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Actor William Belleau attends the National Board of Review annual awards gala at Cipriani 42nd Street, in New York, on Jan. 11.ANGELA WEISS/Getty Images

Growing up on the remote Esk’etemc reservation in Alkali Lake, B.C., William Belleau would travel an hour south every chance he got to catch a movie at the Paradise Cinemas in Williams Lake.

“That’s where I watched Braveheart, Saving Private Ryan, The Lord of the Rings – I guess I was drawn to films about teams, ensemble casts, joining forces to help tell a story,” recalls Belleau today. “I couldn’t have known that it would lead me on my own 20-year journey into helping make another ensemble movie.”

Not just any movie, but Martin Scorsese’s Oscar-nominated drama Killers of the Flower Moon, an epic and devastating look at the exploitation of the Osage tribe in 1920s-era Oklahoma. Playing Henry Roan, the right-hand man of Robert De Niro’s villainous cattle rancher William Hale and the ex-husband of Lily Gladstone’s Mollie Burkhart, Belleau delivers a tragic yet towering turn that leaves a bruising mark. That he was able to do so while competing for screen time with Hollywood superstars only makes Belleau’s work that much more impressive.

And now, ahead of Killers of the Flower Moon’s big Oscars showdown on March 10, Belleau spoke with The Globe and Mail about perseverance, family and life-changing work.

What has the journey been like from Alkali Lake to Martin Scorsese’s set?

So long ago, I was doing small plays on the reservation not knowing that this was a career choice for me. I drifted for a while. I didn’t go to acting school in New York until 2006, and after that, I started to just build up my body of work as much as I could. I finally got some traction when I did a Twilight film in Vancouver, which gave me the opportunity to work with other casting agencies. I went out for a lot more roles, and while I wouldn’t book a lot of them, I kept learning.

How challenging is it to build that career momentum?

It’s a constant state of job interviews that could very well change your life, and then being told no, it’s not your time. I did some television, some low-budget films, I just kept working. But the 2010s, it wasn’t the most glamorous era of my life. I was working construction jobs at the same time in Vancouver. You need to pay the bills. I was swinging a hammer, had my hard hat, steel-toe boots, while at the same time auditioning. The bookings started coming a little more frequently, but it was a slow traction.

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Belleau, here attending the 35th Annual Palm Springs International Film Awards on Jan. 4 in Palm Springs, Calif., says he was working construction jobs during the 2010s.Frazer Harrison/Getty Images

How challenging was it to keep the perseverance up?

I remember there was one year I hadn’t worked. It was a very low year – I had done only one student film. I was sitting at my family’s kitchen table, not feeling my best. My older brother comes in, this is 2013, and he sees me, looks off in the distance for a beat, and says, “You’re going to work with Martin Scorsese one day.” Can you imagine that kind of support in your darkest hour? He’s my big brother, so I couldn’t argue with him. That helped me get off my knees.

And then a decade later, the actual Scorsese connection comes along. How did that develop?

When I first read for the audition, I brought my friend over and we decided that we knew Martin Scorsese’s style well, so we filmed not quite an audition video but one that maybe it would be how Marty would film it. From what I heard, when he saw my audition, he said, “Yep, that’s the guy!” and then moved on. I auditioned in November of 2020, got offered the role in January, then I was in Oklahoma in March. That’s how quickly it happened.

What was the experience on-set working not only with Scorsese but a large cast of Indigenous actors?

I asked Leo, “You’ve done six projects with Marty – does it ever stop feeling like a dream?” He said not at all. Tatanka Means is a really good friend of mine, so I was thrilled that he was there, and that we had the Indigenous cast that was there. There was a brotherhood and sisterhood that occurred between us all. We would barbecue together. This was a life-changing thing, and we experienced it together.

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William Belleau in Killers of the Flower Moon.Melinda Sue Gordon/Apple TV+

In terms of developing Henry, how much collaboration was there between you and Scorsese?

There was complete trust, hardly any notes. Marty would come from behind the camera, look at me and Bob [De Niro] and give us the thumbs up. That’s how the process went. Mostly, Bob has an idea of what he wants to do in the scene, Marty listens, then we just do it. There’s a freedom and autonomy to create, is the best way I can put it.

What has the journey been watching this film make its way into the world? You were walking the red carpet at Cannes last spring, now the film is everywhere on the awards circuit leading to the Oscars …

It’s comfortable, very comfortable. I feel like I’m at home now, that I’ve been called to do this. I don’t feel like an imposter. I feel safe. This is what happens when you allow yourself to follow your dream.

A dream that seems like it might not have come true without the support of your family …

Nothing but support. My dad, he wanted to be a fighter pilot growing up, but they wouldn’t let him fly a plane. He wanted to break that cycle. So when I had a play in high school, he watched all five showings. He said that it was okay to dream. He didn’t caution me about a Plan B. And my brother, you know, I’m thinking about the first audition I ever went to, at 19. It was a casting call in Lethbridge, and I was so terrified to get out of the car to go into this hotel conference room. My brother just kicks me out of the car and locks the door behind me. Six days later, I got the role. There is no me without my family. There is no Killers of the Flower Moon without the support I received from my family.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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