From “Fargo” to “Dark Winds,” Zahn McClarnon keeps perfecting his art – but don’t call him an artist

Until recently “Dark Winds” star Zahn McClarnon was one of those actors better known for his presence than his name. Even that factor, presence, makes him stand out among performers whose recognizable faces are their calling card; McClarnon boasts that along with an intensity that isn’t easily described, since it radiates from his eyes, his brow, his measured gestures.

That uniqueness has kept him working constantly since the mid-Aughts, although his film and TV credits date back to 1988. It also means that for most of his career, like other Indigenous and non-white actors, McClarnon wasn’t cast as the least in TV shows or even recurring roles. That changed around 2011, when he recurred as a mob boss in the one-season drama “Ringer” followed by another recurring part on A&E Western lawman drama “Longmire.”

Arguably, however, his magnetic portrayal of the enigmatic Hanzee Dent in FX’s “Fargo” – a figure who ends up being central to that property’s lore – accelerated the 55-year-old actors career toward where he’s always wanted to be. That means executive producing a noir-soaked mystery drama based on Tony Hillerman’s Leaphorn and Chee novels, mainly “Listening Woman,”  and starring as Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn, a Tribal Police officer heading up an outpost in the heart of the Navajo Nation, with Kiowa Gordon stepping into the role of his new deputy Jim Chee.

McClarnon’s portray of Joe Leaphorn allows him to dabble in a broader palette than the heralded stoicism for which he’s long been known. His Joe is principled, non-nonsense man who affectionately glows when he’s with his wife Emma (Deanna Allison) and taps into a dry humor when he’s among neighbors and trusted associates like Sergeant Bernadette Manuelito (Jessica Matten).

That places him on an entirely different plane than his deadpan Lighthorseman Big, who very loosely polices the Oklahoma tribal lands featured in FX/Hulu’s “Reservation Dogs,” and his Ghost Nation hero Akecheta on “Westworld” – each distinct in personality, and all of which are in play.

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Between “Dark Winds,” “Reservation Dogs,” possibly “Westworld” (where his character has crossed over into an afterlife, but none of the hosts truly die), and his upcoming role in the Marvel series spinoff “Echo,” McClarnon is going to be in front of us a lot more often in the coming months and years.

In Salon’s recent conversation McClarnon came across as  humble, down-to-Earth and dedicated to always being student regardless of where his work takes him. For now that means through the end of “Dark Winds”‘ first season and the second season of “Reservation Dogs,” premiering in August. 

We chatted about his work in those shows, his relationship to Hillerman’s work and what he sought to bring to his interpretation of his iconic character.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

I’ve read Tony Hillerman novels in the past, and when I would read them before I’d always wonder what is was like for the Indigenous actors playing these roles – which are very well written, to be clear, but isn’t necessarily from an Indigenous perspective. What are these novels’ significance to you, and as part of that, what you want to bring to the role of Joe Leaphorn?

The novels were in my world, growing up, wherever Tony Hillerman was. I read a few of his novels back in my early 20s, so I was very familiar with who Tony was and, and how the community felt about him as well. Within Indian Country, there was a lot of support of Tony. His intentions were not only to write these characters, but also to inhabit the Navajo culture. So he worked with the Navajo and most of his friends were Navajo. I think his intentions were pure.

Some people within the Navajo culture, I think, are very wary about people writing about their culture, especially if it’s a white guy. You have different perspectives on it, you really do. You have the older generation that are big fans of Tony; you have the younger generation, not so much. But the reason why I was attracted to Tony Hillerman was because I knew when George R.R. Martin and Robert Redford and Chris Eyre, Tina Elmo and Vince Gerardis came to me to play Joe Leaphorn, we were going to have cultural advisors in every facet of production, as well as Navajo writers in the room, as well as other tribes of Native American writers in the room. That’s what I wanted to make sure that we had going into this.

What I wanted to have was a different perspective on on Tony’s books. And that’s what we went for.

Joe Leaphorn was played previously in a series of TV movies by Wes Studi, with Adam Beach as Jim Chee. What you’ve done with him is impressive in its own right, of course. So what does it mean to be playing this role today, in 2022, versus when those previous Hillerman movies aired in early aughts on PBS?

Just like every role, you have to bring yourself, obviously. But it’s a really difficult question because I don’t sit down and think about what I’m going to bring to the role. I get the material, and I’m going to bring my experiences – from my childhood, from me growing up, you know, on and off the reservation. Growing up in my culture. I’m going to bring all of that to the character of Joe Leaphorn: my pain, my tragedies, you know. Joe is a character that has a lot going on, obviously. But I just have to bring those elements of my own life to that character.

“What I wanted to have was a different perspective on on Tony’s books.”

In “Dark Winds” we have this rich, noir thriller that involves Joe and Jim but at the same time, brings people inside the lives of these characters, and inside of a certain period in this part of the country. Which transformations were there from the page to the screen that you wanted to incorporate to give a fuller view of what life for Joe and life on the rez was like in the 1970s?

Again . . . somebody that has grown up in their culture and within their ceremonies, they’re going to bring something a little bit different. I don’t know how that materializes. But I know how I grew up. And I know the people I grew up around, and the cops and my uncles and . . . I don’t know if it’s tangible. But I think you can see it, if that makes sense. I can’t really express what that is that I’m going to bring to that role. But I understand those nuances, the humor, the relationships, of what it’s like to grow up on a reservation, what it’s like to be there.

Zahn McClarnon in “Dark Winds” (Michael Moriatis/Stalwart Productions/AMC)

You know, I guess what we tried to do is kind of recontextualize it from a different point of view, through the Indigenous writers, through me, through the other actors, the Navajo actors, the non-Navajo actors, from the writers room, the directing, within the crew – we had a lot of Indigenous crew as well – and just kind of trying to establish their lived experiences. We’re proud of what we did, and we’re hoping we get a second season to kind of add and improve on some of the mistakes that I personally see.

What mistakes did you see?

Well . . . I don’t know if I want to go into that. Personally, there’s a few things that I saw, like every actor sees in a performance, little things that you can change.

Much has made about the stillness in your acting. But what I’ve seen in your performances,  especially since you played Hanzee on “Fargo,” is a quiet dynamism that’s been really coming to the fore in recent years.

I think it’s maturation, you know. Just getting a little bit older, and understanding the craft a little bit better through studying. I think the best place to study is on the set, they get to learn the most by being on the set. And since 2014, I guess I’ve been on a lot more sets and have more opportunity to just be more comfortable with who I am as a human being now. I’m 55 years old, you know. I went through quite a bit my 20s and my 30s. And, it wasn’t pretty. What would the right word be? I had a lot of issues and I had a lot of things that I was dealing with. I finally got through those things and I was able to settle into who I am and become a bit healthier – psychologically, physically, a healthier person. You just become a little bit more comfortable in your skin, and you’re able to take more risks as an actor.

Noah Hawley said something to me in the beginning of shooting “Fargo.” I’d go, “What do you think? What do you want to do here?” And he just said these two words: “Be still.” And it made a lot of sense.

I learned how to be still by studying. Like anything, it just takes years of working at it. I don’t know any other way to put it other than just, I’m relaxed a little bit more now and willing to take risks. And willing to fail.

I mean, look at “Reservation Dogs.” It’s all over the place, you know? You just go for it. And you have an environment where you’re able to do that, because you’re surrounded by people who support you.

Long story short, it’s just relaxation, maturity, and a lot of my work, I think, is pretty instinctual.

For someone who’s been doing this for a long time and, like many non-white actors, has had to perform in tens of roles before finally getting the parts in shows that receive serious critical notice, you are very humble about your success.

I appreciate that so much. You know, I heard an interview recently, I can’t remember what they said on it. But it’s almost like you’re never satisfied. And I think that’s a love-hate thing I have with this craft, this profession. I love doing the work. But usually I’m not satisfied. I’m always striving for those moments of honesty, always striving for something better and being a better actor.

As much as I can call it this, it’s a struggle like, I think, with any – I don’t like using the word – artist. You know, anybody who paints or writes music, they’re just striving to be better and better. And they’re always looking for that honesty and that truth.

Why don’t you like to use the word artist?

Oh, I guess it sounds a little pretentious to me. I think it’s thrown around a little too much, maybe. People overuse a word. And, you know, acting is a branch of the arts, as a performing art. But is it one of the main branches of the arts?

I’m a performing artist. I’m good with that. I hear you. I’m a performing artist. But I don’t know. It just gets thrown around a lot.

Viewing your filmography, you’ve been in many films and made an impression with memorable performances in single episodes of series, to the point that you’ve become recognizable. And then you started getting series regular roles in “Ringer” and “The Red Road,” leading up to now when you’re in, or were in, “Westworld.”  I don’t know if you can say anything about that.

Not yet.

“You just become a little bit more comfortable in your skin, and you’re able to take more risks as an actor.”

We do know you’re returning in “Reservation Dogs,” though, and now you’re in “Dark Winds.”  What did the time spent with those one-shot roles teach you about  developing characters that you bring to these performances where you are regulars, or in this case, the lead?

Again, I think it’s just the best place to learn, I think is on the set. And just taking those experiences and building on those experiences. And all this time, I never stopped studying. I was in class until I got really busy in the last year, before “Dark Winds.” I plan on going back to class when I have some time.

I’ll continue to keep practicing for the rest of my career. I’m satisfied with moments, but overall stuff, it’s very difficult. And I have a really hard time watching what I’ve done. I haven’t watched quite a few of my things that have been in. As an EP on “Dark Winds,” I have to watch these episodes. But “Rez Dogs,” I mean, I watched the whole series except for my episode. I haven’t seen it yet.

Are you kidding me? That episode is incredible.

It’s like reviews. I’m not going to read reviews. I’m not going to read good reviews, and I’m not going to read bad reviews. I have the kind of psychological makeup where, like a lot of people, they just grasp on to things. I try to stay centered or, a good word for it is equanimity, where you just kind of in between and you’re calm. And I’m sure people have been saying wonderful things. That’s beautiful. I love it. And I’m sure people said some sh**ty things as well. But you know what? I just try to stay out of it as much as I can and focus on the work and be present.


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You said before, and your presence as an executive producer confirms this, that Joe Leaphorn is one of the roles you’ve wanted for quite some time. What are some others?

I have some things I would like to personally develop. I think that I’m going up that path of where maybe in the next year or two, I can start thinking about developing my own stuff.

I don’t have kids and I don’t have an immediate family, you know. I’m not married or anything like that. So exploring those things because I don’t have them is a lot of fun. I enjoy the father-son, daughter-son kind of relationship, and the intimacy that goes along with that.

Now that I’m in my 50s, I can finally play characters that are old enough to have kids, etc. So I like exploring stories about relationships and humans connecting.

Comedy or drama? Does it make a difference to you?

I like drama. Comedy is very, very difficult. I really have a hard time with comedy and I’m very unsure about timing and things like that. I mean, you know, I love doing “Rez Dogs.” That’s a big family. I love working on that. And Season 2 will be out in August, and it’s going to be phenomenal. I can’t really give you any details on the character what he goes through, but I’m looking forward to people seeing it.

Mainly I want to know what the deal is with the fishes turning up in that field.

Oh, good! That’s crazy that you said that, because that’s kind of what Big, my character, explores. So that’s great.

New episodes of “Dark Winds” premiere Sundays at 9 p.m. on AMC and stream on AMC+. Moments after our interview ended, AMC picked up the drama for a second season. “Reservation Dogs” returns for its second season Aug. 3 on Hulu.

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