a number. She continues to grow with each new role, promising fans intriguing characters on the horizon.

tWitch Cover Story
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