This interview was conducted prior to the SAG-AFTRA strike.
D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai failed theater class in high school. Now, he earns a living as a professional actor. As Bear Smallhill on FX’s “Reservation Dogs,” he gets to live out his dream of normalizing the Indigenous experience. It’s a series that depicts teens just being teens while also showing the realities of life on a reservation and respecting Native American cultural traditions. Created by Sterlin Harjo and Taika Waititi, it’s the first TV series in history with an all-Indigenous team of writers and directors. That’s a point of pride for Woon-A-Tai, who is Oji-Cree.
What drew you to acting in the first place?
I realized from a young age—around 15, 16—that a traditional 9-to-5 was something I didn’t want to do at all. I was still so young but had the pressure of: I need to figure this out soon. At the same time, I was attending a Native American center where they taught traditional drumming. Me and my mom were walking in one day, and there was a bulletin board looking for Indigenous youth to audition [for a project]. My mom stopped me and said, “You should try out.” I don’t know why that version of me said yes. I was so hardheaded; I didn’t want to be shown as vulnerable to anybody, let alone thousands of people on a camera. I have a twin brother, and me and him would be running over lines thousands of times. I landed the role. On set my first time, it was like: I don’t want to leave. I don’t even give a shit if I’m getting paid. The environment is so beautiful and the people are so amazing. I just want to be around this. In high school, I failed theater—it was not my priority. In [that] theater class, I was there to actually learn—and nobody was trying to teach, and nobody was trying to learn.
What advice would you give your younger self?
I would tell him to calm down and focus on his craft. Everything takes time, and the dedication that you put into the craft will pay off. You’re on the path, even if you think it’s a bad one.
What have you learned that fundamentally changed your approach to acting?
I’ve learned a lot just from being there, doing it. I never grew up trying to be an actor. I went into this not knowing what the hell was going on. I learned from trial and error. Something I learned really early is [the importance of] standing out in the crowd. Casting directors, they see hundreds of people. How do you be that one to stand out and be different? It’s better to do more than to do less and try to build it up.
[Also, I’ve been] learning from my costars, like Devery Jacobs, Paulina Alexis, and Lane Factor. I was a sponge. Every little technique that they did, I said, “Oh, shit, that’s nice.” What’s beautiful about our community and about our culture is that we’re very prideful with each other. It’s a very colonial mindset to be thinking of jealousy. From auditioning and being in projects that were not Native-oriented, I was learning to be that competitive person. I don’t think I would ever do another project that’s not Indigenous-led that talks about Indigenous issues or people.
Has anything surprised you about how fans and critics have reacted to “Reservation Dogs”?
The only people whose opinions I gave a fuck about was the Muscogee (Creek) Nation. We were representing these people. I was not born in Oklahoma; I was not raised in Oklahoma; this is not my community. These are not my traditional songs, my language.
What’s your worst audition horror story?
I don’t even remember who I was auditioning for or what project it was, but [in the scene,] my character is talking to a guy, and he rushes back and tackles him. Me being young and dumb—16, 17 years old—[I decide] I’m actually going to tackle him. And I did it. They were like, “That’s kind of weird.” I proved to myself that I will go that far just because I want to stand out.
One of the best examples of me trying to stand out was for “Reservation Dogs.” When all the other actors were coming out of the audition room, you heard laughter—people cracking up in there. I was like, I have to be funny. I forgot this was a comedy. If you’re familiar with the first episode, there’s a scene where Bear points the camera at himself and does a little mockumentary about his community. That was my audition scene. They wanted me to stand in front of the camera and do the whole thing. But I looked at the camera, and I realized that it was on a tripod. Before we started shooting, I said, “Is it possible [for me to] actually pick up the camera and use it like I do in the scene?” They were at first taken aback, and then they were like, “Yeah, for sure.” So I pick up the camera the exact same way you see in the show. After the take, they were like, “Just keep going; keep playing with it.” Talking to Sterlin Harjo about it, he told me that was the reason why I got the role: I showed them that I was willing to try something new.
What’s your dream role?
My dream role is something that normalizes our people. My dream job—I did it already.
This story originally appeared in the Aug. 3 issue of Backstage Magazine.