An Inuit Actor Contemplates A Big Break Gone Small

Feb 4, 2017
Originally published on February 4, 2017 6:41 pm

When Orto Ignatiussen landed a part in a Hollywood blockbuster in 2011, he thought it might be his big break. At the time, he was the director of a community theater in the small town of Tasiilaq, Greenland, already middle-aged and still hoping he might have a career as a serious actor.

The part was in the movie Gravity, the Oscar-winner that starred Sandra Bullock as an astronaut stranded in space. Ignatiussen would play an Inuit man who accidentally picked up Bullock's radio calls for help.

It was only a voice part — Ignatiussen's face wasn't in the scene — but he was still very excited when his agent called him to say he'd gotten the part.

"I was at the gym," he remembers, laughing.

It was especially exciting because Ignatiussen would actually get to play an Inuit person. He is Inuit, although he would describe himself as first and foremost an "East Greenlander," referring to the specific dialect and regional culture of Tasiilaq and the surrounding area.

But in Hollywood, the percentage of parts that depict indigenous characters, including American Indian and Alaska Native people as well as circumpolar native groups such as Inuit people, is so low that it rounds down to zero.

"It's really pathetic," says Darnell Hunt, the chair of the sociology department at the University of California Los Angeles. "The overall number is so small, it amounts to virtual invisibility. It's really bad."

Ignatiussen had landed that rarest of rare parts — an Inuit character depicted in the Arctic.

"We needed Sandra to communicate with someone down on earth. But we needed that person to not understand a word of what Sandra said," explained Jonas Cuaron, the son of Gravity's director Alfonso Cuaron, and one of the people who helped cast Ignatiussen.

"My dad and I thought it would amazing if it was an Inuit from Greenland," he said.

And things just kept getting better. As they were working on the movie, Jonas had an idea for a DVD extra, and asked Ignatiussen to star in it. In all, he would make about $4,000.

It was a short companion film, set in Greenland, that would depict the other side of the conversation with Bullock. It was called Aningaaq, the name of Ignatiussen's character who is out on the ice hunting and fishing with his wife and baby when he picks up the signal from space.

Unable to communicate, he tells the stranded astronaut about one of his sled dogs. The dogs begin to howl, and the humans howl along.

The short took about a week to film, in a snowy fjord in western Greenland. It's beautiful, and it did well. It played at the Telluride and Venice Film Festivals. There was some buzz about a possible Oscar nomination separate from Gravity.

Asked whether he knew about Aningaaq's success, Orto is surprised. "No!" he says, shaking his head.

"For Inuit people, especially for East Greenlandic people. It's, um," he paused, "[I'm] very proud about that."

Gravity pulled in more than $700 million dollars. Meanwhile, Greenlandic community theater isn't exactly rolling in cash. Orto has received welfare assistance on and off for years.

Sometimes, when he thinks about the film festivals and the fancy premieres he never got to go to, he feels trapped.

"Oh, lucky them," he explains. "I'm just here. I'm just here! It's a little bit... depression."

But Orto hasn't given up on acting. He's working on a one-man play based on the book he's writing. The title translates to "To Live Is Too Much."

This work was sponsored by the John Alexander Project for international reporting.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Award show season is underway in Hollywood. And while big-name actors and actresses are sure to get recognized, we wanted to take a step back and acknowledge those onscreen who are often overlooked. NPR's Rebecca Hersher reports on the story of an Inuit actor in Greenland who got a chance to work on a blockbuster movie.

REBECCA HERSHER, BYLINE: The movie was the Oscar-winner "Gravity." Its star, Sandra Bullock, was nominated for Best Actress for her performance as a stranded astronaut.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "GRAVITY")

SANDRA BULLOCK: (As Ryan Stone) Houston, this is mission specialist Ryan Stone. Do you copy?

HERSHER: In the movie's climactic scene, as Bullock tries desperately to radio for help, the world also heard the voice of another actor.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "GRAVITY")

BULLOCK: (As Ryan Stone) Mayday.

ORTO IGNATIUSSEN: (As character) Was that mayday?

BULLOCK: (As Ryan Stone) Yes, yes, mayday, mayday.

IGNATIUSSEN: (As character) Was that mayday?

BULLOCK: (As Ryan Stone) Mayday.

HERSHER: The voice on the other end belonged to Orto Ignatiussen. At the time, he was a local theater director in a 2,500 person town in Greenland called Tasiilaq, a guy with a big reputation in a small place. Orto remembers when he got the part. He was at the gym.

IGNATIUSSEN: Hey.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Congratulations. You got a job.

(LAUGHTER)

HERSHER: It felt like it might be Orto's big break. They flew him to London. He met Alfonso Cuaron, the movie's famous director, and David Heyman, the producer. Jonas Cuaron, the director's son, helped cast Orto.

JONAS CUARON: We needed Sandra to communicate to someone down on Earth, but we needed that person to not understand a word of what Sandra said.

HERSHER: Jonas Cuaron was out in the desert shooting his new movie "Desierto" when I caught up with him on his cellphone. His career has taken off since "Gravity's" huge success.

CUARON: My dad and I thought it would be amazing if it was an Inuit from Greenland.

HERSHER: They got in touch with Orto's agent and agreed to hire Orto for about $4,000. That fee included Orto's starring role in a short companion film set in Greenland, which was a DVD extra for "Gravity."

(SOUNDBITE OF SHORT FILM, "ANINGAAQ")

IGNATIUSSEN: (As Aningaaq, speaking foreign language spoken).

BULLOCK: (As Ryan Stone) Haninguyzay (ph) is that your name? Haningong is your name? Is that your name?

IGNATIUSSEN: (As Aningaaq, foreign language spoken).

HERSHER: In it, Orto plays a fisherman out on the ice with his wife and baby when his radio picks up Sandra Bullock's transmission from space. Unable to communicate, the fisherman tells the stranded astronaut about one of his sled dogs. The dogs begin to howl. The humans howl along.

(SOUNDBITE OF SHORT FILM, "ANINGAAQ")

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (As characters, howling).

HERSHER: The short took about a week to film in a snowy fjord. It's beautiful, and it did well. It played at Telluride and Venice Film Festivals. There was some buzz about a possible Oscar nomination.

Did you ever hear that the film might be nominated for an Academy Award?

IGNATIUSSEN: No.

UNIDENTIFIED TRANSLATOR: He's very surprised.

IGNATIUSSEN: I'm surprised (laughter). OK.

HERSHER: How does it make you feel?

IGNATIUSSEN: (Through translator) For Inuit people, especially for east Greenlandic people, it's - he's very proud about that.

(Foreign language spoken).

HERSHER: "Gravity" pulled in more than $700 million. Meanwhile, Greenlandic community theater isn't exactly rolling in cash. Orto receives welfare. Sometimes when he thinks about the film festivals and the fancy premieres he never got to go to, he feels trapped.

IGNATIUSSEN: (Through translator) Oh, lucky them. I'm just here. I'm just here. It's a little bit depression.

HERSHER: But Orto hasn't given up on acting. Next, he said, a one-man play based on the book he's writing. The title is "To Live Is Too Much." Rebecca Hersher, NPR News.

MARTIN: This story was made possible by the John Alexander Project. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.