Exclusive: Dark Winds’ Jessica Matten on Playing the Naturally Tough Bernadette in Season 2, Conquering her Fear of Horses, & More

Jessica MattenSeason two of Dark Winds returns tonight to AMC. In season two, Lt. Joe Leaphorn (Zahn McClarnon) and his former deputy turned private eye Jim Chee (Kiowa Gordon) are reunited when their cases cross paths. With the help of Sgt. Bernadette Manuelito (Jessica Matten), they must stop a killer who is protecting a secret close to Leaphorn and his past. 

Matten recently spoke with SciFi Vision about her character’s journey in season two, Bernadette and Jim’s relationship this season, conquering her fear of horses, holding in laughter behind the scenes, and much more.

Read the full transcript below, and be sure to check out the premiere, tonight on AMC, and streaming on AMC Plus.

***This interview took place prior the start of the SAG-AFTRA strike***

SCIFI VISION:   Can you start by just, for the people who haven’t seen it, talk about what's going to happen or this season for your character? What's her her journey; where she headed?

Jessica MattenJESSICA MATTEN:  
You get to know Bernadette a lot more in terms of her personal daily life. My biggest thing and my worry as an actor is I always just want to make sure that the characters I play are not one dimensional. So, what the writers and the showrunner have done in the season is just kind of flesh out her character even more so that you see, pretty much, what makes Bernadette, Bernadette. And that goes hand in hand with all of the issues that Dark Winds season two discusses, and a big one is touching on the racism that really existed back then for Native people and just how that informs her choices and her decisions throughout the season. It ends up becoming a pretty dramatic decision that she makes at the end, and they're all tied in together. 

You talk about multidimensional and you just made me think about it, but last time when we talked, you had said how you wanted to make sure you made her different, because you've played a lot of cops before. Is there anything specifically that that you did differently, thinking back on it now? 

Yeah, I think my my biggest challenge as an actor was also not getting stuck in archetypes and stereotypes too of playing a female cop. So, in the past, the characters were quite hardened because of their backgrounds. But what I wanted to do for Bernadette was not be fearful, that she didn't have to be so tough all the time, that she would still come off naturally tough, and to make sure to have moments to infuse her with a little more vulnerability, such as humor, that she doesn't always take her job as seriously as you would think. I think, as an actor, letting go of that, and trusting that she's still gonna come off as tough and also expanding - And it's interesting, because, as a person in my daily life, how I view women and girls as tough is very different. It's not holding a gun or anything. It's like, to me, a house housewife back in the 1950s is pretty damn tough. I mean, you're stuck in the house, being at the beck and call of someone else and raising the kids on your own. That's scary as hell to me. So, I mean, the idea of toughness is something that I wanted to make sure that even Bernadette wasn't afraid to explore different areas of that, or I should say, I wouldn't be afraid to explore that for Bernadette. 

Was there a part of her though, that you had trouble, like as yourself, just connecting to, other than how tough she is? 

Not as much, because I know that she's a character, and I'm not that tough in real life at all. So, I think just knowing that this is a character, and that I have freedom to explore that. I think the only part that honestly got hard for me was I have a fear of horses. All of a sudden, I had to do scenes on a horse for the first time. And then, you're responsible, and you're not in control; it's another living being. It was kind of humorous too. I was like, “Just give me the slowest horse ever. I don't want it to move.” So, they did, but then this horse was so, as they say, like, lazy. Actually, there were scenes where I had to be like, “yah!” and kick it to [make it go], and it wouldn't budge. It was kind of sleeping standing there, so it'd be like, you're trying to stay in character and be seriously like, “yah!” and it's just like [not moving]. Well, I kicked it one time to go, and instead, I felt something, so I was like, “Oh, he's about to move.” [It] took a big dump. [laughs] 

[laughs] They’re alive and they do what they want. They’re not actors. 

Exactly. So, that was a big challenge with Bernadette, to be honest. 

Well, that was going to be another question, do you actually ride horses? But what about the rest of action and stunt type stuff. Do you enjoy that? 

I do. I think, because when I was younger, I was in competitive sports. So, it's just something that kind of stays in you and lives in you. So, I think as someone who's been raised in sports their entire life, you just kind of get excited when you have the opportunity. But you don't want to be dumb too. I mean, like, there're some scenes where you just gotta let a stunt person handle it for liability reasons. Hundreds of people out of a job. So, yeah, I definitely would never have an ego about that either, because this is a team effort, and I'm just one of the moving pieces in this whole puzzle. 

Other than having to ride a horse and those kinds of things, is there anything that you learned working on season one that you kind of brought with you this season that really helped you that either you did differently, or that you just didn't know how to do that you learned? Anything like that? 

I think the main thing was Navajo culture is so vastly different from my native culture, and just coming prepared of understanding that, that there's going to be tons of different nuances and new traditional practices to be cognizant about, and just just being open to that too. It's weird how I have this stereotype in my own head that all natives did the same smudging practices; we all use sage; we all use sweet grass, and that's not the case. That's not the case with Navajo culture, and they have specific timelines seasonally to when you can even say things, when you could share stories. Sometimes you cannot share stories, as I found out, in winter or spring, and so I was like, “Why?” So, in terms of like, just doing things differently, I wouldn't say much. I would just say coming in prepared and knowing that I wanted to showcase more of Bernadette's diverse, vulnerable side too. 

Is there anything she taught you though about yourself, as a character, that you learned from her? 

Moreso it's just like, I think - [laughs] I'm kind of laughing, but testing myself constantly of, can I get over my own fears like horses? I think that alone, whenever you have an opportunity to test a fear of yours and break out of it, I think that psychologically helps you get past other fears in your day to day life, to break out of your own programming. We're all guilty of that. We get into these routines, and then we kind of get stuck or you get too comfortable, but when you are too comfortable, then there's no real true room for further development and growth internally, externally, all that stuff. So, what Bernadette does for me is, she's an opportunity to break out of my own comfort in in my real life. 

That’s always important. Before we go, can you talk about her relationship with Jim Chee and sort of where they are headed or not headed this season? 

Yeah, they definitely go through a different series of emotions in the season of dealing with one another, but, I think, for them, it's about denying less of how they feel about each other. I guess that's what I could say.

That’s fair to say. Do you have a favorite scene this season that you can tease without giving too too much away? 

There were so many. I connect them with what was happening behind the scenes. There was one scene where there was nothing really going on. The whole thing’s eventful, but, I mean, when we were filming it, Zahn and I had a complete laughing fit. Then, there was another scene with Kiowa and I in Bernadette's trailer. When Kiowa was off camera, he was just cracking me up, and then, you know, I don't want to ruin the take. So, during the entire take, I'm holding my laughter, and I feel like I'm gonna burst from the inside out. Yeah, those moments, it's almost irrelevant what we're doing in the scene. I just think about having these laughing fits behind it, which is a joy, because, you know, it's a serious show, so it’s not like we're joking throughout it. I would say the other scenes I really enjoyed were with Sakoda, a young actor who plays this character called Dean, and that touches on the ‘Nam storyline in there that we have, a phenom storyline. It was just nice to work with a young indigenous youth. In real life, it was their first big acting gig. And outside of acting, that's what I do, is I run a native film school, working with indigenous youth. So it was, again, just kind of reinforcing of why I do what I do, and always trying to infuse my acting career with helping my communities back home, and it was nice to be able to do that on set.

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