Growing up near Williams Lake, William Belleau loved going to the local movie theatre, Paradise Cinemas. It was at that theatre where he started feeling inspired to become an actor himself.
While he sat in the dark watching now-iconic movies such as Saving Private Ryan and Lord of the Rings, Belleau recalls having a “longing in my heart” to act in a big-budget film.
Fast forward to today, and Belleau’s dream has come true. The actor from Esk’etemc First Nation recently returned home from the Cannes Film Festival where Killers of the Flower Moon premiered — a movie directed by Martin Scorsese.
In the film, Belleau acts alongside Robert De Niro, Leonardo DiCaprio and Lily Gladstone, among other stars.
“That kid that wanted to be on a big budget movie on a team got to do that in 2021 — 20 years later,” Belleau tells IndigiNews in a phone interview from where he now resides in “Vancouver.”
Belleau says that while 20 years seems like a long time, it actually went by “in a blink of an eye.”
He says he wanted to tell the story of how he got to where he is today specifically for Indigenous Youth who might need some encouragement and advice to keep pursuing their goals.
“It’s for a Youth that might not know their way,” he says. “I’m talking to them like a son or a daughter right now.”
‘I never gave up’
Belleau says he feels like, for a lot of Indigenous people, “we’re wired to resist our calling.” But one of the best lessons he has received is that it’s OK to dream — and that you also have to set goals to make that dream happen.
“A calling chose me and I allowed it,” he says.
Belleau speaks highly of his parents and how he owes it to them. “Marilyn Belleau and Dave Belleau. They’re both the residential school survivors. They did their best not to hand down a lot of that fear. And all I can say is, I know they did their best.”
He says that his dad has always been there for him, even once attending five showings of a play he acted for in Williams Lake.
Belleau speaks about what his mom has called “balcony people” — those loved ones who will be there to cheer you on, no matter what. Along with his parents, he also had the support of his extended family in Esket, the Johnsons and the Belleaus.
“So whoever is in your balcony and supporting you at the start, those are the people that, for me, I take time for,” he says. “Those people are the people that have true meaning in your life.”
In 2006, when he was 24, he left Esk’etemc First Nation to attend acting school in New York City.
As a “dude on the rez” in a rural area, it was a big leap to make — but when he arrived in NYC, he quickly realized how many good people there were.
“I believe in good people,” he says. “I’ve been helped by all kinds of supporters along the way.”
At the beginning of his journey, Belleau was surrounded by people who said “you can do it.”
While in NYC, he learned from theatre majors.
“I developed my craft from there,” Belleau says.
Belleau notes how an important part of making his way to where he is now is consistency, even through instances where he felt defeated.
“I was told ‘no’ for a lot of roles but I kept going, consistently, and I never gave up,” he says.
He urges Youth to “focus on what you’re doing consistently in your life” and figure out which of those habits are ultimately helpful or unhelpful.
“Is it for your goal, or is it not for your goal? Is it taking you away from what you love doing?” he asks.
A viral moment in Cannes
Belleau’s journey to success was on the top of his mind while he was in Cannes celebrating the premiere of Killers of the Flower Moon. During the premiere, he thought about how brave his younger self was for chasing his dreams.
During a round of applause, Belleau raised one fist in the air and let out a series of passionate howls — a moment that made waves on social media all over the world as the emotional “warrior call” resonated with many people.
“That moment felt like a dream to me,” he adds. “It was what I was feeling in that moment because this was just some kid who wanted to do this 20 years ago, and he did it.”
He says he also heard his dad’s voice in his head when the cameras were on him, thinking of his encouraging words: “Show them your soul, son.”
“I showed them my soul, like what my dad said, and you know, those are instructions from a residential school survivor,” he says. “And people completely feel what I was feeling.”
He says the amount of support and encouragement he has gotten from the Indigenous community for being himself in that moment has warmed his heart.
“I can’t thank the people out there enough, beyond our town Williams Lake, on all Turtle Island, North America and beyond,” he says.
“The comments section has been heart and fire and love and I couldn’t appreciate more.”
Inspiration from home
Belleau says “I feel like I’ve just earned more responsibility” when discussing his career and the roles he has been getting.
He’s appeared in other high-profile films and TV series over the years, but still can’t help but feeling like “I’ve just gotten my foot in the door.”
In the future, Belleau wants to start creating movies where all genres of Indigenous stories are explored.
“We do have sad stories, but bottom line is Native people are funny, and we have humour and warmth. And I want to showcase our warmth and our humour in a contemporary way,” he says.
“There’s countless stories to be told and I want to touch almost every genre of film.”
Eventually, he wants to return to Paradise Cinemas, where he got so much inspiration years ago, and show his own movie to the community in Williams Lake.
He is currently writing himself as an action star and is finding ways to write a story that encompasses his family’s values with depth and heart but also a darker edge.
He also wants to show off the beauty of his homelands, and hopes to eventually find a way to film a big-budget project around Williams Lake or Esket.
“I was a guy on SA (social assistance) and I wanted to do something, and this is going to be the rest of my life. I am devoted and committed to telling stories,” he says.
“The work doesn’t stop but I am so gifted right now, to have this opportunity to move past my fear of ‘I don’t know if I can’ to now I’m like ‘I can do this, I am going to do this and I will do this.’”
‘Let your fear have its dance’
For any aspiring actors, Belleau says there are many myths out there about the industry that can cause doubt, but “if you can hit a mark and tell the truth and tell a story,” then you could have a future in film.
He also says you don’t need to look a certain way or be a certain age because there are opportunities for everyone and “the only block we have is ourselves.”
“I would tell the kids that you’re never ready,” he says. “All I can urge you to do is attack your fear.”
Or, as Belleau’s dad says: “Let your fear have its dance.”
Belleau says after acknowledging his emotions and letting fear have its dance that “what emerges is focus and determination.”
Our own minds need work to believe in our goals, as Belleau says, “we have loads of resistance where we have phrases that resist our own goals and purposes and paths in life.”
The other myth that Belleau wants to bust is the common belief that if you’re shy or introverted, you can’t be an actor — saying the quiet ones actually have a lot of things to say and communicate when telling a story.
“We all have a creative spirit, be it music, art, cinema, dancing. These are all forms of creativity that allow our spirits to flourish.”