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 Jessica Matten who plays Sergeant Bernadette Manuelito, Joe Leaphorn’s highly capable right-hand woman. We dive into why Bernadette is such an important character for Matten, what set life was like, and what she hopes to explore in Season 2.
Q: Were you a fan of the Hillerman novels before becoming involved with the show? Although Bernadette is an addition Hillerman’s daughter Anne made to the series, she’s a really compelling character and fans love her.
A: I’ve got a funny story to answer your question! The first time George R.R. Martin came to set, he came up to me and he went, "So, you're Bernadette," and I went, "So, you're George." And he's like, "Have you read the novels?" And I went, "No, George, I haven't. But don't worry! I know this character. I got you." And then I went back to set and I'm sure he was very uneasy with that!
I'd heard of Dark Winds in the '80s, and I knew they’d done something for PBS. But honestly, I didn't know much. One thing I did know is—coming off of the other shows that I had done in the past—I know what a resilient, kick ass woman looks like. My entire strategy coming into this industry is to show Indigenous youth what a Native superhero could look like. I've worked and prepared super hard to just get to this moment and it continues to evolve.
I've worked my entire life in Indigenous communities in suicide prevention, addiction counseling—I've had knives to my throat countless times—and I really want to highlight key issues that are affecting our people. Missing and murdered Indigenous women is a massive issue, so that's why it's extremely important and a conscious choice for me to continue to portray these strong characters. I want to show how Native women are strong, and I want Indigenous girls and women to take that back home and realize it's okay to sit in your power and be confident in that. If I can help make them feel they can have that bit of allowance in their life, then it's worth everything, you know?
Q: When we first meet Bernadette, she’s a bit annoyed with Chee’s arrival. It seems that her and Leaphorn have a great relationship and Chee’s arrival kind of complicates that.
A: Without giving too much away, we do learn in the novels that Joe more or less rescues Bernadette out her circumstances when she’s a teenager. He kind of adopts her and inevitably there's this dynamic where they're not just partners, but they're also family. So when Chee enters in—and I think a lot of women can relate to this—it's like, "I'm good at my job. Why do I need a man to come in and try to take over?" So it's this interesting dynamic I was trying to play of "Are you trying to say I'm not doing my job well? Because I know I'm great at it." I do think that dynamic I was trying to portray is very much rooted in the ‘70s. If there was a strong female character like that, there still would have been tons of pushback in terms of still not giving her the respect that she deserves. There was the belief that women could not handle things like a man, and I wanted to show the world through Bernadette "yes, you can!"
Obviously she’s a fictional character, but it feels very true to the Indigenous women I grew up around. And I just think there's not enough stories out there that show what it was actually like back then. Our women are strong. That didn't just happen in the 2000s. They've always been strong.
Q: In chatting with [director] Chris [Eyre], I learned that many tribes are matriarchal. So this idea that the women are actually the ones who lead is an important message for outsiders to understand.
A: Absolutely. And that also plays into the dynamic of why Joe is okay with Bernadette being his number one.
Q: Like Leaphorn, Bernadette seamlessly operates in the modern overwhelmingly white world, but she holds her community and traditions to heart. She knows that there’s a distrust that comes with wearing a Navajo Police badge. Can you talk a bit about how Bernadette navigates through both worlds?
A: I think it's just like any person of color in the real world. You have to be okay to code switch. And that's very much what Bernadette has to do is code switch between two worlds — I would even say three worlds because she's also in a man's world on top of it! That speaks to her experience of being Indigenous but also just being a woman walking this earth. So I pull from personal experience and also observing women in my own life. I do my research too so I know women who are police officers and tribal police officers, and I love to listen to their stories and I draw from that.
Q: While Bernadette is committed to her community and her culture, Chee has a much more complicated relationship with both. Bernadette is able to encourage him to reconnect with Diné traditions and it’s really moving to watch. What was it like filming those intimate Kinaaldá scenes? I know you’re Metis-Cree and not Diné, so there must have been some learning for you that took place during those moments?
A: Yeah, there was tons. Zahn, Kiowa, and I, we're all mixed, so we know what it's like to live between two worlds. I think for that reason alone, it's easy to add those elements to the characters because you live it every single day. But one cool thing about our job is there's so many different Native tribes involved in this show! We may have these similarities but at the same time we're incredibly different. Like we don't have Kinaaldá ceremonies in Cree culture. A lot of the more “mythical elements” that we're tackling here are not mythical to the Diné people. They’re real.
There was this entire new discovery of honoring that, as we were very much just visitors on their land in general. We were shooting on traditional Navajo land. We shot at the first and only Native American film studio, Camel Rock Studios, which was once a casino that they converted into a studio. So in a lot of ways, as you're learning to become these characters, you're also very cognizant that you are a guest at the same time.
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: It was extremely supportive. My first day on set no one told me that it was an Indigenous crew, so I just saw a lot of brown faces and they were all masked up, so I wasn't sure. Someone told me, "They're Diné!" And I was like, "No! What!? What?" I honestly got teary-eyed, and I was like, "Don't be that actress and cry on the first day," because I'm not like that. I'm not too precious. I don't do Method [Acting], none of that stuff. But honestly it was breathtaking to me because I feel like I've spent my entire life trying to get my people in the industry in some way or another and here they already existed! We’re so close-knit as cast and crew that even while I'm doing press all day I have crew members DMing me and I'm just telling them like, "I'm supporting you. I've giving you shout-outs!" Because it's important that we continuously lift each other up. This is how true change happens.
Q: There are so many more Bernadette stories to tell. If the show's picked up for a second season, which other elements of Bernadette would you hope to explore? [Ed note: This interview took place before the Season 2 renewal was announced].
A: I would like to delve more into her backstory, why she is the way she is. And honestly I love the fighting scenes! I want to beat some a**! So if we have a Season 2, I want to get punching! I just want to make Bernadette into a really realistic, grounded, living superhero and serve up justice for George, Robert [Redford], and Chris [Eyre], [creator] Graham [Roland] and for our community.
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.