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D'Pharoah Woon-A-Tai: Bear grows up in 'Reservation Dogs' S2

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D’Pharoah Woon-A-Tai's "Reservation Dogs" wraps up its second season on Wednesday. Photo courtesy of FX
D’Pharoah Woon-A-Tai's "Reservation Dogs" wraps up its second season on Wednesday. Photo courtesy of FX

NEW YORK, Sept. 28 (UPI) -- D'Pharoah Woon-A-Tai says his character, Bear, has grown up a lot over the course of two seasons of the FX comedy, Reservation Dogs, and is getting closer to being the man he wants to be.

Season 2 of the show, which was co-created by Sterlin Harjo and Taika Waititi, wraps up Wednesday. It stars Woon-A-Tai, Devery Jacobs, Lane Factor, Paulina Alexis and Elva Guerra as contemporary teens living on a Native American reservation in Oklahoma.

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"In Season 1, he's a lot more immature. He tackles issues that arise throughout the season in not the best way at all," Woon-A-Tai told UPI about Bear in a recent phone interview.

"In Season 2, he is trying to figure out how to become a man and handle these situations better. Elora [Jacobs] ended up leaving him. He is trying to figure out how to fix it instead of just getting mad like he did last season."

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Bear's attitude toward work also has drastically changed this season, and instead of stealing stuff, he now has a legitimate roofing job.

"It's finally a way for him to make money legally, but also it's him working a long day and coming home with that money and feeling like, 'I'm proud of myself,'" Woon-A-Tai said.

Most importantly, Bear can help his mom Rita (Sarah Podemski) pay for household expenses.

"In Season 1, we see him slip a few dollars into her purse, but now he's actually making a little more money where he can help out with the electric bill," Woon-A-Tai said. "He's growing and becoming more of a community man. In Season 1, he wants to leave the community rather than help it out."

Zahn McClarnon, Wes Studi and Gary Farmer play scene-stealing supporting roles as local elders who offer Bear and his friends well-intended, albeit often questionable, guidance and wisdom.

"He's found his circle. He's found his uncles, found the positive male figures in his life to listen to," Woon-A-Tai said.

One of the men with whom he bonds at work is Danny (Keland Lee Bearpaw), father of his late best friend, Daniel (Dalton Cramer), who hanged himself.

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"They both feel they have a responsibility in Daniel's death," Woon-A-Tai said.

"Bear thinks he could have been there more for Daniel, and so does his dad. Bear has a resentment against Danny because he thinks he should have been there for Daniel more and prevented [his suicide]."

Although Daniel is only seen in flashbacks and imaginary scenes, he looms large over Bear and their friends, especially as they each face personal challenges in Season 2 that sometimes distance them from one another.

"They're trying, even after his death, to stay together. That's what Daniel would have wanted. Daniel wouldn't have wanted us to separate the way we do," Woon-A-Tai said.

Bear demonstrates maturity when he goes to Elora's side after her grandmother dies.

"It showed that even though Elora and Bear have had their issues in the past, they can set them aside for something as serious as a family member dying," Woon-A-Tai said.

"Death brings people together and you can see that all through that episode," he added. "When Jackie [Guerra] comes by the house, it's all a 'breaking-down of the enemy structure' and building up a community with each other, rather than hating each other."

Spirit (Dallas Goldtooth) is a more than 200-year-old ghost who appears whenever Bear realizes he has messed up and needs to get back on track.

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"He is really wise, even though he may tell some weird stories. He is there for Bear," Woon-A-Tai laughed. "I think Bear appreciates his presence."

The actor said he thinks the show's mix of drama and comedy is reflective of real life, specifically when someone makes a joke at an inappropriate time to break the tension.

"This is how Indigenous people handle traumatic times," he said.

"The best example I can give for this is when Elora and Coach Bobson (Bill Burr) are crying and holding each other and telling each other stories, and then you see Ansel (Matty Cardarople) and the junkyard guys going, 'Are they crying?'" Woon-A-Tai said. "That was a really intense moment, and comedy broke that and made you laugh."

Woon-A-Tai said he thinks viewers of all backgrounds are enjoying the show because its characters and situations are authentic, even if the setting might be unfamiliar.

"There are kids like us in every single culture," he said. "Youths, especially, can relate to this no matter what nationality they are. We're just human. You can see human traits in everybody and finally we get to see that on screen."

Many people also seem to find refreshing a show with funny, touching and interesting stories about everyday characters who are poor and working class instead of those who are rich and miserable.

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"Everybody can relate. Bear is like a hard-working man," Woon-A-Tai said. "He didn't have the best opportunities to become a doctor or such, but he's doing what he can to make money. I feel like a lot of people can relate to that."

The actor described Harjo and Waititi as supportive mentors who believe in their primarily Native writing team and cast, and encourage them to use their voices to tell their own stories in a time when Hollywood is only starting to recognize the tremendous scope of Indigenous history, fiction and talent.

"Taika trusted how funny we are when everyone else didn't really want to see that. They wanted to see the depressing side," Woon-A-Tai said.

Reservation Dogs has been renewed for Season 3.

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