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How Reservation Dogs Found the Perfect Guest Star to Play Elora's Dad

'He was definitely going to do it. I don't think he was going to let anything stop him'

Kelly Connolly
Devery Jacobs, Reservation Dogs

Devery Jacobs, Reservation Dogs

Shane Brown/FX

[Warning: The following contains spoilers for Season 3, Episode 9 of Reservation Dogs, "Elora's Dad." Read at your own risk!]

Add "Ethan Hawke saying 'sh--ass'" to the long list of Reservation Dogs' greatest pleasures. From the start, FX's acclaimed Hulu series has brought together promising young Indigenous talent and established Indigenous actors, but casting Elora's (Devery Jacobs) father, Rick — who is "99 percent European and 1 percent unknown," according to his 23andMe — gave the show the opportunity to expand its talent pool in a new direction. Hawke, who was already a fan of the series, which he presented with a Peabody Award in 2022, was a natural fit for the part. 

In "Elora's Dad," the show's penultimate episode, Elora's hunt for the father she's never met is prompted by the college application forms she needs him to fill out in order to qualify for financial aid. Rick is a house painter, movie buff, and affable semi-reformed slacker with three other kids who's eager to get to know her, despite leaving her when his relationship with her mom fell apart. Written by Jacobs, who writes under her birth name, Kawennáhere Devery Jacobs, and directed by co-creator Sterlin Harjo, "Elora's Dad" is a gorgeous, understated episode that brings Elora tentatively closer to her new family without losing sight of the pain her dad caused her. And it's tied together by exceptional performances from Jacobs, who brings out the brittleness in Elora's maturity, and Hawke, who makes Rick seem almost younger than his daughter.

Casting director Angelique Midthunder spoke to TV Guide about enlisting Hawke for such a pivotal role. As the series prepares to wrap up, she also looked back on finding the show's core four Rez Dogs — Jacobs, D'Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai, Paulina Alexis, and Lane Factor — and working on a series that brought together so many dynamic Indigenous actors.

Devery Jacobs and Ethan Hawke, Reservation Dogs

Devery Jacobs and Ethan Hawke, Reservation Dogs

Shane Brown/FX

How did Ethan Hawke's casting come about?
Angelique Midthunder: For this particular character, we knew that we wanted to do something really special and really fun. And we don't have a lot of opportunities to include non-Native actors, so when we do we are always having the conversation, "Who brings something really unique to it?" And I think all of the non-Native actors that we've brought in have all been unique to each other in a lot of ways. So to top off the season with such a profound character, we knew that we needed a profound actor. I went through my process of brainstorming with my team — ideas, lists, everything — and I like to aim high, so everybody was on it, including Ethan, but I don't know if Sterlin even looks at the list. He's just like, "What about Ethan Hawke?" It was kind of a long process to go through to come back to this actor that feels like a no-brainer. He's just such a good fit for the show. He and Sterlin already had a relationship, and they were excited to work on something together at some point, so it was the perfect opportunity to invite Ethan into the show. I'm so glad that we were all able to work together to make it work for him and his schedule as well. I mean, he was definitely going to do it. I don't think he was going to let anything stop him.

And he was a fan of the show, correct?
Midthunder: Yes, he was a fan of the show and of Sterlin. It's been so fun and exciting and satisfying. Once Season 1 was airing, it was so much easier to go out to these guest stars and ask them if they were interested. We don't have anyone who was like, "No, I don't really know that show and I'm not interested in working on it." Everybody has been so gracious, and it's been so fun to look for these guest stars, because everybody's just been such a good sport about coming on to the show.

In terms of the traits of the character, what were you looking for in the actor playing Elora's dad?
Midthunder: We knew we wanted it to be somebody who was a standout. Obviously, we needed a skilled actor. We're always looking for that special thing that certain people have where they can walk the line — because [watching] this show, you're laughing and then something happens where you just switch from laughter to tears, and then back. That's quite a balancing act for the actors as well as the writers. We're always looking for actors who are diverse in their skill set and who are fun and recognizable for the audience.

And he's able to fully disappear into this role. Was that something that you were thinking about when you were making your initial shortlist — how can we find someone recognizable who will also fit into this world?
Midthunder: Absolutely. It's always a conversation that you have or something that you're keeping in the front of your mind when you're looking to cast a name actor, or a well known actor. You don't want them to detract from the story or distract the viewer. But Ethan is such a fun and versatile actor. He becomes a chameleon in the role, and not only that, but I think he has the qualities as a human where he just fit so well into this world that it made perfect sense for him to show up.

Devery Jacobs and Ethan Hawke, Reservation Dogs

Devery Jacobs and Ethan Hawke, Reservation Dogs

Shane Brown/FX

Since this show is coming to an end, I'm curious how you look back on casting the Rez Dogs themselves. They're all such dynamic talents; Devery wrote this episode. When you look at the show now, has anything surprised you about where they've taken their characters and what they've been capable of?
Midthunder: Oh my gosh. We've had this kind of slow time [in the industry], so I've been going through and organizing my records, because I keep this extensive database of Indigenous talent. And last week, I was watching the original auditions for the pilot. D'Pharaoh and Lane Factor were just such baby faces back then. Devery came in as the most seasoned of the actors. Lane had done nothing. Sterlin and I, to cast the pilot, did a road trip through Oklahoma and visited all of the reservations. And Lane was one of those kids who kept popping up at these open calls and had done nothing and was young, a little inhibited. So to go back and watch their original auditions and to see them now, they've come so far — not just as actors, which they have, obviously, but as humans. These are your late teens. These are your developmental years. And I've done set visits each season, so just to see them growing as actors and also as young adults through the past few years has been easily the most satisfying work of my entire career.

On top of casting the young actors, you've also brought in so many established Native actors. From the beginning you've had Wes Studi, Gary Farmer, Zahn McClarnon. In Season 2, you had Lily Gladstone. This year Graham Greene joined the show. What's it been like to cast a show that brings together so many respected Native actors in one ensemble?
Midthunder: Just so gratifying. And not just for me and and for Sterlin and everyone there, but I think for the actors themselves. These are actors who either have built a rapport over several decades of working so hard to get where they're at, or actors who have been wanting to work together. So it's just been gratifying for everyone all around.

You said that once the show premiered, it was very easy to get people interested in appearing on it. Have any of these actors been the ones to approach you and say, "I would love to be on Reservation Dogs"?
Midthunder: Absolutely. I keep a list of everybody and who's doing what, so we had people that we hoped [could appear on the show] — like, "Hey, if anything opens up, let's consider these people." But I almost didn't even need to do that, because most every Native American actor has reached out to me since the first season aired. My inbox has been flooded. My social media presence doubled overnight [from] people wanting to be on the show. Just so many emails and DMs — from people who have never done anything who are DMing me on Instagram like, "How do I get on the show?" to, yes, agents reaching out on behalf of their clients, saying that their clients would love to be on the show. Anywhere I go — film festivals, Indian Market — I'm always running into these actors who are like, "Haven't been on the show yet. Keep me in mind." It's really made my job easy and a lot of fun and really gratifying.

Were there any parts that were written specifically for any of the bigger actors who have come in?
Midthunder: No, the characters have always just been written as the characters. And then we talked about some of the bigger actors, but we've also auditioned bigger actors alongside unknowns the whole time, the whole process. We've auditioned people from the Oklahoma community, we've auditioned people off of social media, and we've we've auditioned these established actors, sometimes all for the same role. And whoever brings the most life to the characters is who we cast. For the role of Maximus, the role that Graham Greene played, that one was a little different. That one, going in we knew that it had to be somebody who could carry their own with Wes Studi and Gary Farmer, and someone that you would believe was part of the family growing up and, and we knew that we wanted it to be an icon. Wes Studi and Gary Farmer and Casey Camp[-Horinek], all of the people who play that generation are so well loved in the Native community that we did want to make sure that we got somebody that would be equally embraced in that role.

This year, you also cast younger versions of those characters. Tell me about how you found those matches.
Midthunder: That was quite an extensive casting process. Kate Dean, the producer, actually called me up a good bit before pre-production for the show and was kind enough to give me a heads up that we were going to do that. And it was as daunting, if not more daunting, than casting the pilot at the time. Casting the kids for the pilot, I knew we would find them out there. Casting the younger versions of characters and actors that were already established felt like a little bit more of a monumental challenge to me, but it's such a great thing. When you watch the show and you see who ended up getting cast, for all the auditions I did, in the end, you're like, "Oh yeah, well, that's a no-brainer." They all just seamlessly fit right in. And I don't know how much of it is coincidence that we had people who are so closely tied to our cast members, because we auditioned everybody that I could find for those roles. But in the end, Paulina Alexis, who plays Willie Jack, her brother played the young Brownie. Lane Factor, who plays Cheese, his sister plays the young Mabel. And by casting people who are literally related to the people on the show, it just feels like an anchor for the show. It doesn't feel like everyone's all new. Something about these people is familiar. 

You mentioned Paulina Alexis. Willie Jack was originally written as a male part, right?
Midthunder: That's right. When I saw Paulina's tape come in, she had originally read for Elora. It was originally scripted that she was this one tough girl that hung with these three rez boys, and when I saw her tape, I was like, "We've found our Elora!" And Sterlin was like, "I'm not sure if that's quite Elora." I was really convinced that it was. But we kept her in mind. We loved her. We knew that we loved her. We knew that she fit into this world. And to Sterlin's credit, he is constantly keeping the characters open and leaning into the strengths and the characteristics of the actors. So it was his brilliant idea to make her Willie Jack. I can't imagine it any other way now.

Paulina Alexis, Devery Jacobs, D'Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai, Lane Factor, and Elva Guerra, Reservation Dogs

Paulina Alexis, Devery Jacobs, D'Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai, Lane Factor, and Elva Guerra, Reservation Dogs

Shane Brown/FX

When did you find out that Season 3 would be the last season?
Midthunder: Not until after they wrapped shooting. You can see kind of where the storylines are going, and you know, we wondered. But it wasn't until after the show finished shooting that we learned it would be the final season. 

Do you have any parting thoughts on Reservation Dogs?
Midthunder: I don't know if anything in my career will ever match the satisfaction that I've gained from working on this show, and I'm just really excited to see where they all go from here. I know that there are a lot of opportunities. I've been getting a lot of phone calls from producers and other casting directors asking about the four kids who lead the series, so I'm just really excited to see what they do next. 

Me, too. I will miss them all together, though.
Midthunder: Well, we're hoping for a spin-off, right? 

The final season of Reservation Dogs streams Wednesdays on Hulu.