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N.M. Native Raoul Trujillo Brings Indigenous Culture to the Silver Screen

By Polly Summar
Copyright 2006 Albuquerque Journal; Journal Staff Writer
    SANTA FE— Raoul Trujillo walked into the Santa Fe premiere of "Apocalypto" as quietly as he crept into the movie's village scene to capture sleeping families.
    The leader of the bad guys in Mel Gibson's new movie, Trujillo plays Zero Wolf, a warrior with the regal bearing of Charlton Heston and the twisted mind of a Christopher Walken character.
    Trujillo, a 1973 graduate of Española High School who now lives near Las Trampas, said Gibson called him when casting the part because of other work he has done.
    Trujillo, 51, has been acting for 18 years, most recently as interpreter Tomocomo in the movie, "The New World," and as Red Cloud in Steven Spielberg's miniseries "Into the West."
    Before the film's general release today, Gibson has been screening "Apocalypto"— set in the Mayan civilization of pre-Columbian Mexico— for American Indian audiences around the country.
    The Santa Fe showing on Thursday was arranged by the student government of the Institute of American Indian Arts, and Trujillo was asked to speak to the audience of students afterward.
    Trujillo hadn't been planning to see the film again, after attending a showing in Oklahoma last month hosted by the Chickasaw Nation.
    "Mel (Gibson) got a standing ovation there, and we raised a million dollars for lupus clinics in Oklahoma and a Mayan village in Guatemala," Trujillo said.
    But he and the film's choreographer, Rulan Tangen, who lives in Santa Fe, wanted to attend the IAIA screening to talk with the students and to show their support for Gibson, who has been under criticism for the violence of the film and how the Mayan culture is portrayed— as well as his anti-Semitic diatribe during a July arrest on DWI charges in Malibu.
    "I know the man well enough to know he's clearly not racist," said Trujillo.
    Before delving into acting, Trujillo was a dancer and soloist with the Nikolais Dance Theater in New York and the original choreographer and co-director for the American Indian Dance Theatre, which has performed throughout the world.
    "Since my Nikolais days, I've been working to bring the indigenous movement to the modern screen," said Trujillo.
    The fifth son in a family of seven kids, Trujillo said his dad worked at a maintenance job in Los Alamos to support the family. Trujillo credited his interest in acting to Española Junior High drama teacher Bill Yanda and to actress Frederica Johnson, whom Trujillo met while carrying out her groceries at Center Market, where he worked.
    "She taught drama at Santa Fe Prep, and I talked her into teaching me, and 15 other students, in the evenings at Española High School," said Trujillo.
    Trujillo learned to ski at Los Alamos, Taos and Santa Fe and after finishing high school, he served in the U.S. Army in Germany in the ski patrol, then taught skiing for a year at Taos Ski Valley, when owner Ernie Blake was still alive.
    "He was ecstatic to find a local Indian guy who spoke German and French," said Trujillo, who said his heritage is Apache, Ute, Spanish Moor, Ladino Jew and French.
    He attended the University of Southern California to study dance and received a scholarship to the Toronto Dance Theater for a year.
    Trujillo spent nine months working on "Apocalypto," with five hours a day in makeup and wardrobe, so he's enjoying some time in New Mexico.
    He was married this summer to Santa Fe native and photographer Iscah Carey, and the two are raising Appaloosas and mixed breeds ("like me," he said) on some 10 acres Trujillo bought six years ago.
    At the end of Thursday's showing, IAIA student government president Karl Duncan set up a microphone for comments from the students.
    While there was some criticism— Nacona Burgess, a Comanche painter, for example, described the temple scene as being like the stereotypical "bunch of crazy savages"— the majority of viewers liked the film.
    "This film is not trying to be historically accurate," Trujillo told the audience. "He (Gibson) wanted to tell a story of power and greed versus love and hope. It's an adventure movie, a chase movie, without computer graphics."