Arguably the biggest breakout character in this season of FX’s Fargo has been Hanzee Dent, the Gerhardt’s cold, menacing, and mysterious Native American strongman. His presence on the show has been a slow build. When he first speaks he explains, completely unfazed, how he had to cut someone’s ears off, then resumes not saying much at all. But now a character who began the season lurking in the background is the last man from the Gerhardt clan standing heading into the show’s season finale tonight. Along the way we’ve seen Hanzee — a name derived from the Lakota word aháŋzi (oh-hahn-zee), which translates to shade and shadow — eat raw rabbit gizzards like it ain’t no thing, be completely unimpressed by magic tricks in a flashback scene to his childhood, and, of course, kill his Gerhardt family sidekick/brother with a bullet to the head. And it’s made us wonder: Who is this guy and who’s the actor playing him so wonderfully?
Well, his name is Zahn McClarnon, who you may have seen previously on Longmire, where he’s been a series regular for four seasons as Officer Mathias. We spoke to McClarnon recently about the show, his career, the offbeat fictional world of Fargo creator Noah Hawley, and whether or not his character may be an alien, among other things.
I’m always curious to hear how actors who, shall we say aren’t so well known, land big parts in high profile movies or shows like you did with this one. How did you come to be cast in Fargo?
I was doing a play on the East Coast. I knew that they were looking for a Native American actor to play a part on the show, I had heard about it through the acting community, so I got my agent on it and was called to audition. I didn’t do a very good job in the first audition, to be honest. I kinda walked out of the room going, “Aw shit, I really screwed up that one.” But they did call me back and for that one they had sent me new material that had a bit more dialogue to play with. I did it once, and I looked at Noah (Hawley) and asked, “Do you want me to do it another way?” And he responded, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” And I got the part.
Did you have any insight at all into the fact that the character you were auditioning for would be one of the standout characters on Fargo, a show with such a stellar cast? That he’d be one of the last men standing, sort of this season’s Lorne Malvo?
No, I had no idea. I had no idea where the storyline would go or where that character would go. They only had a couple of episodes written at that time, I believe. What I did know was that he was a Vietnam vet, and that it was the ’70s, and I know what Native Americans, people I know personally, went through in that area in the late ’70s — I grew up in that area: Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota — so I took all that stuff with me into it. Coincidentally, a friend of mine, Steve Reevis, played the American Indian character in Fargo the movie. He beat the crap out of that guy with a belt.
Yeah, what was the character’s name?
I’m blanking on it.
Yes! So that actor who played Shep Proudfoot in Fargo the movie is a friend of yours? That’s a wild coincidence.
Yeah, he’s a good buddy of mine. I spent quite a few years hanging with him in the early ’90s in Los Angeles.
And you grew up on or near a reservation in Montana, correct? Did you experience a lot of hostility growing up?
Unfortunately, yeah. Not just white people being racist against Indians, but also Indians being racist against white people. I saw both sides. And with me being part-white and part-Indian, having an Irish father, yeah I experienced some difficulties growing up, for sure. On both sides. I wasn’t a full-blooded Indian. My grandparents lived on the reservation. I lived 20 miles off the reservation, so when I went visit them I didn’t fit in, and then I’d go back home and it was the same way there because I was brown. My father worked for the National Park Service so we lived in a small community within Glacier National Park and many of the kids I went to school with were white. The first 11 years of my life were that way. It went both ways.
You mentioned your father being Irish. I was definitely not expecting to see that the name of the actor playing Hanzee on Fargo was Zahn McClarnon when I first looked it up on IMDb.
[Laughs.] Yeah, well I’m proud of my Irish heritage just as I’m proud of my Native heritage. I’m proud of both.
Your character reminds me a bit of a character from another Coen Brothers movie — Anton Chigurh from No Country for Old Men. Are you familiar with that character?
Oh yeah. I’m a huge fan of Javier Bardem. And I can see the parallel with the gas station scenes.
Yes, that was what really drove it home for me.
Yeah, I can see that, but I didn’t think of that character at all when we were shooting. Because my lines, they’re all one-liners like, “I’m looking for a redhead.” And, “Redhead. Heavy-set guy.” So I didn’t have a lot to play with. Javier Bardem had a little bit more dialogue. He was telling stories to that gas station attendant. But after seeing it I can see the correlation between the two. Noah borrows a lot from all the Coen Brothers films.
Speaking of looking for “the redhead,” what’s going on between Hanzee and the Blumquists? It’s a really interesting dynamic. In one scene he allows himself to be vulnerable when he sits down and asks Peggy to cut his hair, but then he still seems to be on a mission to kill them. What sorts of notes and direction were you given about how to approach these scenes?
You know, Noah unfortunately wasn’t on-set a lot because he was busy writing, and it wasn’t really explained to me where he was going with that. But Hanzee I think has a lot of large issues and he asked for a haircut because he’s tired of the doing what he’s been doing and being around the Gerhardts and growing up that way and maybe he wanted a fresh start.
Yeah, I guess maybe he saw an opportunity there. He’d just killed Dodd. Maybe he saw it as an opportunity to start a new life?
I think he had something else going on there. And I think that will be revealed more in the final episode.
Oh, really? Good to know.
He’s reclaiming his autonomy, you know.
So what the hell’s going on with the UFOs?
When you first ran across the UFO stuff in the scripts, I’d love to know what your thoughts were.
I thought it was brilliant. It was the ’70s and a lot of that stuff was going on in that area in the ’70s. The show is based on true life events, you know that right?
That’s true, there is the disclaimer at the beginning of every episode.
I just think it’s a very Coen-esque, Noah Hawley-esque kind of universe. Noah just leaves it up to the audience to come to their own conclusions. Who knows, maybe Hanzee’s an alien?
That’s my theory! That Hanzee is an alien. Maybe Native Americans are people who came from another planet to settle Earth thousands of years ago and the UFOs are around because Hanzee is one of them?
Maybe we’re just the original people. I just love that. The show is so enjoyable to watch. I’m so fortunate to be part of such a wonderful production.
Yeah, you’ve had a really interesting career. You’ve been acting for well over 20 years but it’s just been in the past couple of years that it seems you’ve been getting steady work, first with Longmire and now Fargo. That’s a long time to grind. But you stuck to it, obviously.
Yeah, I fell in love with acting in the early ’90s, the whole process, being on stage, being on set. I love going to class, being in class. I think I’ve done my best work in acting classrooms.
Where did you first start acting?
I lived in L.A. in the late ’80s, just having fun, enjoying my early 20s, but then I moved back to Nebraska for a couple of years and got into it there. I did some local theater and some local commercials and fell in love with it and decided to move back to L.A. to give it a shot. Dances With Wolves had just come out and I thought maybe there would be more opportunities for Native American actors. I lived on couches and lived in my car, but I started working pretty quick. I booked a pilot with Fox in my first year that didn’t get picked up as a series. And I started booking guest spots on shows.
Yeah, I saw on your IMDb page that you were on Baywatch and In Living Color in 1992 or 1993.
Yes, I stayed pretty busy, enough to keep me in it and wanting to do more of it. I didn’t have huge dry spells. It kept me in it. It kept me in class trying to improve. Los Angeles can be a tough place to be an actor, specifically an actor of color, but I stuck with it. It’s been a ride. It’s still a ride. I expect it to continue to be a ride after Fargo. I might have a dry spell. All I can do is control what I have control of.
The season two finale of Fargo airs tonight on FX at 10pm EST.