"We need to laugh": "Hey, Viktor" is a much-needed send-up of Native dysfunction and Hollywood

Cody Lightning costar of 1998's "Smoke Signals" tells Salon about his mockumentary film that pokes at that legacy

Published June 12, 2023 8:16PM (EDT)

Hey, Viktor (Liam Mitchell)
Hey, Viktor (Liam Mitchell)

Anyone who saw "Smoke Signals" back in 1998 will recall the signature refrain "Hey, Victor!" But perhaps only a few viewers will recall Cody Lightning, the young actor who played Victor in the film's flashbacks. With his new mockumentary, "Hey, Viktor!," (yes, the K is deliberate) Lightning pokes fun at the film that made him famous.

Lightning wrote, directed and stars (as himself) in the comically abrasive film, generating laughs at all his humiliations. Lightning is making ends meet these days by bottoming in gay porn. His manager, Kate (Hannah Cheesman) stages an intervention for his alcoholism. And a situation involving his girlfriend (Teneil Whiskeyjack) leaving him for Jackson (Peter Craig Robinson), and taking their kids to New Mexico depresses him further. 

While he hopes to make a spiritual sequel, "Smoke Signals 2," he seems to have irritated and alienated all of his former costars — Gary Farmer, Irene Bedard and Simon Baker — but the last actor agrees to participate in the new film for 50%. Lightning's efforts to connect with superstar Adam Beach involve breaking into the actor's house, which, like everything else Lightning attempts, does not go well. 

The actor/filmmaker spoke with Salon about his new film on the eve of its premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival. 

In the film you/Cody talk about "Doing something for my people." What observations do you have about representing your Indigenous culture and making this film?

There are many aspects to any culture, not just Indigenous culture. For me, that's a joke in the film. A lot of people have a fantasized version of what Indigenous culture is — that is ceremonies and medicine and healing and community. And yes, that is a huge part of who we are. But like any other ethnic background, there is dysfunction, there are hardships, there is alcohol and drug addiction, there is everything. The dysfunctional aspect is not [representative of] Indigenous culture, but that is what myself, as a writer/director, wants to portray in the projects I am writing, acting in and directing.

We have a hilarious dysfunction in our community, and some people might not like that and think we shouldn't showcase that. That's fine. This film is not for you. However, from my upbringing and my experiences with my family and community members, when I see these things happen, I laugh at them. In our culture, we are able to laugh at our dysfunction. Right now there is not a lot of comedic content coming out by Indigenous people. The doors are opening. Back in the day, we had one, maybe two projects a year that everyone flocked to. Now, there is "Reservations Dogs" and "Dark Winds," and all these Indigenous projects out. I get my fuel from and showcase the dysfunction aspect of who we are, and I want to bring out humor.

This is your directorial debut. What prompted you to shift to the other side of the camera? Is this another opportunity to showcase your talents, a lack of opportunity, or, if I can be a smarta**, a desperate bid for celebrity?

Not desperate bid for celebrity at all. My friends and family can tell you I don't give a crap about any of that stuff. I am not big bougie. Along with acting and film work, the popularity and fame aspects come with the projects. I've never sought validation from that. It doesn't interest me. I don't care about that. This is my directorial debut. It was kind of a collective when we were writing this. We asked who is going to direct? They looked at me. Should I? I can do it. I've been a part of enough film projects, and my mom and my friends are directors. Everyone thought I was best to direct because it was my vision, humor, and I am acting in it. It was fun. It was challenging, and hopefully I get to do more. To be the captain of the ship was a big responsibility. I was nervous and anxious.  

I like your DIY spirit in the film. Can you talk about shooting in the mockumentary style?

One reason we chose the style we did was because it allows us to capture the looks and glares and punchlines. I wanted it to be raw and authentic, not look staged and rehearsed. With the style we shot in, we were able to capture that. I watch a lot of comedies, like "The Office" and "Parks and Rec" that film in the same style. Being able to draw out our scenes and improvise. The script was a guideline. Let's play with this and let's go with it. It was a little nightmarish for our editors — we had so many different versions until our final cut — but it allows my other actors to showcase their improv skills and add their own touch to it. 

What can you say about knowing the "Smoke Signals" actors and working with them 25 years later? 

Everyone branched off and did their own thing after "Smoke Signals." Where I lived in Los Angeles with my mom and my family we had a hub for Indigenous actors and artists and musicians who would stay with us. Gary Farmer stayed with us often. Adam Beach stayed with us. Simon lived in Canada, so we crossed paths as when we worked on "DreamKeeper" together as teens. In Native Hollywood, we all know each other and cross paths and are up for same parts.  

"Hey, Viktor" however, is not "Smoke Signals 2," which is its point.

I pitched it as: We need to laugh. There is so much trauma with the loss of language and culture, residential schools and really heavy content. Let's laugh at ourselves. That's what "Smoke Signals" did. Some people will see "Hey, Viktor," and it isn't what they expected, or it's too raunchy. I want to make Indigenous comedies, and that's not always going to be PG or suitable for a family-friendly network. I want to make really edgy dark dysfunctional comedies. 

I love that you stoop lower and lower for a joke. There are some wild moments that are crude and funny. You go for broke, and that's why it works. They are funny because you go there. What can you say about your penchant here to humiliate yourself for a joke?

All that stuff is toned down. I'm a nutcase and a wild-a** person. Watching the different cuts, the producers wanted to tone down a lot of the raunchiness just to keep the story flowing. I have been known to get naked at places. I acted in the short, "Mohawk Midnight Runners," and when the director called me to offer me a part, I read it and said, "Oh, we're going to be bucka** naked." She asked, "Are you comfortable being fully naked?" I said "I didn't give a s**t. What made you think of me?" She said, "I talked to 10 filmmakers about finding Indigenous actors and 9 out of 10 said, 'Ask Cody.'"

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The humor here is quite broad. Can you talk about leaning into or satirizing the stereotypes? 

How I've experienced this throughout my life is through this mainstream image of warriors, horses, camps and period pieces. That's how society views us. People ask if we live in teepees. That is the stereotype. Others think Natives are alcoholic, drug addicted, dysfunctional, nasty people. I've been called a "dirty Indian" growing up. If we don't make light of this, it will all be negative. I am doing my best to make light or humor out of the negative.

"Smoke Signals" captured lightning in a bottle 25 years ago. What observation do you have about that film and "Hey, Viktor"?

[Laughs] "Smoke Signals" was very authentic and natural. It wasn't storytelling. There was storytelling in "Smoke Signals," but it wasn't a "Once upon a time . . ." story, or historical events reenacted. It was real. For that time, that's how things were. This project, "Hey, Viktor," is here and now.

"Hey, Viktor" screens at the Tribeca Film Festival, June 8, 9 and 17

By Gary M. Kramer

Gary M. Kramer is a writer and film critic based in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter.

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Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Cody Lightning Hey Viktor Indigenous Interview Movies Native American Smoke Signals Tribeca Film Festival