Editor’s Note: This article was first published in Medium. Used with permission. All rights reserved.
LOS ANGELES — Kimberly Norris Guerrero is a name I became familiar with after I first saw her in an episode of Seinfeld. Her character Winona, an alluring, confident intelligent young woman stood up against subtle American Indian stereotypes in a humorous refined way. Years later, I attended the Autry’s Native Voices theater production, The Frybread Queen, after which I met Kimberly in person. I praised her on her portrayal of the character Annalee and briefly mentioned the admiration I had for her as an American Indian actress. That moment was surreal for me because she wouldn’t really know the phenomenal impact she had on me as a young Native American woman seeing an exquisite, independent fierce Indian woman having agency in an intelligent, comic way on television and on a highly acclaimed comedy series nonetheless.
Over the years, I became friends with Kimberly and I asked her if I could do an informal interview and photo session so the rest of the community could get to know her. We met in the late fall of 2018 and here is what I am able to share from our day of shooting and conversing.
In grade school, she performed with her local community theater where she learned the discipline of being an actor. Although her mother was the director, she took her direction and her roles seriously. She also had another love. Coming from a community that was big on college football, she was mesmerized by the UCLA cheerleaders. Seeing the light blue and gold, she knew that was where she needed to be. When she grew up, she applied and was accepted to UCLA. At eighteen years old she packed up her car and drove to Los Angeles, California.
Kimberly shared that she loved the atmosphere of Southern California. She enjoyed college life but also loved surfing and seeing the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle of the Sunset Strip in the 80s. As for myself, I am a huge rocker fan and I was delighted to hear that she attended local rock ’n’ roll clubs, like the Roxy and the once famous Gazzarri’s where many bands became famous like The Doors, Van Halen, andGuns N’ Roses. I was quite amazed to learn that she later managed a rock band called Paradise. Knowing that the Sunset strip was filled with debauchery, I was pleased to hear that Kimberly never got caught up in drugs or alcohol.
At UCLA, Kimberly described her journey as a sorority girl and how she later became a pom pom girl, which led to a casting director scouting her for a national on-screen gig. She was asked to audition for an AT&T commercial and was instructed to provide a headshot. She didn’t know what a headshot was, so she took her 5 x 7 high school senior picture as her headshot to the audition. She said that as she was leaving the audition, she asked in her Oklahoman accent, “Can I have my picture back?” Her request made the entire room laugh hysterically and she believes that this little act of not knowing audition protocol got her the gig and her Screen Actors card.
Although she was ecstatic about her first official on-camera gig, she focused on her college education and graduated from UCLA with a degree in history that she feels later helped in her future acting roles and script writing. After college, she started doing every audition possible and eventually moved to New York City where she was cast as a regular in the CBS soap opera,As the World Turns. Even though she loved the opportunities in New York and landing the role as Winona in Seinfeld’s Cigar Store Indianepisode, she made the difficult decision to move back to Los Angeles, which she felt was her home.
In 2007, Kimberly was dealing with emotional changes in her family. Her mother had passed away from lung cancer and her father-in-law was battling liver cancer when she received an audition call from Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre group. The call was for a dramatic role in the Tony Award-winning play August: Osage County. She at first declined as she felt it was not the best time to audition due to her emotional state, but then changed her mind. The day before she was supposed to audition, her father-in-law passed away. She was emotionally drained and called the casting director to decline the audition. Though compassionate about her situation, the casting director was persistent and asked Kimberly to come in and read as best as she could. She auditioned and was selected. Kimberly stated that it was probably one of the best auditions she’s ever done. She felt that the role came along at the right time to help her process her grief and that her father-in-law and mother would want that for her too. Kimberly joined the ensemble in Chicago, then in New York City on Broadway. After the play swept the awards season, Kimberly along with the original cast performed at the National Theatre in London and at The Sydney Theatre Company in Australia. Thereafter, the play was adapted to film.
After Broadway, Kimberly was cast as the late and most notable female chief in modern history, Wilma Mankiller. The film, The Cherokee Word for Water tells the story of how Mankiller and activist/husband Charlie Soap advocated for the self-help Waterline Project in Bell, Oklahoma in the early 1980s. Kimberly said it was a true honor to portray Wilma Mankiller; herself being Cherokee she knew a lot about what Mankiller did for the Cherokee people. As she shared,“The film shows how Native communities can work together to meet their own needs, even when they are basic necessities like running water. The film showed perseverance, self-empowerment”and as Kimberly said, “it was a very humbling role and one she cherishes.”
Today, Kimberly teaches acting at the University of California, Riverside (UCR), where she earned her MFA in screenwriting. As with many Native writers, myself included, she was tired of seeing the continuation of recycled historical American Indian narratives of battles and conquest and also how there is a lack of representation of realistic contemporary narratives, written by Native writers, that could provide opportunities for Native talent to go mainstream. She felt that it was needed and as she says “why not now, as Native writers we have the ability to change perceptions of how Native Americans are seen in film and television.” Currently, Kimberly is developing a slate of contemporary storytelling projects (TV pilots and feature films) which she describes as “authentic, spirit-driven work that shines the light on Native peoples.”
During my photo session with Kimberly, I wanted to know what she enjoys most in her creative field. She told me, “I just enjoy being a human being.” As Kimberly and I conversed, we discussed how many traditional tribal names go back to this simple but powerful idea of being “The People.” And I agreed, stating that we as Diné are known as “The People,” or Human Beings.
I had the most enlightening day with Kimberly. She is a caring and optimist artist and wonderful human being. As we were wrapping up the day of our photo shoot, I asked her if she had anything she wanted to say to upcoming Native actors everywhere. She said…
“I came into the industry looking up to actors like Sheila Tousey, Tantoo Cardinal and Casey Camp; those women are amazing women. So it’s important to me that I’m an equally good role model for those coming up behind me. One of the best pieces of advice I can give, which sounds very Dr. Seuss-esque, is to ‘Be the youiest you can be.’ Simply be you. Find who you truly are and live and perform from that place of truth, not what other people’s expectation of you is or what you think you should be. If you have a mohawk, long hair, short hair — rock it! The more in-tune with yourself you are, the better. Lastly, learn your craft and practice it. Get into acting classes, create your own web series, listen to the stories that are knocking at your heart, and tell those stories. If you’re not a writer or director, find people who you vibe with who are. This is a collaborative art form so find your people. Tribe up!” She went on to say that in the entertainment industry it’s great to find allies, the group of people you can work with. Make good work and share it online, build an audience, and Hollywood will find you. Kimberly finished with a final Dr. Seuss-eque quote for aspiring artists, “Just remember ABC: Always Be Creating.”
Kimberly is worked on the film project The Glorias: A Life on the Road, which is based on the autobiography of the iconic Gloria Steinem, portrayed by actress Julianne Moore. Kimberly and fellow co-star Moses Brings Plenty from The Cherokee Word for Waterreprised their roles of Charlie Soap and Wilma Mankiller in the film. The storyline to Wilma’s character is the strong bond between American Indian activist Wilma Mankiller and icon feminist Gloria Steinem had. As reported from Kimberly reprising her role as Wilma in the film The Glorias: A Life on the Road she definitely felt the strong bond of their incredible friendship.
The film is directed by the acclaimed director of stage and screen, Julie Taymor, and along with Julianne Moore, also stars Alicia Vikander, Bette Midler and Janelle Monáe among a powerful line-up of stellar female actors.
I thoroughly enjoyed my photo shoot with the gorgeous talent known as Kimberly Norris Guerrero. Her immense passion for changing how viewers interpret Native Americans in film & television is inspiring and optimistically hopeful.