We talk with the talented actor about his role as Comanche chief Toshaway on the second season of AMC’s The Son.
Cowboys & Indians: What lies in store for your character, Comanche chief Toshaway, during the second and final season of The Son (which started in April on AMC)?
Zahn McClarnon: Well, I think that, obviously, I can’t reveal certain story points. But I think the Comanche are facing quite a bit different situation this year. I think you might see the tribe being more and more pushed out of their land, and more European influences coming into the tribe. I think the Comanche tribe starts to crumble a bit more in this second season.
C&I: How difficult was it for you to learn the Comanche language in order to play Toshaway so convincingly?
Zahn: [Laughs.] I didn’t learn the actual language. The dialogue that I had was translated into Comanche by Juanita Pahdopony, a wonderful [Comanche] historian and educator, who served as the show’s technical advisor. But to answer your question: Yes, it was extremely difficult. Without knowing the language, basically you’re learning word by word, syllable by syllable, and having to memorize that is extremely difficult. It takes a lot of focus and a lot of effort and time basically locked away in your bedroom.
C&I: Toshaway was mostly stern and serious throughout Season 1 of The Son. But he did have a darkly comical moment in one episode while talking to young Eli, where he expressed amusement that white settlers always appeared surprised when Comanches killed them. Toshaway more or less says: “What did they expect we’d do to people stealing our land?”
Zahn: I agree — that was a wonderful scene to do with [Jacob Lofland, the actor cast as young Eli]. I mean, yeah, you have to look at it in that way where there are two sides to the story. Obviously, I’m telling the Comanche side. You can take it as kind of a bridge between the European culture coming into Texas and the Comanche culture. You find Toshaway trying to explain to the young man what it’s like for us as Comanches. And I think that you’re going to see more of that in Season 2, where Jacob actually becomes more of a Comanche and more embedded into the tribe. He’s understanding the culture of the Comanche more and more.
C&I: Another highlight of Season 1 was the dream sequence where the older Eli, played by Pierce Brosnan, converses with the Toshaway he remembers so well. That sort of scene is always tricky to pull off.
Zahn: There were a few reasons why it was difficult. First off, I had just met Pierce. And, obviously, I had grown up watching Pierce in his different roles throughout my life, ever since Remington Steele. He was somebody I admired and respected and idolized — and, basically, the first night I met him was during the filming of that scene. So, yeah, it was difficult to ground myself and be able to walk through that scene and think of him as an older Eli. It was a hard thing to do, but we got through it. I have so much respect for Pierce and his work. He’s just a phenomenal human being all around.
C&I: You’ve recently appeared in a wide variety of other film and television projects, ranging from the HBO series Westworld — in which you played Akecheta, leader of the Ghost Nation — to movies like Bone Tomahawk and Braven. And of course, our readers remember you well for your long-running role as Chief Matthias on Longmire. When you’re out in public, what do most people recognize you for? Any of these credits? The Son? Your role in the Fargo TV series?
Zahn: It’s kind of strange, because it depends on the demographic. The one that more of the older generation recognize me for, especially when I go out traveling, is Longmire. It’s on Netflix, and people have been streaming that for all six seasons, for quite a long time. So I do get recognized quite a bit from that one. Then it goes to Fargo usually, and to Westworld. I do get some people who recognize me from The Son as well. But I think it’s mainly Longmire that I get quite a bit from. There’s a big, big fan base for that show.
C&I: You had a fairly serious accident in late 2017 during the production of Westworld, where you hit your head at your home and wound up requiring surgery. How do you think that brush with mortality affected you?
Zahn: Well, you know, we’re all getting older, and we have to face certain situations at our age in terms of mortality. It gives you a different perspective on life and what you’re doing with your life and what you value. What means a lot to you. You hope that if you do go through an experience such as I did, you come out of it on the positive end. You’re able to embrace those values and those relationships with people. Things are going extremely well for me, and they are still going very well with regards to my work — and also just in life in general. I try to keep positive every day, and keep a positive attitude.
C&I: Sounds like a great approach to life. After all, none of us know when the trap door will open. So it’s good to concentrate on what you can do and appreciate right now.
Zahn: Sure. I think every day should be lived like that.
C&I: Getting back to The Son, what have you enjoyed the most about playing Toshaway?
Zahn: I think the opportunity to play a father figure has been a nice change for me. I’m obviously getting to an age where — [laughs] well, I am at that age — where I could play those roles. The relationship between young Eli and Toshaway is important to me. And developing that relationship and being able to follow the wonderful storyline that these writers have written for us [allow us] to bring different characteristics and different perspectives to those characters. I think basically it’s just that that relationship between father and son that has been a lot of fun to explore. I don’t have that. I don’t have children. Jacob Lofland, in real life, became a very, very close friend of mine, and one who I’m still in touch with.
C&I: What do you miss the most about working on The Son?
Zahn: I loved being a part of The Son. It’s a beautiful show, and the people I worked with are wonderful. We became a big family, and I certainly miss everybody. That’s with every show to some degree, I guess. But it’s especially true with The Son. It was a beautiful experience, and I just met friends that I’ll be friends with for the rest of my life.
Illustration: Jonathan Fehr
From the July 2019 issue.