Last week, the Sundance Channel debuted The Red Road, a crime story set in New Jersey. That summary sounds awfully cliche, but the show has a twist: The Red Road, which takes place in a town occupied both by white families and members of a federally unrecognized Indian tribe is one of the few dramas on television to feature Native American characters. Most important among them is Phillip Kopus (Jason Momoa), who’s recently returned home from a stint in prison, and immediately begins cleaning up messes for his mentor, and returning into a community he thinks is over-invested in winning federal recognition of their Native American heritage. He gets some unexpected leverage when Jean Jensen (Julianne Nicholson) — Kopus’ high school girlfriend who’s grown up to struggle with alcoholism, schizophrenia, and to be the wife of the local sheriff, Harold Jensen (Martin Henderson) — hits a local boy, and Kopus promises Harold to help direct suspicion away from Jean.
At the Television Critics Association press tour in January, Momoa and Tamara Tunie, the two Native members of the cast, both said how important the show was to them. “I have Native American blood. I have African blood. I have European blood,” Tunie explained. “And so it was the first time that a role was presented to me that actually completely embraced my entire DNA makeup, so I was really excited, and I loved the script, and, you know, I was very excited about being able to, you know, embrace that part of my heritage and be able to portray that on the screen.” And Momoa, who rose to fame during the first season of Game of Thrones, said “It’s extremely important to me to play a native….I actually went to go study with the Ramapoughs, and it was really the character’s extremely interesting because being Hawaiian, being born there and being removed from there, and I was raised in Iowa, my character, even though I am native, wasn’t raised in it as much.”
The Red Road is the product of two white creators, Prisoners screenwriter Aaron Guzikowski and longtime Friday Night Lights and Parenthood executive producer Bridget Carpenter. I spoke with both of them in January about creating authentic Native American characters, breaking the mold on crime stories, and how to handle mental illness on television. Our conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
Native Americans have almost no representation on American television at all. I think Longmire and Ken Hotate on Parks and Recreation, it’s like those are the only two other representations. And so, I was curious, you’re entering a space about people who are very underrepresented and you’re coming in with a crime story. And obviously there are a lot of huge and legitimate issues between Native communities and the police, you’re also coming in with characters of color who are criminals. I was wondering if you could just talk me through the decision to tell a crime story and some of those challenges of representing underrepresented people.Guzikowski: I think also all of the characters in the show do good things and they do bad things. And I think when we were talking about how these characters are gonna be portrayed, I think it was the same thing, you know, there’s good people and there’s bad people and we’re not gonna say that we’re gonna have X amount of people represented this way and, you know what I mean, just try and evaluate each character individually and just go with that as our guiding principle.
Carpenter: I would say what excited me about the script when I read it and super excited me to get the job and get in and work on it is that nobody is just one thing…To me, and I know to Aaron, we hope for life, our stock and trade, is that we wanna write there dimensional people, complicated people, we are not interested in white-washing anybody. But that question is totally valid but by the same token we weren’t ever like “is he nice enough here?” you know, that just wasn’t the way… I would say that the way that I have always gone about making television, the way that we talk in the writer’s room is we talk a story and we talk about the people and then the question that I repeat ask until everybody hates me is “what would really happen?” Who is that person, what would really happen. And so race and ethnicity of course is a part of it but it doesn’t define it.
I was just curious because I think pop culture in this moment is in this very difficult spiral where you don’t want to provide a sole representation of somebody and have it be negative but you don’t want to deny people their humanity but forcing them to be saints.Carpenter: That’s very well said! And, in fact, to then side step it by saying “I’m not gonna deal with it at all” is, to me, in and of itself, an aversive racism…And I think with the way that we’re interested in dealing is by telling a story and so we are confident enough to have the courage of our convictions and to go “here’s our story, warts and all.” And then that’s the other place where we worked in concert, we did have a Ramapough consultant whose name is Autumn Winscott who we wanted to have that conversation creatively. And she would read our scripts and bring our attention to things that seemed not to read true or to be off the mark and we would then have a creative conversation and, if we agreed, we would address them and adjust. So, in that sense, we feel we kind of worked very transparently and we feel real fundamental respect for the area and the people that inspired the seed of the story…There was a lot of material that we both also read that Aaron in fact brought to me in coverage of that area… I think Redford’s son did the documentary called “Man vs. Ford” so there was coverage on the toxic waste….So we read a lot of that. That was among many of the articles that informed the architecture of our the shaping of the world,
I was curious, do the environmental issues come up at all in this season?Guzikowski: They do, it’s kind of in the background, it’s almost like in a sense and you see it and it’s there, you’ll see there’s this sort of blue toxic paint sludge and we address it a bit in this season and we’ll probably address it more down the road…And it’s kind of interesting because it adds this mysteriousness, and where does this stuff come from, and what does it all mean, and who’s involved, and all of these kinds of question that have to do with the real thing, though it is more kind of background this season, it’s there.
I was also curious about casting the show because one of the things that’s fascinating about the Ramapough is that they are this sort of hybrid ethnicity and it was really interesting to see Tamara and Jason go talk on the panel today about how this is sort of a rare chance for them to really have a reflection of their ethnicities in a part so I thought casting that must’ve been very interesting.Guzikowski: Well, I mean, it was charged, it was charged. And early on I think we thought it was going to be more difficult than it was to find the people with a kind of happy mixed background, I mean, how many actors are going to fit into this category but actually there were quite a lot and they were quite good, it was easy.
Carpenter: The good news is that for us art won the day, like the best people won the roles and then we went “Oh Tamara has Indian, is a Blackfoot in her background, oh my god!” it was like “and Jason has Shawnee in his background, oh my g-” you know, that kind of kept happening that it was like a great collision of the best person getting the role which is the dream thing. You don’t, you didn’t want to do tokenism. At the same time, it’s essential that we have actual Native Americans involved in as much as we can, it’s part of it. So, we looked for it and the best people won the job in every respect. That was true of our costume designer is part Native American, Kiowa [Gordon] is part Native American. Our guest stars, the guy who plays Mike, Zahn McClarnon is Native American. Gary Farmer, the magical Gary Farmer.
This plays a huge role in the text of the show, I mean, Phillip’s negotiation of what his identity is where he stands in between these two communities, it’s fascinating.Carpenter: Well, I mean I love thinking about Kopus for the fact of what happens when you’re an outsider in a place of outsiders, like that’s already a totally disenfranchised and marginalized community and then you are an outsider to that place? Yeesh, it’s like a double negative, you know, and you do have to keep on turning your reflection over and going “who am I? where do I belong?” And there’s a default place that you might belong.
Guzikowski: Identity in general I think in all the characters, even the Caucasian character kind of runs across with the schizophrenia in terms of identity, you know, and I think there’s a lot of —
Carpenter: — who am I and where do I belong! You know, is that sort of a psychic way of going “this is not my beautiful house” you know?
But I was interested about Phillip’s antipathy to the idea of… you know, he’s almost angry about a group that is an outsider group that’s trying to shape its experience into an available identity category by this search for federal recognition.Guzikowski: Well, he’s sort of the, where he’s at at the beginning of the season, he’s sort of like the self-made made, “you have to make your own way in the world, you don’t lean on family or community, you can’t trust that stuff, it all has to come from you, you know, you have to build your own world and if things aren’t working out for you that’s because you’re not going what you need to be doing” and that’s his philosophy going in which kind of bumps against the tribal philosophy…
I wanted to talk about his and Julianne Nicholson’s performances because I think Jason has been stuck doing a lot of work in [sword and sandals shows] and he struck me as this — the scene in the case where he’s sort of playing the sadistic frat boy role — so funny and so familiar, I mean, he’s just a very funny character.Guzikowski: He is! He’s seductive but also dangerous (charismatic), and he brings so many colors to that character, it’s amazing.
Carpenter: I have to say one of his earliest scenes is such a fun scene because when he comes to see Marie and Junior’s there, I love that scene, I mean, [Guzikowski] not to pat you on the back, but I love [how] you see Junior fall in love with him, Junior’s like “oh, I love this guy! He’s just like that guy!”…you just feel like that’s the simmering thing that happens, I think he brings so many colors, so much nuance in his performance, I think he’s capable of so many great things, it’s gonna be really fun for the role to discover him in this arc.
I was curious about Julianne too since playing a schizophrenic potentially alcoholic racist is not what I necessarily would’ve expected her next career move to be and I really like it.Carpenter: She was so brave I have to say and we talked, we had a meeting with her where we just talked and then she came in and auditioned and it was so interesting because she came and, you know, those things are usually kind of formal, little bit like “oh, how are you?” and she just said really quietly, “I can’t stop thinking about this character.”…She would let this scary angular qualities emerge and it really made her an obvious choice, kind of from the word go, there’s a lot going on underneath the hood of Julianne and it’s very instinctual.
Well the scene where she’s threatening Marie is really interesting because she isn’t a cop herself but she’s married to a cop, she’s the daughter of a State Senator.Carpenter: It’s privileg.
Guzikowski: Yeah, this sense of entitlement.
Carpenter: Yeah “I get to come here and bang on your door.”
And for me you have a couple of characters say negative things about the police early on but it’s very interesting that’s it’s a figure who’s not actually law enforcement or a cop but just this embodiment of reckless privilege, it makes you see, I think, why the characters are so anxious about police.Carpenter: Uhuh, yes, that’s exactly right! That’s really well stated. Yeah and it’s kind of like “Yeah, I get to show up on your doorstep” that’s not something that… we have talked about many things it’s like an underpinning of the show it’s like “what I’m allowed to do!” And so of course there would be total distrust from every member of that community
Guzikowski: Right and she’s from more of an upper-class family and there’s that kind of dynamic when she married [Harold] it was like a step down in terms of how she lived her life and having to come to terms with that and it’s just an interesting place to come at her life.
And of course having her father threaten to thwart her the federal recognition bill.Guzikowski: Right. Whatever role her father might’ve had in polluting the mountains and so on and so forth so it’s all sort of interconnected.
Do you think the second season of the show could be not a crime story but a political story?Guzikowski: I mean, who knows? I mean, I do kind of know? But it’ll be a thriller and it’ll be exciting and I think that doesn’t necessarily have to be a body, it could be any number of things, that said it could be a body [laughs].
Carpenter: [laughs] You like a body! You like a body! But, I think the political elements are actually fascinating and I think we would definitely commit more to making that overt although I’m not sure if that would be the driving incident of the story.