Wes Studi on the significance of Penny Dreadful‘s Kaetenay and portraying iconic Native American leaders on film

After a multitude of powerful performances on the big and small screen over the last three decades, renowned Cherokee actor Wes Studi is amassing a new legion of fans as the enigmatic Kaetenay on John Logan’s critically lauded gothic drama Penny Dreadful; a show teeming with literary horror characters including Dracula, Dorian Gray and Victor Frankenstein.

Kaetenay appeared suddenly and mysteriously in the first episode of season three in Africa and convinced Sir Malcolm (portrayed by Timothy Dalton aka James Bond) to go with him to America to find Ethan (Josh Hartnett), a man he claims they are both bound to.

Making an impact on a show boasting such strong characters played by the likes of Dalton, Eva Green and Patti LuPone was not difficult for Studi, who has a screen presence many actors can only dream of, and evidently, something that led John Logan to seek him out for the role of Kaetenay.

“I was so honoured and amazed by the fact that he had thought about me in terms of an ongoing script, perhaps a year before we actually started work,” Studi recalls when he speaks with me from his home in Santa Fe. “A Blade of Grass” recently went to air, and the actor is full of praise for co-stars Green, LuPone and Rory Kinnear.

“Twitter has been going crazy,” he says of the response to the intense episode, “and I agree. It’s such an amazing script, the writing is wonderful, and the actors absolutely own it. It’s a powerful episode.”

As an author and teacher of the Cherokee language, Studi appreciates the profoundness of Logan’s scripts. “That’s one of the things that really attracted me to the show. To me it’s probably the closest to Shakespeare that I’ve ever done for television. It’s the language, and the forethought into the story arc. It’s wonderful,” he says.

Timothy Dalton and Wes Studi in Penny Dreadful/Showtime Networks Inc.
Timothy Dalton and Wes Studi in Penny Dreadful/Showtime Networks Inc.

“I really love the story in that it’s so inclusive as far as American Indians are concerned. To me, it was a surprise to be asked to be a part of this traditionally gothic bunch of characters. Everything here is extremely Anglo.”

“Of course, the story was that Ethan had experiences in North America at the time, but then to flesh it out from the American Southwest – and all of a sudden we have an Apache character going through the story ­– in London and throughout the world. So I found it to be extremely inclusive, and with a new twist to a traditional storyline.”

Aside from having an important role on the show as Kaetenay (who possesses supernatural powers of his own) I mention that I feel Studi’s character is also fulfilling another: helping break down stereotypes about Native Americans and instilling pride in Indigenous viewers of the show.

“I totally agree. And yes, we as American Indians rejoice each and every time we see a portrayal, and certainly a positive portrayal, of our people in a mainstream show that Penny Dreadful is. Any time we see ourselves on the big screen or the little screen, it’s a wonderful thing,” Studi says.

“And it’s good for our young people to know that yes, we as a people are a part of the world, and we always have been. And this particular storyline – the inclusiveness of it and the diversity of the story – adds to that.”

To explore Ethan’s past in season three, the landscape of Penny Dreadful has expanded to include the earthen tones and open plains of America’s west, and Studi spent almost four months filming in Ireland as well as Spain.

“All of the parts that represent North America were done in Southern Spain. We shot around what we and other people called ‘Leone Land’ because Sergio Leone made most of his Spaghetti Westerns there. It’s beautiful and looks very much like the American Southwest,” Studi says.

 I bring up the cliff-top scene between Kaetenay and Ethan, pointing out that the chemistry between him and Hartnett was electric. “Josh is really a great actor to work with. And the scenes on top of that ledge were actually kind of frightening – a sheer, sheer drop of at least 250 feet away from the stunt people,” he recalls.

Wes Studi and Josh Hartnett in Penny Dreadful/Showtime Networks Inc.
Wes Studi and Josh Hartnett in Penny Dreadful/Showtime Networks Inc.

Studi was quickly embraced by Penny Dreadful fans on social media and hailed an outstanding addition to the show, and fans of the actor often mention past memorable characters like Magua from cinematic epic The Last of the Mohicans.

“I really owe a lot to Magua. He’s a wonderful character that Michael Mann allowed to develop into a larger part than what was originally written. He has been great for me and my career, and I certainly welcome any mention of Magua,” Studi says.

Aside from fictitious characters, Studi is highly respected for his portrayals of historical Native American leaders, including Geronimo and Chief Red Cloud. He admits these roles did come with some pressure.

“I would call them political leaders – leaders of resistance – or whatever the direction that their politics pushed them in. I find most historical characters more difficult as you really have to pay attention to what kind of person that man would be perceived as,” Studi says.

“People like Geronimo still have relatives on the face of the earth, and when we shot that it was a matter of having to, of course, take into account their views of the man. With many historical characters, there are good and bad thoughts about them, and it’s something you always have to keep in mind.”

“In the character development I always try to never allow the good or the bad enter into my mind, rather understand that this man was doing this for a reason. I think human nature tends to do things for the right reasons given the circumstances. I think people become either heroes or villains in the eyes of the public after their lives have made their impact. So it’s always a huge consideration,” he says.

Studi doesn’t have a favourite Native American leader that he has portrayed, saying instead that he admires all of them: “They made an impact on the world, and we know their names to this day. And I think that’s the highest accomplishment any of us can make in this world.”

Kaetenay in the upcoming episode of Penny Dreadful/Showtime Networks Inc.
Wes Studi as Kaetenay in Penny Dreadful/Showtime Networks Inc.

Last time we saw Kaetenay and Sir Malcolm on Penny Dreadful, they were hot on the heels of Ethan, about to enter the desert. “We will learn more and more about Sir Malcolm and Kaetenay’s relationship, as well as Ethan and Vanessa’s,” Studi says of upcoming episodes. As for Kaetenay, he remains befittingly cryptic: “He’s a mystery. You just have to continue to wonder about the light and the dark. The good. The bad.”

And as we Penny Dreadful viewers are left with more mysteries to unravel, Studi mentions the wonderful time he had shooting a film in Australia: the 1994 Jean-Claude Van Damme action flick Street Fighter on Queensland’s Gold Coast.

“That was a very enjoyable time for me, we were there in the winter,” he says, and as I thank him for his time and the interview, he recalls an Aussie phrase he picked up during his time Down Under, and replies: “Sweet as.”

With many surprises and shocking reveals so far, season three of Penny Dreadful is sure to be one wild, bloody ride to the finish line, and you can watch a preview of the fifth and upcoming episode “This World is our Hell” here.

Penny Dreadful season three airs Sundays on Showtime in the US, and in Australia on Foxtel’s Showtime channel on Wednesdays at 8.30pm.

Lead image: Wes Studi as Kaetenay in Penny Dreadful/Showtime Networks Inc.


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