For 30 years onscreen, Zahn McClarnon — stone-faced, soft-spoken and simmering with quiet intensity — has made a reputation for himself, largely, by playing some pretty tough characters.
There was the murderous strip club owner in “Ringer”; the fierce and tortured android Akecheta, leader of the Ghost Nation, in HBO’s “Westworld”; and the menacing Hanzee Dent, a ruthless killer within the FX series “Fargo.” The list goes on.
So that you couldn’t blame a younger actor for feeling barely intimidated, as Kiowa Gordon, 32, did before starring alongside McClarnon in the brand new six-part AMC mystery “Dark Winds,” debuting Sunday. That they had worked together before, on the Sundance series “The Red Road,” but McClarnon’s a long time of experience and thousand-yard stare had lost none of their potency.
“Is that this guy gonna kill me?” Gordon recalled with amusing concerning the prospect of working with McClarnon again. “Is he a robot?”
Not that killer robots can’t be charming. “He just looks scary,” their “Dark Winds” co-star Jessica Matten later said, also 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 a probability to work closely with an enormous amongst Indigenous screen actors. For McClarnon, 55, whose a long time of hustle helped pave the best way for a rising latest generation of Native actors, the show is his first leading role in a daily TV series and his first series as an executive producer — the sorts of firsts that feel good at any level of experience.
The show can also be special for McClarnon, who’s of Lakota and Irish descent, due to its forged and crew: Nearly your entire forged is Native — a rarity, to say the least — as are its creator, Graham Roland (“Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan”); its entire writers’ room; and far of the opposite crew, from the assistants to the props department.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the role appears to be his favorite thus far: “I mean, if I used to be placed on the spot,” McClarnon said.
“You’re seeing the show from the angle of people that have grown up around their culture and understand what it’s prefer to continue to exist the reservation,” added McClarnon, who lived on reservations growing up. “They understand the nuances, the relationships, the humor.”
McClarnon plays 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 series of mystery novels by Tony Hillerman. Gordon plays the opposite half, Jim Chee, Leaphorn’s newly arrived deputy. The story follows them and Bernadette Manuelito (Matten), a Navajo police sergeant who often prefers horses to people, as they investigate a gruesome double murder complicated by an armored-car heist which will have involved a militant Native group.
That is McClarnon’s first time starring in a Leaphorn & Chee adaptation; the others comprise 4 feature movies (“The Dark Wind,” “Skinwalkers,” “Coyote Waits” and “A Thief of Time”) and have starred a few of Hollywood’s most successful Indigenous actors, including Adam Beach, Tantoo Cardinal, Graham Greene and Wes Studi.
In a video interview from his home in Los Angeles last month, McClarnon was funny and modest — perhaps self-deprecating to a fault. Asked about his luck, he credited much of it to the assistance of others and to (no kidding) his punctuality.
One got the sense there was more to his success than that, as he spoke about his nomadic childhood (his father worked for the National Park Service), his early days in Los Angeles and his long road to “Dark Winds.”
Born in Denver, McClarnon spent much of his adolescence hopscotching throughout the Midwest, with stopovers at Yellowstone and Glacier National Park. “I grew up within the Park Service, principally,” he said.
A self-described “rambunctious kid” — “I didn’t like school that much,” he admitted — he fell in love with acting in Iowa after getting a small part as an apostle in an area production of “Jesus Christ Superstar.”
“They wanted individuals with long hair, they usually obviously wanted to incorporate people of color,” he said. “In order that’s just about why I got that job.”
McClarnon was hooked by the camaraderie and the ovations. After appearing in a couple of local commercials — shooting hoops in a single, playing a construction employee in one other — he moved to Los Angeles in 1991 to pursue acting as a profession. It was a time of great promise for Indigenous actors.
“‘Dances with Wolves’ had come out, and there have been productions searching for Native American actors,” he said. He found a collective in Los Angeles called First Americans within the Arts, a bunch of actors tied together by a national 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 apartment in Hollywood, often trying out for a similar roles. “We gave one another rides to auditions, we frolicked at pow wows,” he said. “There was competition, obviously, but we were all pleased that everyone was working.”
For all that, it was hard to avoid roles that played to stereotypes — “I look a certain way, so I used to be doing each Latino gangbanger roles, and Native ones as well,” McClarnon said — but he made essentially the most of each part, irrespective of what it was or how small. Indeed, his sharp cheekbones and haunted eyes conveyed a subtle ferocity that was hard to forget. (The Latest York Times critic Mike Hale recently described him as “that guy you remember though his name was well down the forged list.”)
“Zahn has a really expressive face, and a ravishing way of communicating loads without saying anything,” said Roland, the “Dark Winds” creator. “There’s an amazing pathos to him.”
By the point McClarnon landed “Dark Winds,” he had been in greater than 80 movies and TV shows combined, including, most recently, the acclaimed FX on Hulu dramedy “Reservation Dogs,” through which McClarnon plays the hard-nosed but softhearted Officer Big. There’s that quiet intensity again.
“There’s a gravitas, man,” said Chris Eyre, who directed 4 episodes of “Dark Winds.” (His credits include directing “Smoke Signals,” from 1998, the primary feature film written, directed and performed by Native Americans to receive widespread theatrical distribution.) “Zahn has this feel to him, based on his own experience of being a Native person and his a long time of film and tv work.”
The show’s roster of executive producers includes Eyre, Robert Redford and George R.R. Martin, Santa Fe residents all. Eyre met Redford, who was an executive producer on the sooner Leaphorn & Chee adaptations, through the Sundance Institute Directors Lab in 1995, and the 2 remained friends. Martin met the writer Hillerman within the ’80s through a Latest Mexico writers club, and was an enormous fan of his work.
“A light-weight bulb went off,” Eyre said. “It was about 2015, 2016, and all of us sat down and commenced kicking around this concept of resurrecting Hillerman.”
McClarnon secured the role of Leaphorn before the show had even been greenlit. “Frankly, I’m undecided if we’d have sold the project to AMC had Zahn not been attached,” Roland said. “He was an enormous a part of our sales pitch.”
The series was ultimately picked up in July 2021, and production began the next month. McClarnon set about putting people relaxed.
“On our first day on ‘Dark Winds,’ he goes to the crew, ‘I just want to provide everyone a heads up: Even when I look cranky, I’m not,’” Matten said 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 numerous 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 the way that is going to affect all of us in the long term.”
Gordon had an analogous experience on set; the three leads bonded over the three-month production, he said, they usually have continued to communicate because it ended. “Well, when he’s home,” Gordon clarified. “Sometimes he’ll just take weeks off and ride his motorcycle across the country.”
McClarnon is currently working on several projects, including the Disney+ Marvel series “Echo,” scheduled for next 12 months, through which he’ll reprise the role of the titular superhero’s father, which he played within the series “Hawkeye.” It’s just the kind of role he would really like to do more of.
“I’m attending to an age where I’m looking like a father, finally,” he said. “So yeah, father stuff, relationships, the nuances of intimacy — love, I assume, whether that’s romantic love or simply love for an additional human being. Exploring that kind of thing is what gets me away from bed.”