The versatile C&I reader favorite is back for Season 2 of the exceptional sitcom Reservation Dogs. But that isn’t the only thing keeping him busy.
Lighthorseman Big is back on the case.
And Zahn McClarnon is back to play the superstitious cop who patrols a small Oklahoma community in Reservation Dogs, the audaciously inventive Hulu sitcom that deftly interweaves coming-of-age drama, laugh-out-loud comedy, sharply observed cultural specifics, and matter-of-fact magical realism.
For the benefit of those who tuned in late, Hulu describes the series’ premise thusly:
“From Co-Creators and Executive Producers Sterlin Harjo and Taika Waititi, Reservation Dogs is a half-hour comedy that follows the exploits of four Indigenous teenagers in rural Oklahoma who steal, rob and save in order to get to the exotic, mysterious and faraway land of California.
“Bear Smallhill (D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai) is destined to be a warrior, and a leader. The only problem is he’s not a good fighter, and the gang doesn’t really consider him the leader. But with the guidance of a questionable spirit guide, he just might get there.
“Elora Danan (Devery Jacobs) may be the true leader of the group. But she’s so focused on getting to California, and so oblivious to her own power, that she often can’t see the beauty and goodness in herself and all around her. Street-smart tough girl Willie Jack (Paulina Alexis) is the beating heart of the group. She’s always looking out for her crew. Meanwhile, Cheese (Lane Factor) is the gentle, quiet ride-or-die who is so willing to go along with the group that he never stops to consider what his own dreams might be.
“One year ago, Daniel, the fifth member of the Reservation Dogs, died. Struggling to make sense of the loss, the remaining four blame their boring, small town and its ability to crush the spirit. They decide to honor Daniel by adopting his dream of getting to California as their own. To succeed, they will have to save enough money, outmaneuver the meth-heads at the junkyard on the edge of town, constantly dodge conspiracy-obsessed Lighthorseman Big (Zahn McClarnon) and survive a turf war against a much tougher rival gang, led by the enigmatic Jackie (Elva Guerra).
“Reservation Dogs has Native rappers, catfish, Indigenous superstitions and spirits both hilarious and terrifying, laughter, tears, unexpected grandmothers, decent people, terrible people and a cavalcade of supporting characters who color and shade this already vibrant world.”
But wait, there’s more: Wes Studi pops up occasionally as an artist fascinated by string theory, and Gary Farmer appears even more frequently as a would-be shaman once feared as a barroom brawler before prodigious amounts of pot mellowed him a bit.
After engaging viewers and impressing critics during its premiere season last year, Reservation Dogs —the first major TV series to be entirely directed and written by Indigenous people — currently is streaming its 10-episode Season 2 on Hulu. (You can catch up with this Season 1 recap.) And if there’s not quite enough of Zahn McClarnon in the mix to keep you satisfied, please keep in mind: This isn’t the only project keeping the C&I reader favorite busy these days.
McClarnon, whose resume includes major supporting roles in such TV series as Fargo, The Son, Longmire and Westworld, graduated to the rank of series lead earlier this year as Lt. Joe Leaphorn in Dark Winds, the gripping mystery drama based on the Leaphorn and Chee novels by Tony Hillerman. He recently played a key role in The Last Manhunt, the forthcoming revisionist western produced by his friend and colleague Jason Momoa, which premiered last May at the inaugural Pioneertown Film Festival. And when we interviewed him last spring for our August/September 2022 cover story, McClarnon was on location in Atlanta to shoot Echo, a spinoff from the Marvel Comics Disney+ series Hawkeye, in which his reprises his role in the latter as Tracksuit Mafia leader William Lopez.
Even so, he graciously agreed to make time in his busy schedule to speak with us. Here are some highlights from our conversation, edited for clarity and length.
Cowboys & Indians: There was a time when, if you were doing a TV series, whether you were the lead or a supporting player, you were committed to it for 30 to 36 weeks. Indeed, I’ve talked to actors over the years who said that impeded their prospects for having a movie career, because they could only do films during their series hiatus. Well, here you are now. And unless I'm missing something, you’re a regular on three different series. You couldn’t have pulled that off back in the day. Do you feel lucky working at this particular point in time in television?
Zahn McClarnon: I do. I feel extremely fortunate to be as working as much as I am right now. A lot of doors have opened up for Indigenous content in television and films. And I think it’s a pretty special time right now for all of us, because we’re able to have the opportunities to tell our own stories. And the thing with television now is like, with Dark Winds, we shoot six episodes. A lot of the shows now, the content are only eight to 10 episodes. But then we have the network shows that are doing 22 episodes. I haven’t been on one of those shows. And to be honest with you, I couldn't imagine being on a 22- episode show, that's basically a full year of working. But I’m extremely fortunate in my career to be working as much as I am right now. This is what we worked for, and this is what I worked for, the last 30 years — to work consistently and to work on good material. And again, it's a great time for Indigenous content.
C&I: In addition to being strongly attached to their beverages of choice — Big with his energy drinks, and Leaphorn with his RC Colas — would you agree that both characters are also, shall we say, mystically attuned?
McClarnon: Definitely. I play Joe Leaphorn more as someone straddling between being a tribal cop and also believing in his culture, believing in the ways of his culture. He knows it’s there, knows it’s around him. But because he’s a cop, he has to do his job. And that’s the most important thing to him. And Big is obviously a conspiracy theorist. And he’s a little bit way out there, a really different character. I have a lot of fun with both. I really do.
C&I: You’re shooting Echo right now. I may be wrong, but I think this will be the first TV series or movie to focus on a deaf Native American character, right?
McClarnon: Yes, Echo has spun off from Hawkeye. The wonderful, beautiful, talented Alaqua Cox is playing the character Echo. A few years back, one of our casting directors in Hollywood who does a lot of the Indigenous projects called me up and asked if I knew of any deaf Native actresses — and I didn’t. So she went out and scoured the country and found, again, the beautiful, talented Alaqua Cox from the Menominee Reservation in Wisconsin. And she’s also an amputee [with a prosthetic leg] as well. It’s just wonderful to work with her. She’s such a generous human being, and I’m so happy that she’s getting the opportunity. She bypassed everything. She went from working at Amazon to being a number one on a TV show. So I’m very proud of her. And I’m glad that Renee went out and founded an Indigenous person to do this job.
C&I: Of course, being in Hawkeye and now Echo means you have a connection to the Mavel Comics Universe. You realize that if you ever have time, you’ll be invited to all those comic book conventions.
McClarnon: [Laughs] Yeah. But I have a pretty small part in these shows.
C&I: It doesn’t matter. I’ve talked to actors who were in one episode of Star Trek and they’re invited to conventions.
McClarnon: Yeah. They make a living at these conventions. I love meeting people, so maybe one of these days I’ll get invited to one.
Alaqua Cox and Zahn McClarnon in “Hawkeye”
C&I: With shows like Dark Winds, Reservation Dogs and Rutherford Falls on TV now, and movies like The Last Manhunt and Prey coming up, do you see this as a sort of an Indigenous New Wave period?
McClarnon: I think it’s a unique time right now for Indigenous representation in media. I’m just happy to be a part of it. I think Dark Winds is another step in the right direction for the representation on screen. With Dark Winds, we had a largely Native cast. And we had Chris Eyre, who directed two blocks of the show and who’s been around for a long time, who’s Native. And we also had a writing room where we had five Native writers in there. So it’s a great time for everything. I think Dark Winds as well as Reservation Dogs and Rutherford Falls are opening more doors for the future for us to be able to tell our stories and to be authentic. And we all care deeply about that within the community. On Dark Winds, we had multiple Native consultants on the show. Not only for the language — Native Americans were involved in the wardrobe and the set dressing. And I think that’s very important. I think it’s not just opening doors for people in front of the camera, it’s opening doors for crew and storytellers and directors. And if we’re lucky enough get a second season, we are going to open those doors even further.
C&I: You have some hilarious moments on Reservation Dogs, and your character occasionally seems downright goofy. But there’s never any real doubt that Big has a good heart — and he’s probably a lot smarter than he’s given credit for. There’s something similar going on, I think, in Dark Winds. During the first few episodes, at least, Leaphorn actually seems more amused than angry when people underestimate him. Like in the scene where he tells Chee in so many words, “Hey, you’re not the only one who went to college.”
C&I: What in your own experience did you draw upon for scenes like that? Have you ever found yourself in a position where you felt underestimated?
McClarnon: Sure. Yeah. I think everybody does. I grew up in a way where I felt a little bit different because I was mixed ethnicities. I wasn't accepted too much in either world. My grandparents lived on the reservation, but I didn’t look full-blooded Indian. And also I had dark skin. When I’d go to government schools or park employee schools, well, most of the people that were in the park service were Caucasian. And so I felt underestimated and felt a little bit less in both worlds. So again, I took those experiences throughout my life and tried to bring it to my work. I always felt I’m a smaller guy, so I always felt underestimated in sports. And yeah, I always had a chip on my shoulder, and wanting to prove myself — prove that I can do anything that anybody else can do. I think guys with small stature always have that chip on their shoulder. And yeah, I’ve always been trying to not just prove to other people, but prove to myself as well that I can do anything that anybody else can do. Sure, I carry that around.
C&I: [Laughs] That hits home for me. When I was in high school in New Orleans, I was nerdy before nerdy was cool. I wasn’t big on sports, and I wrote for the school paper. And, yes, for a variety of reasons, I got hell beat out of me several times. But then flash ahead a few decades, and I get notes on Facebook sometimes from former classmates who see my byline in Cowboys & Indians and Variety and other places, and they’re like: “Wow, you must be living your dream now.” And I think, “Yeah, after you guys tried to make a nightmare out of my high school years.”
McClarnon: Yeah. I think we all have those stories about wanting to prove ourselves. I get it now when I go back and see friends and stuff like that. I’m truly grateful for where I am today in my life. And I try to stay as humble as possible. But I worked hard. I did. I’ve been working at this for quite a few years. I've worked my butt off and I've gained self-esteem from being productive and putting the work in. I try to stay humble. But who doesn’t want to impress their father? You know what I mean?
C&I: Oh gosh, yes
McClarnon: You’ve got that lingering in the back of your head when you’re trying to establish a career or be good at whatever you do. And I always wanted to impress my father. And before he passed away, I know he was very proud of me for going out and doing the best I can in something I wanted to do and going for it.
C&I: Did he live long enough to see you in television or movies or anything?
McClarnon: Yeah, he saw me in quite a few different programs. He visited me on set during Crazy Horse, which we did in South Dakota years ago. He came up and parked there in his RV, and we hung out. Yeah, he saw quite a few of productions. I wish he would’ve stuck around a little bit longer for him to see where I am today. That would’ve been great.
C&I: What about your mom?
McClarnon: Mom is still around. Mom is in Nebraska and I see her a few times a year, as much as I can to get back there. And she’s very proud of me, and I’m very proud of her, and she supports me 100 percent.
C&I: That's great.
McClarnon: And I’m able to pick up the phone and go to her for any cultural questions and guidance. And she’s a wonderful, beautiful lady.
C&I: What are you recognized for most often when you’re out in public?
McClarnon: It depends on the day. A lot of people loved my character in Westworld. And Fargo was huge. A lot of people love that show and love the character I played on that show. But right now it’s Reservation Dogs. Last winter, I was in the Indigenous community in South Dakota for the Lakota Nation Invitational — a big basketball tournament for all the high school kids in South Dakota on the reservations where they compete. And I couldn't walk down the street without being called “Shit Ass.” I coined that term “Shit Ass” on [Reservation Dogs] and everybody calls me “Shit Ass.” Like, “Don’t be a Shit Ass.” I get recognized quite a bit from other programs as well. Like Doctor Sleep. Today, I was getting coffee and someone said, “Oh my God, you’re in Doctor Sleep.” Yeah, people just like different TV shows or different programs. And everybody recognizes me from something different, usually. But right now I think it’s Reservation Dogs.
C&I: Of course, after Dark Winds airs, maybe people will start seeing you and shouting, “Leaphorn! Leaphorn!”
McClarnon: [Laughs] Maybe so.