Dark Winds Q&A — Zahn McClarnon’s Joe Leaphorn Is A Principled Man With A Heart Of Gold

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 Zahn McClarnon, who’s already being celebrated by fans and newcomers alike for the “quiet intensity” he brings to the character of Joe Leaphorn. We dive into how McClarnon’s co-stars balanced him on set, how he tapped into Leaphorn’s deep moments of grief, and why Leaphorn’s sense of humor is an integral part of his skill set.
Q: It seems trite to say, but you embody Joe Leaphorn so beautifully it's like you were born to play this character! Were you a fan of the Hillerman novels before becoming involved with the show?
A: I knew of the Tony Hillerman books growing up. He was very much in the ethos of Indian country, but I didn’t start reading his books until my early twenties. There weren’t too many books with Native lead characters in them, so it was exciting for me to read. I had auditioned for some of the earlier productions of the Hillerman novels as well.
Q: When we first meet Joe, we learn that he’s excellent at his job, but he carries a lot of darkness in him over the death of his son. He’s somehow been able to compartmentalize his son’s death and his job until the death of Anna Attcity—which definitely triggers his grief again. Can you talk a bit about bringing those quiet moments of grief to the screen? They feel so grounded and real.
A: I think as humans we have gone through painful experiences, loss, tragedy, joy, etc. As an actor, I try and lean into and draw from those lived experiences. It’s something that I don’t mind doing and sometimes I find it cathartic. I just try and feel those emotions or explore those states of mind and really be truthful with them.
Q: This isn’t your first time working with Kiowa Gordon as you worked together on Sundance’s The Red Road. What was it like joining forces again to bring this iconic duo to life?
A: I’ve been a fan of Kiowa since the first time I saw his work on The Red Road. He’s very understated and honest with his work. He listens and is open. He brings an energetic spirit to the set as well and I really appreciate that, because sometimes I get a little too serious and intense.
Q: Leaphorn seamlessly operates in the modern overwhelmingly white world, but he holds his community and traditions to heart. He knows that there’s a distrust that comes with wearing a Navajo Police badge. Can you talk a bit about how Leaphorn navigates through both worlds?
A: Joe takes his job seriously and wants to get to the bottom of things. He’s a principled man who has a good moral compass. He cares for his people and wants to protect and serve them. He makes mistakes but admits to them and therefore gains trust.
He definitely leverages his sense of humor too. His nickname of ‘High Pockets’ for Whitover is perfection.
Yeah, I think his teasing and humor definitely helps him. His love for his job and his people is pure. Leaphorn doesn’t like chaos. He needs order in his life. He always needs to connect the dots of his personal and professional life.
Q: So many aspects of Native life are brought to light for outside audiences in Dark Winds, one of which is the fact that many tribes are matriarchal. With that knowledge in mind, it's wonderful to see how Leaphorn navigates his relationships with both his wife Emma (Deanna Allison) and his second in command Bernadette (Jessica Matten). They lead in many ways, whether it’s within the community or at their jobs. What's so interesting about that dynamic on screen is that in actuality this is Deanna’s first TV series! As a seasoned actor, how did you work with Deanna to craft their relationship on screen?
Yes, many tribes are matriarchal. The Diné are a matriarchal tribe. Women are always the guiding lights and the strong ones. We certainly see that in Emma and Bernadette. They both demand respect and Leaphorn sees that and leans on them both.
Deanna and I went over our scenes together quite a bit and talked about the relationship and dynamics between Joe and Emma. Deanna and I had access to the talented Rob Tepper who coached and guided us on scenes as well. Rob also played the character Pete Samuels on the show. Deanna did a wonderful job bringing Emma to life and we’ve become good friends. I really look forward to exploring more of their relationship in a second season.
Jessica is just a strong person in real life. She’s a force to be reckoned with, and she also brings her phenomenal talent as an actress. I really loved what both of these strong women brought to the show.
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: I’ve been in the business for several decades now and seeing these changes come to fruition is very exciting. It was amazing to come to work and see all the Native talent in front and behind the camera. I’m grateful to AMC for getting behind these stories. I think we’re just scratching the surface. It’s been a long time coming, but I do think we have a ways to go.
Q: We end Season 1 with Chee returning to the Navajo Nation permanently, hoping to reinvigorate his ancestral land—and Leaphorn seems pretty happy about it! With Season 2 an official go what Leaphorn and Chee stories are you excited to tell in the new season, and what elements of Leaphorn do you hope to dig deeper into?
A: Yes, I’m excited to explore the Leaphorn/Chee nuances and the dynamics of their relationship, as well as their relationships with the rest of the characters. I’m also looking forward to delving deeper into the character of Joe Leaphorn. I would like to probe more of what makes Joe tick: his fears, pain, humor, and his love for his wife and his culture. I’m really looking forward to another season of Dark Winds.

Stay tuned for Season 2 of Dark Winds on AMC. Full episodes of Season 1 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.