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'This is a step': Meet the Alaska Native creators who played big roles in 'True Detective'

Feb. 4—Over the past month, Sarah Whalen-Lunn has watched work from across her lifetime materialize on the screen.

Whalen-Lunn, a longtime Anchorage artist, had a major hand in production design on HBO's hit series "True Detective: Night Country."

She is one of over a dozen Alaska Native creators who have played significant roles as actors, producers and designers in the series' fourth season, which is set in the fictional northern town of Ennis, Alaska.

Whalen-Lunn developed and produced dozens of prints and paintings that appeared in residents' homes and murals and signs that lined the village's streets. She even designed a logo for the Ennis Agviks hockey team that hangs in an arena where some of the show's key scenes take place.

The workload was substantial. Whalen-Lunn estimates she designed 20 pieces a week on average for about four months. That also meant repurposing pieces she'd done in the past, and spotting her work as the episodes unfold has been like a trip down memory lane.

"There are things on the show that are on the walls that I drew when I was 14 years old," she said. "I have 46 years of work to look back on, so that was also a fun part of it."

Whalen-Lunn received an email out of the blue from who she later learned was a member of the production team. At first she thought it was spam, but she responded and soon found herself in a Zoom meeting with producers and art directors spread across the world — including in Iceland, where the season was filmed.

Once she started the work, she watched some older episodes and realized the show's scope and history: The "True Detective" series is a prestige anthology with dozens of major award nominations for previous seasons.

"Then I got very, very scared," she joked. "This is a big show. A big, big deal. What have I got myself into? Am I going to be able to do it? But they just kept me busy enough that I had no time to think about it."

[How the most recent season of 'True Detective,' shot in Iceland, attempted to bring Alaska to the screen]

While Whalen-Lunn leaned on decades of experience as an artist to inform her work on the show, Phillip Blanchett was learning on the fly.

A founding member of the Alaska-based Inuit soul band Pamyua, Blanchett has traveled the world as a musician, dancer and cultural entertainer. But he never considered acting until an opportunity came along to audition for "True Detective."

Blanchett's character only makes a handful of appearances in the series but plays a vital role. He plays Ryan Kowtok, an Ennis mine worker and the brother of Annie Kowtok, whose unsolved murder is at the heart of the story.

Although he was a rookie actor, Blanchett started to envision the character as he went through the audition process, which included readings with creator and director Issa Lopez and one of the show's major stars, Kali Reis, who plays trooper Evangeline Navarro.

"I've traveled up north a lot," he said. "I can actually picture that guy. And I read the lines and the (character) is pretty stoic and I got it. I thought, 'I think I can do this.'"

Many of Blanchett's scenes were with Reis, and he said they had immediate kinship: Blanchett, who grew up in Bethel, is Black and Yup'ik. Reis is also Black and Indigenous with Cherokee and Nipmuc ancestry.

Once he landed the part, the real work started with multiple weeks shooting in Iceland starting in November 2022. Fortunately for Blanchett, the shoot worked with a short break he had from touring with Pamyua.

Blanchett appeared in the first episode in a revelatory scene for Navarro, who refuses let go of the unsolved case of Annie Kowtok.

"The scene was really about Kali and her opening up about her past," he said. "That's when I really realized I was just a vessel for her story, and that's when I was so honored. I was like, holy smokes, this is an important role."

The two Alaskans who perhaps played the biggest and most longstanding roles in "True Detective" are Princess Daazhraii Johnson and Cathy Tagnak Rexford.

Early on, the show's creative team was introduced to Johnson and Rexford through IllumiNative, a Native woman-led social justice organization. They were a key part of an Iñupiaq Advisory Council that was formed in the early stages of the process, and their roles evolved into show producers.

Johnson, a relative veteran of TV and film, is a creative producer and writer for the PBS show "Molly of Denali." Rexford is best known as an author, poet and playwright but has also worked on short films.

The role was an opportunity but also a major responsibility. Johnson said it was to help educate the show's creative team and also to advocate in some instances. She also said the council was important to reach consensus opinions when it came to providing input and recommendations.

"Night Country" creator Lopez said that Rexford and Johnson were deeply involved in the process, going through each episode's script and providing feedback. That led to some spirited discussions, Lopez said, and she believes the result was a story that was accurate and representative as well as compelling.

"While the series is based on a fictional story, there were cultural elements that we wanted to collectively address which ranged from singing, drumming, food, and dialogue," Rexford and Johnson said in an email response. "Based on the input of the advisers, a lot of elements changed in the scripts."

[Review: Alaska-set HBO series 'True Detective: Night Country' takes on a very cold case]

Whalen-Lunn, who less than a year ago moved from Anchorage to Calgary, Alberta, said the focus within Indigenous creative communities is being able to tell their stories. But she believed the HBO production made good efforts to involve Native people and integrate their perspectives.

"I think for what they were trying to do, they tried to involve as much consultation and take as much direction as possible with the massive array of people they had working with them," she said.

Blanchett is withholding judgment until he sees how the entire season comes together, but thought in casting and production, the inclusion should make for a credible final product.

"I feel like it's going to have an authentic sensibility and representation of Indigenous Inuit people," he said.

Johnson and Rexford said there's no shortage of Alaska Native filmmaking talent in the state, pointing to artists who have worked in the Native Movement Filmmakers Intensive program in coordination with UAF, the Sundance Institute's Indigenous Program and the Nia Tero Storytelling Fellowship.

"That's one of the most exciting aspects of this production, is that the world gets to see what incredible talent we have not only from Alaska, but also Canada and Greenland," they said in an email. "We have experienced Alaska Native writers, directors, producers, actors, and cinematographers right here in Alaska with solid credits under their belts who are ready to work and it's critical that we tell our own stories."

While the show may lead to more work in film and TV for Alaska Natives, those opportunities would likely be out of state. Alaska's film tax incentive was ended in summer 2015, and Johnson and Rexford said a return would not only spur those opportunities but bring what they believe is a much-needed diversification to the Alaska economy.

Blanchett plans to continue to pursue opportunities in the industry, and while he affirmed "Night Country" is Lopez's story, he believes it can be a stepping stone to more Indigenous-centered stories.

"This is a step," he said. "What I hope is for our stories to be greenlit at this level and for producers like Princess and Cathy to then be writers and directors telling our stories at this level and having real representation from the top."

Whalen-Lunn said it's been a thrill to watch Iñupiaq language being spoken by elders on a major HBO show, and that the production has showcased Indigenous abilities to a vast audience. The first episode has reached more than 10 million viewers.

"I think it shows how much talent our culture holds and our people have to offer," she said. "And one of the other things that I love about it is that it really showcases part of who we are now."

"Not only are you getting Inuit artwork, but you're getting modern Inuit artwork. How do we want to represent ourselves and what does that look like? And (seeing) all of the talent that there is and all of the storytelling that there is to offer the world, I think that's fantastic."