Kimberly Guerrero knows how important it is to bring a character to life on the big screen.
For this assistant professor with the Department of Theatre, Film, and Digital Production at University of California, Riverside, it is especially important when it involves a historical figure such as Wilma Mankiller, an activist and the first woman to be elected principal chief of the Cherokee Nation.
Guerrero takes a supporting role as Mankiller in “The Glorias,” a film set to premiere at the Sundance Film Festival on Sunday, Jan. 26.
“The Glorias” is based on Gloria Steinem’s 2016 memoir, “My Life on the Road,” and stars Julianne Moore as the titular character. Steinem is an award-winning journalist and an icon in the women’s movement who served as a spokesperson and leader of the feminist movement in America in the 1960s and 1970s. It was during that period that Mankiller and Steinem met.
“They were beyond best friends. They referred to each other as ‘chosen family.’ They supported each other as activists, as writers, as women — and had an incredible connection,” said Guerrero of her role.
The film is directed by Julie Taymor, an Academy Award-nominated director known for films such as “Frida” (2002), “Across the Universe” (2007), and theater productions such as “The Lion King” on Broadway. The film’s cinematographer is Rodrigo Prieto, known for Martin Scorsese’s “The Irishman,” Ang Lee’s “Brokeback Mountain,” and Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu’s “Amores perros.”
Guerrero first played Wilma Mankiller in “The Cherokee Word for Water” (2013), a film set in 1980s rural Oklahoma at a time when many homes lacked running water; Mankiller helped organize her community to build a 16-mile waterline system.
Mankiller’s contributions to history are often overlooked. Her story and struggles reflect that of so many Native people in modern times, Guerrero said. At the age of 10, Mankiller and her family were relocated by the United States federal government to San Francisco from Cherokee lands in Oklahoma. The move was an effort “to solve the Indian problem,” as Mankiller stated in an interview.
Playing Mankiller in “The Glorias” was a second opportunity to bring her name and historical influence to the forefront. It was also a chance to tell the story of the friendship these two civil rights icons created — they counted on each other at both the best and worst times of their lives, Guerrero said.
“The kind of impact they’ve had in the world is really, really beautiful,” Guerrero said. “They were there to be each other’s biggest cheerleader. And I think that’s what Wilma was for Gloria and Gloria was for Wilma.”
Portraying Mankiller as a Native American woman herself, Guerrero knew she had an additional responsibility.
“Wilma had this calm but powerful demeanor about her, a confidence, an inner strength in knowing her purpose was to serve others. That resonates with my own raison d’être,” Guerrero said. “This is the life I want to live, to impact people for the good. What was most surprising about stepping into Wilma’s role again, was how emotional I felt the second I spoke in her voice. Wilma stayed in my bones.”
Guerrero is unable to attend the Sundance premiere because she’s in New Zealand filming a guest starring role in Amazon’s new young adult series, “The Wilds.” Guerrero will play one of the lead character’s mom.
Guerrero’s acting career includes roles in “Seinfeld” (1993), “Longmire” (2014), and “The Republic of Sarah” (2019).