11/09/2015 8:24 AM AEST | Updated 15/07/2016 12:51 PM AEST

Rick 'N' Roll: My Journey Through Sin To Salvation

The disease of the ego of acting is that it produces the excuse to have whatever you want, even when you know it's not morally right.

Tim Hawley via Getty Images
The Hollywood Sign above the Hollywood hills

My mother had me when she was 15. A child having a child. And we were Poor. I grew up in a shack with no bathroom, a wood burning fire. No neighbours for 20 miles. Crescent City was on the border of California and Oregan and we lived off the land (and there wasn't a lot to live on).

Mom ran away from home in the '70s. A teenage girl. She was a bit self destructive before she fell pregnant with me. I was literally her reason to live.

I never knew my father. His name was on my birth certificate, and that was pretty much all I knew about him. My mother said he was a hard-working man, which is a contradiction for me. He abandoned his wife and child. What good man does that? She was forced into marrying him by her mother.

When I was nine, I started to really see what was happening around me. Alcoholism and abuse was the norm. Every adult I knew growing up was alcoholic. I saw the behaviour of adult men with my mother and it left me feeling indifferent to men in the world, and I certainly had no idea how to actually be one. I was genuinely worried I would become someone like that. I was raised by women and that suited me just fine.

I didnt go to school till I was eight when we moved in with my grandmother in Hacienda Heights. European culture was pressed as the right way to be and to learn. We were Mexican, not Mexican Indians. Being connected to my 'Indian' heritage was not encouraged. I was meant to assimilate.

Being Indian was seen as 'bad'.. after all, European history depicted us as savages. Even my birth certificate said I was 'white'.. 'Native American' didn't even exist in the world of bureaucracy and official documents when I was born. Lets hope the apocalypse doesn't roll around and I have to explain myself in some strange line-up.

My high school best friend was a model, and he took me to meet his agent. My first big campaign was shot by Matthew Rolston, one of the world's top photographers. After that came Europe. For the first time in my life I felt seen and relevant and important. Before that I had always felt invisible. Worthless. I knew that if I was good at this job, it would free me from my past and my belief that I was nothing.

I couldn't afford acting classes and didn't really know what acting was about until I got my first job. Even with modeling work, I was still essentially a poor kid with no prior connection to this world. Acting comes with rejection, I already knew plenty about that. But I didn't know anything about the business.

I did an Indy and I got the bug. Suddenly the 'Indian" face people were shooting in ads had a voice, and I liked that a lot.

Twilight discovered they had a hole in their movie that needed to be filled:'Native American, lean, must wear Indian costume to audition.'

When I got there, Catherine Hardwicke made me take off my pants and show her my ass. They were dressing me in traditional loin cloths, and then there was 'TOO much ass!". Thank God I'd (almost) nude modeled for years. I was like: 'bring it on!'.

When the movie blew up, so did my career. It all happened at once. The fan-base of a $700 million film is pretty 'dedicated'. And it brought the business to me. Statistically, with everything I'd grown up around, it's a miracle I was even alive, let alone getting everything that came my way at that time.

All of a sudden, privilege and access was mine. It was not something I could completely comprehend. I secretly knew none of it was real, but I got caught up in the Hollywood program of excess, excess and more excess...

When I got Twilight, I was a 37-year-old man with a 19-year-old girlfriend. The disease of the ego of acting is that it produces the excuse to have whatever you want, even when you know it's not morally right.

Publicists, designers, producers... the glamorous invitations and gifts all rolled in. People around me were making money off working with 'the guy from Twilight.' It was 2008 and for the next two years I was on the Hollywood roller-coaster of sin. I was a 'featured extra', but still, Twilight was such a blockbuster, no-one cared. My life spiraled out of control. I was saying yes to everything.

Meanwhile, my much-younger girlfriend went from being a confident beautiful woman to an insecure and jealous person I didn't recognise. There was a lot of love there. Still is. Eighjt years is a long time. But ultimately there is no coming back from that. It was an unhealthy time for both of us.

And then there was the very real danger I was inviting into my life. I almost died three times because of my self-destructive behaviour. After the third time, I was really lost. That was the rockiest of bottoms. Even when I was completely out of it, even unconscious, nothing could free me from the sense of self-loathing. Why would anyone who had come from where I came from and then been given so much, aggressively throw it all away?

Why was I hurting myself? Why was I hating myself? Then it dawned on me: I was the 'token Indian'. The cardboard cutout of myself. I realised I had no real respect as a credible actor. I was the right skin colour and race, and that was it.

I needed to be saved from myself. My ego had separated me from my actual self-worth. I was beyond lost and had no idea who I was. I had been playing a stereotypical Native American Indian for 15 years without knowing what it actually meant.

The last almost-death day was three years ago. My tribal Elder, Saginaw, saved me. We'd been actor friends for five years at that point. My rescue came in the form of an invitation to come to Pow Wow. It is exactly how you'd imagine: traditional headdress and regalia, dancing around a fire, drums and chanting.

My first Pow Wow felt like coming home. Overwhelming security, and identification. There was nothing token about me any more. This is who I am -- a Native American Indian man.

I've gone from being a kid who was kept away from his heritage (to be fair, my grandparents thought it was the right thing to do), to, just last year, NASA presented Saginaw and I with an award, recognising our contribution to Native American Culture for our work.

When I play a Native American in a film now, I know what that means.

We travel the world talking about our experience and connecting with Indigenous cultures. It is the greatest honour I can imagine. Our meetings with Indigenous Elders and community members in Australia have been extraordinary. Our experiences are almost identical.

So many of the world's troubles can be solved by connecting to culture, by holding on to tradition. That is Saginaw's message, and now it is also mine.


Rick Mora and Elder Saginaw Grant will be speaking as The Voice of the Past and the Voice of the Future this weekend, 11,12,13 September, at Sydney's Hordern Pavilion.