When the first round of glowing reviews for “Reservation Dogs” arrived last summer, the surprise hit was praised for its authenticity, humor, and poignancy. And there wasn’t a critic who failed to single out the cast of young new faces and first-time Indigenous performers anchoring the show.
“There’s a myth that there are no Native actors,” said series creator Sterlin Harjo. It’s a catch-22 Harjo is all too familiar with: There are not a lot of Indigenous actors in Hollywood, because there’s not a lot of work for them there. “It’s like a Western comes out once every however many years, you know? And it’s not that fun to play the same parts over and over and over.”
The search the show’s four young leads — all relative newcomers — might conjure up images of one of those needle-in-a-haystack epic casting stories that becomes Hollywood legend, but according Harjo’s co-creator Taika Waititi, “[It] was one of the easiest casting processes I’ve ever experienced, which is very rare. There was no real discussion. We all kind of knew instantly who we wanted.”
That’s in large part because while Hollywood doesn’t have a clue where to look for Indigenous talent, over the past 15 years, casting director Angelique Midthunder has made it her life’s work. Along with her colleague and fellow casting director Jennifer Schwalenberg, Midthunder built a database devoted to Indigenous talent.
“She’s invested in the community and knows where to look, and how to look,” said “Reservation Dogs” director Sydney Freeland — whose debut feature, “Drunktown’s Finest,” was also cast by Midthunder. According to Freeland, the Indigenous film community can feel relatively very small. “I feel like I know who all of the actors are. I feel like I know who the talent is both in front of and behind the camera. And what I love about working with Angelique is she always finds somebody that I never heard of, or had seen before.”
In the video below, watch how Midthunder assembled the cast of “Reservation Dogs.”
Harjo first worked with Midthunder on the pilot for the comic-book adaptation “Scalped.” Though “Scalped” didn’t go to series, the casting director impressed Harjo, who made her his first call when “Reservation Dogs” was green lit. “I really wanted to work with her because I knew she would be down to really do it the right way with me.”
Doing it the right way for Harjo and Midthunder meant road-tripping throughout Oklahoma, visiting each of the regional reservations. Harjo would scout out the talent in the lobbies of the hotels where the casting calls were held. “He’d be like, ‘Hey, when the kid with the blue shirt comes in I’m gonna want some extra time with him. He’s got a great look, a great vibe,” recalled Midthunder. Schwalenberg — who is Midthunder’s right-hand back in the office, keeping track of the actors, establishing contacts, and sending out audition sides — said it’s not part of their ethos to see lack of experience as a detriment. “What I found over all of my years of doing this is someone that innately has that thing, and we’ve experienced it so many times, there’s just something about them and the camera loves them.”
This could be because Midthunder has worked on both sides of the process, as a casting director and an actor herself. “Right after college, I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life,” she said. She answered a casting call placed in a newspaper seeking an actress in their 20s with brown hair who could ride a horse. Though she was hired, and has continued to act here and there, she wasn’t drawn to performing. “I made friends with a casting director and I found her process was exciting to me,” said Midthunder.
Identifying a look, personality, or vibe that could potentially work for a character and camera is one thing; knowing how to work with novice actors, making them comfortable in the audition process to explore and be themselves, and extrapolating if they could hold up over the course of shooting a full season of television is another.
“Angelique, she definitely believed in me. I remember she was encouraging me a lot. She was really awesome, like, aunty vibe,” said Paulina Alexis, who plays Willie Jack on the show. “I just basically had to play myself. I’m a rez kid. I don’t got to give too much or too little. I could just be myself.”
For Midthunder this is the key to the series’ success. “Part of the magic of ‘Reservation Dogs’ is we’re just looking for people to be themselves,” she said. “We do have this populated with a lot of street casting or non-actors, and it does, I think, [give] it this very grounded, organic, believable feel.”
In turn, Harjo was open to tailoring his characters to the young actors they met during the unique casting process. Willie Jack was initially scripted as a male character; when Alexis arrived to audition, it was for the role of Elora Danan, played in the series by Devery Jacobs. Despite reading for Elora, she was called back for Willie Jack. “I did it in my own way, added my own improv, and my brothers were there helping me, too,” Alexis said.
To highlight Midthunder’s influence, Harjo points to Lane Factor, who plays Cheese, the youngest of the “Reservation Dogs” principals. Factor had just taken his first acting class, a result of his mother wanting him to spend less time playing video games. “The kid did not want to audition,” recalled Harjo, who ultimately rewrote the Cheese character to fit Factor’s personality. “His mom convinced him to come to the audition and he made it all the way through and was cast. That would not have happened without the freedom and Angelique, how good she was and how much she believed in that process.”
The more recognition his show, and in particular his cast, gets, the more Harjo believes “Reservation Dogs” will change Hollywood’s mind about Indigenous stories and the availability of Indigenous performers. But he also hopes stories like Factor’s inspire others to see a path to being up on the small and big screen. “Most Native kids don’t even think it [is] an option to be in a TV show, but now they do,” Harjo said.
Alexis agrees: “Growing up, I’ve always seen Willie Jacks my whole life, but you don’t see it on TV,” she said. “It makes me feel good. It opens the door for other people to come in and tell their stories too, in their own way.”
If, as Alexis and Harjo predict, “Reservation Dogs” is able to plant the seed for a more Indigenous-inclusive Hollywood, it’ll have been thanks to the casting director who has been tilling the soil for a decade-and-a-half and made the land fertile so it could grow. –Kristen Lopez