JEMEZ MTS., N.M. – A noisy air conditioner blasts frigid air through the window of a small trailer parked in a dusty clearing. Feet propped up, hands behind his head, Adam Beach chills during a dinner break.
The actor is filming two sequels to last year’s smash PBS American Mysteries! special, “Skinwalkers.” Cast opposite Wes Studi’s Lt. Joe Leaphorn, he is Officer Jim Chee.
The unlikely heroes, once again, are buried up to their necks in Tony Hillerman’s brand of murder and mayhem on the Navajo reservation with “A Thief of Time” and “Coyote Waits,” shooting back to back in and around the Albuquerque area.
Beach savors his role as Chee and says he relates to the character because he sees much of himself in the onscreen personality. He said he feels drawn to Chee because he too lives dual lives.
“My acting side can be like a mirage and when I’m done, I go back home and the reality starts again. It’s hard to balance them, but you live two lives and you just gotta make sure you give the same love to each.”
Chee is a medicine man in training and also a Navajo police officer. His character is constantly at odds with himself over the contradictory nature of peaceful medicine man versus the authoritative, in-your-face cop.
“I think the importance of his character is to show people that we have to take our responsibilities in certain ways and sometimes conflicts can tear you apart. But if you remain focused on who you are and how strong your spirit is, you can overcome anything,” he explains.
Beach, who won critical acclaim for his roles as Ben Yahzie, a Navajo code talker in “Windtalkers” and Victor Joseph in “Smoke Signals,” has struggled hard for success.
His youth was painful. A member of the Saulteux tribe, Beach grew up in one of the toughest neighborhoods in Canada, the north end of Manitoba in Winnepeg on Dog Creek Indian Reserve.
He lost both parents almost simultaneously at the age of eight.
“My mom was eight months pregnant and she got hit by a drunk driver in front of our house,” he said, speaking in a sort of trance, “and then two months later my dad drowned.” He said his dad was also an alcoholic.
They left behind a very angry child.
He and his two brothers were adopted by an aunt and uncle. Then six years later, Beach was adopted a second time by another aunt.
Left to carry his own weight while tackling the role of parent for his brothers, Beach lashed out at 14, joining a local gang. He clashed with others over his Indian identity and stole for friends. “I always felt like a victim,” he said.
At 16, he discovered acting as a safe way to express emotions locked inside. He and two friends joined a drama class for fun. Beach stuck with it. A first screen role at 18 netted $300.
“I didn’t think things could get much better. I guess almost everyone needs an anger management course and acting was mine. I learned about rage and sorrow on stage. It was like a sweat lodge for me. I let things go. I calmed down. I found myself and I’m happy with what I found and who I’m becoming,” he said in an interview with the Calgary Sun.
In quick succession, he acted small roles in “North of 60,” a film called “Cadillac Girls” then starred in a Disney movie titled “Squanto: A Warrior’s Tale.” Beach now has a total of 30 projects under his belt with notable guest appearances on nine TV shows, including “Touched by an Angel” and “Walker, Texas Ranger.”
Success has not been without bumps and detours.
A move to Los Angeles brought rejection and family separation. At 28, a surge of guilt and anxiety overwhelmed the actor.
“That’s when my parents died. They were 28. I found a spot in my subconscious where I really believed that I wouldn’t live until I was 28 years old. I really didn’t know what to do with myself; ’cause I wasn’t supposed to be that far.”
Beach explained his birthday re-triggered the emotions he felt when they died and he had a hard time justifying the fulfillment of his dream.
Today, at 31, he is using his work as a vehicle to send a positive message to others. “Acting has given me this media blitz that I use as a tool to talk to the youth.”
He said he is sponsoring a production company for ex-cons, ex-gang members and drug addicts wanting to change their lives. “I try to tell people whatever they put their minds to, they can achieve. It doesn’t matter where you’re from. You just gotta find a focus.”