Produced by “Law & Order” creator Dick Wolf and loosely based on Dee Brown’s ground-breaking best-selling book of the same name, the epic chronicles events leading up to the U.S. government’s 1890 slaying of Sitting Bull and hundreds of Lakota Sioux men, women and children in the Massacre of Wounded Knee, S.D.
“It’s history told more from the natives’ point of view, which we never got in any of our text books and the details and the drama of it are just heart-breaking; the relentless destruction of this culture,” Quinn told the Irish Echo in a recent phone interview. “I read the book in secondary school and I just loved it and was a little bit obsessed about it. I heard HBO was doing it and I got on the phone and said: ‘Get me a script immediately. I have to be in this film, if there is any part worth doing.’ And I got the script and then found out that the director that was attached was a director I’d worked with before and had a great relationship with, so it just worked out.”
In the film, Quinn plays Henry Dawes, an ambitious, well-meaning senator trying to reconcile the needs of white settlers with those of the natives who have long occupied the country’s western territories. Dawes believes the only way the indigenous people can survive annihilation is if they accept ownership of parcels of land on government-sponsored reservations and assimilate into American society by adopting white traditions, faiths and laws. However, seeing assimilation as a kind of cultural extermination, the natives fight to the death for their right to live and hunt on – but not own – land they consider sacred.
“I think [Dawes] is genuinely trying to do the right thing and, historically, the man was, without a doubt, 100 percent sincere; that doesn’t mean you don’t get influenced by the powerful lobbying interests and business about wanting to develop, develop, develop the west,” Quinn explained.
“I’m glad they chose to include [Dawes.] He was the less ogre-like [white politician],” added the 48-year-old, college-educated actor. “There were many other senators and government officials that would have been so hard to watch because they were so extremely racist. It would have been hard to have any engagement with them, whereas Dawes went in and he was investigating the corruption that had gone on in the commissions before. He was actually trying to right the wrongs, but he is also part of a culture that thought the Indian culture was inferior.”
Having grown up Catholic in Illinois, Dublin and Offaly, Quinn said he was able to draw some parallels between events in Irish history and what befell the native Americans here.
“I relate to the native story about a people being dominated and conquered; their own religions taken away from them,” Quinn confessed. Spending much of his childhood in Ireland helped the now married-father-of-two develop a deep appreciation for history, as well as a love for good movies that recall bygone eras, he notes.
“I don’t know what it is about period films and, maybe it’s the time I spent in Ireland, where you’d be digging up a 10th Century monk for fun or climbing over the castle walls and getting chased out of the castle by the blacksmith that ran the castle from the 1300s,” he related. “That does something to your imagination and I don’t know if it’s that, but I love period films that are done well. I do; I absolutely love them.”
Asked if he plans to return to Ireland to film any time soon, Quinn replied, “I’m working on it.
“I’d love to do a film there a year,” confided the star of “Desperately Seeking Susan,” “Michael Collins,” “Legends of the Fall,” “Practical Magic,” “This is My Father” and “Evelyn.”
“I was lucky enough to do my sister’s film there last year, ’32A,'” he said. “I might be at the Galway Film Fleadh in July with that. I’m hearing that we might be in there, but it’s not quite finished yet, so I’m not sure.”
Quinn also says he hasn’t ruled out a return to series television, despite the way “The Book of Daniel,” his edgy drama about an Episcopal priest dealing with a dysfunctional family and his own personal demons, was unceremoniously dumped from the public airwaves last year.
“I don’t have any rules. I would love to do another series for television that filmed in New York and had good material. I’m not sure I’d be the right guy for the procedural; I think I might go completely insane with the similarity of stuff you do every week, but something like ‘Book of Daniel,’ yeah, absolutely, I’m totally open to it,” he said.
So, was the blue-eyed charmer surprised by all the hoopla his short-lived show caused last winter? “That series was stopped by a very successful boycott of all advertisers by a Christian, right-wing consortium of groups. So, NBC, I don’t blame them; they had no choice, really,” Quinn acquiesced. “They couldn’t find one advertiser. We were the No.1 targeted show of five years to get off the air and they succeeded. I was surprised that they had that much power still. I thought the country was kind of turning a corner away from that, but I think maybe we were a year or two early.”
“Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee,” co-starring Adam Beach (“Flags of Our Fathers,”) Anna Paquin (“The Piano”) and former “Oz” cell-mates J.K. Simmons and Lee Tergesen, is playing Sundays on HBO.