For W’s third annual TV Portfolio, we asked 21 sought-after names in television to pay homage to their favorite small-screen characters by stepping into their shoes.
It’s no exaggeration to say there had never been a show like Reservation Dogs before it hit FX in August 2021. Devery Jacobs knew this from the moment production began: While in the past, she often reported to work to find she was one of the few Indigenous people—if not the only one—involved in a project, suddenly she was surrounded by those from her community. “I had never been on a set where it was an all, or nearly all, Native cast and crew, an all-Indigenous writers’ room, Indigenous showrunner, producer,” she says of the series cocreated by Sterlin Harjo and Taika Waititi. What’s more, they share her determination to upend the way Indigenous people have so long been portrayed on-screen. Before Reservation Dogs, Jacobs says, “the casting opportunities out there were Pocahontas-type roles—really stereotypical Indian maidens [who revolve around] white dudes.”
Jacobs plays Elora, one of the teen troublemakers living on a reservation in Oklahoma who are at the series’ center. “She’s kind of the brains behind the operation,” Jacobs says. “She can be a little bit moody, but there’s so much heart to her.” Since wrapping the series’ second season, which premiered August 3, the actor has moved on to Echo, Marvel Studios’ Hawkeye spin-off about Maya Lopez, a superhero who is deaf and Native American. Here, Jacobs discusses her MCU debut, her big plans for Disney, and crying “gay tears” over She-Ra and the Princesses of Power.
When you were filming the first season of Reservation Dogs, did you realize how much it would resonate with audiences?
I knew that it would be an accurate representation [of Native communities], but I had no idea whether it would resonate with non-Native audiences. We were originally supposed to shoot the pilot in April 2020. I remember talking to Sterlin Harjo, the showrunner, and him being like, the one time there’s a Native pilot, of course a pandemic happens. Before the pandemic, there were some projects where I was feeling really isolated on set. Shooting the pilot of Rez Dogs was such an antidote to that. It ended up being such an emotional, personal experience. We had no idea if the show would be picked up. All we knew was that we had a week and a half to shoot this pilot and to infuse it with all of our love for storytelling, our communities, our families.
When did you realize that the show was a runaway hit?
I don’t know if I’ve even fully felt the impact of the show’s success. But there have definitely been some moments stepping back. For Native folks, Halloween has always been really fraught in terms of people dressing as Pocahontas or—I won’t even say the word—the slur for Inuit. It’s usually a time of frustration, of feeling like we’re screaming into a void. So then to see it be flipped on its head, with Native people dressing as Native characters from Reservation Dogs, has been so rewarding. That was one of the key moments for me, realizing that this show is a success. And then also that non-Native people are being welcomed into our circles of storytelling.
You’re from Canada, yes?
Yes, I am from Canada. But I don’t consider myself to be Canadian. I am Mohawk first and foremost. Our territory is both north and south of this border that was enforced on us. I consider myself Mohawk. That’s the nation I’m from.
Do you share any similarities with your character, Elora?
I’m very different. Elora has experienced a great deal of trauma, and as a result, she’s built a hardened exterior. She’s tough and strategic in terms of getting out of the place where she grew up. I was able to connect with her through her big-sister relationship that she has with the rest of the Rez Dogs, because I have an older sister and two younger sisters back on my rez. But I’m way nerdier, way more soft-spoken. I am nonconfrontational, whereas Elora’s quick to start a fight.
Did getting to misbehave for this role feel liberating?
I was always a bit of an overachiever, a goody-two-shoes. But because I’m Mohawk and grew up on my rez, I was raised inherently political. In 1990, there was the Oka Crisis—a 78-day standoff between the Canadian army and the Mohawk Nation. Growing up in the wake of that, I saw activism as something that was always a part of my community and my upbringing. When it came to getting into trouble, the kind of trouble that was permitted and acceptable was the one that came with protesting and activism—the kind that came with defending our territory. That was the only area in my life where I really felt like I was able to lean into anger and disruption.
You joined the writers’ room for the series’ second season. How did that come about?
It was something that I really wanted to be a part of. But I felt like I might have to prove that I had enough experience or a good enough perspective to be valuable. So I got all of my writing samples together. I was bracing myself for a big battle when Sterlin was just like, “Hey, do you want to join the writers’ room?” I was like, “Oh—you mean I don’t have to fight for this?” I was originally brought in for a couple of weeks, and then it was extended to the whole time.
In the future, do you want to write as much as act?
I started writing in 2016, initially out of necessity. The industry was really different then, even more than it is today. I was disheartened by it and had a moment of, well, why am I waiting for somebody to tell these experiences that resonate deeply with me when I have a perfectly capable voice of my own? So I wrote my first short film, and I found the experience to be so empowering. I don’t know if there’s a hierarchy of mediums I want to work in. I’d love to act, I’d love to produce, I’d love to direct, I’d love to write: I’d love to do it all. I remember watching Taika’s movie Boy when I didn’t know if I would be able to write, direct, and act at the same time, and I was like, if he can do it in Boy, then I can do it in this 10-minute short film.
That’s a very different process from the way things are done at Marvel.
I landed the role a few months ago, and I was sworn to secrecy. I actually didn’t tell my parents for many weeks, because I knew it would be such a monumental secret for them to hold. They did, and they did for quite some time. I’m working in Atlanta now, and doing so with Alaqua Cox, who is deaf and Indigenous and just incredible. And it’s really special to be with Sydney Freeland again, a trans and Navajo filmmaker who I know from season 1 of Reservation Dogs.
What can you tell me about your character, Julie?
I don’t know that I can say a whole lot. I can say that I’ve been taking American Sign Language classes so that I am better able to communicate with Alaqua and some of the team on Echo, and that has been such an enlightening experience. I didn’t know about deaf culture in North America, and I wish I had taken it up sooner.
I know you can’t say much, but I was wondering if your character is queer, or how much you’ve been able to have that part of your identity be part of a role.
There have been some discussions. I feel like my perspective as a human is inherently shaped by my experience as a queer person; regardless of the sexual orientation or gender identity of [my characters], there’s queerness brought to every role I play. And I think that audiences really pick up on that in Rez Dogs. I think that because creatives like Sydney, Tommy Pico, Elva Guerra, and myself lend so much of ourselves to [the series], the audience definitely senses the queerness within the show despite it not being a queer show. We’re going to have to just stay tuned to find out more of my character’s journey on Echo.
Tell me about Catra, the character you chose for this portfolio.
Catra is the antagonist in She-Ra, an animated series developed by the incredible queer graphic novelist ND Stevenson. I had so many queer people in my life being like, “You need to watch this show.” So I gave it a watch, and it just blew me away. It left me devastated; it mended me back together. Truly, I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a show as well written or thought through—which is wild to say, because it’s a cartoon; it’s for youth. People don’t necessarily think about He-Man and She-Ra as being highbrow. I watched the series again in preparation for this, and the finale emotionally ruined me. It left me in such gay tears.
Do you watch a lot of animated series?
I wouldn’t say that I’m the biggest anime buff, but I love animation and graphic novels. One of my career goals is to be able to reach out to Disney and get the rights to redub all of the Disney Pixar movies in Mohawk, and then get the funding to do it with many global Indigenous languages. That’s on my bucket list.
Hair by Rena Calhoun; makeup by Toby Fleischman.