D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai

1 August 2022

D'Pharaoh Miskwaatez Loescher McKay Woon-A-Tai talks at lightning speed. Energy and optimism pour out of him - even when he’s “cooling down” from a little bit of play the night before. There is an openness about the 20-year-old Reservation Dogs actor which is easy to settle into. Yet whilst his thoughts are many, they are each succinct, clearly formed and fed from a place of truth and consciousness. His conversation resembles his full birth name: detailed and powerful, each title holding history. There is nothing superfluous or said that doesn’t need to be said.

Even D’Pharaoh’s tangential “history lessons” are anything but. For as we sit down to discuss his role in Sterlin Harjo and Taika Waititi’s teen comedy drama Reservation Dogs, history lessons are a frank necessity in order to understand why the hit series holds such cultural significance. It is a show created for Indigenous people, by Indigenous people, and captures the adolescent experience growing up in Indian Country with such authenticity that D’Pharaoh was able to step right into the life of his character, Bear Smallhill.

Beyond the noise of acclaim surrounding the show, D’Pharaoh struggles to understand what is so ‘ground-breaking’ about turning up and doing the job you were paid to do - in his words, “A superhero doesn't always feel like he's a superhero, you know?”. But perhaps that is the beauty of it: these are the stories of ordinary, everyday people - not superheroes. And where audiences saw Bear face many personal struggles in season one, D’Pharaoh has assured we can expect emotional growth and maturity in the next season.

Photographer Michelle Genevieve Gonzales captures the Canadian-born actor settling into his new home, the postcard-perfect palm tree’d frontier of Los Angeles. Some might see his transition to LA as a symbol of how far he’s come, yet D’Pharaoh is wise in his weariness for the slippery side of the industry and assures aspiring actors they don’t need to be drawn to LA to chase their dreams. Stylist Janet Gómez dresses the actor in blocks of a primary palette, relaxed and easy to suit this playful new era. Underneath the sunshine and celebratory atmosphere, there is a seriousness and determination that is anything but momentary: “It's not a moment, we got our foot in the door and now we're going to be here. We were here already.”.

Follow D’Pharaoh’s journey as Bear Smallhill in Reservation Dogs Season 2 on Disney+.

Are you excited to have finished filming or is it bittersweet?
I'm excited that we get to show the world Season Two. it feels quick. I feel like the last few months went by extremely fast. I'm excited for people to see it. But it just felt like work - last year was crazy. Every day last year the whole crew would flood to this bar and everyone would chill out. It was like we were in college - all of us were college kids even though there were 40-year-olds there! Now it feels like we’re all in our thirties, working, and we’ve matured a bit.

Do you think the different energy is because last year everyone had just come out of a pandemic, or because the novelty has slightly worn off?
I think it's a mixture of realising “Okay, we have to be professional now”. We established our show and got good ratings; now it’s time to act like the other shows! Everyone is a little more tired. People have to bring the energy for the energy to be there, you know? Sterlin Harjo hasn't had a break since last year, he's been working nonstop on other projects, writing constantly, so he’s very tired - they’re all very tired. The work didn't finish from season one.

That’s an indication of the show’s success, right? The show itself has been described as “a slice-of-life triumph”. What does that mean to you?
It’s an interesting quote. That was one of the first quotes that came out - they called it a “triumph”. Doing season one, I didn't even know what was going to happen, I didn't know if we were going to get picked up from the pilot. I knew it was going to be a hit in Indian country, but I didn't know how the mass audience was going to take it.

We wrote this script for Indigenous people. It was written by Indigenous people, for Indigenous people. Why I say this is because there are a lot of Indigenous shows out there that write for mass audiences, for people who are not native. But this is just for us. And that's what's different about the show. But to hear people say it's a triumph is cool, because this genre as Indigenous content has never been touched before. It's new to the industry. They never thought we could make money, they never thought we were funny enough. Now that they're seeing this with Rutherford Falls, with Reservation Dogs, Echo - a lot of other Indigenous shows out there - they're putting trust in us. When I first did interviews, they kept saying “What a moment - what a moment for Indigenous content”. I hated that phrase because it implies it's a moment - it's going to die soon. But I think in the coming years you're going to see thousands more people like me, like Willie Jack. It's not a moment, we got our foot in the door and now we're going to be here. We were here already.

A result of the show being written for Indigenous communities is that non-native audiences must work hard to figure out the tropes that are being dismantled. For example, the blurring out the eyes of the owl. That's a story intended for a specific community, and then we, as the viewer, must dig deeper to uncover meaning. What's that been like seeing the reaction from the viewers and being able to then discuss authenticity.
I feel like it's new for them. I feel like people want to learn. First, if they're interested in the show and are watching it, that can already tell you about a person: they're a little more open-minded. It doesn't really matter if you're Indigenous or not to relate to the show. I mean, if you grew up in Oklahoma and you're white, Indigenous, or whatever nationality, there's a big chance that you have similarities with the show. We had a big audience from Alaska, and Indigenous and non-Indigenous came up to me and told me “This is what my life is". I don't know if the writers realised - I didn't realise - that everybody can relate to this.

Bringing it back to the human behind the screen, who is D’Pharaoh?
Honestly, I'm very similar to Bear. I got a big say in his wardrobe fitting - I have a little bit more money so I got a little nicer stuff! But we are very much in the same boat. That is literally who I am. The first audition I got was four scenes, and off those four pages, I felt so connected to the character I knew this guy was me. I say this quite a lot, but I felt like Sterlin was spying on me because he knew so much about my life! But to answer your question, Bear is very much D’Pharaoh and D'Pharaoh is very much Bear. My full name is D'Pharaoh Miskwaatez McKay Woon-A-Tai. I was born in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. I'm a mixture of Oji-Cree nationality, which is a nation that claims territory down here in Oklahoma, a big part of Ontario, a big part of Michigan, and a big part of Minnesota. That's where my people are at. And I'm also part Guyanese. That's me. That's who I represent.

My full name represents every single little thing that I am. My parents are very young, they're 37 and 36, therefore they're kids and think they're cool! So, all my siblings have a D’ in front of their name. ‘D’ is slang for 'The'. So I'm ‘The Pharaoh’ - The Only Pharaoh. I have a twin brother and he is D'King - ‘The Only King’. I have a sister named D'Angel, ‘The Only Angel’. D'Pharaoh is actually my middle name, my first name, Miskwaatez, means ‘redbelly turtle’. That was my given name from my grandfather. That’s what happens when you are born into a nation, they give you a spirit name when you're coming of age, 15 or 16. But I was gifted it when I was born. But another gifted name from another elder that I go by is Crouching Black Bear. My last name is McKay. And that's my native side of my last name. It was originally spelled Mahkaai. The reason it's spelled like a White last name is because - if you've seen the movie Godfather, when they came over here, they switched everyone's names to sound White. It's basically what they did with Native people who were already here. So my grandfather became 'Alex McKay'.

Loescher is my German side. And then Woon-A-Tai is my Guianese side. That shows you a little bit of my diversity. I'm not full native, and I'm not just full anything, which is interesting to grow up with - not to fully claim one thing - or not one thing to fully claim you.

That's a lot to carry in one name. How is that to have such history and power in a name? Do you ever feel the need to explain?
Yeah, I do. Because that's my history. That's another thing when you grow up Indigenous, you have a feeling that you're obligated to explain to non-Native people because of what happened and our history. Non-Indigenous people fetishize or fantasise about stuff like our names. That's what was so amazing being on Reservation Dogs is that I've never had that experience of needing to explain myself, because everyone already knew, they are Indigenous themself. I was being taught more than I was teaching people, which is very new to me. But to answer your question, it makes me proud. Living in a Western society, in Canada, in the United States, I can't even put my full name on my driver’s license. So going to the airport, they gave me a lot of issues every single time. It's very annoying. But just like every other native person who carries a long name, or carries name with history and meaning, you're proud to carry on this tradition because they're suppressing us even to this day. I'm proud to carry on this tradition and not get imprisoned or killed for representing my people.

Where do you feel most at peace?
When I'm hiking, I'm a big hiker. I just moved to LA with my girlfriend, a couple of months ago. I was born in a big city but being in nature, especially hiking in nature, is one of my peaceful moments. Even now how I'm sitting in my apartment, sitting on my couch on my pillow. I enjoy moments like this a lot, it feels good to sit down and relax. it feels well deserved.

Your first acting credit was in 2018. How would you describe the ways in which you've grown and developed as an actor since then? Two of those years were obviously in a lockdown…
Thank you for asking that. It's a lot of growth. I've been lucky enough to go on a few sets here and there. And every time I'm on set, I learned from people. That's my mission. I feel like every actor should do that. The job doesn't end when the camera says cut, you’re still constantly working throughout the whole time you're on that set, or even before the prep. I've never taken acting classes before - I don't know if you can tell - but I've learned from other actors, and that's where my growth comes from. Especially learning from experience. I like to think that I have a natural type of acting. I don't know if everyone can agree with that, but I like to think that and where that comes from is like moments like this: I'm sitting right now, in my house, just chilling, and I like to envision myself outside of my body. I'm looking at myself, and I'm trying to imagine what my facial expressions are. I just have to do that while I'm on camera and pretend that the camera's not there. Another thing is eye contact. Watch your favourite film on mute - I bet if it's a good film, you can get the gist of the story just through their facial expressions and their eye contact. That took me a while to learn. It’s a very important thing.

Do you have any ambition to go on stage?
Believe it or not, I'm very shy in front of crowds. I'm not really a crowd person, I kind of get anxiety. Last night I was hanging out with people, and I got anxiety from them. I have stage fright. So, I don't know, maybe one day. It is my goal because theatre is such an amazing way to practice your craft continually. It's very different from camera because that's all internal. I would love to be on stage one day, my twin brother does a lot of stage work.

What's it like having anxiety on a film set? Is that something that's present when you're working?
Yeah, it very much is. I never realised I had anxiety. I don't even really like saying it because I'm not specifically taking anything for it, I'm not diagnosed. But it's a feeling. It's a feeling that I've never experienced besides being on set. A type of worry, overthinking. And every single time I come to a new set, it's the same feeling. it's going to happen regardless; I feel like it happens to every actor. But that's what separates you from other actors - I like to tell this to people who are just starting off for the first time: you took that first step, and in doing this audition, you're already better. So many other actors said, “Nah, I'm too scared to do that”. It's setting aside that anxiety to actually do what you want.

You gain nothing if you don't try. You can gain everything if you put dedication and work into this industry. If you get an audition and you get a call-back, that could change your life. It changed mine. I was on a whole different path - I was trying to become a sniper in military school! I was a troubled kid at 15-16 - whenever I first started acting. It will change your life if you just try it. The rush of getting that first call-back has been my motivation to this day. It's a beautiful thing.

Because you were essentially reading for yourself, what was your entry point into the character in terms of research?
You can't research what's it like to be in a rural town in the middle of fucking Oklahoma! How do you research that? So my research started when I first came here, and I was actually learning Muscogee Creek phrases. Language is a big part of Indigenous culture. If you go to different Nations, you'll see dialects that reflect who we are. An amazing quote someone told me is that everything that we hear - the nature, the sounds, the birds, the wind - everything comes into us and translates into what we say. So, the first thing when I came down here was learning. I'm not fluent in this language, but learning the language, learning their phrases, their jokes and stuff. Where we filmed in Okmulgee - we just chilled and became friends with the local kids - saw what their everyday life was - which honestly was nothing. They just chilled. There is nothing to do here, you just chill, ride around, get into trouble. Smoke. That’s it. So, my research really came from doing nothing. That’s how I found out what it’s like to be a rural kid from here.

What do you hope the future of Indigenous storytelling looks like?
Where we can have a foot in every single genre. I feel like with our show, we tackled normalising us. You see a native person as a cop. You see them as an everyday guy, you see these kids as everyday kids, right? We're facing everyday issues. Why I feel like people relate to the show so much is because we're everyday people.

I want to see a lot of comedies and romantic comedies. Forever we've been deemed as straight-faced, mean-looking, shooting-off-a-horse. We look all stoic, like some mystery medicine people. All of us! I want to leave that whole side and see more of us smiling and laughing. There are a lot of pictures back then in the 1800s of us laughing but you don't see that often. You see us sad or looking depressed or looking like we're suppressed. It's a very different idea than what Western society has presented of us as straight-faced, sad-looking motherfuckers. But we're very happy people and love to laugh - so I want to see that more.

And love. This is an amazing quote - I love to say this, it's hilarious but it's true: we come in all different nationalities, we come in every single colour. You can never say a native person looks like one specific way. You want to know why? It's because we love to have kids! In my house and every house in Native communities, there are like 10 people up in that bitch because people love to have kids! We call it 'getting it around' - we love getting around! That sort of thing is love. We love getting around and love having kids. So let's show that more.

What can we expect from Bear throughout the next season?
Growth. I feel like Bear is realising that he tackled a lot of the issues that popped up in season one in a childish way. He's realising that through his elders, through the male and female figures in his life. He's coming to terms with old issues like with Elora and such. So, we’ll see Bear actually trying instead of just talking shit.

Knowing what you know about his arc, what advice would you give him?
Such a good question! Really just to chillax. I'm 20 now, but when I was younger, I was worrying a lot over stuff that didn't matter at all. Growing up in a city, and being Indigenous is a very interesting issue, a very interesting obstacle… Quick history! So, during the Western expansion, we were seen as obstacles. They were fighting to kill us because that enabled the expansion of Western civilization. Then once New York and the United States became ‘civilised’, they realised that maybe it was bad to murder all these people. So, then they put us in what we call in Canada residential schools - or boarding schools. That started in 1880 by a guy named General Pratt and kept going until 1997. That whole system was there to “Kill the Indian, save the child”, that was Pratt’s famous quote. The whole objective of that school was to eliminate every single aspect of our Indigenous heritage: our language, our religion and our long hair. Everything. Then in the 60s and 70s, they started paying people or promising people money and jobs if they moved to the city, because that was another way to civilise us - to make us Western, make us White. My grandfather was one of those victims who were given false promises. But maybe he really believed that we could get a better education in the city rather than the reservation.

So, I grew up in the city here. And growing up in the city, you lose touch with your people, with your community, your culture. And they give you all these obstacles to worry about. I was worrying about so many other things in my life that didn't matter at all. And it’s the same thing with Bear. Bear has all these things that he thinks matter, but in reality, don’t. My advice to Bear is: you're not going to see it now, but just cool it. Just relax. It'll come your way. You're a kid, everything's going to be fine. Good job, bro. You're figuring it out. You love your mum, you're helping her out, and that's something that a lot of kids don't do. Good job. That's it. That's all I got to say. Good job.

With shows like Reservation Dogs and Rutherford Falls, two shows that are backed by Indigenous writers and creators, TV is finally seeing authentic representation of these communities. Although there wasn’t accurate representation on TV for you growing up in Canada, how does it feel to know that Indigenous kids and teens will see you on their screens and see themselves?
It's a crazy thing to comprehend. I mean until this day, I don't fully comprehend what we accomplished. I don't get it. People say that we changed something, but it doesn't feel like it. They always put us in line with activism for some reason, like we accomplished something that an activist would. Don’t get me wrong, we have made changes, but (this is a weird thing to say) a superhero doesn't always feel like he's a superhero, you know? I'm not calling myself a superhero, nor am I saying anyone else on the set is a superhero. But it doesn’t feel like we actively made a change or did something crazy, I just came out here for three months and did my job like I was paid to. I want to do more, which is why I’m saying this. I don't want people to stick on this. It's an amazing accomplishment. It really is, and we should sit down and acknowledge it for a minute. But it shouldn’t be like “this is our thing now.” The coolest thing I've ever seen was people wearing our wardrobe for costumes at Halloween. It’s very beautiful.

So you're big on fashion, you were at New York Fashion Week and attended the Tom Ford show. How do you express yourself through clothing? What is it about fashion?
Fashion to me is such a new thing. I'm going to be blunt with you here. I grew up a funny kid. I grew up like “Fuck capitalism”. Fuck materialists. Fuck all that shit. But I realised, growing up and being in a city and meeting so many different people, it's beautiful to see fashion as a way to express yourself without needing any words. You don't need to tell anybody who you are, you can show that through your clothing. That’s what gave me my adrenaline rush for fashion. Another reason why growing up I was against fashion was because I just didn't have any money. I wanted all this stuff - I just didn't have anything to get it! So I’d rather just shit on it!

But to be honest, I'm learning a lot from my girlfriend, Quannah Chasinghorse. She's one of the first Indigenous models out there, she’s the first Indigenous model to work with Chanel. What I love about her is that she very much knows what she wants, and she has her values. For example, on every project she has been on they cannot cover up her traditional tattoos. And she only works with companies that fit her values - like aren’t terrible for the environment. It's cool to have someone like that to teach me, someone I love. But to answer your question, I'm learning, and I really want to step into this more. Indigenous fashion has been appropriated for as long as fashion has been going on, but now more and more you're seeing that break down, and you're seeing more collaborations and putting respect where it’s due. And that's what I want to get into, I would love to start a company for Indigenous fashion

What would you say to other kids on reservations, who want to pursue a career in the arts?
Give me one second… You ready? This is for anyone that is specifically interested in the film industry because that’s where I can give the best advice. But for anybody who's interested and wants to actually learn, literally hit me up. I'm very much open to telling you what I've learned, I can give you as much advice and guidance as I can. And I'm being serious, please hit me up if you are interested.

But, I have a few things to say. Number one: one area that must be changed is casting. In film, they historically pictured us as having long hair, dark skin, and just like I said before, that's not true. We come in every single different colour. I'm not even full native, and I can show you natives who are lighter skinned than me. The big misconception with casting directors is they must cast a guy with dark long hair and dark skin, very stoic. That's bullshit. So for anyone who's a lighter skinned native, who's an Afro-Indigenous native, a Caucasian native - every single native who doesn't fit that stereotype - don't worry, because that should not matter. If you're getting denied all these roles because of that, just wait, because it will happen one day. Eventually casting directors will have to realise if they're doing their job right. And if Indigenous people in the industry are doing their jobs right, we’ll also change the representation and show the world who we actually are.

The second thing is about patience. It’s often about the right place, right time, but a lot of actors get their breaking roles in their 40s. It doesn’t mean you’re going to breaking role in your 20s. Keep going, but also give yourself a limit. You have to think, do I want to do acting 20 years down the line? And if it's no, then don't do it now, because you really have to come with dedication. There are going to be months of not working, not hearing anything from your agents or managers. You're like, What the fuck is going on? What's happening with my career?!

Give yourself a limit, like five years. Like, ‘if I don't get one role in five years, or at least get a good call-back, or good audition in five years then that's it’. That might be hard on yourself but that's also healthy to do too. This whole industry is not for everybody - and that's what's sad because everybody can be an actor, but it doesn’t suit everybody. If you come to realise that early, then you're lucky enough. It's better to know that this is not for you, than do 30 years trying the same shit over and over.

You’re also going to get a lot of bullshit in this industry. Take it but know where your standards are. A lot of people like pushing others around, especially if they think you don't have enough experience. They love to make you do all these hours that you're not supposed to be doing. So make sure you learn your shit. If you get to a point where you’re negotiating stuff with lawyers - this is literally for your managers and agents to negotiate, right - but make sure you know what the fuck they're talking about, because that's your money. That's your time. Another thing, too, is that you never pay a manager or an agent monthly. They only take commission, if you get a gig, they'll get paid, you don't pay them out of your pocket. Nothing in this industry you should pay for out of your pocket unless it's auditions. When it comes to auditions and you're buying stuff for a set-up, for clothes, hair, and makeup, see those as investments.

Oh - and if you're on a reservation, or in a rural area, you don't have to move to LA. You don't have to move to the nearest biggest city to make it. For a lot of the casting for Reservation Dogs, we went to reservations - to people's hometowns. You don’t need to do that extra stuff. To be specific, if you're living in Canada and want to go to the United States for that, please don’t - a lot of productions are moving to Canada for easier taxes on filming anyway! You don't have to leave Canada to become an actor. And that's a big misconception growing up. That's why I didn't do acting because I had to go to the United States. I thought I had to be anywhere in the United States to be an actor, but no, Canada, people from Canada, do your shit. Stay here, stay on your shit.

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Above Left: D'Pharaoh wears Jumper Stylists Archive.
Above Right: D'Pharaoh wears Jumper Stylists Archive, Shirt by Acne Studios and Trousers by Juliet Johnstone.

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Above Left: Same as before.
Above Right: D'Pharaoh wears Coat by Georgia ic25, Trousers Stylists Archive and Sunglasses by Gentle Monster.

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Above Left: D'Pharaoh wears Coat by Georgia ic25, Trousers Stylists Archive, Hat by Farradas Knits, and Sunglasses by Gentle Monster.
Above Right: Full outfit Stylist Archive.

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Above Left: D'Pharaoh wears T-Shirt by Marina Leight Atelier, Shirt and Trousers by Death to Tennis and Necklace by Underpin.
Above Right: Same as before.

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