Like so many others who pack up their belongings and move to Los Angeles in search of finding their dreams, Zahn McClarnon arrived with little cash in his pocket, slept on friends' couches and worked at odd jobs while taking as many acting classes as he could afford.
His timing was good. Excellent, actually. Shortly before he made the move west from Nebraska, 1990's Dances with Wolves was a box office smash and scored seven Academy Awards, including best picture and best director for Kevin Costner. One of its additional five Oscar nominations was for Graham Greene as best supporting actor, a high-water mark of recognition — and pride — for the Indigenous community.
It also served to break down some doors in Hollywood for Native talent, and McClarnon, the son of a Hunkpapa Lakota mother and a father of Irish descent, was right there to enter them.
"I started as a guest actor and was very grateful they were hiring. I have nothing but fond memories of getting jobs on shows like Baywatch and NYPD Blue that I watched growing up and meeting the people that starred on them," says McClarnon, calling from the Santa Fe set of the upcoming AMC drama Dark Winds, in which he stars and serves as an executive producer.
When he started off in the early '90s, "There weren't many Native actors, and we weren't given many chances," he says. "I got lucky, fell in love with the actual craft of it and was good enough to get some jobs and continue learning."
The jobs haven't stopped since then for McClarnon, whose long list of other TV credits includes Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman, Into the West, Fargo, Longmire, Westworld and Queen of the South.
The highly anticipated Dark Winds is McClarnon's first series lead. Executive produced by George R.R. Martin and Robert Redford, and it is based on the best-selling series of mystery novels by Tony Hillerman.
The show received a six-episode order and is expected to premiere next year. A psychological thriller set in the 1970s Southwest. It follows Navajo police detectives Joe Leaphorn (McClarnon) and Jim Chee (Kiowa Gordon) as they search for clues in a grisly double homicide.
Investigating the murders case also forces them to confront their own spiritual beliefs and come to terms with past trauma. For McClarnon's character, part of that means looking back at his time in a forced-assimilation boarding school that attempted to tear young Native Americans away from their cultural traditions.
"[Leaphorn] straddles the line between work duties and his spiritual connection to his culture," McClarnon says. "He and his partner Chee have an up-and-down relationship. We've got a wonderful cast, including Jessica Matten, a Canadian Cree playing Bernadette, one of the female Navajo officers. Diana Ellison, a Navajo from Albuquerque, is my wife. We have another Navajo, Jeremiah Bitsui, who's been in Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul. We're all putting our hearts into the project."
The writers' room was staffed entirely by Native writers, and AMC received permission to shoot on Navajo lands — along with the Navajo Nation's blessing for the entire project.
McClarnon is also part of another buzzy, all-Native project that is shining a long-overdue light on representation — the acclaimed comedy Reservation Dogs, which recently completed its first season on FX. Showrunner Sterlin Harjo, a longtime friend of McClarnon's, cast the actor as Big, the sheriff who patrols the Oklahoma reservation where the story is set.
"I always believed in Sterlin's vision for Indigenous representation," McClarnon says. "He has dismantled stereotypes and tropes. I'm glad he asked me to be a part of it. I enjoyed bringing my insight into the character and bringing comedy into it. It's nice to see how far we've come and be on the set surrounded by 99 percent Native directors, writers and cast. It was a first for me, as I've never been on any show like that."
Another project unlike any he has been part of before is Hawkeye, the latest television series from the Marvel Cinematic Universe, starring Jeremy Renner in the title role of the archery marksman he originated in the Avenger films, along with Vera Farmiga, Florence Pugh and Hailee Steinfeld. In the show, which premiered November 24 on Disney+, McClarnon plays Will Lopez, father of Maya Lopez — the deaf Native hero Echo.
"We found a wonderful Native actress from Wisconsin, Alaqua Cox, who's actually deaf, and had never acted before," says McClarnon. "I feel honored to be part of the Marvel universe, even a small part."
After three decades in the business, McClarnon is thrilled to be part of a new era of progress, the evolution of greater numbers of Indigenous people being authentically represented in television and film.
"It's been a gradual change for me since day one and beautiful to be part of it and watch it change — and working with so many Natives being given the room to express themselves," he says. "There's a lot more room to grow and further to go, and all I can do is be an example by doing the best work that I can and being open to other creative people. We're moving forward, and there's room for everybody."