When Zahn McClarnon started out as an actor in the 1990s, the idea of a Native American protagonist — especially one in a series largely populated by other Native characters — seemed like a distant dream. Growing up and spending a lot of time on the Blackfeet Indian reservation with his Lakota grandparents, McClarnon was often disheartened by the limited opportunities he was given until recent years, when he started earning bigger roles on series like “Fargo”, “Longmire”. ” and ” West World”
When Graham Roland started writing and then producing for television 15 years ago, the idea of a Native American series, with native directors and crew, also seemed unlikely. Roland, who has Chickasaw roots, wrote, produced and created shows with White stars and crew: “Prison Break”, “Fringe” and “Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan”.
But last year broke new ground with the sitcom “Reservation Falls” on Peacock and the dramedy “Reservation Dogs” on FX, both featuring numerous native actors, writers, directors and crew members. Now McClarnon stars in Roland’s latest series “Dark Winds,” which premieres Sunday at 9 p.m. on AMC
The show is based on one of Tony Hillerman’s crime novels about two native law enforcement officers, Joe Leaphorn (McClarnon) and Jim Chee (Kiowa Gordon, who is of Hualapai descent), although it also stars a third officer, Bernadette. extensive. Manuelito (Jessica Matten, who is of Red River Metis-Cree Heritage). Set on the Navajo Reservation in Arizona, the series gives numerous Navajo actors their first break, including Deanna Allison, who plays Leaphorn’s wife, Emma.
The executive producers include: George RR Martin, Robert Redford and Chris Eyre, who directed the pilot and belong to the Cheyenne and Arapho tribes. Redford first opted for the books decades ago, hoping to make a movie series. A first effort, directed by Errol Morris and starring Lou Diamond Phillips, was shelved in the early 1990s. A decade later, Redford produced three Hillerman adaptations for PBS starring Wes Studi and Adam Beach as Leaphorn and Chee; Eyre directed two of those films.
While the show is a crime thriller, it also touches on numerous topics, including land and mineral rights; the practice of white doctors illegally performing surgeries on indigenous women so that they could no longer have children; the government that established Indian schools that tried by force to expose Native Americans.
McClarnon and Roland recently spoke separately via video about their experiences in Hollywood and about the new show and what it means for them and for the Indigenous community. The interviews have been edited for length and clarity.
Q. Zahn, in the years when it was hard to get roles in Hollywood let alone fleshed out roles, were you ever tempted to walk away from acting?
McClarnon: I had no backup plan. It was either working as an actor or doing dishes or construction. So I stuck with it. Around 2014, things started to open up more. Things have been changing slowly for decades – we’re not just sitting on horses that howl and scream – it just doesn’t change as quickly as we’d like. Every year it gets a little better.
I like roles where I don’t play my ethnicity, although they are not very common. But we also want to tell our stories and have representation in the writing rooms and directing and producing. Right now we are at a unique time for Indigenous representation with “Rutherford Falls”, “Reservation Dogs” and now “Dark Winds”.
We finally have a voice in the media. To be part of this moment is special.
Q. Graham, did you want to write something that specifically reflected your native heritage?
Roland: I had always dreamed of doing a show in an Indigenous community with an Indigenous protagonist. In my father’s generation, the Natives were always the adversary; in my generation in the ’90s there were steps forward – “Dances with Wolves” went out of their way to humanize indigenous characters – but you still see the indigenous community through the eyes of a white character.
Bob [Redford] has been trying to have these books made since the 1980s. Most people would have given up. His original vision was for a series of movies, but now it makes sense to do it as a TV show so that he and George [R.R. Martin] sat down with Chris Eyre and in 2019 they came to me to write it.
I hadn’t read the Tony Hillerman books, but when they were in front of me, I was only a few pages away when I realized this was what I was looking for.
V. Bernadette plays a vital role in the fight for justice for the crimes committed. Was that all in the book or did you update it?
Roland: Bernadette was a great character in Hillerman’s books and is a much bigger character now that his daughter Anne has taken over the series. But times have changed and early on Chris, George, Bob and I decided we needed to make this character as formidable as her male counterparts. We wanted to make her as important to the story as Leaphorn and Chee.
Q. But you haven’t completely modernized the show. Does the setting of the 1970s make it easier to tackle certain things?
Roland: Yes. The characters had faced some of these issues – Chris and I both had relatives who were taken from their homes and forced to go to these schools, where they had their hair cut and not allowed to speak their language. That’s such a big part of the Indigenous people story, so putting it back then we could talk about trauma being experienced in a way that felt organic.
Q. How important was it that Joe Leaphorn not only fights crime on the reservation but also has a mature and well-developed relationship with his wife and others in his family and community?
Roland: I was aware that I wanted this show to be universal, to be an entertaining police thriller and for everyone to grab hold of these characters and identify with them, so the universality of Joe’s experience was important.
McClarnon: A lot of the characters I played for “Fargo” were pretty one-dimensional and I rarely do the main character, so it’s nice to have a fully rounded human being exploring real-life relationships. It was wonderful to examine the aches and pains he was going through. That’s why I act, to dive into these characters.
Q. When there are so many native characters, it gives you the freedom to not have them representatives, but just be human – they can be good guys and bad guys and everything in between. Is it exciting that instead of saying, “Here’s one of us,” you say, “Here’s all of us?”
Roland: It’s refreshing not to have to write the good Indian or the polite Indian and put all hopes in one person. It’s really exciting to write all these aspects of life and “Reservation Dogs” has proven that there is an audience for these stories.
Q. Between the robberies, kidnappings and murders on the reservation, there are celebratory scenes such as an indigenous ceremony for Leaphorn’s niece. Is it important to show that too?
McLarnon: You would be surprised how ill-informed people are about the native culture. I’ve had kids over the years come up to me and make “woo, woo, woo” sounds. Our culture was never taught in our schools and what there was was misrepresented. There are hundreds of tribes: each has its own customs and traditions. Authenticity is always important to us, we had the right cultural and language advisors to make sure we were doing things accurately.
Roland: Not one person can be expected to get every detail – from props to set design to writing – right, so having the entire production filled with native crew members adds an extra layer of authenticity.