Movies & TV Shows

Zahn McClarnon, Kiowa Gordon & Jessica Matten Interview: Dark Winds Season 1

Dark Winds, based on the iconic Leaphorn & Chee book series by Tony Hillerman, premieres tonight on AMC with the season’s first 2 episodes. The series opens on a double homicide that shocks the Navajo Nation in 1971, just as a bank robbery stumps the FBI. With two events occurring so close together, questions that they may be connected arise and the community are at the mercy of outsider interference.

Zahn McClarnon (Westworld) stars as Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn, who is tasked with solving both crimes in the face of distrust from his own people and the demons from his past. He is joined by his faith second-in-command Bernadette Manuelito (Jessica Matten, Burden of Truth) and a suspicious new deputy named Jim Chee (Kiowa Gordon, Roswell, New Mexico) who has been off the reservation  since leaving for college. They must band together despite initial misgivings to stave off not only the FBI, but forces as yet unknown to them.


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Screen Rant spoke to McClarnon, Gordon and Matten about getting in touch with their characters, understanding the importance of Navajo culture in the story, and mastering dialogue in the Navajo language on set with the crew.

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Jessica Matten as Sgt. Bernadette Manuelito in Dark Winds, Season 1, Episode 1 – Photo Credit: Michael Moriatis/Stalwart Productions/AMC

Screen Rant: I’m loving Dark Winds, and it’s so interesting seeing the story take place in the ’70s. What is it like for you guys to portray that time period?

Zahn McClarnon: I was a young boy in the ’70s, and they were a huge influence on my life, especially with regards to TV and film. I was very excited when I found out that we were going to take the show to 1971. It’s one of my favorite decades for sure.

Jim Chee seems like such a sweet bean at first, but obviously there is a lot more to his agenda. Can you talk about how he feels returning to the reservation and being paired with Leaphorn?

Kiowa Gordon: Chee’s kind of assimilated himself into the white society, going to Berkeley and leaving the past behind him because of all the trauma that he’s experienced in his life. Returning to the scene of that trauma has to open up your soul, and you have to really take a dark, deep look at yourself. You have to just remind yourself why you’re there, and why you’re even doing this in the first place. It’s a really special moment to be able to embody Chee like that.

He has his reservations – no pun intended – but it’s great to see that he’s not just doing this for himself anymore. He finds these relationships with Leaphorn and Emma and Bernadette, and you can go from there to try to reshape his life.

Speaking of Bernadette, normally being a woman on the job can create its own friction, but Manuelito seems to have everything under control until she comes up against certain dark forces. Can you talk about how she handles that?

Jessica Matten: Yeah, one thing I love about the series and how we’re depicting these elements in the series is that we try to keep it really realistic to the beliefs that the Navajo people have. I just love how her character’s written; there’s these little moments between Leaphorn and Bernadette, and when they talk about the witch, it’s just matter of fact. It’s not a question of, “Are you crazy for thinking that?” It’s known that this is this exists in the culture.

Going about playing in a man’s world, especially in the 70s, and having to hold her own – it’s always interesting to explore characters and what that would be like then. Even to this day, there’s a lot of obstacles that we still face of being treated as equal in the workforce in any career. You’re fighting for your voice and, very much so, Bernadette is fighting to be taken seriously. Even when she’s coming to Leaphorn and talking about how there’s some witches in the backyard, and he comes around and says, “I’m sorry, I trust your judgment.” It’s moments like that, where it’s cool to see Bernadette hold her power in that world and that time.

It feels like the series could be called Everybody Hates Leaphorn, because there’s such deep-seated anger towards your character towards. And as the series goes on, we slowly unveil why this has happened. Can you talk about diving into his backstory, and how he feels in his own community?

Zahn McClarnon: I think Tatiana Hullender Tony Hillerman did all the heavy lifting, first off, with the character of Joe Leahporn. He’s a tribal cop, and he’s kind of an outpost in the Monument Valley area. He’s tasked with quite a bit; solving a double murder and also a bank robbery at the same time. And he has these wounds that are opening up from his past with the loss of his kid.

It’s a journey for Joe, trying to heal and figure out his relationship with this new guy Jim Chee, and to deal with the boundaries of that relationship. And also to deal with Bernadette, who is somebody that Joe kind of brought up through the ranks. The backstory with Bernadette and I was more of me saving Bernadette’s life when she was a teenage girl; plucking her out of some trouble.

Diving into Joe Leaphorn was a lot of fun, and it took a lot of work. But I had a great sidekick with me, his name is Robert Tepper. Robert is good friend of mine who’s also an acting coach in Los Angeles, and he plays Pete Samuels as well. We had a good group of people to bounce stuff off of; I had [executive producer] Tina Elmo, I had Chris Eyre, I Vince Gerardis and George R.R. Martin to bounce stuff off of. It was an exciting time for me, and I hope people enjoy it. I really do. I hope they can relate to Joe.

It’s very rare to see a story that’s specifically about the Navajo culture, and draws so much from real influences, up to and including the language and dialogue. What is it to have those conversations behind the scenes about portraying the culture authentically?

Zahn McClarnon: We had wonderful consultants to rely on; they were on the set every day for us to bounce stuff off of, and to make sure that we were doing things accurately. And authenticity was extremely important to our whole team.

Kiowa Gordon: Even behind the scenes, with the crew, there were some Navajo crew members. And then also in the writers’ room.

Jessica Matten: And it was fantastic when we were speaking the dialogue, because we had to learn the dialogue quite quickly. If we ever had any doubts or questions, we literally could just look at the crew. We were like, “Did we get it?” And they’d be like, [shakes her head and laughs]. They would let us know.

But that just shows you how collaborative our set was between our cast and crew. I think we had 85% indigenous crew members, and a lot are from that land and the tribe. That is so rare. This is the fifth native language I’ve had to learn for a show, but this is the first time that I literally can just ask the props master and be like, “Did I nail it or what?”

Dark Winds Synopsis

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Zahn McClarnon as Joe Lepahorn in Dark Winds, Season 1, Episode 1 – Photo Credit: Michael Moriatis/Stalwart Productions/AMC

Set in 1971 on a remote outpost of the Navajo Nation near Monument Valley, Dark Winds follows Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn (Zahn McClarnon, The Son, Westworld, Fargo) of the Tribal Police as he is besieged by a series of seemingly unrelated crimes. The closer he digs to the truth, the more he exposes the wounds of his past. He is joined on this journey by his new deputy, Jim Chee (Kiowa Gordon, The Red Road, Roswell, New Mexico). Chee, too, has old scores to settle from his youth on the reservation. Together, the two men battle the forces of evil, each other and their own personal demons on the path to salvation.

More: Predator 5 Director Explains Importance Of Prey’s Indigenous Lead Actor

The first two episodes of Dark Winds premieres tonight on AMC at 9pm ET, and they will be simultaneously available on AMC+.

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