From his humble background in Port Alberni, actor Duane Howard has not let his recent success go to his head.
Playing the role of Elk Dog in the current Hollywood blockbuster film, The Revenant, acting is only one part of Howard. He is also a motivational speaker, something that is fuelled by his own challenging experiences of the past.
Howard, a First Nation member of the Nuu-chah-nulth territory, was born in Esperanza, BC, and moved to Port Alberni with his family at the age of three. They lived at Sixth Avenue and Morton Street and he started school at Redford Elementary. He said his youth was not a hard life, but one in which he found trouble easily.
“My parents provided for us and there was always food in the fridge,” he said. “But there was alcohol involved in the family and I was introduced to it at a young age.”
By the time he was 10, Howard was sneaking drinks during family parties.
Howard’s parents separated when he was 12 years old and he and his younger siblings—two brothers and one sister—stayed with his father. He also had four older sisters who were living on their own at the time. After two years, just as he was starting school at E.J. Dunn, he moved to Vancouver.
(story continues below photo)
“After my parents separated my older sister took the four youngest ones to Vancouver and I have never left since,” he said.
It was a rough start in Vancouver.
“I tried to continue school but alcohol and drugs kicked in more,” he said. That was until I was 23, when I sobered up, and it’s been 29 years now. I just didn’t want it anymore.”
Howard returned to school to complete his Grade 12, followed by a diploma in Substance Abuse Counselling. He was working on the Downtown Eastside when he fell into the film industry.
“I wasn’t looking for it, it just came to me,” he said.
He started doing background roles, including one in the original X-Files and eventually gained experience in theatre and improv. He found an agent, was called to auditions and worked his way to stunt positions and roles in television movies and series.
Accepting the role in The Revenant required some research, Howard said.
“The character is a warrior out trying to find his daughter who was kidnapped from French trappers,” he said. “I did my homework on what the guys were all about. They were people from South Dakota so I Googled it and we had cultural advisors on set.”
Although recently he was working full time on The Revenant, he said acting is only a piece of his life.
“I do it whenever I get an audition,” he said. “That’s how it is, like anything else, (the film industry) has it’s ups and downs. It’s not steady all the time.”
When he is not on set, Howard is on stage motivating others to live their best lives. “I want to help others motivate themselves to do what they want to do in their own lives,” he said. “I started doing talks to classes and got to a place where I thought I enjoyed it. I’m going full-on ahead with it now.”
He said the reward is knowing he has helped just one or two kids or even a whole family.
As for seeing himself on the big screen, he remains humble.
“I don’t think much of it,” he said. “It is just something I do. It is just work for me. I plan to just continue doing what I am doing.”