‘Reservation Dogs’s Paulina Alexis on Willie Jack’s Healing

‘Reservation Dogs’s Paulina Alexis on Willie Jack’s Healing

Over the course of Reservation Dogs’s two series and change, Willie Jack Sampson has emerged as the heart, conscience, and memory keeper of the group. When the conflict between Elora and Bear threatens to unravel the quartet’s entire friendship, she turns to an elder’s advice, traditional foods, and a total intolerance of bullshit to bring them back together for one more adventure in honor of their late friend Daniel.

Near the midpoint of the series’ third and final season, Paulina Alexis reflects on what she’s learned from playing Willie Jack and on the ways humor and grief sit side by side, both onscreen and off. She has some ideas about Willie Jack’s future as an auntie, as well, saying she’d be “the one who’s always letting the nieces and nephews come over and to talk to her, just like a bro, but as an auntie. Hopefully, we can do a spinoff!”

This interview, conducted prior to the SAG strike, has been edited and condensed for clarity. 

When you came into preproduction for the third season of Reservation Dogs, did you do so knowing that it would be the show’s final season?
No, Sterlin [Harjo, Reservation Dogs’s co-creator and showrunner] pulled us aside, maybe halfway through shooting, and said, “This might be the last season. We’re gonna write it like it is, and just wanted to let you all know.” Good thing he did that because it made me appreciate and enjoy my time with everybody even more. Like, I love everybody. It’s like a big family. And just knowing that I’m not going to work with them that much longer was so sad. But also, I do understand that it’s better that we end the show on our own terms. If anything, it made me try harder — it made me want to get it down, like, even better than how I would usually go about it. In season two, Willie Jack focuses on getting the Rez Dogs back together, and then this season, her focus is more on a healing journey.

Let’s talk about that a little. In the fourth episode, the Rez Dogs are doing their punishment chores at the IHS clinic, and Willie Jack has this nice moment where she apprentices herself to Fixico, who practices Real Medicine. It reminded me of the second season episode where Willie Jack goes to visit Daniel’s mom, Hokti, in prison, and Hokti calls on the ancestors to surround Willie Jack with their history, love, and power. It’s such an interesting window into who Willie Jack already is, and the person she’s going to become. What do you make of that aspect of Willie Jack’s journey?
Willie Jack was the most little shit out of all of them: She had the biggest mouth and no filter, and she’s going to smarten up the most. You got to be young and dumb to be old and wise, right? Like, yeah, she could be a little shitass here and there, but she also has a big heart and really does care about her friends and family a lot. And that’s really how most of us Native people are. Like, we have our humor and all that. We may come off like we’re rough, but we all have big hearts, so I just thought about my people, and thought, “Okay, this is how I’m gonna do it.” So, Willie Jack is going to be a medicine woman.

She already has this great bedside manner that she takes with her everywhere she goes. There’s this insistence in the show that the kids be able to be kids, little shitheads like anyone else, and that’s in tension with another aspect of the Rez Dogs’ reality, which is the tremendous weight of their best friend and cousin’s death by suicide. It’s really significant that Willie Jack, who has the most growing up to do, is also the one who thinks to herself, “I should probably check in on Daniel’s mom.”
While we were shooting promotional stuff for this season, we lost my cousin — he took his own life. This was April 16. I’d been with him two days before and had gone back to work, and it was really hard to do after finding that out. I felt embarrassed because I was crying. It was a new set with new people, and it was so hard, but I had the bros; they were there for me. So what Willie Jack went through, I also went through in real life.

And then before that, right after season two, the same thing happened with my other cousin, Gia. What’s funny about that — okay, I’m gonna choke up — the song that she left on was that Cyndi Lauper song that plays at the end of “Offerings.” And that made me cry. Out of all the songs, the one they picked for my episode was the song that she left. It was such a coincidence.

That’s terrible, I’m so sorry.
Thank you. I’m sorry. I didn’t want to go there, but when you said that Willie Jack is dealing with the loss of her cousin — I go through that in real life, as well. That’s how real the show is, down to a tee.

It seems like you and perhaps most Indigenous actors have to draw on really intense personal experiences to play these roles. What does that bring to the performance?
Everything on the show happens in our everyday lives, so it just felt like I was going to see the fam; it didn’t even feel like work half the time. It’s so real, and this was the first time it’s ever been done. The best way to do it is to get people from those places to tell the story, and that’s what I love about Taika and the way he works. Now you’ve got all these kids who weren’t really on anything — I was nobody before Rez Dogs. And when I got it, it was perfect. I’m doing this all for my people, and it’s easy because it’s so natural. And then it just blew up! Like, yes, see, we knew we always had it, but we just needed to do it ourselves.

Willie Jack maintains a very laid-back vibe, but she’s also very thoughtful, there’s so much going on behind her eyes. And as an actor, you’ve made the specific choice to give Willie Jack the strongest, most identifiable Rez accent. How did you conceptualize Willie Jack’s physicality, the way that she uses her body and her face and her voice?
So when I got the audition, it just said that Willie Jack [who was written as a male character], is tall, he’s skinny, he’s always eating chips. He’s like, always following them around. He’s kind of like the butt of the joke and the dry, funny one. That was the only description for Willie Jack. And I was like, okay, he likes chips, so I ate chips in my audition, and I was saying my lines how I would say them. If they want a Rez kid, I’ll be the fuckin’ Rez kid, and if they don’t want it, then they don’t want it. So I’m gonna just do it how I would do it because I’m probably as Rez as it gets. I’m proud of my audition — I was so excited. I was so pumped for this. When I first got it, I felt like “Oh, my God, Taika!” This is when JoJo Rabbit just came out, and he’d won an Oscar for it. So I was, like, in my fangirl phase with Taika Waititi, with Sterlin as well.

I’d watched his videos as a kid from his Native film group, the 1491s. Those videos would all go viral on Facebook, and I just remember back in the day watching all those skits with Dallas Goldtooth and Bobby Wilson. I was so starstruck to meet them. I don’t get nervous for auditions, but if they ever release the audition videos, I’m just shaking — my voice is shaking, and I’m so nervous. But we made them all laugh! I just created Willie Jack how I think she would be, with her braids, she’s always loud, with her bros, she loves hard, and just did it like that. So yeah, I was just kind of winging it.

When you think ahead, what does Willie Jack’s life look like ten years from now? 
I think she’s the type of auntie that is always helping out. Like, whenever there’s an event, I feel like Willie Jack’s gonna be there helping make food, helping clean up. And just be the one for someone to lean on. Hopefully, she’s a powwow mom, raising some little fancy dancers or something, maybe she’s a singer or a dancer, too.

Looking toward the future, what do you see for yourself as an actor, and as a creative person, in general? 
I’m thinking not a lot of people know this, but I sing. I’m pretty shy, but all my family always forced me to sing because they think I’m good. But I do want to sing and hopefully drop a couple songs. I want to direct, I want to produce, I’m gonna make films. I also want to be in action movies, like some Marvel movies. I want to be a female Tom Cruise-slash-Jackie Chan and do my own stunts! I’m an adrenaline junkie, so I just like doing crazy things. Horse racing keeps me grounded. I’m always gonna be racing, no matter what. I want to do everything — I want to be a teacher, showing people how to work cameras and act and be like a mentor. I want to produce and direct, too.

The world is your oyster! Did you say you ride horses? You do that competitively?
Yeah, I do Lady Warrior. It’s part of Indian Relay; we race thoroughbreds bareback around a one-mile track. I’m at the Calgary Stampede right now, so I’ll hopefully race tomorrow or the next day. On the Rez, rain or shine, you still ride.

What about playing Willie Jack are you going to carry with you into the future?
It’s just people telling me that I changed their life. That’s the thing that I always take with me. I’ve met a couple people who said that they went through the same things that I went through or they’re just having a tough time. They watched the show and really connected with my character and that it helped change their perspective on things. Someone even said that I saved their life. That meant a lot to me. Even people coming up to me telling me, “Oh, you look like my daughter who passed away.” Things like that are what I take seriously.

I hope that’s something that you can receive without it weighing you down.
It fuels me, it makes me feel good. Because it’s like, “Wow, all of this is actually worth it.” There’s times when I’ve felt like that. And there’s times I didn’t want to be here, as well. So hearing that from another person just means a lot to me. Because the suicide rate in our Native youth is really bad. Within the past year, I lost three of my close bros to suicide, and I just want to make people feel like they matter, so that doesn’t happen.

If you or anyone you know are in crisis, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255.

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