Chicago Tribune interview:
On the AMC drama “Dark Winds,” Zahn McClarnon stars as Lt. Joe Leaphorn of the Navajo Tribal Police, who is investigating a double murder with the help of two younger deputies, while also trying to manage the intrusive interests of the FBI, which is more interested in busting a couple of armored car robbers who may or may not be hiding somewhere on the reservation.
The series, which has been renewed for a second season, is based on the crime novels of Tony Hillerman. “I grew up with the books,” said McClarnon. “Within our Native community they were well known, obviously. And I’d auditioned for previous adaptations in the early ‘90s. I was familiar with those characters and they’ve always been around me in my community. So when they came to me” — George R.R. Martin and Robert Redford are among the show’s producers — “I was very interested. How could I refuse with such a wonderful team of producers? It was an easy yes for me.”
McClarnon’s elevation to leading man is long overdue, having made a name for himself in supporting roles in series including “Fargo,” “Westworld” (where he made a return appearance just recently) and in a rare comedic role on “Reservation Dogs,” to name just a few.
When asked to share a memory of a worst moment from his career, he recalled a guest appearance on “NYPD Blue.”
My worst moment …
“I got a chance to audition for Steven Bochco and ‘NYPD Blue.’ I loved Dennis Franz and Jimmy Smits, I thought they were fantastic actors and I admired them so much. So I went through three different auditions and finally — this was before cellphones — my phone was out or something, so I had to run across the street and take the call at a pay phone and they gave me the job. I was absolutely elated: I get to work with my heroes and be a part of a Steven Bochco show.
“It was a guest star role. This was in 1997. I played an Indigenous Ecuadorian native who is a waiter and he is a suspect in a restaurant robbery that he was possibly in on. They think he set it up for the robbers to come into the restaurant.
“This was pretty early in my career. I had only been doing this for a few years and I had a lot of problems with nerves, as most actors do. And the issue I had was: These were my heroes. This was a hit TV show. Now I’ve got a big guest star spot on it. It was the best thing that had happened to me in my career at that time — but I was very nervous.
“So what I did was, I partook in some pharmaceuticals — it was Valium, I think — to handle my anxiety about actually being in a scene with Dennis Franz and Jimmy Smits. I just needed something to relax me and cool me down so I could do my job (laughs). It was an interrogation scene where they were really drilling me and going after me. It was a heightened scene where Dennis was in my face. I knew that was coming and I just kept getting more and more nervous.
“Well, I took too many of those pills, is what happened.
“And at a certain point when we were doing the scene, I started falling asleep in front of them (laughs). In the middle of the scene! And in between takes, I actually did fall asleep sitting in my chair. And it was because I had done too many pharmaceuticals.
“And Jimmy and Dennis kind of laughed about it a little bit. But they were also kind of upset, as well. It was very embarrassing that I showed up to their work and fell asleep in the middle of the scene. Especially because I held these people in such high esteem.”
Was McClarnon trying any strategies to stay awake?
“There was nothing I could do! I was drinking coffee, but once you’re under the influence of those pharmaceuticals, it’s very hard to fight against it.
“It was mainly between takes when I would sort of nod off. Dennis at one point said to me, ‘What are you doing? Why would you show up to my office like that?’ It was just embarrassing and cringey. I apologized multiple times. I didn’t explain why it was happening, I just apologized over and over.
“When you’re an actor, you’re supposed to be engaged with your scene partner. You’re supposed to be present. And that’s why I took the pharmaceuticals — to be present because I was so nervous — and it had the opposite effect (laughs).
“But I learned from it.
“I haven’t had a pharmaceutical in 22 years. In 2000, I completely got off the drinking and the marijuana, all that stuff. So I’ve lived a sober life for 22 years now.”
How does he manage his nerves these days?
“Nowadays, I think just because I’m older and more comfortable in my skin, it’s gotten a lot easier to be on a set. Also, I have a daily meditation I do that helps me get through some of that anxiety. But I think just being on many, many sets in the last 25 to 30 years has helped me feel more comfortable. Also spiritually and my maturation, how I feel about myself today compared to how I felt in my early 20s — I’m just more comfortable in my skin, so it becomes easier and easier. You know you belong there. I didn’t feel like I belonged there back then, when I felt like an impostor sitting in front of my heroes.
“I did watch the episode and I can tell something’s off. I don’t think the audience would know, but I can tell — I know what my head space was and I look a little bit tired, for sure.”
The takeaway …
“I don’t need pharmaceuticals (laughs).
“I made a mistake and I didn’t make that same mistake ever again. You have to deal with your anxieties and fears naturally — or don’t take as many pharmaceuticals as I did.
“I’ve never been in a scene where the tables were turned and someone fell asleep. But I’ve been around people that have possibly been up all night long, either partying or drinking or something like that, and then showed up to set. It’s pretty unprofessional.
“So if it’s somebody younger than me, I might pull them aside — I’ve done this — and say, ‘Listen, you’re representing our people, you’re representing our culture, get your (stuff) straight.’ That’s pretty much what Jimmy and Dennis did for me. You gotta be a professional.
“So I learned quite a bit from that moment.”