Based on the Leaphorn & Chee book series by Tony Hillerman, Dark Winds follows Navajo Tribal Police officers in the 1970s Southwest as they search for answers in an unsettling double murder case. In this interview with amc.com, we speak with Kiowa Gordon who plays Deputy Jim Chee, one half of the iconic duo and an undercover FBI agent. We dive into why he has such a deep connection to Chee, the power of a ‘70s suit, and what he’s looking forward to seeing in Season 2.
Q: Were you a fan of the Hillerman novels before becoming involved with the show? Fans really love Chee!
A: People love those books! He's a huge part of why, and to be a part of that, it's iconic. I had heard of the books because my dad had a couple of them in his library when I was growing up, but I never read them. I was too busy playing with my toys — my Legos, my G.I. Joes, and my Star Wars. I first found out about the series when PBS and Chris Eyre did those episodes starring Adam Beach as Chee and Wes Studi as Leaphorn. I actually went to set one day because they were filming in Phoenix and my mom knows Adam Beach and Chris! I tagged along with her because she was going to be an extra. I just showed up, but I got to be in one of the shots on set. You can probably see the back of my head in one scene! And then I played video games with Adam — he had an Xbox and we played Halo. I didn't have an Xbox at the time, so I thought, "This is the best."
Fast forward to years later when I talked to Chris after he moderated the screening of my movie Blood Quantum in California. He was like, "Man, I want you for this series I'm developing with George R.R. Martin." I'm like, "What!? No way! That's so cool!" He's like, "Yeah, it's a detective. In this one, he's going to be an undercover FBI agent." I'm like, "What?!" And he's like, "Returning to his home and he hasn't been there for years." I'm like, "Oh, this sounds dope!" And then we just kept talking about it. I didn't know it was going to come up so fast.
About a year later, I get an audition for it. I'm like, "Oh shoot, this is it!" I know the casting director Rene Haynes from my mom as well, and I knew Chris already had my back on it. Then I found out Zahn was playing Leaphorn. "Oh, no way!" I'm like, "Zahn, what's the deal? I'm going out for it." He's like, "Yeahhh!" He's an executive producer and he has a big say in who he wants to cast, so I thought, "I'm a shoo-in. Let's go!" I went and auditioned. Around the same time I also booked an episode of Reservation Dogs. Zahn's on that as well, so I went to Oklahoma and talked with him. It was just really nice to feel wanted for something like this. This is an amazing opportunity for not only me, but for the rest of us, Indigenous people that want to be in this industry and make a mark. Have our voices heard in TV and film. It’s just awesome. It's historic and it's been a long time coming.
Q: Chee’s arrival is abrupt, and he completely takes Leaphorn by surprise. We learn his arrival was spurred by ulterior FBI motives. He’s able to work the situation well and navigate between the Diné community and the outside world seamlessly, but it seems that that’s the case because he’s distanced himself so much from his roots. Can you talk a bit about Chee’s frame of mind when he first joins the Navajo Police and how it changes over the course of the season?
A: Yeah, I think it was hard for him at first because he had left. There were these traumatic things that happened in his past and he had to get out of Dodge, and he assimilated into white society. Then he goes to a very prestigious college. That prevents him from going to Vietnam, and he gets to hone his mentality there and gain these skills that get him recruited by the FBI. He has the ambition to go as far as he can with that. You see it when he's talking to Whitover. He has a chance to go to DC or Chicago. I think going back home probably opens up all these old wounds… returning to the res. He even asks Whitover, "What the heck am I doing here?" Like, "I don't want to be here." Like, "Let's go do a different case." He's just shoehorned in there because he’s Navajo and they need that.
I felt really deeply connected to Chee because I grew up on my reservation and then moved away when I was young. I lived in Peach Springs on the Hualapai Reservation and then I moved when my dad was a sheriff's deputy in Kingman. We were there for about a year. Then he wanted my brothers and I to go to a prestigious high school to play football so we moved to Mesa, Arizona, of all places. It's a huge Mormon community so I felt so displaced there and I had no friends, moving from school to school, getting into trouble. Then when I went back to the res, it was like they didn’t even know me anymore — you just don't feel like you fit in anywhere in the world anymore. I really felt that and I really felt like I could see myself in Chee when he comes back. It's a lot to deal with mentally but I think he's so earnest. He’ll do his job, what he's there for, but he's also going to tap into his old roots and try to dig up something. Maybe do some self-searching and some healing.
When he meets Leaphorn and Bernadette and just being back there on the land, there’s a familiarity he has—it's just a flood of feelings that comes over him. A realization of, "Wow, I get the best of both worlds now. I have the training and the knowhow to live in a society outside of this, but I can also come back and build these relationships with the community and with my partners." The relationships between Chee and Leaphorn—it's like looking up to somebody who you haven't had in your life, like a father figure. Plus with Leaphorn losing his son, it's like having a kind of replacement. Someone to have a fondness and an affinity with even through rough times. It's just a great story of loss and love, especially with Bernadette and Chee having these very vulnerable moments together as well. It's beautiful to see these multi-dimensional angles so it's not like, "Oh, this is a cop drama," because there's so much more to it than that. I respect what we did here and I'm proud of it.
Q: Your scenes with Noah Emmerich are fraught with tension—he’s playing you, then you’re playing him, and it’s so interesting to see the power dynamics shift through the season. It’s also interesting to see how Chee’s energy changes when he’s out of uniform and puts on those sweet ‘70s suits.
A: Yeah! I loved that! The suits made me feel so powerful and confident.
Q: What was it like filming those scenes and going between those different costumes?
A: It was wild because when I put on the cop uniform, I really felt kind of timid. It's like Chee’s playing a character, and he's not himself. He’s just trying to size everything up, just hold his cards close to his chest, and not give too much away because he doesn't want to be found out. He wants to prove that he can do this because he's got a lot to prove. He's a young guy and when he's in FBI mode he feels like he's on top of the world and he's got a great case under him. The scene where he talks to the lab tech who’s condescending to him so he’s like, "You want to see my badge? I'm going to give you a piece of my mind." Filming that scene felt so good. I got an adrenaline rush from doing that scene!
Q: What was it like working on a production that is deeply indigenous both behind the scenes and in front of the camera? Given there were so many different tribes represented it must have been exhilarating and exciting?
A: A lot of the time it just felt like being home 'cause it's been a long time since I've been back to a setting like that. You can smell the dirt and everything there feels like where you grew up. And the people too, everyone behind the camera, the crew. I've known Zahn [McClarnon] since 2013. We were working on The Red Road with Jason Momoa for Sundance, and then we moved on to Frontier. That's where we met Jessica [Matten] in 2015. It’s kind of crazy because we really manifested working together right before the pandemic and then it actually happened! It’s like getting to work with your family. It's just a blessing.
Q: There are obviously so many Chee stories to tell. If the show's picked up for a second season, which elements of Chee do you hope to explore a little bit more? [Ed note: This interview took place before the Season 2 renewal was announced].
A: There are love interests that Chee has — like so many different people that he gets involved with. But in the later books with Anne Hillerman’s stories, Bernadette and Chee go there. I kind of like that we can have this tension of a ‘will they or won't they.’ I also love the way Chee is so meticulous with all his cases. I would love to see just one episode focused on Leaphorn. One where we go our separate ways and we're working on several cases all at once. That'd be awesome!
Chee doesn't really like using his gun. You see him use it like twice, and he's not very good with it because he doesn't care that much. He likes to use his mind more and his logic, rather than his weapons. The Ghostway is one of my favorites from the series so that would be really cool to adapt. I do think we kind of teased People of Darkness though. I just want to spend more time with these characters because they're frickin' awesome.
And stunts. I would like to do a lot more stunts! It'd be fun. Just more action, you know? The stunt coordinator was talking to one of the EPs and was like, "Hey, you guys need to write more stunts in the second season because he likes doing it, it looks good on camera, he's good at it, and he's athletic." I'm like, "Well, I'm not that athletic, but talk me up!" Oh man, doing stunts in cowboy boots is so hard. I'll be running around in the desert with boots on, blisters.
New episodes of Dark Winds air on Sundays at 9/8c on AMC. Full episodes are available to stream on amc.com (with a cable provider login), the AMC apps for mobile and devices, and a week early on AMC+. AMC+ is available at amcplus.com or through the new AMC+ app available on iPhone, iPad, Android, Fire TV, Apple TV, and Roku. AMC+ can also be accessed through a variety of providers, including AppleTV, Prime Video Channels, DirectTV, Dish, Roku Channel, Sling, and Xfinity. Sign up for AMC+ now.