Zahn McClarnon is having an excellent year. Currently, he is in New Mexico shooting Dark Winds, the noir thriller series based on the popular Leaphorn & Chee book series by the late author, Tony Hillerman, for AMC and AMC+.
On FX on Hulu, McClarnon delivers as “Big” in Reservation Dogs, the reservation sheriff. McClarnon took time out of his shooting schedule to speak with Monsters & Critics on Thursday, August 26, about his new role as Joe Leaphorn and the quirky bittersweet comedy, Reservation Dogs, from executive producers Sterlin Harjo and Taika Waititi.
In “Res Dogs,” McClarnon is playing opposite the heavy roles we usually find him in. In Fargo’s season two for FX, he left a mark as Hanzee Dent, the Native American tracker and hitman adopted by crime family patriarch Otto Gerhardt at a young age.
Now McClarnon finds himself cast as Big, a mentoring role of sorts to four teenagers who are bored out of their minds in Okern, Oklahoma. Each one quietly grieves their fifth “gang” member, Daniel, while they plot their California escape from the reservation.
McClarnon approaches the role of Big with a subtle and spiritual air. His sheriff, a “Light Horseman,” watches and sees, often things no one else can.
Still, he believes wholeheartedly in the old Native stories and lore. This setup all leads to the special coming episode, Come and Get Your Love, airing on August 30, where showrunner Harjo has given McClarnon’s character a nice spotlight to shine with the backdrop of Native American rock band Redbone’s classic 1974 hit song of the same name.
In Reservation Dogs, Big watches over the township of Okern. In that coming episode, he is schooling Cheese (Lane Factor) on great Native pop artists while offering a ride-along to foster the teen’s law enforcement interest.
The episode sets up a flashback to Big’s paranormal childhood encounter with the “Deer Lady.” She is Native lore, a changeling deer-woman who is alluring and lethal and punishes evil men. We now understand why Big chose to protect and serve.
Another high note for this excellent episode featuring the understated work of McClarnon is another great Native actor who usually gets the bad guy roles, Wes Studi. Studi plays a goofball named Bucky, who is Big’s cousin.
The show is streaming on FX on Hulu, and like last year’s meteoric breakout hit, Ted Lasso, this excellent half-hour series’ word-of-mouth is spreading like wildfire. It is a comedy that you need to catch up on this weekend.
Exclusive interview with Zahn McClarnon
Monsters & Critics: One of the things that I love about Reservation Dogs is Sterlin Harjo gives each character in the ensemble a spotlight. And this Come and Get Your Love episode was Big’s spotlight.
Zahn McClarnon: I think Sterlin Harjo set up the whole season was to give each character their storylines and their episodes, and that’s what he did was obviously with Big, and giving Big’s origins backstory, why he turned out the way he is, and why such a conspiracy theorist and his fears of the Deer Lady, or how it molded his character as a grownup.
M&C: You’ve done excellent turns as bad guys, and here you are. Big is this paternal Yoda for these kids in the reservation. What is it like having writers you can relate with for the characters’ experiences?
Zahn McClarnon: I’m just happy that there is an authentic voice for Native Americans to relate to; it’s a new era of Native representation. It is an accurate representation because it’s written by Native Americans and starring Native Americans and produced and directed by Native Americans, it’s more of just a big collective voice of us, and it is just a new era. So it’s great to be a part of that era.
M&C: And we’re all hungry for new and exciting stories.
Zahn McClarnon: And it is an authentic representation, a bit heightened, but authentic.
M&C: Big is tuned in to the spirit world all around him. He can see things that other people can’t, and in this episode, the Deer Lady arc reveals Big’s awareness of things that other people don’t see. How would you say that this character is different from Chief Matthias of Longmire?
Zahn McClarnon: Oh, I think it’s a complete turnaround from Chief Matthias. He’s a cop, but his whole attitude towards everything that’s going on around him. I mean, Big goes more to— like you said—the spiritual aspects of the character.
But Res Dogs is [more] a representation of Native humor. And I think Big goes more into depth about the relationships with other people and the relationship between him and the kids on the show. But I believe they are opposite characters.
M&C: The Deer Lady, she saw the goodness in the young Big, that your character was a good boy. And she revealed herself to you and didn’t hurt you. So in a way, she acted as a guardian. How would you explain this episode to someone?
Zahn McClarnon: I think this is how Big’s character was formed through these experiences he had with the Deer Lady when he was a kid.
And that’s why he became a cop over time, in his way to watch over his community and to keep people safe within the community.
It was all formed by these experiences growing up. Just like human beings are created by these experiences that we have as kids during our lives.
M&C: Your dad worked at Glacier National Park. Are you most comfortable living and working out in the West?
Zahn McClarnon: Yes, I love the West. I am not an East Coast guy. I’m definitely a Western guy. Is California included? I have lived in Los Angeles for 30 years now.
Right now, I’m in New Mexico [filming Dark Winds], and I plan on spending the rest of my life probably in New Mexico. I love it down here, and that’s a plan. But definitely, I grew up in the West.
I love the mountains. I love the high desert, love the low desert. The West is the best. So, am I a cowboy? No. But I love riding and being out on the road and traveling. Either in a car or a motorcycle. It doesn’t matter. I just love driving.
M&C: Growing up, were you a bit of a Reservation Dog yourself?
Zahn McClarnon: Yes. All my aunts, uncles, and grandparents lived on the reservation, like Browning, Montana. I spent a lot of time on the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota. My mom lived in the Rosebud Sioux reservation in South Dakota.
I spent time in Nebraska at the Omaha reservation. So yes, I grew up on and off and have just been around my [Native] culture all my life. So, I was able to quickly understand the storylines of Reservation Dogs because I experienced it.
M&C: What does Sterlin Harjo get right for you on Reservation Dogs from your own experience?
Zahn McClarnon: Sterlin lets you bring your own life experiences to your character, like where you grew up. There is written word [in the script], but [Harjo] allows you to explore and bring your skills to the character.
And, Sterlin and I go back a long way. We did a movie called Mekko together, and we’ve been friends for years. So it is wonderful to see him getting opportunities to show his talent on a bigger, broader scale than he’s done in the past. And he’s a great writer, showrunner, and a good friend.
M&C: Where will Reservation Dogs take us as viewers in this first season?
Zahn McClarnon: I can’t reveal to be honest. It is what it’s like on the reservation, seen through the eyes of these kids. I can’t tell any storyline, but I can say that it’s all good. It’s just like any community where there is tragedy and humor, and it’s just a slice of life for these kids and vice versa.
M&C: What other projects are cooking for you?
Zahn McClarnon: I’m currently working in Santa Fe, New Mexico, on the Dark Winds project by author Tony Hillerman and produced by George R.R. Martin and Robert Redford.
It’s about these two Navajo detectives and police officers who solve crimes. It’s a psychological thriller, and it will be on AMC and AMC+. So we’ve got Native writers and Native cast too.
I’m playing Joe Leaphorn. Leaphorn is a Navajo detective for the Navajo Tribal Police pairs with Jim Chee. Hillerman wrote 16 novels about these two police officers that solved mysteries. Tony’s daughter, Anne Hillerman, writes books about the female characters in [Tony] Hillerman’s books.
Reservation Dogs Episode 5 titled Come and Get Your Love airs on August 30, only on FX on Hulu.