There was a celebratory atmosphere at the FYC event for FX’s “Reservation Dogs” on December 2 and for good reason. Just a few days prior, the series scored a big win at the Gotham Awards where it took home the prize for Breakthrough Series — Short Form. It’s a significant win for a show with a small profile (for now) but an outsized personality more than worthy of the accolades.
Held at the Paramount Theatre, guests were shown the “Reservation Dogs” pilot in which viewers are introduced to the four teenagers that make up the foundation of the show, Elora Danan (Devery Jacobs), Bear (D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai), Cheese (Lane Factor), and Willie Jack (Paulina Alexis) and their life in the wilds of remote Oklahoma as they dream (and hustle) for better things.
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On the panel that followed, hosted by Marc Maron, series co-creator and writer Sterlin Harjo joined Jacobs, Alexis, and Dallas Goldtooth (who plays the character Spirit) in person, with both Woon-A-Tai and Factor joining remotely from Texas and Oklahoma respectively.
Early on in the conversation, Harjo explained the unlikely way the project came to fruition, when longtime friend (and “Reservation Dogs” co-creator) Taika Waititi came to him to discuss ideas for shows. At the time, Waititi had a pre-established deal with FX.
“Literally came up with [the idea] that night. I thought I’d hear about it in a year and then two days later Taika’s like, ‘Just sold “Reservation Dogs.”‘ What? How the fuck does that work,” Harjo said. “I’ve been trying to do this shit for so many years and and suddenly we have a show?”
Once they had a show, the next step was to cast it, which according to Harjo is only a hurdle because of Hollywood’s limited purview.
“I knew that we weren’t going to be able to just cast this on Sunset Boulevard,” he said. That was the thing that we always faced as creators for Native projects. They’d be like, ‘Yeah, it’s really hard to cast Native shows.’ Well, yeah, in Los Angeles. But if you go to these communities, you’ll find talent. And that’s what we did. We just went to the communities.”
And the members of the cast all had different stories to tell about how they came to be involved with “Reservation Dogs.” Woon-A-Tai recalled making it to the final round of auditions and being flown to Los Angeles for the first time, alongside his brother, who had also progressed to that stage. Though auditioning for the role of Elora, Alexis was encouraged to take a swing at Willie Jack, a role initially written for a boy, in large part due to how funny she is. She was such a good fit for the role, Harjo and Waititi didn’t change anything about it and once she was cast, moved forward with the character built around her.
“Lane showed up one day, didn’t even want to be there,” Harjo said. “Shows up to audition, he’s great, he ends up in a callback. He’s with me and Taika in L.A., he still doesn’t know what the hell is going on. And then he gets cast in the show. Never acted before. Then right after we finished shooting, gets cast in a Spielberg film.”
Others took a more direct route to the series. Goldtooth and Harjo have long been collaborators, both involved in the sketch comedy group the 1491s, where Goldtooth’s character Spirit originally took shape. For Jacobs, she was also a friend of Harjo, who reached out to him by email and let him know that she would be auditioning.
“She wrote me and said she was going to audition for it, and, she’s my friend, we just went to watch movies together in Vancouver and I was like, ‘You’re not young enough. I don’t think it’s gonna work,'” Harjo said.
“No, you specifically said, ‘You’re too old,” Jacobs said.
“You’re too old! These are teenagers!” Harjo said. “And then I see the audition and I’m like, ‘Oh, I’m stupid. That totally works. It’s totally great.” For the record, Jacobs is a sprightly 28 years-old.
With the vast majority of the “Reservation Dogs” cast and crew being Indigenous, a fact that most execs would have said was an impossible feat, the question then turns to, “Why did it take so long for TV to make a series that reflected the Native experience accurately?”
“[The lack of Indigenous stories] was always a mystery to all of us. It’s all right there,” Harjo said. “We come from these really rich cultures that handle death and that take care of each other, are community driven, do art. We come from these really rich cultures and felt like no one wanted to know what it was really like. They only wanted to know this version of it that was very false. And maybe that’s because of an attempted genocide, not to get too heavy, but there was guilt wrapped up in that. They didn’t know or want to know who we were because if they knew too much about who we really were, maybe that would be too dark for them to handle.”
Part of that culture involves understanding the interconnectivity of things, something that drove Harjo to push hard for “Reservation Dogs” to film entirely in Oklahoma, rather than sub in somewhere like New Mexico.
“I think when you make a Native story, the place in which you shoot is the most important part of that story, because of the survival that it took to be there, Harjo said. “If I’m going to shoot it in New Mexico, then I’m going to change the tribes because the people that we’re talking about [in “Reservation Dogs”] got here, through survival of genocide and the Trail of Tears, and that’s how they made it to Oklahoma. That’s what we should do.”
“I mean, so much of that stuff matters. It’s like, what are we doing? What kind of TV are we doing? It’s not ‘Three’s Company,’ you know, what I mean? This isn’t a studio, like, we’re not shooting us on the stage. All of that is important,” he said. “There’s interconnectedness to all of us. It’s not about making a hit TV show for me, it’s about the fact that every Halloween we watch as people dress up as Pocahontas or some generic chief and those were the only examples we’ve had for our kids to be able to dress up at Halloween.
“All of a sudden, this Halloween, all of these kids were dressed up as “Reservation Dogs” characters. And that’s amazing. Then there was a young, Native girl who didn’t dress up as a character, but she dressed up as Paulina at the Emmys. That was mind blowing. That’s what it’s all about. And that’s really powerful and it’s not just Native things. We’re all connected. We’re trying to tell these stories and I just think there’s a way to do TV that is community driven and it’s bigger than just selling shampoo.”
Luckily, FX was in whole-hearted agreement and “Reservation Dogs” became the first series filmed entirely in Oklahoma. The series has staked its roots, now audiences can do is hope that it continues to flourish in the years to come.
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