Gifted actress Tonantzin Carmelo shines as Thunder Heart Woman

Gifted actress Tonantzin Carmelo shines as Thunder Heart Woman

GLENDORA, Calif. — Wonderful. Modest. Professional. Beautiful. Passionate.
These are the words her directors use to describe Tonantzin Carmelo,
Tongva/Mexica, star of the TNT television miniseries “Into the West.”

Staged as six separate 90-minute movies, the show dealt with different
historical events involving white settlers and American Indians that lead
up to the Civil War. Carmelo played Thunder Heart Woman, an American Indian
who grows up in a Lakota tribe and through dramatic circumstances becomes
the wife of a white settler, Jacob Wheeler (played by Matthew Settle).

Carmelo, who grew up in Los Angeles and considers herself a direct
descendant of that city’s original peoples, had previously starred in the
films “King Rikki” and “187 Shadow Lane.” She is also an accomplished
traditional Aztec dancer and recorded vocalist. This year, she garnered a
Screen Actors Guild nomination for Best Actress in a TV Miniseries for her
work in “Into the West.”

The series’ first episode was filmed second in October and November of 2004
near Calgary, Alberta. Director Robert Dornhelm (“Echo Park”) helmed this
segment, which he described as “an expensive documentary. I spoke to many
Native Americans and they assured me that their own history was not in the
writing — it was in the telling, as there are no written books about their
history. The written word can be more imprecise than the spoken word.”

In addition to his work with Carmelo, Dornhelm was joyous in his praise for
the collaborations that he undertook with American Indian performers. “I
loved every moment working with the Native actors,” he noted. “I had them
in my house at the end of the day, where they chanted beautiful Native
songs down from my 15th-floor balcony … They also prayed and cleansed in
the sweat lodge to get purified. It was a very intense experience to say
the least, because I was claustrophobic!”

Paramount to Dornhelm’s directing experience was his work with Carmelo. “I
think that Tonantzin is absolutely fabulous — she is the real thing,” he
said. “There is an honesty there and a great look that lets you dream. She
plays a simple woman who doesn’t speak English who then becomes a
westernized woman. After being sold and bought, she has a beautiful sense
of the world in which she lives.”

Of Carmelo’s future, Dornhelm predicted that she could theoretically play
any type of part. “She’s an absolutely American woman,” he said. “I don’t
see her being limited at all. We have some unimaginative people who might
want to keep her in a certain genre. But she is a modern American woman —
even though she is very serious about her heritage.”

The third episode of “Into the West” was directed by Sergio Mimica-Gazzan,
a Steven Spielberg protege who served as the mogul’s assistant director on
eight films. “Spending 10 years working alongside him taught me to be
honest towards the projects that I do and approach them in an intimate
way,” Mimica-Gazzan said of his mentor.

To tell his story as truthfully as possible, all of Mimica-Gazzan’s
decisions were formed by extensive research undertaken by the key designers
and production team. “Mine was the first episode of the six where we
referred to daguerreotypes [primitive photographs] of the actual time,” he
said. “We tried to capture how these people might have felt. This part of
American history was mishandled and told one-sidedly in previous Western
films. There was so much misinformation.”

Mimica-Gazzan concurred with Dornhelm’s assessment of Carmelo and her
budding career. “Tonantzin is a phenomenal actress,” he stated. “She
beautifully captivated the spirit of what a woman from that time was like.
She is one of those actresses who stays in the character between shots —
the way she walked and moved. I was almost learning about the period
through watching her play her character. She was a great actress to work
with. The show would not have been the same without her.”

As for Carmelo’s future, Mimica-Gazzan believes that she will have her
choice of roles. “I think she is a brilliant actress and will get
interesting parts to play,” he said. “She will have a fantastic future. She
can definitely do great things with interesting female characters.”

Regarding the sum total of his “Into the West” experience, Mimica-Gazzan
hoped that the show would generate interest in the period. “Just having
worked on the show, I opened myself to part of that history,” he said. “I
think one realizes that everything that happened then is still with us. I
know that some people will want to know more about that time, and I hope it
provokes people to travel to places where these things happened. The more
we know about these events, the more we are able to know about ourselves.”

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