Zahn McClarnon is making a serious impression as Akecheta, leader of the Ghost Nation, in HBO’s popular series Westworld. Some speculate he might even be on the radar for an Emmy.
McClarnon’s role in the eighth episode, “Kiksuya” made waves in Hollywood and generated considerable positive commentary from media sources such as Gold Derby, known for making fairly accurate predictions of what's to come in the film and TV world.
An article by Gold Derby contributor Amanda Spears, states: ““Westworld” was nominated for Best Drama Supporting Actor last year for Jeffrey Wright, but he got a promotion this year to the lead category, which could open the door for McClarnon to make history: not only would he be the first Native American actor to receive a nomination for a series, he would also be only the second Native American actor ever nominated in any category, after August Schellenberg contended for Best Movie/Mini Supporting Actor for his performance as Sitting Bull in the HBO telefilm “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee” in 2007.”
In an interview with Indian Country Today’s associate editor Vincent Schilling, McClarnon discussed his career and involvement on the show. He also took some time to share words on how to be successful in an industry that has not always been so gracious to Native actors.
Vincent Schilling: Great to talk with you Zahn, no doubt you have a lot of stuff going on. Let’s cut to the chase, there's been some chatter about an Emmy.
Zahn McClarnon: Truth be told I don't know anything about it. That would be great, that would be awesome, and I would certainly welcome a nomination, but I really don't know how that stuff works. But I'll tell you it's even nice to be considered for a nomination.
Vincent Schilling: I will tell you if anyone deserves it you certainly do
Zahn McClarnon: Thank you I certainly appreciate that.
Vincent Schilling: In my experience, and I have years a previous arts and entertainment writer, I'll tell you, chatter usually relates to some sort of possibility in Hollywood. But you never know.
Zahn McClarnon: Well I really appreciate that. August Schellenberg was the other Emmy nomination for Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. We worked together a few times and he really was a very kind man.
Vincent Schilling: You have been doing a lot of great work and you have always shown a sincere effort to maintain sustainability as an actor. You have a lot of persistence and a consistent work ethic in my opinion.
Zahn McClarnon: I have been going at this for quite a few years. It is hard work yes, and I do enjoy the process of acting and discovering different things about different characters. That is very important to me and that is my way of expressing myself. Acting is something I enjoy, it is not work to me. I love to stay in class. When I'm not working, you will find me in class learning more, trying to keep sharp and stay on top of things. On the other hand, I don't have the skill set in anything else to fall back on. (laughs) I have been doing this for 28 years. This is what I do. This is what I enjoy doing. It just isn't work to me. It's very fulfilling and no matter what it is, if I'm on TV or if I'm in a film or doing a piece of Theatre in Williamsburg, sitting in class, going through an audition or I'm working on sides, this is all something I just enjoy very much. I am very lucky and very fortunate that I have been able to work for the last 20-plus years.
Vincent Schilling: I've been enjoying your work for many years. There's been a recurrence of things I've seen with you and Jason Momoa which started with The Red Road and most recently on Amazon came Braven which was a great movie.
Zahn McClarnon: Jason is a very close friend of mine, we just had dinner on Thursday actually, I just love him to death. He is a good man and there is some stuff possibly in the future we are working on together. In the movie Braven, they kind of let me go and they let me do what I wanted to do. There was a lot of Improv we had a wonderful time working on it. It was cold as hell up there in Newfoundland. Jason asked me to come back to do the movie and of course I jumped on it. I like his process and he let me do what I wanted to do, it worked out very well.
Vincent Schilling: You're doing a lot of great stuff and Jason Momoa is doing a lot of great stuff as well. For God sakes he's Aquaman. It's great to see indigenous actors doing great things.
Zahn McClarnon: He deserves it and yes definitely is good to see Native actors working
Vincent Schilling: You are doing a lot of fantastic work in Westworld as one of the Native "hosts." It's pretty cool to see the Native traditional element combined with a computer / android short-circuiting type of theme.
Zahn McClarnon: It's a wonderful show, the creators Lisa Joy and Jonathan Nolan on the show, I'll tell you, you just don't see this kind of writing very often. I think it is imaginative, thoughtful profound and it is just an honor to be part of a team of people so dedicated. This show definitely meets my own personal criteria for good television writing. I'm just fortunate to be part of this.
Vincent Schilling: Now of course you've got Irene Bedard and Martin Sensmeier who are part of the series as well as other great actors.
Zahn McClarnon: I love those two very much. This is the first time I've worked with Martin. He is a young professional, he shows up prepared and we have a lot of fun on set together. We laugh a lot. He brings his experience growing up in Alaska, and I think it is so important that they do hire Native actors. If you bring somebody who grew up in their culture, and they bring that experience to their work to native characters, I think it is very important. I am not saying everyone has to grow up on the rez to bring something to the character. But this is all good to see.
Vincent Schilling: You mentioned August Schellenberg, and he had told me in an interview how in the earlier days of filmmaking, Native actors were subjected to paint downs, meaning they were painted red or brown because they did not look Native enough. The Indians were not Indian enough, and now we are here in 2018 and Zahn McClarnon is playing a Native character who is embracing the future. The outreach for diversity in Hollywood is gaining momentum. Do you think young Native actors have a little more to look forward to?
Zahn McClarnon: I think so. We have a long way to go, but we have storylines like Westworld that are doing very well. There was one aspect of the show which showcased the storyline in Lakota. The show creators are listening to us and involving people like Sterlin Harjo, who is a tremendous Native director and writer. They are writing things that are in different perspectives on these Native characters and I think Westworld took a big chance. When I saw the voiceover for the episode, I was just amazed that they made the commitment of doing it in the Lakota language. The audience would have to read subtitles and get into the story that way. On top of that, it was a love story and you do not see very many Native love stories going out on TV. I hope this opens people's eyes. I hope they see Natives from a different perspective, and possibly they will write storylines like this for us in future television shows. I think we have a ways to go but it's getting better.
Vincent Schilling: I know I've asked you this before, but I always like to ask ways that we can share our thoughts with Native youth. What would you say to them about getting into acting or into the industry at all?
Zahn McClarnon: Study, study, study. I think I've told you that before.
Vincent Schilling: Yes you did, and I think it's incredibly important and worth repeating to be honest with you. Because you are right and that is exactly what you have to do.
Zahn McClarnon: You have to make a commitment to your craft. Just go for it and jump in feet first. If you want to be a television or film actor, I would suggest to any of the young people pursuing it to move to the market where it's at in Los Angeles or New York. Jump in feet first, get an acting coach, go at it as much as you possibly can. Do anything that you can act in, student films, theater, commercials, immerse yourself into it. That goes for writing, that goes for directing or anything to do with the art.
Follow Indian Country Today’s associate editor and senior correspondent, Vincent Schilling (Akwesasne Mohawk) on Twitter - @VinceSchilling