NMFO: First and foremost, why don't you tell us a little about yourself?
DezBaa’: My name is DezBaa’. I'm from Northern New Mexico. I was born in Santa Fe, and I've been residing in Santa Fe for the last four years. I'm a striking SAG actor currently, and I'm also a member of the WGA. I'm a professor at Northern New Mexico College. I have an 11-year-old who keeps me on my toes.
NMFO: What prompted you to want to get into the film industry?
DezBaa’: It was purely by accident. I had been working for the Navajo Nation as a geologist. I had gone to work there partially to come back home because I had been out in Massachusetts for a while. So, I moved my family, my daughter, and then her father later moved to New Mexico.
I wanted to help, and a part of me wanted to understand my culture more because I didn't grow up traditionally Navajo. It was an opportunity for me to learn, and I did. However, it was not the best use of my talent or skill.
The best use of my abilities would be storytelling. My sister sent me a casting call and said that they were looking for a Navajo woman to do a feature film in the Four Corners area. She said how much fun it was for her. She worked on “Longmire” and “Breaking Bad.” She did mention the long hours in the cold, and the rain, and the wind, and the sun. But it's fun.
Maybe this would get me somewhere because she knew I wasn't entirely happy. It could have been more fulfilling.
NMFO: So, it was something that you gravitated towards and tried it out, and then it worked very well for you.
DezBaa’: I landed my first audition ever with that feature film. It didn't work out. I had been hired for a couple of months and had to decide if this would be my career change. I was also a massage therapist, and I have a geology degree.
I got dropped from the project, which was a blessing in disguise because that's how the film industry is. It goes up and down. That was my first experience, making me feel like I had nothing left to lose to try this. I then met with some casting directors, and they said I should consider getting headshots, a resume, and an agent. I had yet to learn what they were talking about. I did federal codes, but with the whole headshot, resume, acting demo reel, and agent, I had yet to learn what they were talking about.
NMFO: I assume you learned rather quickly.
DezBaa’: I did. I went to Facebook, and I went to all the different background casting notices and groups and lists and everything. I quickly observed and learned about getting paid for work, who the prominent background talent people were to submit to, what it means to submit, and that they don't call you back unless they want you. It was a huge learning curve for me.
I learned quickly from doing background that I got a small feature role on “Longmire.” I was so worried about being on that set that I held my breath until the director yelled, action.
I was scared that they would kick me off the set because that was my last experience. So, I was waiting for that to happen.
NMFO: So, was the continuing experience that helped build that confidence?
DezBaa’: Yeah, I got encouraged by Angelique Midthunder and by Kathy Brink, even Kenneth. They told me that if I didn’t know what I was doing, and I was doing what I was doing, I really should consider getting an agent. I trusted that I had these professionals telling me this was something I could do.
I had been in the movie theater the year before in Massachusetts, watching a movie by Scott Cooper, thinking, “Wow, I'd like to be able to do that. Oh, I'd like to be like Jennifer Lawrence. I'd like to be like the other actresses in that movie.”
I can do that. I know all the actors say that everybody says, I can do that. And then, when you get thrown into the deep end, you decide whether you can swim or tread water. And I found I could tread water.
NMFO: How did you transition from acting to writing?
DezBaa’: Persistence, determination, and not accepting no was what it was. I had mentioned to some people that I had finished my MFA at IAIA in screenwriting. I know that there are not a lot of Indigenous writers out there, specifically Navajo. And I just kept saying, “I know you need me in the room. Tell me who I need to talk to.” I knew there had to be a slight chance that the right person had to look at what I could write and realize I was right for the room. And that happened.
I first wrote an 11-page script about the Navajo long walk. My voice was clearly revealed in that short little, tiny thing. I submitted three other types of writing. I submitted a comedy pilot, the first act of my feature film, something else, and this script.
It wasn't like I submitted just this 11-page script, but they said clearly that I have a range, a knack for dialogue, my voice, and my style. That was the kind of writing that they could use.
It just happened like that. Complete persistence and a belief in what I could do. It was also realizing that I was needed.
NMFO: So, being an actress and a writer and in telling Indigenous stories, how do you feel about getting these stories out into the world and productions now coming to New Mexico and distributing them to the masses? How does that make you feel, and how do you see Indigenous writing and storytelling in the future regarding film production, especially here in New Mexico?
DezBaa’: I feel that Indigenous story writing and filmmaking, in general, really originated here in the Southwest, here in New Mexico. Then, it was trucked over to California. But all the stuff was shot here. They had cameras in the 1800s, and they were they were shooting movies here. A lot of it was also political commentary.
People say that Hollywood and politics don't go together. But it's been that way since the very beginning. That's the whole point, the untold story. Returning to New Mexico is essential and would be a full-circle moment. What I hope is that we rebuild what we lost to Hollywood.
All the talent we have here, we have so many stories. Everyone here has their own story to tell, and as a professor, I've been trying to encourage my students. Something that I found as a student taking classes as a screenwriter and video producer is how vital our stories are. From our perspective, it's 360 degrees the sphere of perspective. We've only been able to see through one lens for such a long time that we need the other 350 degrees encompassing all directions and dimensions to flesh out the human experience.
That's why it's so important that we focus our efforts here in New Mexico with the kids, with the students that are coming up into the ranks so that they realize they can be storytellers as crew members, as above-the-line, below-the-line, and all facets of the industry, because the wardrobe person has their way of telling the story, the lighting person has their way of telling a story, the set deck. It's not just about the directors and the writers. It's about everybody building this world, making it immersive. That's the thing about filmmaking that has always been immersive but has only mainly been immersive to the actors. We create these new worlds, fantasies, or what we want.
Having the Indigenous lens and having that Indigenous source would fully flesh out the human experience. On one hand, we try to tell stories from our point of view, from the Indigenous point of view. But really, what it is is just from our personal human experience, growing up through the lens of a Native person. Someone else might realize they did the same thing growing up, but they're from a different country.
We can relate to each other, see more sameness, and come together in that realm. I think it would come full circle to have it here in New Mexico, to bring it back to the source, and then realize that we are a part of continued storytelling.
NMFO: Very well said. So, with all your experience from acting to writing, and you've produced as well, what is your favorite role within the industry?
DezBaa’: So far, I like writing. As much as I love to be able to get into a role and act, to be silly, funny, clever, or dramatic makes that emotional connection. So far, I've been fulfilled as a writer to see my words being said by someone else, and then someone else is like, “Wow, that line was awesome. I connected with that.”
I would love to get more into the bigger productions. Right now, I'm doing my own shorts. I recently worked on a documentary with my father, and I've worked with my kid and my dog.
I like writing and creating that world, but I would like to be able to have my hands on directing and help shape the writing. I was working with the actors, trying to figure out and establish the shots, and playing with that world. So those next steps are other directing opportunities, working with other people, and producing bigger projects.
NMFO: You touched on it earlier about that human connection. It sounds like in your writing, whenever someone can relate or see themselves within the written work, it gives that human connection of, “This is my lived experience, and now someone else gets to see it through their lens.”
DezBaa’: I've shared some stuff with my family, asking how they think it sounds. Or I'm discussing something with someone else to get into a character. I try to work with my friends, especially if I’m trying to define who this person is and what part of my truth relates to what's happening.
Also, I like the idea of trying to see the other person or situation that may not be more common to me. Sometimes, I feel like I'm trying to understand other people and their motivations. Why are they getting out this way? Or why am I so angry at someone? Why is there this discord? What could allow me to see it from their point of view? I could see that maybe there is a similarity or a sameness between us. That's where you find the peace. That's where you find the love. That's the point of what I want to do with my storytelling is, yes, there's all this violence, yes, there's all this trauma, yes, there's all these horrible things. I'm not saying that we live in this perfect world. But I'm trying to work on my own life, too.
How can I keep the hope, the love, and the joy alive, even amid all the pain and the trauma? How can I move forward so that my focus is on that, on the healing and telling that story, instead of being sucked into the cycle of constantly being a part of the violence and the trauma? To help other people be like, “Oh, that meant something to me, and I understood that.”
I could help change their point of view because it's something that I wrestled with, and I took the time to pull it apart and then put it back together so that it can help someone else and facilitate their growth.
NMFO: How would you encourage locals, or people within the Indigenous community, to get more involved within the industry?
DezBaa’: There are classes. I scoured all of Facebook to see what was available and tried to see if I could do background acting. Background acting is a perfect way to understand and see an extensive set because it's not as easy as it looks. It takes a lot of education.
Background acting is a perfect way to be on set and see how that works. The second would be a crew position, like a PA; I know the Stagecoach Foundation has some PA training courses. You can get more hands-on with various organizations and programs, especially for students.
But, like my dad, he's 76 and took a screenwriting course at the college. Storytelling and all its facets are important for everybody. For the Indigenous community, turn that home video of your family reunion into something else. Realize that our stories are just as important within the family to ourselves for our own amusement, joy, and documentation are just as important as anything else that might have cost $200 million to produce and distribute.
We should focus more on our stories being important and starting small and realizing that taking a video of grandma is important. You can do something with that. You can add to it. You can create that art, and that's the only real way to jump in. Just jump in.
NMFO: That initiates your way of storytelling by making those videos and getting your palette wet on what works for you or what you gravitate towards. A lot of feedback we get is from people saying yes to attending the event, networking, and just putting yourself out there. That’s precisely what you did, even when you didn't quite feel confident due to a previous experience. You allowed yourself to get out there, say yes, and take advantage of those opportunities.
DezBaa’: There are so many different levels, start somewhere. Networking events are good. There are productions, there's distribution, there's writers, directors, actors. Sometimes, people stay in their lane, and that's the only thing they do. There's a difference between documentaries and scripted work. There's a difference between public television and a bigger giant corporation. There's so much to research and understand about this industry that you could spend your entire lifetime and never get through it, and yeah, that's what happens.
NMFO: Most people look at the actors, directors, and writers. They only think a little beyond that, but there are many ways to get involved. You can take skills in an everyday job and transfer them into the industry.
DezBaa’: Totally, and people skills are not overlooked. One of the first pieces of advice I got was to be gracious and grateful. Be gracious in everything you do because you never know if the person handing you the water bottle will one day be your boss. You never know. Be thankful for everything. Be gracious and grateful for your opportunities, even if it doesn't work out, because the things that haven't worked out for me have allowed me to move in a different direction than I ever thought.
NMFO: How do you think transitioning into this industry has changed your life and outlook?
DezBaa’: When I went to the Navajo Nation, part of it was to come home and be closer to home, to my family, and to learn more about my culture. Which I did. I got what I needed out of it in some ways. I made some connections and friends who are still friends with me now. But I needed to have that kind of thing fail for me to dig into my own soul's purpose. I'm one of those people who believes in that because the things meant for you will happen if you allow them to.
It's also transformative because I had been married, then were separating, then I had to cling to myself. I had to support my own dream. I had to tell people no. I had to learn to trust my instincts. I had to learn to trust myself.
I realized that the audition room as an actor informed me how I tried to live my life. You give it 100% in that moment. You are so in that moment. You are that character, and then you leave it there because you never know if you will get that role. You let it go. You're constantly trying to be in the moment. You're not living in the past. You're not living in the future.
You're there and appreciating the people that you're with and the situations. Even if they're not what you would like, you accept how things are. Then, you can move more freely through that experience. You could pivot into another character, another role. You can shift from having to move out of your house into somewhere else at the end of the month because it's a possibility for improvement or a new path for you that might be better than what you're in right now.
Much of what I learned on set in the audition room and as a writer has shaped how I try to live my life. Much of it has been to be in the moment and, again, grateful. It helped me to center myself. To trust my instincts.
And if you must improvise, what would you naturally do? In a script, they don't give you every single exact thing. You must troubleshoot. You must constantly be able to maneuver and move around in the space that you're in and realize that you have all the space. You can do all these things. And it's freeing. Why isn't life one giant possibility of trying to make it happen?
That's how the film industry changed who I am. It made me a stronger person to support myself, my dreams, my desires and be in charge of the direction my life is going.
NMFO: So beautifully said. Thank you so much for sharing that personal experience and how your work life transitioned into your personal life. It is one of those things where you felt unfulfilled, and a higher power brought you into the scope that you needed.
DezBaa’: It was just a huge blessing. I had been told by somebody that I was being selfish for trying to do the film industry. That is the farthest thing from the truth. I show people all the time. This tattoo that I have on my arm. It has my kids drawing from the pandemic. I try to remind myself; we wear our wedding rings on our left hand, we say that our hearts are on our sleeves because we're emotional, our emotions come easy to us, and our kids are like our hearts outside of ourselves. My kid's drawing reminds me that all the decisions I make, whatever it is, must include her. She's one of the people in my life that has inspired me.
I don't do anything to push just me ahead. It's to put us ahead. It's to put us in a place where we can enjoy our life and where I can more easily take care of her. Whether it's financially or just to be more settled in who I am to allow her to be who she is. So, all my decisions must include her.
I don't want to see her as a barrier to my success or why I stopped doing something. It's a choice that I make to choose what’s best for us. That was something that I had never given thought to before so clearly.
I'm a single mom. That’s a hard job to do. I must figure out how to include her. That's the best challenge that I've had.
NMFO: In doing that, you're teaching her so many lessons. She's learning through you as you're being able to grow. That’s beautiful.
Congratulations, because it is hard being a single parent and being able to do what you do, fulfilling yourself and making choices for the both of you; it's commendable.
DezBaa’: Thank you.
NMFO: How can people reach you and learn more about your classes? How can they get a hold of you?
DezBaa’: You can find me on Instagram or Facebook mostly.