Exclusive interview: Jeremiah Bitsui on his complex role in Dark Winds

Jeremiah Bitsui
Jeremiah Bitsui, as Tso/Hoski, is the breakout star of the AMC+ series Dark Winds. Pic credit: AMC+

Light spoilers

Jeremiah Bitsui is having a big moment. First, the actor leaped to the forefront in the Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul universe as Victor, a heavy who Gus Fring dispatched in the first series. Then, he got another chance to flesh out his backstory in the Breaking Bad prequel.

Bitsui stars in AMC+ Dark Winds, cast as Hoski/James Tso, whose role as a Diné priest is complex and curious. A character who has a twin brother.

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Atmospherically, Dark Winds has elements of the series Longmire, Outer Limits, and even sly scripted dialogue moments echoing Reservation Dogs’ “Res” humor thanks to Graham Roland’s adaptation of several of Tony Hillerman’s Leaphorn & Chee series of books. 

The superb magic of the creatives behind the project—director Chris Eyre and Robert Redford, and George R. R. Martin, among the long list of executive producers who fuel the show’s engine—and additionally the indigenous staff writers and filmmakers such as Razelle Benally, Billy Luther, and Erica Tremblay, make it all hum. Also, the critically acclaimed FX series Reservation Dogs, where Dark Winds’ series lead Zahn McClarnon shines brightly as a Res Sheriff, gives it the right tone and authentic feel of a time long ago in the Navajo Nation of New Mexico.

The Dark Winds story starts in 1971 in a remote outpost of the Nation. Lt. Joe Leaphorn (Zahn McClarnon) is a sheriff of the Tribal Police, and his new Deputy is Jim Chee, another man from the Res who is hiding something from Leaphorn and his local police peers. Energetically the two men bond in their work after a strange string of unrelated crimes seems to have connectivity. But, they also face their painful pasts as the dots are connected and the unsavory truths emerge.

But make no mistake, Bitsui earns the breakout star award for the series. His talent as a complex villain motivated by deep unresolved trauma—and in his thinking—the best of intentions is on full display. His choice of the wrong path toward a righteous end goal promises that the second season might see him return cast as his twin brother, sent away after we assume the worst has happened to James Tso in Episode 6. The not knowing makes this series a compelling journey as Bitsui’s talent keeps your eyes upon his every move.

A pivotal scene near the end of the last episode pits Bitsui’s character Tso with Joe Leaphorn in a life and death conversation, revealing more commonality than a division between villain and lawman.

The episode, Hózhó Naashá (Walk In Beauty), holds award-winning performances for both actors, serving as a valid showcase for how Bitsui imbues James Tso with extreme depth, from mild-mannered clergy to master criminal, working out his abusive past from boarding school horrors. Leaphorn feels his anguish and commiserates at the end of Tso’s run as an outlaw disguised as a Buffalo Society advocate for the Navajo people. 

Monsters & Critics spoke to Bitsui about the demand for Native American and First Nation authentic perspectives and stories, the humor, the horror, and the authenticity that is creating a wonderful world of resonating storytelling long overdue.

Exclusive interview with Jeremiah Bitsui

Monsters & Critics: We’re in a golden age of Native American writers and creativity. These stories come from different tribes and nations. Is this a great time to be a Native American writer, actor, and storyteller?

Jeremiah Bitsui: Yes. Absolutely. It’s a perfect time in the golden age of television and just content in general. As actors and creatives, we didn’t know where that was going before the streaming platform services like Netflix. So first, we saw what has happened with music and then television and film. 

Luckily it’s a great thing, and there’s a tremendous demand, not just one perspective, which we’ve had in the past, a very narrow perspective of storytelling from a cultural standpoint. 

Maybe if there was a Native American character in a project, they usually wrote that character as very stoic or angry about whatever. Or if it was an East Indian character, they were nerdy. 

These themes that we grew up seeing, now it’s lovely to break out of this and know the diversity of all ethnicities in all these different shows. 

It’s incredible to have this ability and to have the voice—more than just as an actor—but to be able to tell a story about a person or about someone that has the range of emotions, or lack thereof, or that has a struggle that wasn’t always available. So it’s a fantastic time.

M&C: Hoski seems genuinely appreciative of Joe Leaphorn burying his grandfather, but then that scene with Wanda, another side of you comes out, the sharp edge to your character that you keep very well hidden, revealing him very strategically. When you first read this character, tell me your impressions of Hoski and how you wanted to approach him?

Jeremiah Bitsui: Hoski was someone that, as far as when I first read it, to be honest with you, I was trying to understand if there were any Easter eggs for who the father of Tso was, and his twin brother and who he was and how they collectively grew up. And then, on the other side, what was it that Hoski has been through? What was his journey? What were his traumas? 

And there’s a lot of trauma, not just speaking for our community. But, still, I think for the American culture that we grew up dealing with, and maybe this doesn’t happen to everyone, but boarding schools on the reservation and what we deal with, speaking to that particular time. That time saw folks who had to go through an assimilation process. 

My father went through this in a similar boarding school. He went to a Catholic boarding school where they reprimanded him if he spoke Navajo. They cut everyone’s hair short, and it was a [systemic] process of getting them to be more culturally American and to drop the Navajo traditional ways through these traumas. 

There was a lot of abuse. I can identify with the things my late father had dealt with and the things we talked about, and you could tell it was hurtful from his stories; it was very painful.

M&C: Your father had multiple traumas, growing up on the Res life and serving in Vietnam?

Jeremiah Bitsui: So you put on top of all that a slice of Vietnam, which he went through, and there’s trauma and probably PTSD. And then, as most of our American veterans, he returned to not having a home or not even feeling at home in a split nation and then thinking, okay, well, these aren’t our people. We fought for something that’s not truly us. And, here I am. 

So I think it’s the processing of trauma. And still, even to the say from the period of where we were representing until now, there is not a very healthy dialogue with how we, as we American men, process our emotions. So I can speak to that directly. And I think it’s even hard now. Case providers and therapists, and psychologists aren’t readily available. 

We’re in unprecedented times. I was talking to a friend last night, and he was trying to get to see someone for a prescription for anxiety medication. And his options were to wait three weeks or visit a drop-in type center where he may stay all day. So my point is that it’s an urgent matter because Hoski is dealing with tough things, and he’s not talking about them. And so his path, his journey, and the things he’s up to are very destructive and deadly.

M&C: You went from showrunners Peter Gould and Vince Gilligan to Vince Calandra and Graham Roland. Please discuss that great creative space as an actor to develop your characters with them running the helm?

Jeremiah Bitsui: You nailed it. To be a part of the Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul family, which is creatively one universe. And when Victor was leaving the show, story-wise, it all worked out, and the exit was well-timed and not abrupt. 

And I was getting a sendoff from [showrunner] Vince Gilligan, who popped in on set. I am paraphrasing him. He thanked me and said they loved my being part of this family. He teasingly said, ‘We’re going to miss you. And it’s hard. Seeing our guys being sent off is hard, but Jeremiah is going on to better and bigger things. A new show and he will be a serious regular and star of that show. So congratulations.’ 

That sendoff brought a tear to my eye and spoke to how many years we had been working together. And, then to be passing off from that excellent work environment to an equally good one was quite remarkable, two different universes, two separate and different productions. 

So, it felt nice to get off of one ship, step onto another sturdy boat, and think, okay, this creative journey will continue. And now I have a new little creative family here.

M&C: You direct, and you also produce?

Jeremiah Bitsui: When I first moved to LA at 19, the goal wasn’t really to be an actor. The goal was writer-director. 

And so I got into all these different programs. I was trying to get into the UCLA film school. The day I found out I didn’t get in, I was at a UCLA screening on a campus tour, and Chris Nolan shared the film Insomnia. He said inspiring words: Congratulations to those of you who made it into UCLA school film school, and for those who hadn’t, don’t worry about it. You’ll have your journey, and it can continue, and you can still become a director and writer. 

So all I’ll say is I graduated from the best film school possible, and I consider that to be the Breaking Bad, Better Call Saul film school. 

There are new things in the works. And, I look forward to wearing both the actor, writer, and director hats, with a great sense of pride, just because I’ve seen these wonderful creatives’ work. 

We’ve been very blessed to have an open and wonderful family-type setting on Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul. And to transition to Dark Winds— I wouldn’t say that I’m getting out of acting—I’m going to keep that up, but having an additional [creative] hat to put on it, it’s something that I thought maybe would happen later in life. It’s so wonderful that those opportunities are coming up now as well.

M&C: What is Frybread Face and Me? Billy Luther’s are coming-of-age drama?

Jeremiah Bitsui: Yes, that project is wrapped and is in the can. Billy Luther went through the Sundance Lab, his project that he’s been developing and writing and incorporating much of what he knew. 

As you go through these labs, they want you to write about your experiences growing up, which is what he did beautifully. So I could wedge that right between my time stepping off Better Call Saul and stepping on to set for Dark Winds. 

It’s a beautiful independent film, a coming-of-age story about these young Native and Navajo kids. My character is an uncle still living in his rodeo days heyday when he was in his prime. He’s a fun, crazy uncle. He and the aunt are a bit over the top— but in a good way. And I think. Hopefully, we played it pretty authentic to some characters we know back home.  

Dark Winds airs Sundays at 9 PM on AMC and streams on AMC+

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