He’s the sensitive, scrappy heartthrob at the centre of the FX comedy Reservation Dogs, one of the best shows of the year
Known for: Starring in the FX comedy Reservation Dogs
Up next: A role in Bloody Hell, a coming-of-age traumedy
D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai’s first leading roles were in movies he made himself. Growing up on the Esplanade, he and his twin brother, Mi’De Xxavier, would borrow their mom’s camcorder to shoot DIY flicks with low-budget sound effects (the brothers screaming “boom!” and “pow!”). In one movie, Woon-A-Tai pretended to be a sniper, brandishing a stick as a rifle.
Years later, he joined the army cadets and learned to handle an actual rifle. “For a big part of my life, I wanted to become a soldier,” he says. The warrior instinct runs in his DNA: his grandfather, Frank Woon-A-Tai, was a world champion in Shotokan karate. But, in high school, Woon-A-Tai, who has German, Guyanese and Oji-Cree ancestry, began reading about Indigenous history and soured on the army. He was haunted by stories of the 1990 Oka Crisis, in which Indigenous protesters clashed with the military over a planned golf course on a Mohawk burial ground. “I asked myself, Do I really want to serve this institution that could force me to go against my people?” he says.
He quit the cadets and returned to acting, this time professionally. He played Onondaga runner Tom Longboat in Murdoch Mysteries and then landed a role in Beans, a coming-of-age story set during the Oka standoff.
His big break came in 2020, when he got cast as Bear Smallhill, the lead in the playfully surreal FX comedy series Reservation Dogs, co-created by Taika Waititi. Set in a Muscogee community in Oklahoma, the show follows four teenage hustlers who commit petty heists in hopes of decamping to California. It was widely hailed as one of the best shows of 2021 thanks in large part to Woon-A-Tai’s portrayal of the gang’s self-appointed leader, Bear, a sensitive, scrappy heart-throb torn between love for his community and a desire to escape it. To prepare for the role, Woon-A-Tai road-tripped across the state, hung out on reservations, learned bareback horse-riding and mastered the local slang. His favourite words are skoden, meaning “let’s go then,” and stoodis, “let’s do this.”
The vast majority of the Reservation Dogs cast and crew are Indigenous, an important distinction for Woon-A-Tai. “Since the beginning of film, Native people were the enemies, the barriers to Western expansion,” he says. “Audiences paid to see John Wayne shooting us off our horses, and people had to accept those roles to put food on their plates. I’m a lucky actor. I get to do projects I’m proud of.”
Although he returns to Toronto once or twice a year, Woon-A-Tai now lives in Los Angeles with his girlfriend, Quannah Chasinghorse, the Hän Gwich’in and Oglala Lakota model who went viral last May after showing up at the Met Gala in a tulle gown and a necklace adorned with dentalium shells and porcupine quills. Woon-A-Tai would like to get into modelling too: his jewellery collection includes earrings made of wolverine knuckles and a beaded necklace that tells a Dene creation story. He also dreams of returning to the genre he started with some 15 years ago in his mother’s apartment. “There’s never been a major Indigenous superhero on screen,” he says. “Maybe I could be the first one.”
Hair and makeup by Alanna Fennell / Plutino Group