Of the four titular Reservation Dogs, Lane Factor’s Cheese Williams might be the teen most nonchalantly in touch with his feelings. When asked to pray before meals, he can easily string together a list of people and things for which he’s grateful. At a boys’ home for wayward adolescents, he patiently listens to other boys’ dreams and plans for the future, even as they hog the phone. And in season-two finale “I Still Believe,” as the Rez Dogs gather at a California beach to remember their friend Daniel, Cheese’s speech about the tumultuous mixture of emotions they all feel after Daniel’s suicide is angry, aching, and affectionate. In his first acting role, Factor exudes earnest sincerity — although crying on command, he says, took a while to master.
“Those more challenging scenes, I’ve tried using techniques I’ve seen online or while working on The Fabelmans or other seasons of Reservation Dogs. I learned from seeing how D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai gets into character, how Devery Jacobs does it,” Factor says. “It’s still something I have to work myself up for. But now I can squeeze out one or two crocodile tears. It’s great.”
In the third and final season of Sterlin Harjo and Taika Waititi’s FX series about four teenagers living on a reservation in Okern, Oklahoma, Cheese is again the guileless core of the group. On the way home from California in season premiere “BUSSIN’,” he shares his fear of the older Bear (Woon-A-Tai) and Elora (Jacobs) leaving him behind, but very little rattles Cheese — especially once he’s better able to see the world around him thanks to a much-needed pair of glasses he gets later in the season. As Factor considers the end of Reservation Dogs, he hopes to use the confidence he’s gained from the series’s supportive atmosphere to keep his career moving forward: “I can’t really see myself doing anything else now. I love acting so much.”
This interview, conducted prior to the SAG strike, has been edited and condensed for clarity.
When the third season begins, the Rez Dogs are still in California and trying to find a way back home to Okern. Were those scenes actually shot in California or were you guys subbing in Oklahoma?
I thought we were gonna go back to California, but we ended up shooting it all in the Tulsa metro area, except for the scene when we get back; that was filmed where we usually film in Okmulgee, Oklahoma. In season two, when we’re talking with White Jesus, that was all filmed in Oklahoma. The only scene that was filmed in California was the beach. It was lots of camera trickery.
White Jesus returns in “BUSSIN’” and is played by Brandon Boyd, lead singer of Incubus. Were you familiar with their music before you started filming with him?
I was always aware of the song “Drive” because it was just one of those songs that you heard all over the radio nonstop. You’d flip on a random channel and there’s a good chance they were playing “Drive.” But I didn’t know the band, I didn’t know who was singing it. It wasn’t really until we were doing the scenes with him in season three that I found out that that’s the song he did. The first reaction I had — I wasn’t even thinking — I said out loud, “Oh yeah, I’ve heard that song. It’s a good song, but I’m so sick of hearing it, man.” And he goes, “You know what, I get that quite often.” [Laughs.] He was like, “Yeah, even I’m a little sick of hearing them sometimes.” He was very chill about it; we had a little laugh. I had him sign this metal Jesus poster we found.
As Teenie and the Rez Dogs, minus Bear, are on the bus home, Cheese works on a flip-book with sketches of Deer Lady, his grandma, and his friends. Did you do any of that artwork? Are you an artist?
Unfortunately, those aren’t drawn by me. I wish I was that talented. They’re actually drawn by one of the guys in props, assistant property master Joe Hagg. He’s incredible at what he does. He’s been working on Reservation Dogs since the pilot. He does a lot of the designs that we spray-paint. They asked me, “What do you like? What do you think Cheese would draw?” We started with those ideas. There was some Godzilla in there, and Deer Lady. We had to include the Rez Dogs in there somewhere, and that little message from Daniel. A lot of those pages are uncolored, and in between takes, I was just sitting there, coloring it all in.
As for my own artistic skills, I draw occasionally. I used to draw a lot a couple years ago, but I slowed down a little bit. I had two sketchbooks when I was in middle school, and both of them were filled with sketches I did for Dragon Ball, Godzilla, little miscellaneous things. I was huge into Dragon Ball in eighth grade, and it was only in the past year that I ended up just getting back into it — even more than I was before. [Laughs.] It’s not an issue. I can stop whenever I want.
The Rez Dogs’s graffiti plays a central role in a later episode, when Willie Jack and Cheese discuss sticking around Okern after they graduate from high school; your two characters are aligned on how they view the reservation as a special place. What’s it like working with Paulina in those moments?
Working with Paulina is the best. She’s wild; she’s crazy. Most of the things she says are improv’d. Sterlin’s pretty strict about me staying to the script, except for minor things, like if I skip a word. But Paulina, a lot of her lines are improv’d. I’m pretty sure most of the lines she said in season two were entirely improv’d. But she knows the scripts, too. She’s incredibly talented. I wish I could be that good at improv and comedy without using any words. She’s always making us laugh, and we’re always like, “Gotta wrangle up Paulina” when we’re on set. “Where did Paulina go?” “She’s talking to crafty, getting food.” I’d say she’s probably the funnier one out of the two of us.
When we were filming that first episode in the bus station, when Willie Jack says, “Snacks, let’s go,” about the vending machine, that took so long to film because Paulina kept saying, “Come on, Lane, let’s go!” She kept saying it over and over again, and it took us so much longer. I think she only said “Let’s go, Cheese,” maybe four of the 15 times we did that. We had already filmed two episodes beforehand, but we were still fully getting back into the swing of things. That’s something that happens quite often; I can’t say Paulina did that exclusively because we all did it. I did it a lot. I’d see D’Pharaoh, and instead of saying, “Bear, let’s go,” I’d say, “D’Pharaoh, let’s go,” because we’re all pretty close to how we act naturally. We’re all pretty natural with what we do.
On the bus ride home, Cheese talks to Olf, who tells him that he’s also native and offers him cookies. Over and over again, we see that people gravitate naturally to Cheese. How do you bring that mood, that calmness, to the character?
He might not know how to approach every single situation, but he’s going to try to help regardless. There might be something he doesn’t really want to do, but he likes making people happy. He doesn’t like making people mad. He might not know everything to say, but he tries his best. It’s kind of natural for me because I’ve always been a shy, more quiet person. It’s easier to slip into that bit of awkwardness, the Cheese-ness of it all. I remember filming that scene with those Oreos, and we ate so many Oreos. I have not eaten one since we filmed that.
Were they a specialty flavor?
They were just regular Double Stuf Oreos. I think we went through two and a half family-size containers. At the time, it was great. Hell, yeah, I get to eat Oreos. That guy is staff writer Ryan RedCorn, and he’s always crazy on set. After the fifth take on the bumpy bus going 30 miles an hour with all the air conditioning turned off, the scene that takes two and a half minutes each take and he’s stuffing his face with Oreos and I’m stuffing my face with Oreos — after an hour and a half of filming that over and over, I’m done with Oreos. The second that camera cuts, we both looked at each other like, “Can we just fake it?”
I’m curious, given your reaction to the Oreos: Would you follow in Cheese’s footsteps and eat a doughnut offered to you by a stranger from a plastic bag?
Oh, definitely. I would definitely do it. They got sprinkles? They got chocolate as a glaze? If it’s the ones that are filled, nah, I’m good. But first of all, who would turn down a free doughnut? And second of all, you don’t gotta pay. Maybe you’ll get a sickness, but it’s a doughnut. That’s my one weakness. I might regret it later, but that’s a problem for future me. Right now, this is a doughnut. Filming that scene, I ate so many doughnuts. Just like the Oreos, by the end of it, I was like, I’m never eating a doughnut again. And that very next morning, I was eating doughnuts.
The Oreos, the doughnuts — it’s all still work.
Yeah, and I love acting, you know? I can’t really see myself doing anything else now. Everything that goes into it, everything behind the scenes, how it gets off the ground to releasing the final product — that’s so interesting to me, and I love being part of that process. Someday I’d like to be working somewhere behind the camera.
Is there a certain position or field that you’ve become more interested in while working on Reservation Dogs?
Of course, directing. Blackhorse Lowe — he’s a phenomenal director and I love learning from him. I definitely hung around quite a little bit when we were filming and asked him a whole bunch of questions. That’s something that’d be really cool to do, eventually direct something. But I’d have no idea how to approach that, no idea what I’d be doing. I’m not really that much of an authoritative person when it comes to that stuff. If I were to ever direct something, that would be a long time down the road.
I also really liked learning about how the sound process works and matching all the audio. The guys who worked with sound, I’m really close with them and they’re really good people. And the camera itself — everything that goes into the camera, all the different lenses, doing digital, doing IMAX, doing film, doing tape. I’ve always loved watching how they position cameras, how they approach different angles, and how many angles go into a scene. That’s kind of broken the illusion for me when I watch TV. I’ll be watching an action scene and think, “Oh my gosh, this probably took all day to film. There are so many angles, so many camera changes.” That’s something that bugs me now.
A big change for Cheese this season is that he gets glasses. Are those actual glasses with a prescription or fake glasses? How did you feel about that character detail?
I do like that Cheese got glasses because it’s a follow-up from “NDN Clinic.” In real life, I do wear glasses. For all of seasons one and two, I was wearing contacts. Season three, they were like, “Since you’re getting glasses, we’ll just make it your prescription.” The glasses they chose, I initially really did not like. It literally wasn’t until the last three episodes they started growing on me. They’re pretty good glasses. They’re definitely bigger than the ones I wear. It took me a while to grow into them. While we were filming all the scenes with my glasses, they would keep slipping off, so I would have to keep readjusting them. That happened so often that it just became a habit that I do. When I’m doing anything, I’ll just start readjusting my glasses, fixing them on my face, because I’m so used to the glasses falling down. I was catching them and pushing them back up, and now I just can’t stop doing it. I’ve never had this problem before.
I do like when Elora ruffles Cheese’s hair after seeing him in the glasses. You get a sense of their relationship and how they relate to each other.
That scene with Elora and Cheese that shows the older-sister–younger-brother relationship they’ve always had: It was cute, I’ll admit. I remember the hair department wasn’t particularly fond of that because the whole messing-up-my-hair thing was kind of improv’d by her.
This is Reservation Dogs’s final season. When did you learn that, and how did you feel about the news?
It’s kind of a funny story. We were nearing the end of filming, and Sterlin pulled all the cast who were on set at the time — the main cast and the Bad Guy Gang, it was all eight of us — away from everyone. He had us all stand in a circle, and he goes, “I want to thank all you guys for being on the set, doing all this stuff for us over these years. But we think that this season might be the final season.” Nothing was final yet, but they were thinking it’s looking that way. That definitely made me feel sad, a little hollow, a little numb. But at the same time, I felt pretty content because I’m really happy with the first and second seasons, and the third is probably my favorite. I know we’re ending it on a high note. I’m perfectly content with this being where it ends.
I didn’t actually get the confirmation until my birthday. I was eating dinner with my family and then I got a call from Sterlin. It was 8:30 at night. I thought he was calling for a happy-birthday call. But when I picked up, he was like, “We just got the word that this is gonna be the final season. It’s been an honor to work with you, Lane. Thank you for working with us. It’s been great watching you grow.” Getting that confirmation, I had a sinking feeling in my chest. This is really it. I can’t wait for everyone to see it.
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