With The English, Chaske Spencer Redefines the Classic Western

by Iman Sultan

A portrait of Chaske Spencer in New York City
Photograph by Emily Assiran

In the British filmmaker Hugo Blick’s recently released Amazon Prime TV series, The English, Eli Whipp, a Pawnee scout, listens intently as Cornelia Locke, an English aristocrat who has journeyed to America, makes the case for ending the life of the man who killed her dead son. “Will you help me?” Cornelia, dressed in a carnal red dress and plucky with courage, says.

But Eli, played by Lakota Sioux actor Chaske Spencer, is unimpressed. “Lady, how long have you been in this country?” he asks. “I’ve lived here my whole life. I’ve lost my father, mother, wife, sons, daughters, friends. I’ve seen villages razed, and I’ve razed them myself. Don’t expect me to care for one boy.”

The scene sets the realpolitik tone for the story, which unfurls across six episodes that encompass the murder, death, disease, and sheer violent greed that led to the genocidal conquest of Indigenous lands in the West during the late 1800s. Cornelia, played by Emily Blunt, and Eli, a Native American who served in the U.S. Army and plans to claim land under the Homestead Act, are unlikely allies. Eli craves peace, and Cornelia wants revenge. Neither are above the bloodlust crucial for survival in the lawless West.

Spencer, who’s best known for playing Sam Uley in the Twilight saga but has worked on scores of other critically acclaimed and arthouse films, says The English reminded him of the Westerns he watched as a kid. “This was something totally different from anything else I’ve come across,” Spencer, 47, tells me from his apartment in Brooklyn. “It was a throwback to the Westerns I grew up on, like Hombre, and the Paul Newman and Clint Eastwood movies.”

And yet, Blick’s rendering of the classic genre pushes against the stereotypes that have often reigned in Westerns, like the romantic cowboy or the noble Indian. Eli stands at the crux of moving forward from his previous way of life, threatened by settler colonialism, and trying to cultivate a life in America, even as the world fails to accept him (Cornelia initially finds him strung upside down after he walks in a hotel to ask for a drink).

“He’s the male lead, and has so much charisma and dynamism,” Spencer says. “When I walked into the audition, I knew this guy had a cadence, I knew his speech pattern. I felt that helped release and give me a new dimension to Eli, and opened another door to go anywhere with the character.”

Courtesy of Amazon Prime

The English released on Amazon Prime to rave reviews from critics, who appreciated Blick’s reinterpretation of the American West; the TV series ranked among the top 10 most popular shows and movies on the digital streaming platform. The English shines for its gritty, dramatic writing and the powerful charisma of its leading man and lady, who share an intense, sexy chemistry that makes for an absorbing six-episode streaming marathon.

You may recognize Spencer as the brooding, responsible leader of Twilight’s wolf pack. But his repertoire expands far beyond that franchise. He’s starred in the 2011 award-winning family saga Shouting Secrets, 2013’s Winter in the Blood, and more recently, the 2021 psychological thriller Wild Indian, along with A24’s 2017 period film, Woman Walks Ahead—a drama in which Spencer stars alongside Jessica Chastain, a young white woman who tries to paint a portrait of Lakota leader Sitting Bull.

“When I became an actor, I dropped out of university. I started hanging out with actors and taking classes. And the acting bug bit me. It was an adrenaline rush,” Spencer says. “When I decided to really give this a go, I said, It’s all or nothing. It was a long struggle. I was ready to quit before Twilight, because I didn’t want to be in this system. After a while, it started to get so crushing. But Twilight provided me with a lot of opportunities.”

In his 20s, Spencer moved to New York City with a hundred dollars and a one-way ticket. The early days were filled with “surviving,” he says, which included waiting tables and bartending. In his spare time, he’d go to auditions, and every job he landed was a way for him to further hone his craft as an actor.

“No matter what it was, it was still a gig to me,” Spencer says. “Even if it was just a play that nobody saw, off off off Broadway. Each time I landed something, those were little wins. It helped me go on as an actor, like, Someone believes I have talent, so this must be a good thing.”

And yet, landing roles remained an uphill battle for Spencer because of the limited visibility of Native American actors in the media. A 2020 UCLA study on diversity in Hollywood found representation of Native Americans amounted to a scant 0.5 percent in film and was virtually nonexistent in TV between 2018 and 2019 alone. In the early aughts, when Hollywood cast non-Native actors in lead roles for major commercial franchises like The Lone Ranger and Twilight, it’s safe to assume the state of Native American representation was even lower than that.

Courtesy of Amazon Prime

“Sometimes, Hollywood has a closed mind, and as open as they want to be, they really do put people in a box,” Spencer says. “There were hardly any Native Americans being filmed, and I don’t think anyone saw me as [anything] other than Native American.”

Twilight allowed Spencer to access more opportunities, finally becoming a “full-on working actor,” he says. Winter in the Blood, an adaptation of Blackfoot author James Welch’s 1974 novel of the same name, was a hallmark of the literary renaissance among Native American authors from the 1960s onwards. The film was produced by bestselling Spokane author Sherman Alexie, who also wrote the screenplay for the 1998 coming-of-age classic Smoke Signals.

“That was actually a tough shoot,” Spencer recalls. “I had to work on a lot of stuff that made me uncomfortable. I packed on a bunch of weight. I was living in a pretty crappy hotel at the time. I surrounded myself with stuff that made me feel very negative. It was a quick shoot, so I stayed in character the whole time—not because I want to be a method actor.”

As a child, Spencer loved watching charismatic actors who truly embodied their characters, naming Denzel Washington, Gary Oldman, Al Pacino, Sean Penn, and Marlon Brando as inspirations. Today, as an actor, the roles Spencer takes on are likewise fiercely written, meaty, and multilayered, allowing him to unlock parts of himself that transcend real life into an unforgettable story. “I pulled a lot from people I grew up with, and a lot of Vietnam vets, and just watching interviews with veterans, relying on my instinct to keep Eli closed off,” Spencer says of playing his The English role. “I wanted to create a character that, if this movie came out in the ’70s, it would have been a pretty cool thing to see. And it still is, now.”