Reservation Dogs Casting Director Angelique Midthunder Knows Indigenous Talent
When the first set of rave reviews for “Reservation Dogs” arrived last summer, the surprise hit was hailed for its authenticity, humor and emotion. And there wasn’t a single reviewer who failed to single out the cast of young new faces and up-and-coming native artists who bring the show to life.
“There is a myth that there are no native actors,” said series creator Sterlin Harjo. It’s a catch-22 Harjo is all too familiar with: There aren’t many native actors at Hollywood, because there is not much work for them there. “It’s like a western comes out once every year, you know? And it’s not that fun to play the same games over and over and over again.
The search for the show’s four young leads — all relative newcomers — might conjure up images of one of those epic needle-in-a-haystack casting stories that become Hollywood legend, but according to the co- Harjo creator, Taika Waititi, “[It] was one of the easiest casting processes I have ever experienced, which is very rare. There was no real discussion. We all knew instantly who we wanted.
That’s largely because while Hollywood doesn’t know where to look for Indigenous talent, for the past 15 years, casting director Angelique Midthunder has made it her life’s work. Along with fellow cast member and casting director Jennifer Schwalenberg, Midthunder created a database dedicated to Indigenous talent.
“She’s invested in the community and knows where to look and how to look,” said “Reservation Dogs” director Sydney Freeland, whose feature debut, “Drunktown’s Finest,” was also cast by Midthunder. According to Freeland, the Indigenous film community can seem relatively very small. “I feel like I know who all the actors are. I feel like I know who the talent is in front of and behind the camera. And what I love about working with Angélique is that she always finds someone I’ve never heard of or seen before.
In the video below, watch how Midthunder reunited the cast of “Reservation Dogs.”
Harjo first worked with Midthunder on the pilot for the comic book adaptation “Scalped.” Although “Scalped” didn’t go to series, the casting director impressed Harjo, who made her first call when “Reservation Dogs” was lit green. “I really wanted to work with her because I knew she would be willing to really do it the right way with me.”
Doing things the right way for Harjo and Midthunder meant traveling all over Oklahoma, visiting each of the regional reservations. Harjo unearthed talent in the halls of the hotels where the castings took place. “He was like, ‘Hey, when the kid with the blue shirt comes over, I want a little more time with him. He has a great look, a great vibe,” Midthunder recalls. Schwalenberg — who is Midthunder’s right-hand man in the office, scouting actors, making contacts and sending out auditions — said it’s not part of their philosophy to see lack of experience as a detriment. “What I’ve found in all my years of working is someone who has this thing innately, and we’ve been through it so many times, there’s just something about them and the camera loves them.”
This could be because Midthunder worked on both sides of the process, as a casting director and as an actress herself. “Right out of college, I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life,” she said. She responded to a casting call placed in a newspaper looking for a dark-haired actress in her twenties who could ride a horse. Although she was hired and continued to perform here and there, she was not drawn to the stage. “I befriended a casting director and found her process to be exciting to me,” Midthunder said.
Identify a look, a personality or vibe it could potentially work for a character and a camera is one thing; knowing how to work with newbie actors, getting them comfortable in the audition process to explore and be themselves, and extrapolating if they could hold their own while filming a full season of TV is one other.
“Angelique, she definitely believed in me. I remember she encouraged me a lot. She was really great, like an aunt vibe,” said Paulina Alexis, who plays Willie Jack on the show. “I just had to play myself. I am a ground child. I must not give too much or too little. I could just be myself.
For Midthunder, this is the key to the success of the series. “Part of the magic of ‘Reservation Dogs’ is that we’re just looking for people to be themselves,” she said. “We’ve got that populated with a lot of street cast or non-actors, and that’s the case, I think, [give] it’s a very grounded, organic and believable feel.
In turn, Harjo was open to tailoring his characters to the young actors they encountered during the unique casting process. Willie Jack was originally scripted as a male character; when Alexis arrived to audition, it was for the role of Elora Danan, played on the show by Devery Jacobs. Despite reading for Elora, she was called back for Willie Jack. “I did it my way, I added my own improvisation, and my brothers were there to help me too,” Alexis said.
To underscore Midthunder’s influence, Harjo points to Lane Factor, who plays Cheese, the youngest of the “Reservation Dogs” managers. Factor had just taken his first acting class because his mother wanted him to spend less time playing video games. “The kid didn’t want to audition,” recalls Harjo, who eventually rewrote Cheese’s character to fit Factor’s personality. “His mother convinced him to come to the audition and he went all the way and was cast. It wouldn’t have happened without freedom and Angelique, how good she was and how much she believed in this process.
The more recognition his show, and especially its cast, receives, the more Harjo believes “Reservation Dogs” will change Hollywood’s view of Native stories and the availability of Native artists. But he also hopes stories like Factor’s will inspire others to see a path to the small and big screen. “Most aboriginal kids don’t even think it’s [is] an option to be on a TV show, but now they do,” Harjo said.
Alexis agrees: “Growing up, I always saw Willie Jacks all my life, but you don’t see him on TV,” she says. “It makes me feel good. It opens the door for other people to come in and tell their stories too, in their own way.
If, as Alexis and Harjo predict, “Reservation Dogs” is able to plant the seeds of a more Indigenous-inclusive Hollywood, it will be thanks to the casting director who has been plowing the ground for a decade and a half and making the fertile land for it to grow. –Kristen Lopez