Zahn McClarnon doesn’t mind exploring the darker side of human nature.
In fact, the 49-year-old former Omaha man finds doing so -- at least within the relatively safe confines of acting -- can be cathartic and therapeutic.
“I don’t mind going there,” he said. “I enjoy that process.”
His darkest role yet, as a vengeful henchman for a North Dakota crime family in Season 2 of FX’s “Fargo” television series, demonstrated some of the worst aspects of human nature.
His character, Hanzee Dent, is a troubled former Vietnam War tunnel rat who now serves the Gerhardt crime family of Fargo. In the series, Dent is responsible for nearly a dozen, often grisly murders, including a decapitation and numerous fatal shootings and stabbings.
This week, McClarnon plans to attend the Vision Maker Film Festival, a showcase of films by Native filmmakers being held at the Mary Reipma Ross Media Arts Center in Lincoln. McClarnon, who is Hunkpapa Lakota and Irish, plans to attend a screening of “Mekko,” in which he plays an evil homeless man who preys on other homeless Native people on the streets of Tulsa, Oklahoma.
With 15 years of sobriety behind him, McClarnon said his character in the film, Bill, reminded him of some of the worst days of his own life.
“It helps me remember where I came from and how much I don’t want to go back to that addiction,” he said.
But McClarnon’s list of credits extends well beyond his most recent darker roles.
Fans of the Netflix series “Longmire” know him as Mathias, a reservation police officer often at odds with the show’s main character, Wyoming sheriff Walt Longmire. McClarnon said he plans to travel from his home in Hollywood to Santa Fe, New Mexico, later this month to start filming the show’s fifth season.
But he’s tight-lipped about where the series will take his character, who was last seen possibly aiding Longmire.
“I love being on that show, love it,” he said.
His roles in “Fargo” and “Longmire” have propelled him to some extent into mainstream popular culture, a rare feat for most Native actors. He said people have finally started recognizing him when he returns home for holidays to Omaha, where he spent most of his teenage years.
He even credits his life in Omaha for his acting career. He said he auditioned and won a role in a play in Council Bluffs, his first true acting job.
“I fell in love with acting,” he said.
His work in the Omaha-area eventually helped him meet John Jackson, who has helped cast all of Omaha director Alexander Payne’s movies. Jackson helped McClarnon get roles in Omaha television commercials and later introduced him to a talent agent in Los Angeles.
McClarnon said it’s difficult for Native actors to find roles, which has forced him to be less critical of the roles he’s offered. He’s landed numerous roles in historical films and television shows, including the TNT miniseries “Into the West,” in which he played Running Fox, a forward-looking Lakota.
But while he admits to not being able to be picky about his roles, he said he also tries to avoid productions that depict Native people negatively or stereotypically. He cited the recent Netflix movie “The Ridiculous 6” as an example of a film that negatively portrayed Native people.
He said he doesn’t mind historic period pieces but prefers to see such films hire Native language and cultural advisers. He said most of the films and shows he’s performed in have done so.
“We’re not doing John Ford movies anymore,” he said. “As an actor, I have input.”
But he’d also like to see Native people become more involved in writing, directing and producing films. That’s one of the reasons he chose to perform in “Mekko,” a film written and directed by Seminole and Muscogee filmmaker Sterlin Harjo.
“I jump at the chance to work with someone like Sterlin,” he said. “As a community, we need to find more writers and directors.”