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Sheila Tousey, who plays the Ghost of Awbonnie, is a member of the Stockbridge-Munsee tribe. She says that stories about the spirit world are not uncommon in Indian culture. "Each tribe has its own spiritual beliefs and ghosts are prominent among them."
She was attracted to the part by the character's unique strength. "The role is very theatrical and very physical and a great opportunity to play something different," Tousey explains. "It seems that in the movies, women always have to be sexy, pretty, and ineffectual. It is nice to play a part that is strong and really beyond all that."
Tousey worked closely with Shepard to determine the characterization of the Ghost, lowering her voice substantially to convey Awbonnie's power and rage. To communicate Awbonnie's inner turmoil and the idea that she is half in this world and half in the next, Make-Up Supervisor David Atherton designed a prosthetic mask to cover half of Tousey's face.
Casting the pivotal role of Velada, the half-breed Indian who is Awbonnie's sister, proved to be a difficult task. Shepard insisted on working with a Native American actress who could act and ride. Over two hundred women auditioned before Jeri Arredondo, a full-blooded Mescalero-Apache Indian, read for Casting Director Jennifer Schull and rode for Shepard. It was her first time on a horse in a year, but Arredondo was not nervous. She recalls that "I got up and rode around and Sam walked over to me and said 'Hey, can you stick around afterwards for a minute and talk a bit?' The next day, I heard that I had gotten the part."
The entertainers in the Kickapoo Medicine Show are Bill Irwin, David Shiner, and the unique musical group, the Red Clay Ramblers. They enjoyed working together so much that they decided to re-team after they finished shooting SILENT TONGUE. Combining their comic and musical talents, they became the toast of Broadway in the smash show, "Fool Moon."
There is another important character in SILENT TONGUE -- the land itself. Harris observes that the prairie "is the star of the picture because it's so barren, desolate, austere, and empty and that's what the characters are. Half the work is done for the actor by virtue of the location. So, we don't have to work to project that as an actor. We just stand in the settings Shepard has picked for us and we don't have to say a word."
Shepard agrees that the land "really was the protagonist. One of the most amazing things about that whole era was the way everybody was up against the land." Shot on locations outside Roswell, New Mexico, SILENT TONGUE features prairies that have not changed since the European settlers first ventured into Kiowa country.
Shepard welcomed the opportunity to shoot outdoors. "One of the things that drove me nuts about my previous film, FAR NORTH, was interiors. I don't feel at home shooting interiors in terms of picking and choosing camera angles. I can do it, but I don't feel excited about it." Clearly, this is not a problem in SILENT TONGUE, which, with the exception of one scene in Eamon McCree's wagon, is shot entirely outdoors.
"When I get outdoors," Shepard continues, "immediately, everything seems to fall into certain patterns and structures. That's one of the reasons I wrote something that was predominately exteriors. If you embrace the landscape, it isn't daunting. I loved the framing possibilities the prairie offered." The prairie... the tragic destinies of the Roes and the McCrees... and the indestructible spirit of SILENT TONGUE and her daughters... Shepard weaves these characters and their stories into a complex drama that forces us to examine the old west with new eyes.