You’ve seen Zahn McClarnon’s face before. You probably recognize him from at least one of the more than 90 credited roles spanning his three-decade film and TV acting career, including memorable appearances on Longmire, Fargo and Westworld. Maybe you’ve seen his current work on Dark Winds and Reservation Dogs, both shows being acclaimed for revolutionizing Native representation in Hollywood. You might have spotted him in the Marvel Cinematic Universe or even on Sesame Street, just a few of the many places he’s been popping up lately as he continues to achieve new heights of professional success. But for local residents, he’s just as likely to look familiar because you might have waited behind him in the checkout line at the Riverside Drive Trader Joe’s, strolled past him during a Friday night classic car show at Bob’s Big Boy or noticed him sitting at an outdoor table at Priscilla’s Coffee, where he’s such a regular that he refers to the shop as “my office.”
“I’m a big Toluca Lake fan,” McClarnon says of the neighborhood he’s lived in and around for more than 20 years, including stints in Burbank and North Hollywood as well as his current residence in Toluca Woods. Like many in the entertainment industry, he was drawn to the area for the way it balances proximity to the studios and easy access to Hollywood with a safe, peaceful atmosphere and tight-knit community. “Everything I need is right here,” he notes, from convenient errand-running at the Burbank Whole Foods to favorite restaurants like Summer Canteen.
But without a doubt, his strongest local connection is to his cozy coffee spot. “Priscilla’s is an everyday thing for me,” he says. “Shout-out to Shannon and Mark, the owners, and the wonderful baristas who work there. They know me so well there that as soon as I walk in, they put my name on the cup and they make me my order” — without fail, “double espresso with a little bit of coffee over it and some half-and-half.”
Finding that kind of center has been a gift for McClarnon, not only because his busy career keeps him traveling regularly, but also due to his self-described restless nature. Born in Colorado to a Hunkpapa Lakota mother and an Irish-American father who worked for the National Park Service, he moved frequently throughout his childhood for his dad’s job assignments as well as spending time with the Native side of his family, including stops in South Dakota, Montana, Wyoming and Nebraska, where he still maintains a home. With so much of his life spent on the move, and as an avid motorcycle rider who relishes the open road, what does make McClarnon feel rooted in any one place? “I think it just comes down to community, and I have that here in Toluca Lake,” he says, adding that the small-town vibe of his coffee stop is a big part of that. “A lot of my friends go to Priscilla’s. I’ve met a lot of new friends at Priscilla’s that I’ve become very close to — good friends, not just acquaintances. The community and the people interacting with each other, it makes it feel like home to me.”
McClarnon’s well-traveled background also contributed to a love for the outdoors — or, at least, “it does now,” he laughs. “When I look back at the first 12 years of my life, which were very formative years, I was in Glacier and Yellowstone national parks, and I took it for granted, really. There’s not too many kids that have that kind of an upbringing, that consisted of these untouched wildernesses and wildlife, elk and deer and buffalo, literally having to shoo them out of the way just to get to school! Now that I look back on it, I realize how fortunate I was and how I did take it for granted.” That realization inspires him to take full advantage of the natural beauty within easy reach of his home base in Toluca Lake, whether it’s heading out on his motorcycle to Malibu or Calabasas to enjoy the beauty of the Santa Monica Mountains or walking the 3-mile loop around Lake Hollywood. “During COVID, when it was open, that was pretty much what I did when we were all shut down; that hike was my exercise for the day,” he recalls. “And when I had my dog — I had a dog for 18 years — I would take him up to the dog park up there right below the Hollywood sign and hang out there for hours, throwing a tennis ball, with the views of the sign and the hills. A lot of people don’t realize how beautiful Los Angeles really is, especially when you get out to the open desert and the mountains and the beach. It’s a just a gorgeous state, California. It’s a beautiful place to live.”
Even McClarnon’s greatest career triumph yet, his lead role on Dark Winds, has been enhanced by a local dimension. After years of building momentum with scene-stealing supporting roles, he takes center stage in the AMC series based on the popular Tony Hillerman books, serving as an executive producer in addition to starring as Navajo Tribal Police Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn, who investigates crimes in 1970s New Mexico. Key to the story is the evolving dynamic between Leaphorn and his deputy, Jim Chee, played by Kiowa Gordon. Serendipitously, Gordon lives nearby in Studio City, and the two actors have known each other for nearly a decade, after first working together on the 2014–2015 series The Red Road. “We stayed in touch; I’d come hang out, he’s been up to the coffee shop and met with me a few times,” McClarnon says. “He’s quite a few years younger than me, so it’s like a father–son kind of relationship” — a phrase also often used to describe the pairing of the seasoned Leaphorn and idealistic Chee.
“It’s just a lot easier for us to connect as actors on shows if we know each other personally; there’s no getting to know each other, feeling each other out,” McClarnon explains, promising that viewers will see the partnership between the characters continue to develop in Dark Winds’ upcoming second season. And he notes the two tend to balance each other out in real life, as well: “I love Kiowa. He brings an energy to the set that is much needed. I’m more solemn, nose to the grindstone, and he’s all over the place, like a hyperactive kid — he just makes me smile.”
McClarnon is also relishing the feeling of having reached this milestone after decades of dues-paying. “I think every actor dreams of getting a lead in a movie or a TV series, and just being able to work consistently,” he says. “I’ve been working at this stuff for about 30 years now, and in the last 10 years it’s finally flowered to a place where I’m very happy with the work I’m doing and the job opportunities I’m getting.” While the role is a culmination, he’s not resting on his laurels but sees it as a chance to keep learning. “I never thought I would be an EP on a show, and of course I jumped at the opportunity to have partners like [co-executive producers] George R.R. Martin and Robert Redford! These guys are icons, and I’ve learned quite a bit about how a TV show works and what it takes. I’ve been in the business for a long time, but I get different aspects of the show being an EP, more of the inner workings of what’s going on behind the scenes. I’m working with some good people, and they’ve taken me by the hand and showed me the ropes. As we all know, it takes a village to make a movie or a TV show.” That said, McClarnon is also conscious of his responsibility as the show’s star. “It’s a lot of hard work, it’s a lot of dedication, it’s a lot of commitment,” he emphasizes. “I feel truly fortunate. And I don’t take it lightly. I show up, I do the work.”
The hardworking actor can also be seen playing another, very different, law enforcement figure in his supporting role as conspiracy-theory-loving Lighthorseman Big on Reservation Dogs, FX’s comedy series about four Indigenous teens in rural Oklahoma. “I’ve known Sterlin Harjo, our showrunner/producer/writer/director, for close to a decade now,” McClarnon says. “We did a film down in Oklahoma together, and I’m just so proud of what he’s done with his career, and the explosion of Rez Dogsand the open arms we’ve gotten within the community. It’s just wonderful to see him shine like that. It’s a lot of fun going to work on Rez Dogs; you never know what Sterlin’s going to write.”
That was certainly the case with the standout second-season episode “This Is Where the Plot Thickens,” which centers on Big’s surreal odyssey through the woods after accidentally taking hallucinogens. “It felt a bit intimidating at first — you know, how do I pull this off? How do I go about acting this psychedelic trip?” McClarnon shares. “After a while of going over and over it and thinking too much about it, I just kind of jumped in and took risks. I had a great director, Blackhorse Lowe, so I had someone guiding me through. The show is very loose; we’re allowed to play, we’re allowed to improv. You let it all go, and then try to have fun. When you’re having fun, things turn out pretty well.” As hilarious and bizarre as the episode gets, however, it also gives viewers deeply affecting insight into the character as he’s forced to confront difficult memories. “Big was dealing with some past trauma, and — well, he didn’t use it intentionally, obviously, but he used that medicine,” McClarnon explains. “In our communities, we call it medicine because it is medicine. Big used it as a medicine and it helped some of his past traumas.”
Details like that underscore the crucial fact that Reservation Dogs’ success is driven by Native American creators and actors, and the show has been hailed for its groundbreaking, stereotype-shattering approach. Dark Winds has also prioritized hiring Native writers, directors, actors and crew to ensure the portrayal of Navajo Diné culture rings true and is at the center of its adaptation of the novels by non-Native author Hillerman. “We’ve just taken the books and … not spun them, but tried to make the show from a different perspective, use the Hillerman books as kind of a road map,” McClarnon says. Both shows, and the evolution of McClarnon’s own career overthe years — from playing bit parts as Latino gang members or generic Indian warriors to an iconic central character like Leaphorn — point to a huge shift in onscreen Native representation. “We’re finally telling some of our own stories and having our own voice, and narratives are changing within TV and film content,” he says. “And people are open to it; people are enjoying and liking it.” But while progress has been made, he adds that there’s still much more work to do. “I want people to be entertained, but I also want people to get a bit of a different perspective on Native people and the humor within our communities, be exposed to the different cultures within our cultures — because there’s many different tribes — and all the traditions of Native peoples, to humanize us, to kind of normalize us, to see that all Natives aren’t the same. We’ve all obviously grown up with these stereotypes and these tropes of the past, and it’s great to see some of these being thrown out the door. And to be a part of that, I feel very privileged.”
McClarnon even had the opportunity to visit Sesame Street last year to explain the Word of the Day, “tradition,” to Big Bird and talk about some of his own family’s traditions. “I mean, who didn’t grow up with Sesame Street?” he asks. “I was ecstatic when they asked me to come join Big Bird. He’s an icon; it just blew me away.” What’s more, McClarnon was able to incorporate another tradition behind the scenes, harkening back to an honor customarily earned by Plains Indian warriors in battle: “I counted coup on him. One of our traditions, back in the day, in the 1800s, 1700s, was counting coup — not just on our enemies, but being able to touch somebody and say, ‘I touched you and walked away.’ And I touched Big Bird, and I got one of his tailfeathers — they were kind enough to allow me to take one. So I have a yellow tailfeather sitting on my desk right now.”
With a slew of projects coming out later this year, McClarnon’s face is about to become even more familiar. Dark Winds’ second season wrapped production in February and should be released this summer, and filming of the third season of Reservation Dogs is underway. He also appears in the film Americana, directed by Tony Tost, which premiered at South by Southwest in March. And he plays the father of Marvel’s first Native onscreen superhero (introduced in last year’s Hawkeye) in the series Echo, coming to Disney+. Beyond that, his ambitions are straightforward: “I don’t know if there’s a dream role. I just want the roles that are very deep, that are multidimensional. I want to be part of projects that have good writing, and when it comes down to it, I just want to work with good people. I want to be around good people.”
Speaking of which, McClarnon concludes, “For my neighbors, stop by Priscilla’s and say hi!” After all, if you’re out and about in Toluca Lake and you think you recognize that face, there’s a good chance you’re right.