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C&I Q&A: Zahn McClarnon and Kiowa Gordon

cowboysindians.com interview:

Due to technical difficulties, we have not been able to post the video of our conversation with Dark Winds stars Zahn McClarnon and Kiowa Gordon, which was recorded shortly before they and we got the good word that their series would be back for a second season. But don’t fret: While we’ve been preparing to enjoy the Season One Finale, which will air at 9 pm ET Sunday on AMC, we procured a transcription of an audio recording. So we’re able to offer some highlights, edited for brevity and continuity.

And for the benefit of those who tuned in late, and haven’t yet caught up with the first five episodes of this excellent mystery-drama based on Tony Hillerman’s popular Leaphorn and Chee novels, here’s how AMC initially described the show:

“Set in 1971 on a remote outpost of the Navajo Nation near Monument Valley, Dark Winds follows Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn (McClarnon) 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 (Gordon). 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.”

Cowboys & Indians: Do you think we might soon being seeing you guys on recruiting posters for the Navajo Police?

Kiowa Gordon: [Laughs] Oh, man. I don’t know about that. That’d be funny — like a 70’s style poster.

C&I: Did you shoot all six Season One episodes in sequence?

Zahn McClarnon: Oh, no.

Kiowa: Yeah, it was all out of sequence.

C&I: Then I can only imagine it placed an additional burden on you, because there must have been some days when it was like, “Okay, we’re still sizing each other up today, but tomorrow we’re close to being buddies, but the day after that we don’t like each other, and then the day after that there’s almost a father-son bond being formed.”

Zahn: That’s always a tough task when you’re doing a show. Playing Joe Leaphorn and being the number one on the call sheet and being in most of the scenes was something that scared the hell out of me, because I’m usually playing, like, a number six or number seven on Longmire. I’ve never been number one on the call sheet before. What I did was, I prepared by bringing a friend of mine who’s an acting teacher to help me keep those scenes in sequence, to know what I was doing before the scene and after the scene. What came next? I needed a lot of help with that. And a gentleman named Robert Tepper helped me through all of that.

Kiowa: Yeah, he helped a lot of us out.

Zahn: He helped a lot of the actors out on the set to keep the stuff in sequence, and keep it fresh in our minds — where we’re going and what the character’s going through at that point, etc.

Kiowa: Yeah, I’m very meticulous about the continuity of things. It’s like a puzzle piece that you have to put in just the right place, and then come back to it later. Like, you shoot one scene where me and Zahn are at odds, and then another right after that, it’s like, “Oh, now we got to go back to episode two here, where we have an understanding going on.” Because we did them in blocks of one and two, three and four, and then five and six. Then we’d go back and do some of episode one because we didn’t finish it. It’s a lot to just scramble it together and make sense of it all on the day. But that’s why we have script supervisors and all that, and people who know the stories so deeply.

C&I: You raise an interesting point there. Because you’re not just playing characters in Dark Winds. You’re playing characters who’ve been around quite a while in the Tony Hillerman novels, and the readers have, I’m sure, very specific, very definite ideas about Leaphorn and Chee. At what point did you read the books for research, and at what point did you say, “OK, these are nice, but I’m playing the characters as they’re written in this script.”

Zahn: I read the books immediately — the ones that we were focusing on [in Dark Winds], which were Listening Woman and…”

Kiowa: People of Darkness.

Zahn: I read them immediately. Tony Hillerman did most of the heavy lifting for me already. Those characters were already written out in the books as to who they are. And I just basically brought my own experience as a human being to Joe Leaphorn.

Kiowa: Yeah. Even though it’s all laid out there before us, you’ve still got to bring elements of yourself and who you are and what makes you a three-dimensional human being — and not just these characters that came off of a script written by other people. But it’s great, it’s awesome, that we have that well to go to at times, when you have to look back and think, “How would this character do that? Did he do it in the books?” Then we can go back and find it, so it’s awesome.

C&I: How did you go about working on conveying the suggestion of a father-son relationship?

Zahn: Well, Kiowa and I have worked together before on television shows, like Red Road back in 2013. And I’ve known Kiowa for quite a few years. He’s a few years younger than I am, so that was pretty easy to fall into. Kiowa brings a lot of youth and exuberance, and it was very easy for me to treat him like a son, or what I think my son probably would be like. It was easy for me to delve into that. And, again, a lot of the heavy work lifting was already done by Tony Hillerman.

Kiowa: Yeah, it’s great to be able to look up to a guy like Zahn, and that just made it so much easier to be able to do that. There were moments where it was like, “Oh, yeah. In another life, maybe he could have been my dad. I don’t know.” [Laughs] Even though he is not that much older than me. But he could have been a young father.

C&I: Do you remember a specific moment during production when you found yourselves thinking, “Yes, this relationship is really working?”

 Zahn: Well, what’s nice about Kiowa is, he does show up to the set prepared. And that’s extremely important for actors — to be prepared, know your lines, and to listen to each other when you’re in the moment. It was easy for me to do that with Kiowa because he does the work. He takes it seriously. I think there were many moments where I thought it clicked. I think the last episode, and the final scene of the show, I think it really clicked. I’m glad it really clicked there, because that’s obviously the end of the show.

Kiowa: Yeah. That’s the moment it needed.

Zahn: Yeah. It’s the moment. Kiowa is a good actor, and it’s easy for me to work with him. I think it clicked because, as I said, I’ve known for Kiowa years, so there was a relationship there already. And there’s a lot to having fun on the set, and the lightheartedness he brings that to me, because sometimes I can get a little bit serious.

C&I: Well, thank you very much, gentlemen. You have been very generous with your time. I wish you good luck with this series, and I’m already looking forward to Season Two. And I hope, Zahn, that in Season Two, you finally get to finish a bottle of RC Cola. My only complaint about the show is, there’s all this RC around, but there are no Moon Pies anywhere on view.

Zahn: Well, we’re staying in the 70s. So if we get a second season, we’ll bring out the Moon Pies.

Kiowa: Call up Moon Pies: “Hey, you want a product placement? I love Moon Pies.”

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