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Zahn McClarnon: Joe's moral code is challenged in 'Dark Winds' Season 2

Season 2 of Zahn McClarnon's "Dark Winds" premieres Thursday. Photo courtesy of AMC
1 of 3 | Season 2 of Zahn McClarnon's "Dark Winds" premieres Thursday. Photo courtesy of AMC

NEW YORK, July 27 (UPI) -- Westworld and Reservation Dogs actor Zahn McClarnon says that Joe Leaphorn, the Tribal Police lieutenant he plays in Dark Winds, will endure personal and professional challenges in Season 2 the likes of which he has never experienced.

Premiering Thursday on AMC+ and based on Tony Hillerman's best-selling novels, Season 2 of the 1970s Southwest-set drama follows Leaphorn as he reunites with his former partner Jim Chee (Kiowa Gordon), now a private detective.

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Their mission: to catch a serial killer linked to the recent injury of Leaphorn's wife Emma (Deanna Allison) and the death of their son years earlier.

"You see some lines kind of drawn in the sand this season, and it was just fun to explore that kind of stuff," McClarnon told UPI in a recent Zoom interview conducted before the Screen Actors Guild strike.

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"There are the struggles that he has to go through with the revenge and the justice and what it means to him," McClarnon said.

"[He sees] how his moral code is challenged this year and questioned and what that means and how that affects the people around -- his relationships with his wife and with Jim Chee and Bernadette (Jessica Matten)."

Leaphorn always felt responsible for the death of his teen son, who chose to stay home and work at an oil-drilling site to be near his girlfriend instead of going off to college.

"The guilt that Joe lived with over what happened to his boy in Season 1 and not being able to protect him -- those were the things I looked forward to exploring," McClarnon said.

Season 2 sees a change in dynamics between Leaphorn and Chee.

Not only are they are more comfortable with each other, but Leaphorn no longer is Chee's boss.

"The writers did a good job in bringing those moments of levity -- not comedy, but lightheartedness -- between the two," McClarnon said. "In any relationship, people grow. You see that growth in Season 2 and what the relationship has evolved to."

Although Leaphorn and Emma are still grieving, they are handling their loss in completely different ways.

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Leaphorn buries himself in his work, trying to avoid his feelings, while Emma takes a young mother and her newborn son into their home because she needs someone to nurture.

"Emma deals with [their son's death] by bringing a young baby into the house to kind of possibly -- not replace Joe Jr. -- but to put something in that hole that she has in her stomach," the actor said.

"Joe deals with it in a way that reminds him of Joe Jr. and he is a bit hesitant about the whole situation."

This season, McClarnon will be seen again sharing the screen with his former Longmire co-star A Martinez, who plays Valencia County Sheriff Gordo Sena.

"A was the first person that came to my mind when that character came up in the writers' rooms and the books," McClarnon said.

"Gordo Sena is an amazing character and A is a close, close friend of mine. I love him to death," he added.

"He's such a professional and such a wonderful actor. We bring the relationship that we already had to the relationship between Sena and Joe Leaphorn, and it shows on screen."

Season 1 of Dark Winds was critically acclaimed and a ratings hit for AMC, but McClarnon said he never took for granted that it would be renewed for a second season.

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"It never feels like a slam-dunk on any TV show," he said.

"It was pleasant news. I wasn't expecting 'either or,' to be honest with you, and that's kind of after being in this business for 30 years. It's kind of how you have to deal with things -- no expectations," he added.

"When we did get a second season, I was very grateful. ... Hopefully, we'll get a third. We have plenty of source material."

McClarnon thinks viewers are tuning in to Dark Winds because it is part of a wave of fresh, exciting stories focused on Native cultures and communities that people are intrigued and entertained by.

"People are seeing different story lines and being exposed to different cultures with Dark Winds and Reservation Dogs," he said.

"We had Rutherford Falls on [TV] for a couple of seasons. People are seeing Natives from a different perspective," the actor added.

"They're seeing the different characteristics of those cultures and the humor. They are just seeing Natives differently. They are not seeing them on horseback in feathers and leather sitting next to a teepee."

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Although three of McClarnon's most famous roles were as tribal cops -- Dark Winds, Reservation Dogs and Longmire -- the actor gives each of them a distinct personality and way of getting their difficult job done.

"It was my choice to accept these roles, but these roles were offered to me, it wasn't like a planned out thing," the actor said with a laugh.

"You have to bring something different to each of these characters. You don't want these things to bleed together."

McClarnon played an entirely different role in the Mel Brooks sketch comedy series, History of the World Part II.

Because Brooks had been in semi-retirement for the past 20 years, McClarnon never thought he'd have the chance to work with the 97-year-old comedy legend.

"How can you say 'no' to Mel Brooks? I was a little worried about it," McClarnon said.

"I met with the producers and said: 'I don't know what you want me to do here. Just give me line readings on the set and I'll watch you guys,'" he added. "You've just got to go for it and be silly and have fun doing it."

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