In the AMC drama “Dark Winds,” Zahn McClarnon plays Lt. Joe Leaphorn of the Navajo Tribal Police, who investigates a double murder with the help of two young deputies, while trying to manage the intrusive interests of the FBI, which is more interested in arresting a few armored car thieves who may or may not be hiding somewhere in the stash.
The series, which has been renewed for a second season, is based on the mystery novels by Tony Hillerman. “I grew up with books,” McClarnon said. “Within our native community, they were well known, of course. And I had auditioned for previous adaptations in the early 90s. I knew these characters and they were always around me in my community. So when they came to me” — George RR Martin and Robert Redford are among the producers of the show — “I was very interested. How could I refuse with such a great team of producers? It was an easy yes for me.
McClarnon’s rise to leading man status is long overdue, having made a name for himself in supporting roles on shows such as ‘Fargo’, ‘Westworld’ (where he made a return appearance most recently) and in a rare comedic role on “Reservation Dogs”, to name a few.
When asked to share a memory from a worst time in his career, he recalled an appearance on “NYPD Blue.”
My worst moment…
“I was lucky enough 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 did three different auditions and finally – this was before cell phones – my phone was off or something like that so i had to run across the street and take the call to a public phone and they gave me the job i was absolutely thrilled i am working with my heroes and being part of a show of Steven Bohco.
“It was a guest star role. It was in 1997. I played an Ecuadorian native who is a waiter and he is a suspect in a restaurant robbery that he may have been involved in. They think he made the thieves enter the restaurant.
“It was quite early in my career. I had only been doing this for a few years and I had a lot of nerve problems, like most actors. And the problem I had was: they were my heroes. C It was a hit TV show. Now I have a big guest star spot on it. It was the best thing that happened to me in my career at that time, but I was very nervous.
“So what I did was I took pharmaceuticals – it was Valium, I think – to deal with my anxiety about actually being in a scene with Dennis Franz and Jimmy Smits. J just needed something to relax and cool off so i could do my job (Laughs). It was an interrogation scene where they were really drilling and chasing me. It was an accented scene where Dennis was in my face. I knew it was coming and I was getting more and more nervous.
“Well, I took too many of those pills, that’s what happened.
“And at some point when we were doing the scene, I started falling asleep in front of them (Laughs). In the middle of the stage! And between takes, I actually fell asleep sitting in my chair. And that was because I had done too much medicine.
“And Jimmy and Dennis kind of laughed it off a bit. But they were also a little upset. It was very embarrassing that I showed up at their work and fell asleep in the middle of the stage. Mostly because I held these people in such high regard.
Was McClarnon trying strategies to stay awake?
“There was nothing I could do!” I used to drink coffee, but once you’re under the influence of those pharmaceuticals, it’s very hard to fight that.
“It was mostly between takes when I kind of fell asleep. Dennis said to me at one point, ‘What are you doing? Why would you want to show up at my office like that? C was just embarrassing and grumpy. I apologized several times. I didn’t explain why this was happening, I just apologized over and over again.
“When you’re an actor, you’re supposed to be engaged with your stage partner. You’re supposed to be present. And that’s why I took the drugs – to be present because I was so nervous – and it had the opposite effect (Laughs).
“But I learned from it.
“I haven’t had any medicine for 22 years. In 2000, I completely quit alcohol and marijuana, all that stuff. So I’ve been living a sober life for 22 years now.
How does he deal with his nerves these days?
“Nowadays I think just because I’m older and more comfortable in my own skin, it’s become a lot easier to be on set. Also, I have a daily meditation that I doing that helps me get over some of that anxiety. But I think just being on many, many sets over the last 25 to 30 years has helped me feel more comfortable. Also spiritually and my maturing, how I feel now compared to how I felt in my early twenties – I’m just more comfortable in my own skin, so it’s getting easier and easier. I felt out of place back then, when I felt like an impostor sitting in front of my heroes.
“I watched the episode and I can tell something is wrong. I don’t think the audience knows, but I can tell – I know what my headspace was and I look a little tired, that’s for sure.
“I don’t need pharmaceuticals (Laughs).
“I made a mistake and I never made the same mistake again. You have to deal with your anxieties and fears naturally – or don’t take as many medications as I do.
“I’ve never been in a scene where the tables have been turned and someone has fallen asleep. But I’ve been around people who may have been up all night, either doing the party, either drinking or something and then showed up on set. It’s pretty unprofessional.
“So if it’s someone younger than me, I could put them aside – I did – and say, ‘Look, you represent our people, you represent our culture, put your (stuff) clear. “That’s pretty much what Jimmy and Dennis did to me. You gotta be a pro.
“So I learned a lot from that moment.”
Nina Metz is a critic at the Tribune
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