When veteran actor Zahn McClarnon was approached by “Game of Thrones” author George R.R. Martin and Robert Redford to star in the AMC series “Dark Winds” it was an offer he couldn’t refuse.
“They’re wonderful human beings. I spent the weekend with Robert, and it was a dream come true to sit and have conversations with him,” McClarnon, 55, told The Post of Redford, who executive-produces the series with Martin.
“He was a personal hero of mine growing up. In ‘Little Fauss and Big Halsy,’ that 1970 movie that Robert Redford was in, he was kind of a ladies’ man and he used to carry around a toothbrush in his mouth. And my parents couldn’t get that toothbrush out of my mouth when I was 5 years old. He was a huge inspiration to me growing up.”
McClarnon, one of Hollywood’s most prolific Native American actors (“Fargo,” “Westworld,” “Hawkeye”) stars in “Dark Winds,” premiering Sunday, June 12 (9 p.m.) Based on a book series by Tony Hillerman, the drama is set in 1971 in a remote outpost of the Navajo Nation near Monument Valley. The plot follows Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn (McClarnon) of the Tribal Police, who is joined by his new deputy, Jim Chee (Kiowa Gordon, “Twilight”), as they investigate a series of crimes that initially seem unrelated — but end up connecting to Leaphorn’s past. Chee, who left the reservation to attend college and has recently returned, is an eager colleague but also has his own agenda.
Leaphorn is savvy and competent in the field, but his personal life is in shambles after the death of his son. Together with Chee, he investigates a double murder and navigates the interfering presence of the FBI, led by smarmy Agent Whitover (Noah Emmerich), who are also interested in the case because of a high-profile bank robbery that occurred nearby — and exposing how law enforcement behaves differently when the victims are Indigenous.
“Like every character that I play, I bring my own life experiences [to Leaphorn],” said McClarnon, who is Lakota. “After all, yes, I’m playing the character, but it’s still Zahn, and I have to draw from my own personal tragedies and dysfunctional relationship. I grew up on and off the reservation. I spent a lot of time with my grandparents in Montana at the Blackfeet Reservation when I was a kid — and also in my teen– and I spent a lot of time on the Rosebud and the Oglala Pine Ridge Reservation as well. So, I drew from people I knew, tribal cops I knew … I drew from uncles that I grew up around as well, and from the tragedies that have happened to me in the past – my pain and loss of family members.”
Many of the production personnel on “Dark Winds” are Native American, both in front of the camera and behind it. McClarnon said that he’s seen a lot of change in how the entertainment industry tells Native American stories onscreen.
“It’s changed slowly over the past few decades, but I stand on the shoulders of my predecessors such as Will Sampson, Jay Silverheels, Chief Dan George … I think that we’re finally getting to have a little more control over our stories and our narrative,” he said. “It’s a unique time in Native representation in TV and film. I’m excited to be part of it, and I’m glad my career has lasted this long to see what’s going on with more representation in the media — shows like ‘Dark Winds,’ ‘Reservation Dogs,’ ‘Rutherford Falls,’ and soon to be more.”