The actor talks to ET about his roles on the back-to-back summer TV hits, 'Dark Winds' and 'Reservation Dogs.'
Thanks to Dark Winds, Marvel and Reservation Dogs, the Zahn McClarnon-aissance is in full effect, with the 56-year-old actor, who has also appeared on Fargo, Longmire and Westworld, at the center of long overdue change in the representation of Native Americans and Indigenous people on TV.
"It's wonderful to be a part of it," he tells ET about growth over the past decade that's happened both in front of the cameras and behind the scenes. "It's wonderful to see all my friends working as writers, directors, producers, and finally being able to tell our own story from our perspective."
Especially when it comes to Dark Winds, the hit AMC series adapted from Tony Hillerman's Leaphorn & Chee book series by creator Graham Roland and led by showrunner John Wirth.
"We kind of recontextualized it a bit with native writers and native directors," McClarnon says ahead of its anticipated return with new episodes, which touches on struggles and politics within the Navajo community during the 1970s and was even filmed on the Navajo reservation this time around.
"Shooting a show based in Navajo culture and being able to do it on the Navajo reservation, I think is very important," he notes.
On season 2 of the crime thriller, which McClarnon says is all about "balance being restored," the actor plays Lt. Joe Leaphorn, who reunites with Jim Chee (Kiowa Gordon), now a private eye, as they bring their separate cases together to focus on chasing down the same suspect.
"There's a little bit more levity this year," the actor says of the dynamic between Leaphorn and Chee, suggesting that the two warm up to each other a bit more, with their professional partnership potentially being the one thing not weighing him down in the new episodes.
"Throughout the season, Joe struggles with, 'What does justice mean? What does revenge mean?'" the actor says of Leaphorn's overarching conflict, explaining that those challenges faced by the lieutenant will ultimately affect the world and relationships that surround him.
While Leaphorn finds his moral and professional code challenged by the killer, he's also navigating generational differences between him and his father, Henry Leaphorn (Joseph Runningfox).
"I love exploring that relationship between Joe and his dad," McClarnon says, teasing that things between them are "quite contentious." He adds, "They deal with things differently… I think they just have different values."
For the actor, it was also an opportunity to do something he really hasn't been able to do much onscreen before. "It's always fun to explore that, a relationship between a father and son. I haven't had that many opportunities in my career to do it, so it was quite enjoyable to do that in season 2," he says.
And given all the cat-and-mouse chases and life-changing choices made in the upcoming six-part season, McClarnon says, "I hope that audiences enjoy season 2 of Dark Winds. I really do."
Not only that, but he's excited to see how this more expansive world and its emotional conclusion ("It's quite moving," he says) leads to future installments in the series and how they can "keep going with these stories," teasing that plans are already in place for a season 3 if Dark Winds gets renewed.
And not long after Dark Winds returns with season 2, August will see the premiere of the third and final season of Reservation Dogs, the award-winning FX series about Indigenous teenagers growing up in rural Oklahoma created by Sterlin Harjo and Taika Waititi.
Led by Devery Jacobs as Elora Danan Postoak, D'Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai as Bear Smallhill, Lane Factor as Chester "Cheese" Williams, Paulina Alexis as Wilhelmina "Willie Jack" Jacqueline Sampson, the supporting cast is rounded out by the likes of McClarnon, who plays Officer Big, and Elva Guerra, who plays Jackie here and also appears on new episodes of Dark Winds as Sally Growing Thunder.
According to FX, season 3 "is full of road trips, bathroom wisdom, unexpected fathers, boarding schools, Bigfoot, rumors, revenge and healing" as the Central Rez Dogs make their way home after being stranded in California. Not only that, but audiences will learn more about McClarnon's tribal cop.
"You'll see more Big in season 3," the actor says of the role which led to him winning an Independent Spirit Award for Best Ensemble Cast in a New Scripted Series in 2022, before teasing that "this season, we got to work with some of my compadres that are veterans of the native acting community. I won't spoil who it is, but they're gonna be on the show as well." In addition to the likes of Gary Farmer, who plays Elora's uncle, Brownie, "there's a couple other people that come aboard" that the actor is really excited about.
While this summer sees the back-to-back returns of Dark Winds and Reservation Dogs, audiences will have to wait until November before finally getting to see the Hawkeye spinoff Echo, which was first confirmed in 2021 when its predecessor first debuted on Disney+.
Starring Alaqua Cox as Maya Lopez, Echo will depict Lopez's origin story as she is, according to Marvel, forced to "face her past, reconnect with her Native American roots and embrace the meaning of family and community if she ever hopes to move forward."
The latest spinoff will break new ground for the MCU with its largely Native American and Indigenous cast and crew, with episodes directed by transgender Navajo filmmaker Sydney Freeland, who also serves as co-executive producer, and Aboriginal Australian Catriona McKenzie.
In addition to Cox, the cast includes Chaske Spencer, Tantoo Cardinal, Devery Jacobs and Cody Lightning with Graham Greene and McClarnon returning as Echo's deceased father, William Lopez, a former commander of the Tracksuit Mafia.
When it comes to McClarnon's part, "I wasn't involved with the show as much as I am with the other shows, obviously," he says, referring to the AMC and FX projects. "It was much smaller, my footprint on the show… I only worked [in Atlanta] a couple of weeks and it was a wonderful experience."
He adds, "I think they got some good scripts that were written by native writers and they've got Sydney Freeland, who's an amazing Navajo director on the set, at the helm."
As for the long wait, which has led to increased anticipation for the series, McClarnon says, "It's Marvel, first. You know, that's worth the wait right there." He adds, "It was a wonderful experience, and I think people are gonna enjoy Echo. What I read and what I saw going on down there was amazing."
"I was very happy to be a part of it again," he says of Echo, which is as different from Dark Winds as it is from Reservation Dogs.
And when it comes to the expanded representation that each series brings, especially being told through different perspectives, genres and time periods, the actor is happy to have some part in it.
"It's an important time and I'm glad that I was able to see it in my lifetime," McClarnon says. "Don't get me wrong, I think we have a long way to go. I'd like to see more native executives in studios and people that are giving green lights, et cetera. But we are finally being able to tell our own stories and that's important for me and it's important to be a part of."
Dark Winds season 2 premieres Sunday, July 30 at 9 p.m. ET/PT on AMC, with new episodes available early on AMC+ starting Thursday, July 27.
This interview was conducted prior to the SAG-AFTRA strike, which began on July 13, 2023.