For 30 years onscreen, Zahn McClarnon — stone-faced, soft-spoken and simmering with quiet depth — has made a reputation for himself, largely, by taking part in some fairly powerful characters.
There was the murderous strip membership proprietor in “Ringer”; the fierce and tortured android Akecheta, chief of the Ghost Nation, in HBO’s “Westworld”; and the menacing Hanzee Dent, a ruthless killer in the FX sequence “Fargo.” The listing goes on.
So you couldn’t blame a youthful actor for feeling barely intimidated, as Kiowa Gordon, 32, did earlier than starring alongside McClarnon in the new six-part AMC thriller “Dark Winds,” debuting Sunday. They had labored collectively earlier than, on the Sundance sequence “The Red Road,” however McClarnon’s a long time of expertise and thousand-yard stare had misplaced none of their efficiency.
“Is this guy gonna kill me?” Gordon recalled with amusing about the prospect of working with McClarnon once more. “Is he a robot?”
Not that killer robots can’t be charming. “He just looks scary,” their “Dark Winds” co-star Jessica Matten later mentioned, additionally laughing. She added: “But he’s the sweetest man on planet Earth.”
For Gordon and Matten, each of whom are of Native descent, “Dark Winds” was an opportunity to work intently with a large amongst Indigenous display actors. For McClarnon, 55, whose a long time of hustle helped pave the method for a rising new technology of Native actors, the present is his first main position in a daily TV sequence and his first sequence as an government producer — the sorts of firsts that really feel good at any stage of expertise.
The present can also be particular for McClarnon, who’s of Lakota and Irish descent, due to its forged and crew: Nearly the whole forged is Native — a rarity, to say the least — as are its creator, Graham Roland (“Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan”); its whole writers’ room; and far of the different crew, from the assistants to the props division.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the position seems to be his favourite to this point: “I mean, if I was put on the spot,” McClarnon mentioned.
“You’re seeing the show from the perspective of people who have grown up around their culture and understand what it’s like to live on the reservation,” added McClarnon, who lived on reservations rising up. “They understand the nuances, the relationships, the humor.”
McClarnon performs Joe Leaphorn, a veteran officer of the Navajo Tribal Police and one half of the Indigenous crime-solving duo Leaphorn & Chee, the protagonists of a long-running sequence of thriller novels by Tony Hillerman. Gordon performs the different half, Jim Chee, Leaphorn’s newly arrived deputy. The story follows them and Bernadette Manuelito (Matten), a Navajo police sergeant who typically prefers horses to individuals, as they examine a ugly double homicide sophisticated by an armored-car heist which will have concerned a militant Native group.
This is McClarnon’s first time starring in a Leaphorn & Chee adaptation; the others comprise 4 characteristic movies (“The Dark Wind,” “Skinwalkers,” “Coyote Waits” and “A Thief of Time”) and have starred a few of Hollywood’s most profitable Indigenous actors, together with Adam Beach, Tantoo Cardinal, Graham Greene and Wes Studi.
In a video interview from his dwelling in Los Angeles final month, McClarnon was humorous and modest — maybe self-deprecating to a fault. Asked about his luck, he credited a lot of it to the assist of others and to (no kidding) his punctuality.
One received the sense there was extra to his success than that, as he spoke about his nomadic childhood (his father labored for the National Park Service), his early days in Los Angeles and his lengthy highway to “Dark Winds.”
Born in Denver, McClarnon spent a lot of his youth hopscotching all through the Midwest, with stopovers at Yellowstone and Glacier National Park. “I grew up in the Park Service, basically,” he mentioned.
A self-described “rambunctious kid” — “I didn’t like school that much,” he admitted — he fell in love with performing in Iowa after getting a small half as an apostle in a neighborhood manufacturing of “Jesus Christ Superstar.”
“They wanted people with long hair, and they obviously wanted to include people of color,” he mentioned. “So that’s pretty much why I got that job.”
McClarnon was hooked by the camaraderie and the ovations. After showing in a couple of native commercials — taking pictures hoops in a single, taking part in a building employee in one other — he moved to Los Angeles in 1991 to pursue performing as a profession. It was a time of nice promise for Indigenous actors.
“‘Dances with Wolves’ had come out, and there were productions looking for Native American actors,” he mentioned. He discovered a collective in Los Angeles referred to as First Americans in the Arts, a gaggle of actors tied collectively by a nationwide casting registry that included Julius Drum (“Thunderheart”); Steve Reevis (“Dances With Wolves,” the Coen Brothers’ “Fargo”); and Studi (“The Last of the Mohicans”).
Several of them shared an condo in Hollywood, typically making an attempt out for the similar roles. “We gave each other rides to auditions, we hung out at pow wows,” he mentioned. “There was competition, obviously, but we were all happy that everybody was working.”
For all that, it was laborious to keep away from roles that performed to stereotypes — “I look a certain way, so I was doing both Latino gangbanger roles, and Native ones as well,” McClarnon mentioned — however he made the most of each half, it doesn’t matter what it was or how small. Indeed, his sharp cheekbones and haunted eyes conveyed a delicate ferocity that was laborious to neglect. (The New York Times critic Mike Hale not too long ago described him as “that guy you remember even though his name was well down the cast list.”)
“Zahn has a very expressive face, and a beautiful way of communicating a lot without saying anything,” mentioned Roland, the “Dark Winds” creator. “There’s a tremendous pathos to him.”
By the time McClarnon landed “Dark Winds,” he had been in additional than 80 movies and TV exhibits mixed, together with, most not too long ago, the acclaimed FX on Hulu dramedy “Reservation Dogs,” wherein McClarnon performs the hard-nosed however softhearted Officer Big. There’s that quiet depth once more.
“There’s a gravitas, man,” mentioned Chris Eyre, who directed 4 episodes of “Dark Winds.” (His credit embody directing “Smoke Signals,” from 1998, the first characteristic movie written, directed and carried out by Native Americans to obtain widespread theatrical distribution.) “Zahn has this feel to him, based on his own experience of being a Native person and his decades of film and television work.”
The present’s roster of government producers contains Eyre, Robert Redford and George R.R. Martin, Santa Fe residents all. Eyre met Redford, who was an government producer on the earlier Leaphorn & Chee variations, via the Sundance Institute Directors Lab in 1995, and the two remained pals. Martin met the writer Hillerman in the ’80s via a New Mexico writers membership, and was a giant fan of his work.
“A light bulb went off,” Eyre mentioned. “It was about 2015, 2016, and we all sat down and started kicking around this idea of resurrecting Hillerman.”
McClarnon secured the position of Leaphorn earlier than the present had even been greenlit. “Frankly, I’m not sure if we would have sold the project to AMC had Zahn not been attached,” Roland mentioned. “He was a big part of our sales pitch.”
The sequence was finally picked up in July 2021, and manufacturing started the following month. McClarnon set about placing individuals relaxed.
“On our first day on ‘Dark Winds,’ he goes to the crew, ‘I just want to give everyone a heads up: Even if I look cranky, I’m not,’” Matten mentioned with amusing. “‘It’s just process.’ And it’s so true. There’s not a mean bone in that man’s body.”
“I’ve heard stories where a lot of leads, unfortunately, don’t really welcome the input of their co-stars,” she continued. “But he’s smart, and understands what this does for our Indigenous peoples, and how this is going to impact all of us in the long run.”
Gordon had an identical expertise on set; the three leads bonded over the three-month manufacturing, he mentioned, they usually have continued to be in contact because it ended. “Well, when he’s home,” Gordon clarified. “Sometimes he’ll just take weeks off and ride his motorcycle around the country.”
McClarnon is at the moment working on a number of initiatives, together with the Disney+ Marvel sequence “Echo,” scheduled for subsequent yr, wherein he’ll reprise the position of the titular superhero’s father, which he performed in the sequence “Hawkeye.” It’s simply the type of position he want to do extra of.
“I’m getting to an age where I’m looking like a father, finally,” he mentioned. “So yeah, father stuff, relationships, the nuances of intimacy — love, I guess, whether that’s romantic love or just love for another human being. Exploring that sort of thing is what gets me out of bed.”