“He’s like Jesus,” says actor Zahn McCarnon, in Denver to promote TNT’s new miniseries Into the West.
He’s referring, of course, to executive producer Steven Spielberg. “When you’re talking about Steven, you’re talking about precision and detail. There is a scene where I had to do a Native American sign language, and they actually brought in a guy who actually knew sign language from that period. And that’s what the name Steven Spielberg brings: perfection.”
“Into the West takes place during one of the single most dramatic periods in American history,” proclaims executive producer Steven Spielberg in the press notes. “We’re painting this on a huge canvas in order to tell a story that explores the Gold Rush, the transcontinental railroad, the Wild West and the Indian wars leading to the tragedy at Wounded Knee. These are all facets of the American and Native American experience. It’s the story about opportunity and the clash of cultures and the eventual overwhelming of one nation’s way of life over another.”
After screening the first of six episodes, I can tell TNT’s new mini-series Into the West isn’t just another clichéd western with cowboys and Indians, but an accurate interpretation on the West. The series focuses on a particular pioneer family and a Native American family during the years 1825 to 1890. Michael Spears (Dances With Wolves) and McCarnon (Skins) play two brothers of the Lakota, a peaceful tribe that experiences an epic cultural clash with the settlers.
Running Fox and Dog Star
Zahn and Michael have great chemistry together on the screen as the two Lakota brothers. Although they seem very alike, the two characters have quite different views about what should be done with the settlers. Michael, playing Dog Star, says: “Running Fox and Dog Star are brothers who are very competitive. Running Fox is kind of in the shadows of his older brother, and is always trying to prove himself. He is smaller and wants to be like his big brother. They have different views on what they think the Lakota people need. Running Fox believes that they need to trade with the whites and to embrace what’s coming, and be a part of what’s coming, while Dog Star feels they have everything they have to sustain a way of life, we have existed this way for thousands and thousands of years, why change now?”
“We had a lot of fun on the set, and I think the relationship between the brothers was a lot of like the relationship we had. We get along great, we’ve become very close, after I got over how big he was,” laughs Zahn. “I was coming up to his bellybutton, so I said to them, ‘You guys have got to dig a hole or something otherwise it’s not going to look real.’”
It’s All True
Episode One: Wheels to the Stars sets the stage with powerful dramatic intensity and a clever style. The set design is impressively handsome, while the landscapes are on an epic scale. From towering rocky mountains to open prairie, the gorgeous cinematography sweeps you away from the living room couch and places you right in the heart of the old west.
Just from watching the historic scenes containing the Native American lifestyle and mythology, it’s crystal clear that the research has been done very, very well. Although the authenticity may be a bit tedious at times, the realism will certainly impress and interest most viewers.
Michael says “Everything that they did was true, down to the language, down to how we wore our feathers, how we dressed, where we sat, our mannerisms, everything. We basically got taken into a school; we walked into a gymnasium where they pounded us with information and we had an advisor who helped us tremendously with the language. Everything in this was done to be as accurate as possible.”
Although Zahn has become very accustomed to Native American roles, this is the first role he has ever played that hasn’t been in English. “Every period piece I’ve done, which has been like four period pieces, they have been done in English. My biggest challenge was learning the Lakota language. I would need to lock myself in my room, eight hours a day, to learn all of my dialogue in Lakota.”
Spielberg hopes that the series will someday be used in the schools as an educational tool, and the two actors agree. “I think students will learn much more from this than from their books. I hope this can inspire them to want to learn more and to give them a deeper appreciation for what their ancestors went through to make this country what it is. I want my grandkids to someday watch this movie and learn from it,” explains Michael.
Into the West beings June 10th on TNT, featuring other great talents such as Matthew Settle, Skeet Ulrich, Will Patton and Gary Busey. The series should attract viewers from western fans to history buffs. “This was done the way it’s supposed to be done,” Zahn says with a smile. “It’s going to blow everybody’s mind.”