Zahn McClarnon, 50, is the son of an Irish father and Hunkpapa Lakota mother and grew up all over the northern plains states. He has appeared in Bone Tomahawk and Fargo (2015), and has a recurring role on the Longmire series as Officer Mathias. His latest project is starring as Toshaway, a Comanche chief, in AMC’s The Son, set to debut in April. The novel, written by Philipp Meyer, traces Eli McCullough—from his youth on the Texas frontier and capture by the Comanche, to his rise as a cattle and oil baron in South Texas—as well as the personal dramas of he and his descendants. Editor-in-Chief Bob Welch caught up with McClarnon to find out more about his heritage and the production.
Can you share some of your background and upbringing with our readers?
I’m a Lakota, Hunkpapa, which is Standing Rock Sioux, Sitting Bull’s band. My father was an Irishman and I’ve got a little German blood in me, as well. I’m just a mutt. We’re all mutts, I think. I grew up in Montana, Wyoming, and Nebraska. My mom was raised on the Standing Rock Reservation.
The Son might be the best Western novel since Lonesome Dove. I’m sure fans of the genre have high hopes that the miniseries will be just as good. What can you tell us about the television production that will give us all hope?
Like all books that are turned into television shows, different things take place when they change format. The good thing is that we had Philipp Meyer (author of The Son) on the set every day as the producer. The integrity of the book stood up throughout the whole shoot. You bring in producers from Hollywood, but Philipp had been working on this for years. So when we started shooting, we did it through his vision and it all remained intact. When you see the show, you’ll see how that came to be.
My own favorite sections of The Son were Eli’s capture and life with the Comanche, probably the most accurate portrayal of white captures. What do you think are the important lessons from that narrative?
The Comanche were called the Lords of the Plains by some, but they had fertility problems within the tribe. They would go out and look for young people—boys mainly—to make that tribe stronger as a whole. They would capture Spanish, Mexican, Pueblo, Apache, and European people to build the tribe up. They weren’t kidnapping people because of their skin color. There was nothing racist about it—it was pragmatic. They wanted their tribe to survive and that’s what they had to do.
What research did you do for the role of Toshaway?
I’m a Lakota, a Plains Indian, so I bring that with me. The Comanche were the first tribe to have horses, so they were the horse people. I was able to bring my knowledge of my people into the character. There were a few books I read: obviously, The Son, as well as Comanches: The Lords of the South Plains. We also had Juanita Pahdopony as our Comanche advisor. She came to the set and sent me material all the time. Philipp Meyer himself and his research for the book was also one of the main resources we all used.
Our readers are also fans of Longmire. The characters Mathias and Toshaway live some 180 years apart, but the authors seem to treat their Native American characters similarly. Do you agree?
Listen, I work hard to avoid any stereotyping. As an actor, you have words on a page and your job is to tell that story. You bring your knowledge to what you think that character should be, but when it comes down to it, you’re telling a story. I like both the characters. I don’t think they’re stereotypical; both are principled men who care about their people. There’s a lot of humanity to these characters. I think both authors created great characters.
What was your favorite part about filming The Son?
It’s always the relationships you establish with the other actors. Jacob Lofland plays the young Eli and he’s just a good kid, a good human being. That’s what I always take away from working on shows is the relationships with the other human beings. They’re all different. Unfortunately, Longmire is ending after this season and it’s going to be tough not going back to that. But now I get to be a part of The Son, which is full of beautiful people.
Did the relationship you developed off camera with Jacob benefit the on-camera chemistry?
I’m playing patriarchal parts. Jacob’s a young man—19 years old—and that relationship did develop over five months. We liked to joke around and that brought a lot to Toshaway and young Eli—you’ll see that when you see the show. At first it starts off with pragmatic reasons for capturing him. Then they establish a relationship and Toshaway becomes a father figure. Eli is the son he didn’t have.
Why is the West such a compelling setting for these and other themes?
There’s a lot of correlation between the storyline in The Son and what’s going on today. You have the borders and the racism surrounding that. Even when it comes to the Dakota Access Pipeline and the Standing Rock Reservation, those things are going on in that time period and they’re going on right now. You see the correlation between the two even at 150 years apart. Things have gotten better since those times, it certainly isn’t as violent as it was. It’s a historical fictional drama, but it’s all relevant to the issues of today. I hope people pick up on that.
How do we apply that to the challenges of today?
By celebrating the positives. It sounds cliché, but love. It’s tough. You know?