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Neither Wolf Nor Dog's Zahn McClarnon sources sympathy for his characters at home

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Zahn McClarnon's performance as Hanzee Dent in TV's Fargo is one of the most chilling in the series—and that says something, considering the number of mobsters and murderers in the show's second season. As a Native American veteran, Hanzee is tasked with the Gerhardt mob's dirty work—his body count reaches nearly 20 by season's end—and he gets there with unflappable swiftness.

"I just learned how to be very still in my movements and in my character," McClarnon says. "That was the big thing that the creator of the show was looking for: stillness."

McClarnon is Hunkpapa Lakota of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, but he grew up on the Blackfeet Reservation.

He spent his 20s in Los Angeles, picking up small roles on Baywatch, In Living Color and Dangerous Minds. The current golden age has provided more complex roles, including roles for Native American actors. One of his recent projects is the film Neither Wolf Nor Dog, which opens this week at the Roxy. The movie, directed by Scottish filmmaker Steven Lewis Simpson and based on a 1994 book by Kent Nerburn, begins when an Anglo writer (Christopher Sweeney) is summoned to Lakota country by a tribal elder named Dan (Dave Bald Eagle). Dan has a box of unpublished scraps that he wants Nerburn to turn into a book. Dan and tribal member Grover (Richard Ray Whitman) take Nerburn on a road trip through small towns and backroads, where he's forced to see the place and its people with eyes wide open.

McClarnon plays Billy, a down-and-out alcoholic who first approaches the road-tripping group at a restaurant, drunk and asking for money. He targets Nerburn, offering to sell him some beaded art as Dan and Grover look on. There's a deeply uncomfortable sense of shame and sorrow in the scene, but the film doesn't let McClarnon's character descend into pity porn. A scene later, McClarnon's character shows up again and we see him treated like family by Dan and Grover, while Nerburn remains the stunted outsider with more to learn.

McClarnon didn't need to look far from his own past to understand the character.

Zahn McClarnon, second from left, plays Billy in Neither Wolf Nor Dog.
  • Zahn McClarnon, second from left, plays Billy in Neither Wolf Nor Dog.

"There's a lot of tragedy on the reservations, especially with alcohol and addiction," McClarnon says. "I've been through it, personally. So has every person in my family, actually. It was pretty easy to get into that character."

Throughout the four-day shoot of his scene, McClarnon kept a bottle of whiskey close by.

"I would just smell it and remember that feeling," he says. "How it felt inside my body. How it made me move. How it made my head feel, mentally."

Neither Wolf Nor Dog is a labor-of-love kind of film, made on a shoestring budget with a tiny crew and just in time to feature a powerful performance by the 95-year-old Bald Eagle before his death last year.

McClarnon, who is also one of the film's producer, can be found in higher-profile roles these days: Officer Mathias in Longmire and, more recently, Comanche war chief Toshaway in the Pierce Brosnan vehicle The Son. But the roles of Billy and Hanzee resonate for him. Despite the character's awful actions, Hanzee is somehow a sympathetic character, partly because he's an outsider used to being treated with contempt by the world.

"I have a backstory on Hanzee Dent that was never shown in the TV show," he says. "I try to find that with all my characters."

Neither Wolf Nor Dog opens at the Roxy Fri., June 30.

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