A conversation with Lakota actor Zahn McClarnon about his role in ‘Dark Winds’

Zahn McClarnon: ‘We’ve come a long way and I think we have a long ways to go. You hope that Dark Winds cracks that door open a little bit more for the future’

Within days of airing its first episodes, AMC Studios asserted to the world that it already was confident of the smashing hit it had on its hands, Dark Winds. What do I mean? I mean the show — after airing — quickly gained a “Certified Fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes, tons of exceptional reviews (myself included) and AMC then announced that Dark Winds was already renewed for a second season.

If you are like me — a sincere fan of Lakota actor Zahn McClarnon — you are likely hardly surprised.

Check out my review of the show.

As previously reported in Native Viewpoint, the show was created by producer Graham Roland and is based on the ‘Leaphorn and Chee’ series of books by author Tony Hillerman. 

Actor Zahn McClarnon, who plays the show’s protagonist, Navajo tribal officer Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn, also has an impressive executive producer credit on the show. Dark Winds is directed by Chris Eyre.

I had a moment to sit down with Zahn to talk about his role in the show. He shared a few thoughts on his process.

Vincent Schilling: Hey Zahn, how are you? Man, I am so incredibly, incredibly impressed with this show. And specifically, your performance is just freaking brilliant.

Zahn McClarnon: Thank you, Vince. You’re a good man, you always have been a good man and offered kind words to me, and you got my back and I appreciate that man. Thanks.

Zahn McClarnon as Joe Lepahorn – Dark Winds _ Season 1, Episode 1 – Photo Credit: Michael Moriatis/Stalwart Productions/AMC

Vincent Schilling: My gosh absolutely. This show Zahn is incredible. Right from the start, I was literally watching in the first few minutes, where you are preparing to go into a crime scene, and you put paint on the corners of your eyes, where hairs stood up on my arms. In my view, this is one of your best performances to date. So, when you’re approaching something like Navajo, how do you as an actor prepare?

Zahn McClarnon: My process as an actor, for every character that I do, the backstory, writing down the characteristics, the principles of the character and the objectives for each scene, so on so forth … with Joe? I think the heavy lifting, had already been done for the character through the 18 books that Tony Hillerman had written. It was all there in front of me and all I had to do is kind of pick it up and bring my own personal experiences to the character. 

Zahn McClarnon as Joe Leaphorn – Dark Winds _ Season 1, Episode 1 – Photo Credit: Michael Moriatis/Stalwart Productions/AMC

We had many, different cultural advisors. We had language cultural advisors. We had props and sets and wardrobe. And so you know, (for me) it was (about) going to them and relying on their expertise on a lot of stuff as far as the culture. We had Dine’ actors on the set that were helping out as well. We also had Dine’ writers Razelle Benally and Billy Luther who both wrote on the show. We relied on a lot of those aspects to help recontextualize some of the different points of view of Tony Hillerman and these characters. 

But you know, a lot of the stuff that I do is pretty instinctual. I think I know who Joe Leaphorn is? I think I can relate to Joe. Joe Leaphorn’s life isn’t the way I grew up. But I think we have a lot in common. Joe Leaphorn fits like a glove.

Vincent Schilling: How is it performing alongside fellow Native actors Kiowa Gordon and Jessica Matten, because there is so much fun that I’m having watching these interactions between you three.

Zahn McClarnon: I’ve known Kiowa and Jessica for many years now. We had worked on a show together in Canada called Frontier. That’s where I first Jessica and obviously I worked on a show called Red Road with Kiowa. Even then I knew Kyle was a talented actor. I think he’s got great instincts and he doesn’t go over the top. And Jessica, I was just amazed when I met her. She’s a tall, beautiful, Cree woman and I had never seen her before in anything until Jason Momoa introduced us on Frontier. I was just like, where did she come from? She’s a talented actress that I knew was going to continue to work.

Kiowa Gordon as Jim Chee and Jessica Matten as Sgt. Bernadette Manuelito – Dark Winds _ Season 1, Episode 3 – Photo Credit: Michael Moriatis/Stalwart Productions/AMC

Vincent Schilling: There are also some interesting undertones in the story that truly stands out to me as a Native man. Clips of the old western Stagecoach, a high school jacket that says Braves, photos of John Wayne at a hotel and more. Then there are these great unspoken interactions between Leaphorn and Chee. 

You and Kiowa share this exchange where you’re getting information from him and then he turns the tables in a way equally as mischievous. I was just cracking up it as was almost an inside joke in a way. I was like, ‘you guys are just vicious with each other!’ 

Zahn McClarnon: Kyle is fun to work with. He’s very light-hearted. He brings a lot of humor to the set. He’s got a very exuberant, childlike way about himself that helps me out a lot on the set. I’m more of an intense kind of actor. It’s a very necessary intense, and he always brings a light-heartedness to the set and which is what I need.

Vincent Schilling: How is it working with Chris Eyre? (Director of Smoke Signals)

Zahn McClarnon (Photo courtesy Walt Disney Studios/Marvel)
Zahn McClarnon (Photo courtesy Walt Disney Studios/Marvel)

Zahn McClarnon: Chris is awesome. I’ve known Chris for 30 years, we go way back. And Chris was part of the team that came to me to ask me if I wanted to play the part of Joe Leaphorn. And Chris actually came to me first because we’ve been friends for so long. Chris is fun to work with and he’s a good friend.

Vincent Schilling: Do feel as though we are finally reaching a reputable point in terms of Natives on television. We have several shows going on, and it’s amazing to see you as a prominent part of them.

Zahn McClarnon: We’ve come a long way and I think we have a long ways to go. You hope that Dark Winds cracks that door open a little bit more for the future as well as Rutherford Falls in Reservation Dogs

They’re all fun shows, they’re all different shows. And I’m glad that people are finally getting a chance to see some of our stories and little insight into some of our culture, seeing the humor. Just seeing us on television as the characters is quite a feat and we will hope to keep it going. We have a long ways to go. But we need to keep telling our stories.

Vincent Schilling: I’ll leave you with this. I’m reviewing Dark Winds as a certified Rotten Tomatoes critic. I just freaking love the show. I’m calling this one of the best television shows I’ve seen and my favorite since the Walking Dead from AMC. It’s just incredible.

Zahn McClarnon: Incredible. Well, we hope to improve and make it even better next season and fix some of the mistakes that we had. 

Vincent Schilling: I appreciate your time. Thank you so much man and keep killing it man I’m so incredibly profoundly grateful for what you’re doing and representing. It’s just spectacular.

Zahn McClarnon: Likewise Vincent, Thank you.

2 thoughts on “A conversation with Lakota actor Zahn McClarnon about his role in ‘Dark Winds’

  1. Excellent interview – the series is everything Amc said it would be. I am glad a second season is in the works. The quality of this show surpasses all hopes or expectations I brought from being a Hillerman fan. 🏁🌵🐴😎 My cousins all love it, too☺️

  2. I’ve watched Dark Winds from the first episode And I love that show! I love the intense drama and sit on the edge of your seat situations. I especially like how the Navajo culture is entertwined into the story and how it’s filmed..I’m glad it’s going to continue for a second season. Love the characters too. Great actors!

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