Jessica Matten of Dark Winds Is Able to Lead the First Indigenous Superhero Movie

When Jessica Matten sits down at a bustling Mediterranean coffee shop in Midtown, she passes me a bundle of sage by the use of welcome. “I do know,” she says, hiding neither her wince nor her smile. “I’m so traditional.”

She’s here with a game plan, an ulterior motive, one which’s neither malicious nor well-hidden. If the Dark Winds star is to perform even half of the long list of goals she’s set for her profession, she’s going to want to succeed in a whole lot of people, fast. In theory, chatting with the press needs to be method to do this. And he or she’s genuinely completely satisfied to reply intimate questions on her childhood, her parents, the 26 different homes she’d lived in by the point she turned 21. She only stays precious about her age; she’d like that detail off-the-record. She’ll allow nobody to set the clock for her.

“I do have a motive,” she reveals midway through our conversation. “I do. It’s—I would like to be the primary Native superhero. I do. Straight up.”

Currently, Matten, an Indigenous actress of Red River Metis-Cree and Chinese descent, is playing undoubtedly among the finest characters in the wonderful recent AMC series Dark Winds, which was just renewed for a second season. Set within the Nineteen Seventies-era Navajo Nation and adapted from Tony Hillerman’s novels, the show follows tribal law enforcement officials Joe Leaphorn (Zahn McClarnon) and Jim Chee (Kiowa Gordon), in addition to Matten’s Bernadette Manuelito, charged with investigating a double homicide and the strange events surrounding it. Show creator Graham Roland and executive producers Robert Redford and George R.R. Martin infuse the drama with a soulful tension and an actual sense of stakes, but it surely’s the actors who make Dark Winds feel grounded beyond its gritty trappings. Matten, along with her hair slicked back in Bernadette’s signature bun, is each tough and endearing, a no-frills workhorse who still respects her own spirituality when a colleague doesn’t. In person, Matten’s edges are smoothed over, her hair gently draping her face as she picks up a bottle of green juice, but Bernadette’s sense of purpose is all there behind the actress’s eyes.

Michael Moriatis/Stalwart Productions/AMC

It’s not obscure why Martin took such a fast liking to Matten on the set of Dark Winds. After a less-than-stellar first impression—Matten let it slip that she’d read neither the Dark Winds books nor Martin’s own Game of Thrones series—the 2 discovered a communal appreciation of ferocious female characters. Soon enough, she was sharing margaritas with the writer on his patio, chiding him for drinking an excessive amount of sugar. “Everyone knows we get together and I’m going, ‘George…’ and he goes—” Matten raises her eyebrows. “After which we start swearing like pirate hookers together.”

Born in Canada, Matten bounced around throughout the country for many of her young life, spending quite a few years on quite a few Indigenous reserves but additionally living overseas, including in Hong Kong and Korea. “I never thought I used to be going to be an actor, but my mother, you already know, she was a mother on welfare and he or she wanted to teach her children through cinema,” Matten says. “So we weren’t allowed to observe cartoons. None of that.” As an alternative, she and her brother subsided on a gradual food plan of classic film and tv from the likes of Sidney Poitier, Katherine Hepburn, Charlie Chaplin, and Buster Keaton. (She watched the whole thing of Roots when she was across the age of seven.) By the point she reached her teen years, Matten understood the ability entertainment held over a community’s conception of one other culture, and he or she understood just as readily how such stereotypes had perpetuated the generations of trauma suffered by her own people.

Based on the “Hollywood Diversity Report” released by the University of California Los Angeles in 2020, Indigenous men claimed 0.5 percent of all “top film roles” in 2019; no Native women landed any of those roles, nor did any Native directors helm these projects. Outside of Hollywood, this lack of representation exacerbates an already dire situation: For hundreds of years in North America, Indigenous communities have been routinely marginalized, resulting in extremely high rates of poverty, sickness, suicide, and domestic violence compared to non-Hispanic white communities.

Matten figured, if she desired to make a difference in Native lives, she’d need to alter perceptions nationally, if not globally. Working along with her mother, she’d do some modeling and, perhaps, climb her way up the ladder to change into a CEO at an promoting firm. Or, perhaps, she’d work for a magazine. (While in London as a 21-year-old, she mailed quite a few editors at ELLE UK a postcard with an example of her modeling work, with which she wore the staff down until they finally brought her on in the style closet.) When the late-aughts recession rolled around, she Googled the largest industries in Vancouver and discovered a distinguished film business. She then Googled, “tips on how to change into an actor.”

Although she graduated from the University of Alberta with a human ecology degree, Matten’s work has never settled right into a neat, singular category. As a young adult, she assisted her divorced parents, modeling along with her mother and running a business alongside her father while also working in high-risk Native group homes. Today, beyond acting, she runs an Indigenous fitness and wellness company, a production company, and an Indigenous film academy. She’s just flown to Latest York City for our interview, and he or she reveals it was her twenty fifth flight of the 12 months since January. Matten is kinetic, a gathering storm cloud restrained only by a seemingly bottomless resolve.

“I didn’t realize, my entire life, I’ve sort of already been within the business,” she says. “Because, as an actor, it’s sort of just like the circus, right? We live out of our suitcases for the following job, whatever country or city you may have to shoot in. So it was sort of weird how that’s been my life.” She adds that, not only did her childhood take her from one town to the following, but additionally through different tax brackets. Matten went from “digging in dumpster cans at 11 years old for furniture” to, at 17, establishing a constructing company along with her father, “and he did extremely well, very in a short time,” she says, Suddenly, “it was like this whole other lifestyle.”

jessica matten as sgt bernadette manuelito in dark winds

Michael Moriatis/Stalwart Productions/AMC

After starring in a series of shorts and guest roles, including because the lead in Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers’s short film, A Red Girl’s Reasoning, Matten hit her stride within the Jason Momoa-led Apple TV+ series Frontier, after which as star and associate producer for the Canadian television drama Tribal. But Dark Winds is her most distinguished and well-received role up to now, and there’s little doubt it could function a catalyst on her superhero campaign.

Right, that: the sport plan. The, as Matten puts it, “Dr. Evil scheme.” She swears her goal of leading a Marvel or DC film—and, mind you, she wants it to be Marvel or DC—isn’t about vanity, though her case wouldn’t be less legitimate even when it were. She believes she needs this role, for the floodgates it could open. It’s not about personal preference; it’s just smart politics.

“The rationale I say Marvel and superheroes…” Matten starts. “You understand how the media has modified. It’s like, [the comic-book genre] is probably the most impactful genres today. For my part, Marvel and DC [are] the satellites to the whole world. For whatever reason, that has change into a thing. And, you already know, do I prefer indie movies and all that? Yeah. But I actually admire and respect how those two studios have been able to actually launch careers for a lot of, many individuals.”

But Matten doesn’t need to play just any Native superhero shooting pixie dust out of her palms. She desires to star in a movie like the newest Batman—something gritty and grounded, “something that’s true and realistic to Native culture, being a Native woman,” she says. “Because the truth is, as Native women, the circumstances we undergo frequently are hard. Five times, 10 times more tough than what, like, a median person goes through.”

“The fact is, as Native women, the circumstances we undergo frequently are hard.”

And he or she isn’t afraid to place this desire out into the universe, each from a spiritual and a practical perspective. She believes in old-school manifesting. She also believes in the ability of the insular media world, the ability of dropping juicy information to a bunch of capital-hungry move-makers in Hollywood. She’ll use the system if she must, as long as it gets her one step closer to helping her people.

“I’ve hit some extent in my life where I’m okay to only say it out loud, because you’ll be able to say these items with humility and compassion and humbleness,” Matten says. “But I also feel, as a lady, we don’t got time to be the great, placating…Be quiet about it.” She adds, “It’s worthwhile to be okay with saying what you wish. And I would like [to lead a superhero film] because, again, the ripple effect is—it impacts my community deeply. And it also gives me the platform to get the proper partners to partner with me and help me get the resources that our people really, really want.”

She’s already got the training down; Matten does most of her own stunts and combat fighting. Now she just needs Hollywood to see her. She already has contacts at Marvel, strings she’s weaving between her fingers. But Dark Winds is the primary one she’ll pull for now, a well-crafted series with a sophomore season on its docket and a largely Indigenous team orchestrating its magic each on-camera and behind the scenes. She’s made contacts here, too, including Roland and Redford and Martin and director Chris Eyre, all of whom saw Matten’s work as Bernadette and expanded the role to suit her magnanimity.

And in moments of pain, when the immense weight of just how much change she desires to make overwhelms her, she turns to her medicine woman. “I even have my medicine woman who’s very dear to me, near me, who uplifts me,” she says. “But in addition, I do not know. Sometimes I feel like I’m connected to a switchboard, if that is sensible. It’s identical to—I find the energy, through moments of pure exhaustion.” Matten’s only on step 2 of a 10-step plan. But nobody need worry. She still believes.

Associate Editor
Lauren Puckett-Pope is an associate editor at ELLE, where she covers news and culture.

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