If you’re the type of film buff who scours the internet for the latest trailers, you might have seen the recent preview for the upcoming Western Apache Junction starring Stuart Townsend and Thomas Jane. The eagle-eyed among you might have also noticed Kansas-born/now-New Mexican actor Ricky Lee (Cree and Lakota), a veteran film worker both in front of and behind the camera who has appeared in movies like Hell or High Water and The Ridiculous 6. Apache Junction hits theaters and VoD on Sept. 24, but we spoke with Lee ahead of its release to learn more about the movie, his career and his thoughts on the film industry in the state.
Tell us a little about your background. How did you get into acting and directing for film and television?
When I was 16 or 17 and living in Kansas, a movie came through called The Gypsy Moths. It was directed by the famous John Frankenheimer, so I went out and got a job for the summer working for MGM as an extra. It was awesome, and I met Burt Lancaster, Debra Kerr and Gene Hackman—it got me hooked.
I went to college as a theater and art major at Wichita State University, but then I got drafted and went to Vietnam, came back, finished up school, got back into theater and, in the early ’80s, I was with the American Indian Theater Company in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Almost all the Native actors started out there because, at that time, it was the only Native theater in the country. We worked with George C Scott, David Carradine and a lot of major actors who supported us. Wes Studi was there—I’ve known Wes for years—and Gary Farmer was there and...Graham Greene. Sterlin Harjo, too, who wrote several plays we did.
Years earlier, I had met David Carradine while he was doing Bound for Glory and also working on a passion project in Kansas—he hired me to paint carousel horses. I ended up working with him again in the ‘80s and then in New York in the ‘90s and again in Los Angeles before he died. But then we worked together [in Tulsa] and he really encouraged me. He was the kind of guy if you were working with, he was always teaching, and those lessons were invaluable.
I’m proud of my theatrical background. A lot of movie actors can be young kids coming up, and they don’t have any theater background, but I think that’s important. I’ve paid my dues. To me, true acting is...you’re on the stage, and if you screw up, you know it.
Can you give up any details about your role in Apache Junction?
So I have a friend who lives here, an actress who lives in town, and she calls me up at 11, 12 o’clock at night, and she says ‘Richard, you have to come to [El Dorado Hotel & Spa]. I’m sitting down with these producers and directors, and they want to see you.’ I said ‘I’m going to bed,’ but she calls me back and says ‘Come. Back. Now.’ So I get dressed, go down there, walk in the door—and they hire me. They said I was perfect for what they want, this small part. The next day, they send me the sides and it’s, like, 30 freaking pages, and I’m thinking, ‘This isn’t just a little in-and-out kind of thing.’ I ended up in a supporting lead role, and I play Stuart Townsend’s roommate and sidekick outlaw.
In the town of Apache Junction, we’re hiding out because we’re retired outlaws. My character’s named Wasco, and I’m kind of his conscience. It’s like the original odd couple—a Native and a cowboy, and there’s a lot of joking around and kidding each other back and forth, because we know each other; we’ve been through hell; we’re good friends and brothers. Long story short, this reporter hears about this lawless town in the West, so she convinces her editor to send her out to do a story. She shows up, gets in trouble, Stuart tries to save her and I jump in and knock out a bunch of bad guys.
It was filmed [in New Mexico], starting in March 2020, but we had to stop. We were the last project to be filming in New Mexico. Who knew about COVID back then at that point? We thought it was going to be a couple weeks, we’d be back. That didn’t happen, and I think in June there was talk about filming in Costa Rica, and we had a plan but found out we could go there, but not come back. We had a plan to go to Spain, that fell through. We had a plan to go to Oklahoma, that fell through. We ended up finishing the film in Joshua Tree out in California.
We’re always hearing New Mexico is a great place for film workers right now. Would you say that’s true?
I think overall that’s true. Right now, I mean, who wouldn’t want to live here? It’s the film capital of the world right now. A lot of my friends in LA and other places want to move here. Early on, one of the first films I did was the CBS miniseries Buffalo Girls. Back then, the industry was so much different. There was a handful of people, and everyone seemed to be far more together as far as backing each other up. The industry has changed a lot, but still, I think it’s changed for the best. It’s a great opportunity if you get to go home at night. I don’t plan on going anywhere.