Zahn McClarnon, who plays Toshaway on The Son, talks about the challenge of learning to speak Comanche and explains the dynamics of Toshaway and young Eli’s relationship.
Q: How did you prepare for this role, especially when it came to learning the ways and language of the Comanche?
A: I was recommended a few books. Obviously, I read The Son by Philipp [Meyer], and I also read a book called The Comanches: Lords of the South Plains [by Ernest Wallace and E. Adamson Hoebel]. And I’m very familiar with the Plains Indians because I am Plains Indian. I’m Hunkpapa Lakota Sioux, so I’m very familiar with the culture.
The language is another story. Obviously, I don’t speak Comanche, and it was extremely difficult to learn the scenes that I did have in Comanche. Luckily, we had Juanita Pahdopony [a Comanche educator and advisor to The Son], who was able to get me the translations immediately. The tipi scene in Episode 5 took me about four weeks to learn. It’s a matter of focusing and going over the dialogue word-for-word. It’s very difficult to do that, but we did get it, and it might not sound like I’m fluent, but nobody’s going to be able to tell that except the fluent Comanche speaker. But the pronunciations are all right, and Juanita helped us out with that and listened to us and corrected us. And, once you’ve done that, the other scenes become a little easier because you know some of the words.
Q: Your character is compassionate, yet ruthless when he needs to be. What was it like striking this balance?
A: I actually enjoyed playing a patriarchal character, playing a father figure to Eli. It was a lot of fun. It’s new to me, and that was one of the reasons I was attracted to the part because I’m getting to the age where I can play those parts now. I think Toshaway was pretty much a pragmatist. He went with the flow. He saw things that were happening around him where his culture was starting to be affected and his people and his tribe and, like any human being, he fought and he became ruthless. It’s an interesting dynamic to go from one to another, but I think it’s very human. Humans go through those different emotions. It’s great that Philipp was able to write a three-dimensional character like that.
Q: What was it like playing a role that’s rooted in such a violent part of America’s history?
A: There were some scenes when we torture the buffalo hunter, when I walk up to him — I didn’t realize how we were going to portray that scene when he’s got his arms and legs cut off. I mean, it was fake, it was a set, but still it hits you right in the face. Again, it’s 1849. Those things were happening, and I hope people are able to look at it that way in the context of the time period. There was a lot going on in this country. There was a lot of violence. There still is. And I hope people don’t say, “Oh, you’re portraying the Comanches as a violent people.” Well, they were a violent people, so it’s hard to navigate through that stuff, those stereotypes. Yes, they were the lords of the plains. Yes, they were a violent people, and so were the Europeans, and so were the Latino people and the Mexicans.
Q: Toshaway is somewhat responsible for the brutal death of Eli’s mother and siblings. Why do you think Eli allows himself to become so close to your character?
A: I think Eli was probably a little disillusioned by his life in the beginning, to be honest with you. That’s the way I looked at it. When he does get captured, obviously there’s resentment and he’s mad that we took his family. But he adapts to his new way of life, and I think he starts to realize the difference between the cultures and why the Comanches are doing that and he comes to terms with it. Toshaway becomes a father figure — more of a father figure than he had with his previous family. And Eli’s in that period of life, the teenage years, where he’s still growing, he’s still developing, and then he becomes a Comanche Indian.
Q: Toshaway clearly cares for young Eli. Why?
A: I think young Eli proves himself. The Comanches would go in, and they would take prisoners, trying to fortify their tribe. And Eli came in, and he’s the kind of young man I believe the Comanches would usually take, a young man who’s strong and able to help the tribe. Eli comes in and proves himself, and I think Toshaway, being a pragmatist and being practical, sees the potential in him and the potential for the tribe, and he becomes close to him and treats him like his own son.
Q: What would Toshaway think of the man Eli becomes?
A: I think that Toshaway would completely understand the way Eli has reacted to his environment but would want to give him some more advice. And he does a little bit in the dream sequence in Episode 3. He counsels him and lets him know that he’s proud of him at least, but that he needs to keep going to fulfill his potential.
Read a Q&A with James Parks, who plays Niles Gilbert.
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