Zahn McClarnon: ‘Dark Winds’ is a chance for Native Americans to tell their own stories

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From left, Jessica Matten, Zahn McClarnon and Kiowa Gordon can now be seen playing Joe Leaphorn in the crime drama “Dark Winds.” Photo by Michael Moriatis/AMC

NEW YORK, June 19 (UPI) — Longmire and Westworld icon Zahn McClarnon says he wanted to star in dark windsAMC’s adaptation of Tony Hillerman’s beloved Leaphorn & Chee book series, as it would be the rare TV show with a predominantly Native American cast and writing staff.

“It’s a chance to get more visibility for our community, a chance for us to tell our own stories,” McClarnon told reporters during a recent virtual roundtable interview. “These things are important to me.”

Airing on Sundays, the show is set in 1971 in a remote outpost of the Navajo Nation near Monument Valley in the southwestern region of the United States.

McClarnon plays Tribal Police Lt. Joe Leaphorn who investigates the mysterious death of an elderly, sick Native American seeking the help of a blind healer and his granddaughter at a reservation motel. His deputies Jim Chee (Kiowa Gordon) and Bernadette Manuelito (Jessica Matten), decades younger, assist Leaphorn in the case.

For years, McClarnon’s face has been familiar on television, but dark winds marks his first outing as lead and producer on the series.

“It’s a different hat to wear,” McClarnon acknowledged. “I enjoyed the process a lot. It definitely adds a bit more on your shoulders, a bit more responsibility. I enjoyed, primarily, the casting part, helping with the casting.”

Even though the American Southwest of the 1970s isn’t often seen on screen, the time and place are good for storytelling, and Dark Winds uses the setting to good effect, its stars pointed out.

“It’s also about tapping into the American Indian movement, being able to introduce Indigenous characters at this time when it was a very defining moment in North American history,” the actress said. .

“We address issues throughout the show that are directly related to the cause. I find that incredible.”

The 1970s were also just a fun time to revisit, according to McClarnon, who experienced the era in real life.

“History, film, art and television? It was an exciting time in the 1970s. It was exciting for me to be able to go back to that period and, as Jessica said, it a lot was going on with the Native American culture,” McClarnon said.

“There was kind of a renaissance in the 70s for Native Americans to find their identity and be proud of it.”

Gordon loved the old-school, but then-appropriate investigative techniques that cops had to rely on to track down people and solve crimes in a jurisdiction that spans tens of thousands of miles.

“You have to have a lot of skill in that department,” Gordon said.

Matt agreed.

“We work by instinct and, on top of that, we know our lands,” she said. “We have a nice balance, the three of us.”

While the show’s trailer hints at supernatural themes such as visions, healing rituals and people using drugs to protect themselves from evil spirits, McClarnon said it’s not a big part of it. of the story they were trying to tell here.

“Throughout the history of television, when it comes to Native stories, there’s been a lot of romantic mysticism,” he said.

“With dark winds, we tried not to be so on the nose. Yes, it’s part of the culture, but don’t put it front and center in stories,” he added. “Among the stereotypes of Native culture and Native Americans is that we are these stoic, mystical creatures. We don’t want to duplicate that stereotype.”

Matten had not read the Leaphorn & Chee books before beginning work on the series, opting instead to rely on the scripts.

“After being in character for so long, you get into the novels,” Matten said.

“So I started reading them and they are fascinating.”

Gordon, on the other hand, devoured the series as soon as he heard a TV version was in the works.

“Audible is great – just download all the books and listen to them when you’re in the car,” the actor said.

“I don’t have a lot of time to sit down and turn page after page. And I saw the TV miniseries they did for PBS,” he said, referring to 2002. skin walkers. “I was actually an extra once. My mom knew Adam Beach, who was playing Jim Chee at the time. We went on set and I walked into one of the scenes. It’s so funny.”

The show is created and produced by Graham Roland; Chris Eyre is director and executive producer; George RR Martin and Robert Redford are producers; and co-star Noah Emmerich and Rainn Wilson.

Eyre, who also previously worked on skin walkerssaid in an email interview with UPI that McClarnon, Gordon, and Matten were hired because they were hard-working, knowledgeable about their Native American culture/history, and had a hard-to-define, but instantly recognizable, special fact.

Roland told UPI separately that there was no audition process for Leaphorn.

“Zahn has always been our choice for Joe Leaphorn,” Roland said.

“He’s one of the best actors working today, and we knew he would deliver an incredible performance, but Joe was written like a protagonist from an old Clint Eastwood western: the strong guy. and silent, if you will,” added Roland.

“We knew Zahn could convey a world of emotion with just a look. His face and eyes are so expressive and, it sounds cliché to say, but he really has pathos in his work.”

Leaphorn is unusual in that he doesn’t seem worried about his deputies being smarter or better at their jobs than him.

“Zahn, and by extension Leaphorn, are very confident in their abilities and in my experience people who know what they bring to the table are always the best collaborators because they are not threatened by the abilities of others. “, said Roland.

“Leaphorn is not afraid of being upstaged by its young officers,” added Roland. “His focus is only on solving the case, and he doesn’t care about ego or personal accolades. Zahn is really like that as an actor. He puts the scene and the story first. He wants everyone has their moment.”

Eyre described the three main characters of dark winds as being like traditional cops depicted on American television, but “also more”.

“They come from a place where knowing the people in their community is key to policing well and also not being above the ‘people’. They present themselves as helpers, not outsiders with egos who are just trying to play their powers to a community they don’t know,” Eyre explained.

The show’s law enforcement officers live where they work and know some of the families they interact with all their lives.

“You can feel that connection they have to where they are every day, uniform or not,” Eyre said.

Eyre and Roland echoed McClarnon’s sentiments on the importance of representation and how critical it is for Native American writers to write drama ABOUT Native Americans.

Eyre also praised AMC for supporting them in taking a risk by trying something different and providing a “counterweight” to Western stories told before.

“Our job, in addition to entertaining, could be to ‘shed light’, and I find incredible value in weaving two different cultures together, because that’s how we live,” Eyre said. “The passion is in exploring the possibilities for diverse people to come together like we do in real life and see what happens.”

Indigenous writers may come from diverse backgrounds and experiences, but they usually have a common understanding and perspective of their culture that they can then imbue into the characters they write.

“It’s a relief to have the security that these writers can speak — especially the experience of writing a conflict between Leaphorn and Whitover — from Leaphorn’s perspective,” Eyre said, referring to Emmerich’s white FBI persona.

Authenticity was very important to everyone working on the show.

“Not just the faces and the performances, but the writing and directing, the set design, the wardrobe, the props – it all adds up to the whole thing,” Roland said.

“Audiences are very sophisticated and I think they can sense when something isn’t authentic, and if they sense that, they’ll tune out.”

Nohemi M. Moore