For 30 years onscreen, Zahn McClarnon — stone-faced, soft-spoken and simmering with quiet intensity — has made a name for himself, in large part, by playing some pretty tough characters.
There was the murderous strip club owner in “Ringer”; the fierce and tortured android Akecheta, leader of the Ghost Nation, in HBO’s “Westworld”; and the menacing Hanzee Dent, a ruthless killer in the FX series “Fargo.” The list goes on.
So you couldn’t blame a younger actor for feeling slightly intimidated, as Kiowa Gordon, 32, did before starring alongside McClarnon in the new six-part AMC mystery “Dark Winds,” debuting Sunday. They had worked together before, on the Sundance series “The Red Road,” but McClarnon’s decades of experience and thousand-yard stare had lost none of their potency.
“Is this guy gonna kill me?” Gordon recalled with a laugh about the prospect of working with McClarnon again. “Is he a robot?”
Not that killer robots can’t be charming. “He just looks scary,” their “Dark Winds” co-star Jessica Matten later said, also laughing. She added: “But he’s the sweetest man on planet Earth.”
For Gordon and Matten, both of whom are of Native descent, “Dark Winds” was a chance to work closely with a giant among Indigenous screen actors. For McClarnon, 55, whose decades of hustle helped pave the way for a rising new generation of Native actors, the show is his first leading role in a regular TV series and his first series as an executive producer — the kinds of firsts that feel good at any level of experience.
The show is also special for McClarnon, who is of Lakota and Irish descent, because of its cast and crew: Nearly the entire cast is Native — a rarity, to say the least — as are its creator, Graham Roland (“Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan”); its entire writers’ room; and much of the other crew, from the assistants to the props department.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the role appears to be his favorite to date: “I mean, if I was put on the spot,” McClarnon said.
“You’re seeing the show from the perspective of people who have grown up around their culture and understand what it’s like to live on the reservation,” added McClarnon, who lived on reservations growing up. “They understand the nuances, the relationships, the humor.”
McClarnon plays Joe Leaphorn, a veteran officer of the Navajo Tribal Police and one half of the Indigenous crime-solving duo Leaphorn & Chee, the protagonists of a long-running series of mystery novels by Tony Hillerman. Gordon plays the other half, Jim Chee, Leaphorn’s newly arrived deputy. The story follows them and Bernadette Manuelito (Matten), a Navajo police sergeant who often prefers horses to people, as they investigate a gruesome double murder complicated by an armored-car heist that may have involved a militant Native group.
This is McClarnon’s first time starring in a Leaphorn & Chee adaptation; the others comprise four feature films (“The Dark Wind,” “Skinwalkers,” “Coyote Waits” and “A Thief of Time”) and have starred some of Hollywood’s most successful Indigenous actors, including Adam Beach, Tantoo Cardinal, Graham Greene and Wes Studi.
In a video interview from his home in Los Angeles last month, McClarnon was funny and modest — perhaps self-deprecating to a fault. Asked about his good fortune, he credited much of it to the help of others and to (no kidding) his punctuality.
One got the sense there was more to his success than that, as he spoke about his nomadic childhood (his father worked for the National Park Service), his early days in Los Angeles and his long road to “Dark Winds.”
Born in Denver, McClarnon spent much of his early life hopscotching throughout the Midwest, with stopovers at Yellowstone and Glacier National Park. “I grew up in the Park Service, basically,” he said.
A self-described “rambunctious kid” — “I didn’t like school that much,” he admitted — he fell in love with acting in Iowa after getting a small part as an apostle in a local production of “Jesus Christ Superstar.”
“They wanted people with long hair, and they obviously wanted to include people of color,” he said. “So that’s pretty much why I got that job.”
McClarnon was hooked by the camaraderie and the ovations. After appearing in a few local commercials — shooting hoops in one, playing a construction worker in another — he moved to Los Angeles in 1991 to pursue acting as a career. It was a time of great promise for Indigenous actors.
“‘Dances with Wolves’ had come out, and there were productions looking for Native American actors,” he said. He found a collective in Los Angeles called First Americans in the Arts, a group of actors tied together by a national casting registry that included Julius Drum (“Thunderheart”); Steve Reevis (“Dances With Wolves,” the Coen Brothers’ “Fargo”); and Studi (“The Last of the Mohicans”).
Several of them shared an apartment in Hollywood, often trying out for the same roles. “We gave each other rides to auditions, we hung out at pow wows,” he said. “There was competition, obviously, but we were all happy that everybody was working.”
For all that, it was hard to avoid roles that played to stereotypes — “I look a certain way, so I was doing both Latino gangbanger roles, and Native ones as well,” McClarnon said — but he made the most of every part, no matter what it was or how small. Indeed, his sharp cheekbones and haunted eyes conveyed a subtle ferocity that was hard to forget. (The New York Times critic Mike Hale recently described him as “that guy you remember even though his name was well down the cast list.”)
“Zahn has a very expressive face, and a beautiful way of communicating a lot without saying anything,” said Roland, the “Dark Winds” creator. “There’s a tremendous pathos to him.”
By the time McClarnon landed “Dark Winds,” he had been in more than 80 films and TV shows combined, including, most recently, the acclaimed FX on Hulu dramedy “Reservation Dogs,” in which McClarnon plays the hard-nosed but softhearted Officer Big. There’s that quiet intensity again.
“There’s a gravitas, man,” said Chris Eyre, who directed four episodes of “Dark Winds.” (His credits include directing “Smoke Signals,” from 1998, the first feature film written, directed and performed by Native Americans to receive widespread theatrical distribution.) “Zahn has this feel to him, based on his own experience of being a Native person and his decades of film and television work.”
The show’s roster of executive producers includes Eyre, Robert Redford and George R.R. Martin, Santa Fe residents all. Eyre met Redford, who was an executive producer on the earlier Leaphorn & Chee adaptations, through the Sundance Institute Directors Lab in 1995, and the two remained friends. Martin met the author Hillerman in the ’80s through a New Mexico writers club, and was a big fan of his work.
“A light bulb went off,” Eyre said. “It was about 2015, 2016, and we all sat down and started kicking around this idea of resurrecting Hillerman.”
McClarnon secured the role of Leaphorn before the show had even been greenlit. “Frankly, I’m not sure if we would have sold the project to AMC had Zahn not been attached,” Roland said. “He was a big part of our sales pitch.”
The series was ultimately picked up in July 2021, and production began the following month. McClarnon set about putting people at ease.
“On our first day on ‘Dark Winds,’ he goes to the crew, ‘I just want to give everyone a heads up: Even if I look cranky, I’m not,’” Matten said with a laugh. “‘It’s just process.’ And it’s so true. There’s not a mean bone in that man’s body.”
“I’ve heard stories where a lot of leads, unfortunately, don’t really welcome the input of their co-stars,” she continued. “But he’s smart, and understands what this does for our Indigenous peoples, and how this is going to impact all of us in the long run.”
Gordon had a similar experience on set; the three leads bonded over the three-month production, he said, and they have continued to keep in touch since it ended. “Well, when he’s home,” Gordon clarified. “Sometimes he’ll just take weeks off and ride his motorcycle around the country.”
McClarnon is currently working on several projects, including the Disney+ Marvel series “Echo,” scheduled for next year, in which he’ll reprise the role of the titular superhero’s father, which he played in the series “Hawkeye.” It’s just the sort of role he would like to do more of.
“I’m getting to an age where I’m looking like a father, finally,” he said. “So yeah, father stuff, relationships, the nuances of intimacy — love, I guess, whether that’s romantic love or just love for another human being. Exploring that sort of thing is what gets me out of bed.”