How A Remote Outpost Of The Navajo Nation In New Mexico Provided The Backdrop For Something Unique

There is a philosophy amongst actors in Hollywood that the parts truly meant for you never pass you by. And in a way, you could say that was the case for Rob Tepper in the new psychological buddy-cop thriller Dark Winds on AMC.

An adaptation of Tony Hillerman’s bestselling novels, and executive produced by George R.R. Martin and Robert Redford—who in fact optioned the books more than 35 years ago—it has been a longtime in the making. Add to that, written, directed, and acted largely by Native Americans, the series has been praised for its nuance and grit.

“I had auditioned for Dark Winds back in Los Angeles, and first I read for a role that was not so fitting for me,” explains Tepper from his now home in Brooklyn, New York. “So I had thrown my tape in once.” The casting agents called again, this time asking Tepper to tackle a paper-pushing cop named Pete Samuels.

Separately, Tepper had a longstanding friendship with the show’s soon-to-be much lauded star, Zahn McClarnon. “I can wax about Zahn for over an hour,” says Tepper with a smile.

The pair met over a decade ago in a Los Feliz acting class. “At that point I was dedicated. I was in class probably three days every week,” says Tepper. “Zahn would bop in and out from time to time.” And it was on those occasions that the two would talk, compare notes, laugh about auditions gone wrong, and celebrate the jobs they did ultimately book.

“That just started to build and build and build, so that when Zahn would have a role or an audition, oftentimes we would get together beforehand or prior to the taping,” Tepper explains. “It was this work relationship that then allowed us to get to know each other better. And it developed into a great friendship, full of trust and admiration.”

Fast forward to 2020, when McClarnon was handed a script for a new mainstream crime drama set in the Navajo Nation, and on track to be filmed amidst the rust-coloured rocks and swaying juniper trees of New Mexico. The role was so coveted that for weeks McClarnon couldn’t say a word.

“Then, once things started to heat up with AMC, Zahn approached me and asked if I would be open to coming on board the project—and doing what I usually do with him before an audition. (Or breaking down a script for a role he’s already gotten.),” says Tepper. “But doing it every day for three months and on set.”

It was an easy yes and felt in a way like fate. Sure, Tepper hadn’t heard any more about his own audition, but in this different but equally enticing way, Tepper had still found his way to the set.

“I was there before principal photography started shooting,” says Tepper. “And Zane and I would go around and soak everything up. We drove to set together every single day at about 4.00am. But the beauty of the landscape, the beauty of Santa Fe—this big sky, these sunsets—it’s unlike any other place I’d ever been.”

Watch the show or read any review and it’s clear that McClarnon—with his expressive features and endless charisma—anchors the drama. It’s a fact that has also been confirmed by the recent announcement that the gauzy 1970s detective mystery has been green-lit for a second series.

As for Tepper, his own audition for the leaden police officer Samuels still hung in the air. During original the casting, Tepper had landed on the idea that this character had an unironic, well-groomed handlebar moustache. It wasn’t written in the script, but it felt right and Tepper went as far as to try it out during the initial Los Angeles audition.

Then, out of nowhere, about a week and a half into Tepper’s on-set coaching with McClarnon, his mobile rang. It was Tepper’s agent. “‘You know you’ve booked the role, right,’” came the voice on the other end of the phone. And, in regards to the retro Kaiser Wilhelm II-style facial hair, it had been written into the script.

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