Dark Winds Q&A — Jessica Matten’s Sgt. Bernadette Manuelito Is Ambitious as Ever

In Season 2 of Dark Winds, Lt. Joe Leaphorn (Zahn McClarnon) and Sgt. Bernadette Manuelito (Jessica Matten) reunite with Jim Chee (Kiowa Gordon), their former deputy turned private eye, when their separate cases bring them together in pursuit of the same suspect (played by Nicholas Logan).  In this Q&A with amc.com, we caught up with Matten to discuss the many sides of Bernadette that we’ll encounter this season, where her ambition may take her by the season’s end, and which of Matten’s passions the writers were able to incorporate into Bernadette in Season 2.

Q: At the start of Episode 2 we get to see a bit of Bernadette’s morning routine—similar to the peek at Leaphorn’s morning in Episode 1. It’s so great to be back with these characters again for another season and learn more about their interior lives. Were you excited to get back into Bern mode for Season 2? 
A: Yeah, I always am. We had thorough conversations with the showrunner, John Wirth, about what he wanted to do this season. We had an introductory Zoom meeting with all the Indigenous writers that would be on for the season as well, and it was just so wonderful. I could see just how they were working together, and they told me that they planned to explore more of the characters' lives. Knowing all that going into Season 2, I was really excited. I always feel that helps an audience find something specific that resonates with them and I'm so happy [with] how it turned out.
I remember the day we filmed that episode and Bernadette's morning routine evolved while we were filming. Initially it was written that she was going to box, and Zahn, and I think someone else too, suggested that she chop wood instead. That it's more badass if she chops wood, I was like, "Yeah, it is… it totally is!" Because boxing, it's a wonderful idea, but it's been done so many times and it's almost like you're trying to show you're tough as opposed to actually being tough. I think Bernie's a character, and she's actually tough. She doesn't need to show anything. I think it's a cliché, but it's so true: less is more. The subtleties are actually a lot stronger, so I'm so happy that that's the direction that we went in on the day. It's exciting to always try new things with characters too.
Q: This season Bernadette has risen up the ranks and it looks like her ambition is pushing her to go even further and look at opportunities outside of her community. These are hard decisions to make—serious adulting. What do you think she’s thinking as she’s weighing her career options? These aren’t decisions that she’s taking lightly.  
A: Yeah, it's one of those cases where she’s so passionate about what she does that sometimes she feels like she’s talking to a wall, you know? I think that's the case with Bernie this season. She loves her job, she loves her community, she loves what she does so much, and yet she knows and feels, because of the times they’re in that she's limited. I love how her story of wanting to move to a different career is also tied to her being an Indigenous woman. A main topic throughout the series is racism, and that touches on Emma's storyline this season and the history we get coming from Leaphorn's father as well. I think what Bernadette ends up deciding at the end of the season is directly related to that. Her decision about her career is very much rooted in her desire to feel equal as a human being.
It's the glass ceiling conundrum that so many women deal with, but even more so because of her Indigenous roots, her ties to her community. It just complicates it even further.
Totally. I think that's something that any woman can relate to. We’ve made small leaps and bounds here and there, but if you look at the grand scheme of things, no we haven't. In a lot of countries, we're still second-class citizens. So again, a very relatable topic.  
Q: Episode 2 is the first time in a long time that Bernadette has seen Chee. The scene at the hospital is full of tension, but the fact that she brings him a medicine pouch tells us his wellbeing is still important to her. You and Kiowa have such amazing chemistry on screen. What was it like prepping to deepen that relationship in Season 2? 
A: We’ve known each for almost a decade now, so we're just very fortunate that we get to play these characters on screen together. It's very easy for us to just dive right in there. So, we hadn't seen each other since the Dark Winds Season 1 premiere, and we just fell into it. It's so organic for us and we had so much fun. I think that scene at the hospital was our first scene that we shot together for Season 2.
Oh, I love that!
Yeah, everyone at video village was giggling because in between his takes Kiowa was being such a goofball while we were filming my coverage. He had cross eyes, making these dumb faces, his mouth hanging open. He's like, "Uuunnhh, I'm injured." [Laughs] It's just so easy when you have that dynamic on set to really get into it, even when the producers and directors were literally giggling behind the monitors. We had no idea because we're just like two big kids together. It's super fun because him and I in real life have a very sisterly/brotherly dynamic. It just works! Even in real life, people will always be like, "Oh my God, are you guys a couple or siblings?" We're like, "Weird you'd ask that in the same sentence, but okay." We're like, "Neither!" I think that's the fortunate thing, even with Zahn, the dynamic that we all have together works. Obviously how I play Bernadette is very different from my personality in real life, but the dynamic between the three of us in general remains the same. We have good chemistry on [screen] and off [screen].
The authenticity that we see on screen is rooted in real friendships and I think that that becomes very clear.
Oh good! When you're spending 12, 14-hour days, day in, day out with someone five days a week for four months, you hope that you have that kind of friendship with them. That's the best situation, because filming is difficult. It has its ups and downs, and you want to be in the trenches with people you like.
Q: We learn so much about these characters through their relationships with each other, and even though Bernadette has grown and matured since we last saw her, she still looks to Leaphorn as a mentor and a source of support. In talking to Zahn, it seems that your real-life friendship is a lot like that too!  
A: Yeah, this year Zahn and I had a lot more on-screen time together, so it presented an opportunity for us to really get to know each other on a whole other level. I'm just so fond of that guy. He's wonderful, especially under pressure, under stress, but also in good times. I adore him in any situation that we’re in, and I think that says a lot about anyone in life. If you enjoy their company, no matter what situation you're in together, I think that says a lot.
Absolutely, and I think that also means that's a friend for life. You're going to hold onto that friendship for sure.
100%! Him and I are both Scorpios so, whether I believe in astrology or not, I will say that we are known to be very loyal friends. I definitely expect us to be lifelong friends. Actually, it's funny, Deanna [Allison], Zahn, and I are all Scorpios. [Laughs] We're the Scorpio pack!
Q: Bernadette is such a multi-faceted character, and you get to explore so many different sides of her this season: her sense of humor, her strength, her ambition, her physical strength, her role as a mentor for the youth in her community. What do you love the most about playing Bernadette and what other amazing attributes will she surprise us with this season?   
A: Honestly, what I was really excited about exploring this season is exactly what you said: all the different sides of her! I think we all have those different versions of ourselves. My biggest fear as an actor is that I never want a character to come off as one-dimensional because I know it's easy to get trapped in that. With Bernie being so tough, I also thought it was very important to show the vulnerable side of her. When she lets her guard down and shows the human side — the at home side, the mentor side, the daughter side — all those sides exist within us. I think, as an actor, that's the beautiful challenge of the job. You get to create all those sides to a character that's also not you. Finding those things that you wouldn't do in your personal life, but that you can allow this character to explore. Also, to be quite frank, I'm happy that we’re not just seeing this tough character, because I think when you're just tough all the time, it can detract from the character. It’s not appealing over time, so I was very worried about that and constantly trying to think, "Okay, yes! This is my opportunity to show the other layers of her."
I loved the storyline this year with her and Dean Bitsuie, who's played by Zakota [Shade], who's a beautiful human in real life. You know, a lot of the Indigenous youth that I end up working with on different projects, I end up keeping in touch with afterwards. I'm like, "If you ever need anything, if there's anything I could help with or connect you to, please let me know." And I mean it. I want the Indigenous youth to succeed. I'm in this position. I really want to play a role in helping others and I'm just grateful that a character like Bernadette is giving me the platform to do so. So, it was really nice that in the writers' room, they were listening to what I do in my life outside of acting and filming. I run an Indigenous film academy that I created, and the program saved 15 lives last summer, legitimately, like I was pulling people out of psych wards.
I remember you talked about that with me last season.
Yeah, so last season we were just starting it up and now we finished it. We had 15 successful graduates. They're all part of the Directors Guild of Canada now. They're all IATSE union members. A week after graduation, I got them on their first TV show as crew and cast and then right after that on another show. This stuff really matters to me, and I think the writers were listening to that and found a way to infuse a little bit of what I do into Bernie. 
*This conversation took place before the SAG-AFTRA strike.

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