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An Inuit Actor Contemplates A Big Break Gone Small

Orto Ignatiussen outside his home in Tasiilaq, Greenland, in 2016.
Rebecca Hersher
Orto Ignatiussen outside his home in Tasiilaq, Greenland, in 2016.

When Orto Ignatiussen landed a part in a Hollywood blockbuster in 2011, he thought it might be his big break. At the time, he was the director of a community theater in the small town of Tasiilaq, Greenland, already middle-aged and still hoping he might have a career as a serious actor.

The part was in the movie Gravity, the Oscar-winner that starred Sandra Bullock as an astronaut stranded in space. Ignatiussen would play an Inuit man who accidentally picked up Bullock's radio calls for help.

It was only a voice part — Ignatiussen's face wasn't in the scene — but he was still very excited when his agent called him to say he'd gotten the part.

"I was at the gym," he remembers, laughing.

It was especially exciting because Ignatiussen would actually get to play an Inuit person. He is Inuit, although he would describe himself as first and foremost an "East Greenlander," referring to the specific dialect and regional culture of Tasiilaq and the surrounding area.

But in Hollywood, the percentage of parts that depict indigenous characters, including American Indian and Alaska Native people as well as circumpolar native groups such as Inuit people, is so low that it rounds down to zero.

"It's really pathetic," says Darnell Hunt, the chair of the sociology department at the University of California Los Angeles. "The overall number is so small, it amounts to virtual invisibility. It's really bad."

Ignatiussen had landed that rarest of rare parts — an Inuit character depicted in the Arctic.

Personal notes written by director Alfonso Cuaron and producer David Heyman in Orto Ignatiussen's notebook during a meeting about his work in the movie <em>Gravity</em>.
Rebecca Hersher / NPR
Personal notes written by director Alfonso Cuaron and producer David Heyman in Orto Ignatiussen's notebook during a meeting about his work in the movie Gravity.

"We needed Sandra to communicate with someone down on earth. But we needed that person to not understand a word of what Sandra said," explained Jonas Cuaron, the son of Gravity's director Alfonso Cuaron, and one of the people who helped cast Ignatiussen.

"My dad and I thought it would amazing if it was an Inuit from Greenland," he said.

And things just kept getting better. As they were working on the movie, Jonas had an idea for a DVD extra, and asked Ignatiussen to star in it. In all, he would make about $4,000.

It was a short companion film, set in Greenland, that would depict the other side of the conversation with Bullock. It was called Aningaaq, the name of Ignatiussen's character who is out on the ice hunting and fishing with his wife and baby when he picks up the signal from space.

Unable to communicate, he tells the stranded astronaut about one of his sled dogs. The dogs begin to howl, and the humans howl along.

The short took about a week to film, in a snowy fjord in western Greenland. It's beautiful, and it did well. It played at the Telluride and Venice Film Festivals. There was some buzz about a possible Oscar nomination separate from Gravity.

Asked whether he knew about Aningaaq's success, Orto is surprised. "No!" he says, shaking his head.

"For Inuit people, especially for East Greenlandic people. It's, um," he paused, "[I'm] very proud about that."

Gravity pulled in more than $700 million dollars. Meanwhile, Greenlandic community theater isn't exactly rolling in cash. Orto has received welfare assistance on and off for years.

Sometimes, when he thinks about the film festivals and the fancy premieres he never got to go to, he feels trapped.

"Oh, lucky them," he explains. "I'm just here. I'm just here! It's a little bit... depression."

But Orto hasn't given up on acting. He's working on a one-man play based on the book he's writing. The title translates to "To Live Is Too Much."

This work was sponsored by the John Alexander Project for international reporting.

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Rebecca Hersher (she/her) is a reporter on NPR's Science Desk, where she reports on outbreaks, natural disasters, and environmental and health research. Since coming to NPR in 2011, she has covered the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, embedded with the Afghan army after the American combat mission ended, and reported on floods and hurricanes in the U.S. She's also reported on research about puppies. Before her work on the Science Desk, she was a producer for NPR's Weekend All Things Considered in Los Angeles.