Her career started with a bang in Lakota Woman: Siege at Wounded Knee - depicting a real life standoff between the U.S. government and Native Americans at a reservation in Wounded Knee back in the 1970s. She was nominated for a Golden Globe for her first role. Her second film was Squanto: A Warrior's Tale, in which she played another lead role. But it's probably her third role that she is best known for.
Disney's 33rd animated film was Pocahontas, a dramatization surrounding the legend of Pocahontas and John Smith. After a long search, Irene won the title role and was the voice of Disney's first American Princess.note Irene has continued to voice Pocahontas across the Disney franchise, even reprising her role twenty years later in Ralph Breaks the Internet.
Other roles she might be recognized for are Manic Pixie Dream Girl Suzy Song in Smoke Signals, Margaret Light Shines of Into The West or else Kimi Lucero of The Mist. In addition to acting, she also has her own production companies - Sleeping Lady Films and Walking Giants Productions - campaigning for better representation of Native Americans in media.
- Lakota Woman: Siege at Wounded Knee (1994) - Mary Crow Dog (nominated for Golden Globe)
- Squanto: A Warrior's Tale (1994) - Nakooma
- Pocahontas (1995) - Pocahontas (voice)
- Jonny Quest: The Real Adventures (1996) - Alice Starseer (voice)
- Song of Hiawatha (1997) - Minnehaha
- Smoke Signals (1998) - Suzy Song
- The Outer Limits (1995) (2001) - Episode "In The Blood" - Callie Whitehorse Landau
- The New World (2005) - Nonoma
- The Spectacular Spider-Man (2008) - Jean DeWolff (voice)
- The Tree of Life (2011) - Messenger
- Young Justice (2012) - Shelly Longshadow (voice)
- Longmire (2012-2015) - May Stillwater
- Songs My Brothers Taught Me (2015) - Lisa Winters
- The Mist (2017) - Kimi Lucero
- Westworld (2018) - Wichapi
- FBI: Most Wanted (2020) - Mary Lou Skye
Tropes associated with her work:
- Awesome, Dear Boy: She got on the plane to appear as Madam President in the Jay-Z video for "Family Feud" not knowing what it was even about - all because she wanted to work with Ava DuVernay.
- Casting Gag:
- In The New World she plays the mother of Pocahontas. What's more is that Christian Bale stars as John Rolfe, when he had voiced Thomas in the Disney version.
- In Naturally Native, she and Pato Hoffman play in-laws, when they had been lovers in Lakota Woman.
- In Irene's first film, Lakota Woman, Russell Means is featured as a character. The real Russell would later voice Pocahontas' father, Chief Powhatan.
- Dawson Casting:
- Irene was 26 playing Mary Crow Dog at 18 in Lakota Woman.
- Although Pocahontas was given an Age Lift so that she wasn't 12 as in real life, she's hinted to be younger than Irene's mid-20s when Irene voiced her.
- Hairstyle Inertia: She has always had the same black Rapunzel Hair. She joked in a Q&A that she's occasionally tempted to cut it, but she's kept it long.
- Hollywood Hype Machine: Her Golden Globe nominated performance in Lakota Woman and voicing Pocahontas caused her to get a lot of hype, being named the most recognisable Native American actress and getting featured on several 'Most Beautiful Women' lists. Sadly, she's still best known as Pocahontas - though she has been working away, so it seems more to do with lack of opportunities for indigenous actresses rather than talent.
- I Am Not Spock: She's probably best known as the voice of Pocahontas, though she doesn't seem to mind."It's like getting to be Santa Claus."
- Ink-Suit Actor: Many of Irene's tics were incorporated into Pocahontas.
- Life Imitates Art: After playing a real-life Native American activist in Lakota Woman, she was inspired to take more of an interest in campaigning for better representation.
- Non-Singing Voice: Judy Kuhn does Pocahontas' singing. Irene however has been in a band, so she's able to sing.
- Playing Against Type: Songs My Brothers Taught Me as an alcoholic and neglectful mother from whom her son can't wait to escape.
- Production Posse: She worked with Terence Malik in The New World and The Tree of Life.
- Romance on the Set: She met her husband, Deni Wilson, while filming Squanto: A Warrior's Tale.
- Those Two Actors:
- Starred with Tantoo Cardinal in Lakota Woman, Smoke Signals, Grand Avenue and The Lost Child.
- August Schellenberg starred with her in Grand Avenue, Lakota Woman, Crazy Horse and The New World.
- Michelle St. John had an appearance in Smoke Signals (not in the same scene as Irene) while also voicing Nakoma in Pocahontas.
- Russell Means voiced her father in both Pocahontas movies, and starred in Song of Hiawatha.
- Ur-Example: Lakota Woman saw Irene becoming the first Native American actress to headline an American film.
- Vocal Evolution: Compare her readings in the 90's, to the present. Her voice sounds distinctly more breathy than it once was.
- What Could Have Been:
- Judy Kuhn was first cast to do Pocahontas' singing, and was told that she would do the speaking if they couldn't find a Native American actress. Irene was ultimately cast.
- She was announced as directing an adaptation of Velma Wallis' Two Old Women, as Irene was a fan of the novel. However, the project never materialised.