Throughout his acclaimed filmography, Martin Scorsese has been known for left-of-center casting choices. His longtime collaborator and casting director Ellen Lewis said in an interview that they always “try to go outside the box in interesting ways.” For evidence, consider memorable appearances by Scorsese’s mother, Catherine, in “Goodfellas” and the writer Fran Lebowitz as a judge in “The Wolf of Wall Street.”
The director’s epic new drama, “Killers of the Flower Moon,” is no exception. The film tells the story of a 1920s plot by white Oklahoma men, notably an uncle and nephew played by Robert De Niro and Leonardo DiCaprio, to murder members of the Osage Nation, including Mollie Burkhart and her three sisters. Alongside those recognizable Scorsese regulars, a variety of musicians, comedians and other nonactors (some recruited by the Indigenous casting director Rene Haynes) blend in seamlessly.
Here’s a spoiler-heavy guide to some of the film’s most interesting cameos.
The country singer-songwriter Jason Isbell appears as Bill Smith, husband of Mollie’s ill-fated sister Rita (played by JaNae Collins). For such a sizable part, “Killers” is the first major onscreen acting gig for the four-time Grammy winner. (He had a recurring voice role as a pastor on the Adult Swim series “Squidbillies.”) How did Isbell end up in the film? Chalk it up to downtime. The movie was shot during the pandemic when musicians would have otherwise been touring around the country. As for his main gig, Isbell’s most recent album, “Weathervanes,” with the group the 400 Unit was released earlier this year.
This indie-rock singer-songwriter (whose most recent album was “Hawaii,” a 2022 collaboration with Day Wave) eventually shows up as the much-talked-about and elusive Acie Kirby, whom DiCaprio’s hapless Ernest is tasked with finding throughout the film. While “Killers” is Pete Yorn’s first big-screen acting role, he is no stranger to the Scorsese sphere. His brother is Rick Yorn, an executive producer of “Killers” and other Scorsese projects, including “The Wolf of Wall Street” and “Gangs of New York.” Rick Yorn also happens to be Scorsese and DiCaprio’s manager.
Another noteworthy country singer-songwriter, Sturgill Simpson plays the bootlegger Henry Grammer. Though he won the 2017 best country album Grammy for “A Sailor’s Guide to Earth,” the guitarist hasturned Hollywood roles into a bustling side hustle. In addition to a recurring part on the HBO comedy series “The Righteous Gemstones,” he appeared in the 2019 drama “Queen & Slim” and was on the big screen last month in the sci-fi opus “The Creator.”
This busy comedian and actor plays John Wren, a Native American investigator. Means boasts an eclectic filmography ranging from the 2014 comedy “A Million Ways to Die in the West” to a recent appearance on the series “Reservation Dogs.” The son of the Oglala Sioux activist Russell Means (a Scorsese friend who died in 2012), the younger Means is perhaps best known for stand-up routines that reflect the Native experience.
The former White Stripes musician has a thriving career as a guitarist on his own and in groups like the Raconteurs and the Dead Weather, but he can be seen at the end of “Killers” providing multiple voices for a radio play that explains the eventual fates of the real-life figures dramatized in the film. This isn’t Jack White’s first acting gig. When he’s not at the helm of his indie label Third Man Records, he has found time to portray Elvis Presley in the 2007 music biopic spoof “Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story,” and to appear in “Portlandia” and “The Simpsons.”
This harmonica ace plays the gruff Alvin Reynolds. Charlie Musselwhite is a Chicago blues legend who is said to have inspired Dan Aykroyd’s Blues Brothers character Elwood. Lewis, the casting director, is a music fan who said she sought out Musselwhite after being taken by his weathered look while researching the Chicago label Delmark Records. “Killers” is the 79-year-old’s most sizable acting role after parts in movies like “Blues Brothers 2000” and “Windows on the World.”
The film features several prominent members of the Osage Nation including Waller, who serves as the tribe’s Minerals Council chairman. In the movie, Waller gives an impassioned speech about the plight of his people. Haynes, the casting director, said that much like the other Indigenous performers, Waller was discovered during an open casting call to fill the movie’s 62 Native roles. “His daughter actually came through and she knew I was looking for a gentleman with long hair,” Haynes recalled, adding, “I told her that if she could get him to come in, I’ll let him skip the line because I’d love to meet him.”
Though not strictly a cameo, the actor doesn’t appear till late in the film. Chosen by Scorsese and Lewis well before “The Whale” led to a career renaissance and a best actor Oscar win earlier this year, Fraser plays W.S. Hamilton, the defense attorney for De Niro’s William Hale. Lewis said Fraser was an 11th-hour choice after another actor she didn’t name dropped out.
This is also not quite a cameo, but John Lithgow doesn’t appear until late in the film. The two-time Oscar nominee has enjoyed a long and eclectic career in roles that span genres, onstage and on the big and small screens. But this is the first time he’s worked with Scorsese. Here he plays the prosecutor Peter Leaward in a series of courtroom scenes.
One of the three-and-a-half-hour film’s most surprising moments occurs during the radio-play coda. It’s Scorsese himself who reads from the obituary of Mollie Burkhart (Lily Gladstone). Scorsese is no stranger to appearing in his own work, from his 1973 breakout “Mean Streets” (he can be seen firing a gun during the car-crash finale) to “Silence” (a brief and bearded cameo in that 2016 drama). His turn in “Killers” serves as a fitting tribute to both the forgotten subjects of the story and the director who helped remind us of them.