a long talk

Zahn McClarnon Is Just Being Honest

After 30 years elevating supporting roles, the Dark Winds lead wants to take more risks.

Photo: AMC/© 2021 Stalwart Productions
Photo: AMC/© 2021 Stalwart Productions

You remember Zahn McClarnon’s face. He infuses every part — resistant Cheyenne Reservation chief of police Mathias on Longmire, menacing mobster Hanzee Dent in Fargo, unpredictable Westworld host Akecheta — with a mixture of poise and intensity that electrifies the screen, rendering even his quietest parts unforgettable. Now, after 30 years in supporting roles, McClarnon steps up to lead in AMC neo-noir series Dark Winds and unleashes his vast skill set.

As Joe Leaphorn, a Navajo Police lieutenant investigating two murders while navigating distrustful members of his own community and dismissive white colleagues, McClarnon maintains an unguarded resolve that vacillates from steadiness to restlessness, as if his loyalty to investigative procedure was his way of reckoning with the discrimination he’s faced his whole life. Lieutenant Leaphorn is slyly funny in scenes with Jim Chee (Kiowa Gordon), his conflicted new deputy; gently paternal with the steadfast Sergeant Bernadette Manuelito (Jessica Matten); tender with beloved wife Emma (Deanna Allison); and furiously defensive of the Navajo land and people. Though McClarnon dismisses the idea of a formal process — “I learn my lines and try to tell the truth,” he says — his approach to the material and ability to remain present anchors Dark Winds with his grounded performance.

Dark Winds’ first-season finale aired July 17, but McClarnon won’t be offscreen for long. The second season of Reservation Dogs, in which he plays tribal lighthorseman Big, premieres on FX on Hulu August 3, and the second season of Dark Winds will go into production later this year. Between Dark Winds, Reservation Dogs, and Rutherford Falls, there is more Native representation on TV than ever — a shift McClarnon, the son of a Hunkpapa-Lakota mother and an Irish American father, wants to see translate into more Indigenous people in decision-making network positions and more ethnically ambiguous roles for Indigenous actors.

You’ve played many law-enforcement figures over the years — Longmire, Reservation Dogs, and now Dark Winds. In terms of your process, is there anything shared among these roles? 
They’re all different characters. Matthias on Longmire was the friction between the reservation and Bob Taylor, who played Longmire. When I tried to be nice — I would change lines, or I would approach it in a different way — I was always told by the producers, “We really, really need that friction between you two.” Which is understandable, I get it. Growing up the way I did, seeing the racism on those reservation border towns — preparation for that was pretty easy.

As far as Reservation Dogs, I jumped off a cliff with Big. I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do, and Sterlin Harjo allowed me to do whatever I wanted and take a lot of risks, which was a lot of fun and a lot of improv. Big’s got a lot going on inside. You’ll see more of that in season two. And then you go into Joe Leaphorn, which is a character with different principles and a moral compass. He has different characteristics of people I grew up around, mainly uncles and relatives. People I knew through ceremony in South Dakota. But all those characters are me, obviously. It scares me when people start talking about “process,” because I don’t know what the process is, you know? [Laughs.] I learn my lines and try to tell the truth. I do research with making backstories. I go into the scenes and make sure I have my intentions and objectives. I don’t know any other way to put it except try to be as honest as possible.

The Zahn stare is something that comes up often in reviews of your work: particular praise for how expressive you are with just your eyes. When did you realize it had become a signature, and is it something you think about?
No, it’s not. It’s not a conscious thing, you know? It’s how Zahn reacts, I guess. It’s not contrived. Being in the moment is really important for acting, and that’s part of my process there. It isn’t making a lot of sense. What does “being present” mean?

When I’m watching you in a scene, it doesn’t look like you’re waiting to talk.
No, listening — that’s another thing. Listening to the other actor. Looking at the other actor, looking and listening and seeing where they are. It’s hard, but it keeps you out of what you’re doing and what you’re thinking about. That’s a part of being present.

Is there a memory from your childhood or a specific experience that one of your uncles had that fed into Joe? 
I grew up inside the National Park Service, my father worked for the federal government, and then my grandparents and aunts and uncles lived on the reservation. Being part white and part Native, I always felt I didn’t belong to either community. Joe is walking a different kind of line — between doing his job right and the cultural line of his people. I took a lot of those experiences and put them into Joe. Leaphorn has a moral code and a lot of dignity and decency, and I’ve always felt I’ve had that. I’ve certainly had personal wounds from my past that I brought. I’ve had death in my family, and death with close people, so I was able to tap into that quite easily with the portrayal of Joe’s son dying in the show. I don’t have any kids, but I’ve certainly mentored younger people, so I brought that to the relationship with Jim Chee.

What was the first day on set like?
There’s always nervousness on the first day. But what was great is that it’s pretty much a groundbreaking show. We’ve got Reservation Dogs and Rutherford Falls going right now, and this is the first cop drama with Native leads, Native writers, Native producers, a Native director. It’s great to walk onto a set and realize we’re getting a chance to tell our own stories. They’re Hillerman’s stories recontextualized through a different lens.

It’s exciting to walk on set and see your friends, and all the cast are Native, and you’ve got crew people walking around who are Native. Like Reservation Dogs, it’s a big family. Everybody knows each other. Sterlin’s a close friend of mine. The writers are all close. It’s kind of a dream come true, it really is, to finally see a different representation of our people on TV.

And with Dark Winds, being No. 1 on a show and setting a certain tone on a set — I took that responsibility on. I learned from some great people. Robert Taylor from Longmire set a wonderful tone on set, was nice to people, welcomed the guest stars. We look forward to doing season two. We see the mistakes we’ve made, and we’ll try to correct those mistakes and do the best possible job we can.

Are these mistakes you recognized of your own volition, or are they based on feedback you received
Both. We had quite a time crunch. We were green-lit and basically had six weeks to write six episodes and go into production. A lot of things got missed. Some of the things that came up through my communication with the community I’m taking onto my shoulders to make sure we get those things right. We didn’t see them at the time, and now we do. I don’t really want to go into the mistakes.

I’m Iranian American, and sometimes when a TV show or movie incorporates some element of your home culture, people outside that community can take it as one example of representation to stand for the group in its entirety. Dark Winds is specifically about Navajo culture, but I wonder if certain viewers might assume the series represents every single Indigenous group and its practices. Was that something you discussed while working on season one?
Yeah. It comes down to the Native writers who wrote for the show. It is a specific culture. We’ve got so many Indigenous tribes within the United States, and they’re all different. All we can do is try to hire the right people. The authenticity is something we care about deeply. We had multiple consultants on this show as far as language, wardrobe, the different cultural aspects, the ceremonies, the set dressing. That’s what we plan on doing again this year and going even further with it. It’s important that we try to get those cultural aspects right. But the thing is, we’re not doing a documentary.

There can be some amount of license because it’s a fictional TV show.
Yeah. It’s hard to navigate that stuff. We’re very aware of it. I don’t think anybody can ever pass that purity test, you know? All we can do is try the best we can and make sure we have the proper guidance. The language is an extremely difficult language to pronounce and learn, and there are certain things we can do to make sure it’s better. We’re going to keep striving to represent the Navajo culture in a good way. But it is a cop show, and it just happens to be Native leads and set on a Navajo reservation.

In the season finale, there is a montage set to Joe reciting the phrase “Walk in beauty” that cycles through where the community is now that the crimes are solved. I know that’s an important phrase in Native culture. What do those words mean to you, and what was it like to recite them in such a pivotal moment for the season’s ending?
That prayer is the Navajo prayer. It was important for me to make sure I pronounced those words correctly, to make sure I captured the essence of that prayer. We were going to shoot that on film, and I didn’t think I was going to be able to do it justice because it’s such a long prayer and the language is so difficult to learn. We ended up shooting it over a montage, and I was able to go into the studio and have our language person, Taft Blackhorse, sit next to me and make sure I had all those syllables and sounds right.

McClarnon on set with his Dark Winds co-star Kiowa Gordon. Photo: Michael Moriatis/Stalwart Productions/AMC

Dark Winds, Reservation Dogs, and Rutherford Falls are all airing right now, and that’s significant for Native and Indigenous strides in TV. But this is also a time when the Supreme Court is ruling against the sovereignty of Native lands. I’m wondering if you’ve ever thought of acting as activism — like your work as an actor is inherently an expression of activism.
Yeah, I do. I take that on my shoulders — being an example to the youth of what you can do if you work hard at it. Sobriety is a big part of my life. Being an example, through my sobriety and what I’ve learned from my past with addiction, of a different way of living. We call it the Čhaŋkú Lúta, which is “walking the red road.” And that’s what Joe Leaphorn does. He’s got these principles and this moral compass, and he walks that road. I haven’t gotten into a lot of activism, but it is activism through my work. I like how you put that.

It’s a wonderful time for us Native people, having leads on television shows and hopefully changing people’s perspectives. And we still have a long ways to go. I would like to see more people behind the camera, in producers’ roles, in network roles — executives who are Native. I hope to go into development deals where we can keep telling these stories.

You were in the “National Parks” episode of Drunk History, which explained the Indians of All Tribes occupation of Alcatraz, and Dark Winds is about the American Indian Movement. Your mother and some other relatives were involved in the American Indian Movement, and you’ve said you remember discussion of it around the dinner table. Do those memories inform your work when you’re playing characters of that time? 
Sure, sure. All those life experiences: being around the actual people, working with Russell Means and Dennis Banks, people who were our heroes growing up. I was a young kid in the ’70s, but later in life I was able to meet a lot of those people and spend time with people who were at Wounded Knee back in ’73 and hang out with John Trudell, who was at Alcatraz, and listen to his stories. I bring all of that to my work. Growing up in my culture is going to bring something different than somebody who didn’t grow up around that part of the United States: South Dakota, Nebraska, Montana, Wyoming — Indian Country, basically. The ceremonies I attended as a kid, how important those things were to me as a young teenager in becoming proud of being part Native American, I brought that to all the characters I play. Once in a while, I’ll get a character who is kind of ambiguous and doesn’t really have an ethnicity, and I like doing that as well.

I want to ask you about one of those ambiguous characters: Crow Daddy in Doctor Sleep. First, do you know how attractive people on the internet find this character? There is a lot of thirst for this seemingly immortal energy vampire.
No, I’m not aware of that stuff, but thanks for telling me. I’m content to stay away from the Reddits and Twitter and stuff, but that’s wonderful. I’m glad that people think Crow Daddy was … sexy?

Very hot! Incredibly hot! 
That’s awesome, because I don’t feel incredibly hot. That’s wonderful to hear.

You have such amazing chemistry with Rebecca Ferguson as Rose the Hat. 
Rebecca Ferguson is just an amazing, amazing actress. To work with somebody like that and soak in what they were doing, and watch how much prep she put into that character, and how much she worked with the language person to get rid of her accent — I love being around people who are so dedicated to their craft. I just soak it all up. I try to take different aspects of what they’re doing and implement it into my craft. I learned how to have more fun and not be so intense. I slip into that: I’m really focused on wanting to get things right, and sometimes I go over the top with it. And Rebecca would tease me or make me laugh. She made me feel very, very comfortable. It’s intimidating working with somebody so good like that, and you want to be as good, and you slip into the anxiety of that. She calmed me down quite a bit and helped me to listen and be in the moment.

We had a lot of fun on that set. I read for that part, but what was amazing was one of the first things when I got the job was to ask, “His name is Crow Daddy, so you kind of think, Is he Native or not?” And they were very open to making him ambiguous. They let me cut my hair and grow a little mustache and a little goatee — they darkened it up quite a bit. You don’t know where he comes from. I love doing jobs like that, and I hope more come in the future, I really do. First and foremost, I’m an actor who happens to be part Native American.

I read an interview with your Dark Winds co-star and longtime friend Rob Tepper in which he discussed how you would drive together to set everyday, sometimes as early as 4 a.m. In those drives, are you going over scenes or are you just soaking in the Santa Fe landscape? 
Both. It was pretty early in the morning, and we were having our coffee. The drive to our studio, Camel Rock Studios in Tesuque, Santa Fe — the landscape is just incredible with the sun coming up. You’re soaking that in before you get to the set. There are parts of the Navajo reservation that are in New Mexico, and it’s the same landscape, basically. We’re usually prepared before we get into that car, and we do a little bit of work in the trailer before they call us up to set. It’s a 20-minute car ride, and a lot of things happen. It certainly gets you into what Joe probably experienced every day with the vastness of being on the reservation. You have to drive miles and miles just to get to work or a police call. There’s a lot of driving involved. I do hope we capture even more of the vastness of the Navajo reservation in season two.

I watched Dark Winds after I got back from a trip to Glacier National Park, and everything was a 45-minute drive, sometimes through Browning. It was overwhelmingly beautiful. 
I’m glad you got to experience that. My aunts and uncles live in Browning, and my mom was raised in Browning, and I lived 30 miles away — I lived in St. Mary, which is inside the east-side entrance of the park. Then I lived on the west side of the entrance part of the year.

We saw a grizzly bear, I cried, it was a whole thing.
That’s awesome. I grew up with those grizzlies. When all the tourists would be trying to feed a grizzly bear, my father would have to get out of the car and say, “Come on, guys.”

Harjo is the co-creator and showrunner of Reservation Dogs, on which he also directs. Dark Winds is based on the Leaphorn & Chee series of novels by Tony Hillerman. While most reviews of Dark Winds have been positive, feedback from within the Native and Indigenous community included criticism about the series’ treatment of the Navajo language. The Navajo Times published a series about these complaints in June 2022. Russell Means was a leader in the American Indian Movement and an actor who appeared in films including The Last of the Mohicans. Dennis Banks was a co-founder of the American Indian Movement who participated in the Native occupation of Alcatraz.
Zahn McClarnon Is Just Being Honest