When the Mayflower embarked on a dangerous voyage across the Atlantic Ocean in 1620, none of the Pilgrims had ever imagined the reality of the bleak conditions of living below deck in a dark, cold and crowded space intended only for transporting animals and cargo.
Willing to sacrifice everything in their search for religious freedom, these deeply devout Christians left behind all that they owned, all of their comforts, and in some cases, even left behind their own very young children–all in a quest to secure true religious freedom.
Their faith was tested again and again on the brutal 66 day journey across the sea. The sub-human living conditions and endless cold brought a wave of sickness and scurvy. Storms at sea nearly broke the ship in two, while navigation was distorted by endless stormy skies.
And though the sight of land brought great relief to the travelers, little did they know their journey had only just begun.
With gritty realism, impeccable casting, breathtaking cinematography, and a musical score by award-winning composer Hans Zimmerman, the National Geographic’s two-night epic movie event Saints And Strangers tells the true story of the first Thanksgiving like you’ve never seen before.
Produced by Sony Pictures Television with Little Engine Productions, Saints & Strangers delivers a beautifully crafted screenplay that goes deep inside the familiar historical account of Thanksgiving, revealing the trials and tribulations of the first settlers at Plymouth and their complex relationship with the Native Americans.
If anyone has forgotten the price paid for religious freedom, Saints & Strangers offers a marvelous look at the hard fight that was fought for American religious freedom, and the painful and triumphant journey of the fist settlers who put God first –no matter the sacrifice.
SCH: Kalani, you’ve been an actor and a director for almost 15 years. What did it mean to you to be cast as Squanto in this National Geographic special?
KQ: Listen, the essence of the National Geographic brand is integrity. It’s what they apply to everything and anything they do. And that’s exactly what this experience has been. Not only to be a part of this film, but specifically to play the role of Squanto was such an absolute privilege, it was a gift.
I get choked up when I think of Squanto back in 1620. I bet he never in his wildest dreams ever imagined that people would be telling his story for all these generations. He is one of the most recognizable figures in American history, specifically as a Native American person…yet people don’t really know a lot about him.
SCH: Can you tell us what the process of learning the Native Western Abenaki language was like, and how long did that take?
KQ: It was quite a challenge to learn that language! And my goodness, listen, there is nothing like a deadline (laugher).
Listen, there were so many discussions that were happening with National Geographic and the producers…and the biggest question was–could they get the resources that they needed? Could they get someone to come and teach us this language, and coach us, and be on set, and advise us on all of it? And were the actors capable?
I had a conversation with the director, Paul Edwards Director – who is phenomenal – I’ve worked with Tatanka Means before, and I’ve worked with his father, and these are pillars of the native community. In fact, I’ve worked with Raoul Truillo who plays Massasoit, and he is a mentor to me.
I said to Paul Edwards, “These guys are amazing, but I can only speak for myself. I’ve spoken probably a dozen native languages in my career…I’m great with languages and I absolutely believe we can do this! I will deliver and we will make this happen.”
So the decision was made literally, two weeks before we started filming! So the truth is, it was an absolute bear. I could tell you that it was organic, and it just flowed, and it came to me easily, but no, that was work, and that was commitment.
SCH: I can only imagine having to learn that language in two weeks!! That’s crazy!
KQ: Yeah, (laughter) definitely crazy! I would be lying to you if I said I wasn’t overwhelmed! But the use of language, utilizing the western language is an absolute game changer as far as the portrayal of these native people in this story.
The authentic language is incredible, it adds such richness, it adds fine nuances and colors, and movements as far as the way your character breathes and the way he walks. And it’s absolutely the the key to channeling who these people were in 1620…that was one of the major meaningful things for me… I just knew incorporating the language was going to be something really special.
SCH: Can you help us to understand who Squanto really was?
KQ: Squanto was captured and enslaved not just once, but twice, so he’s a person who was he was forcibly removed from the land that he knew, and forced into learning another culture’s ways and language.
So when he returned ten years later to find his entire nation decimated… He was essentially a man with no nation.
The Pilgrims took him in, if you will, but he was an outsider. I think that changes you–when we move away from the place we grow up, then we get influenced by the way other people dress, speak and move. And imagine being immersed in a completely different language, and now all of a sudden he sounds different and he looks different.
We can all relate to that. He became an outsider to his own people, a man with no nation. With the Pilgrims he was also an outsider, so he was split down the middle.
That was one of the big things that happened organically during filming: there was a contribution that we made as actors to the look of our characters, like individual face paint and hair styles. I asked to have a straight line down my face. I was simple and clean, and it looked good – it felt right to me.
Then one day on the set Tatanka, said, “Kalani, who decided to make your face paint with a line down the middle like that?” He said, “Do you realize it’s right down the middle, just like Squanto between the two worlds, divided in his soul?” It gave me goosebumps.
SCH: That’s incredible!
KQ: It’s a wonderful example of ‘Is that a coincidence, or was it divine intervention?’ It’s a moment that I will always remember. I get goosebumps every time I see that scene because it’s very powerful on it’s own, but having that little insight into it, from someone I care about very much, is just incredible.
SCH: Squanto is a very complex character. His life was filled with everything from human trafficking to espionage, deep tribal loyalty and betrayal. Can you tell us about your process and how you brought this role to life? How did these big emotional themes resonate with your own life?
KQ: Ultimately you must relate to your character. You must find something that you can grab onto and build from there… And I think the idea of being torn between the modern world and where you come from, I think that’s something that anybody can relate to, because we all have to figure out where we started and where we want to go.
SCH: I read that your mother is Blackfoot and Swedish, while your dad is Hawaiian. Were you drawing upon stories from the rich heritage of your Native roots?
KQ: Oh absolutely. Ultimately when we tell a story like this you you draw on your human experience. You draw upon your experience, and stories that you know and stories that you’ve heard. This has been an incredible journey for me.
There’s a particular scene when they are asking for Squanto’s head. Miles Standish ends up dragging me through the village, until William Bradford stops him and says, “What on earth on you doing?” They want to give me up.
During that particular scene, I was so involved with ‘I’ve got to get my language stuff,’ and in that scene I only had a couple English lines. I thought, “Ok, the action and the movement will come to me, and I’ll focus on that. The action will come to me as needed.”
So then in the middle of that scene – we were rehearsing – I started experiencing flashbacks as Squanto being captured and enslaved. Because, coming into that scene, the moment before I’m getting beat up, I’m getting dragged and I’m about to be given up, so I started having these flashbacks of being captured in the middle of the night. That was a gift for me… And again, it was a question of, “Is this a fabrication in my mind? Or am I actually channeling this character?”
It was an beautiful experience that won’t translate directly in that particular scene, what I experienced as Kalani in that moment, but it fueled that scene and it was an amazing experience. It was unique for me, and the first time I ever experienced anything like that.
SCH: Is there any specific personal experience that connected you to Squanto?
KQ: Listen, you cannot play a role like this without a connection to it. On the broader side, we all know the history of indigenous peoples from all over the world. I think the idea of loyalty of home is a big theme that I took away from this – the idea of what makes something your home. Is it the land? Is it the people? What happens if you are captured and enslaved, and away for a decade, and you return to find that all of your people are decimated. So, is that home now gone? What is it like to be an outsider?
I think we can all relate to being separated from our people, from what brings us comfort, from what we known and what has been familiar. Even the idea of him being faced with these new people, and being absolutely key to their survival, and their search of a way to make this new world their home. It’s absolutely incredible.
SCH: Yes it resonates on so many levels to the human experience. Saints & Strangers invites us to relate to these Native Americans and early settlers on so many levels. It is by far, one of the most spectacular films on the first Thanksgiving ever produced!
To learn more about this epic National Geographic television event, visit Saints And Strangers