“I’ve always known how badass Native people are”: Devery Jacobs on starring in Marvel’s new series Echo

“I’ve always known how badass Native people are”: Devery Jacobs on starring in Marvel’s new series Echo

The Reservation Dogs alum talks Indigenous representation in Hollywood, the thrill of stepping onto a Marvel set and the superpower she wishes she had

Devery Jacobs, who stars in the new Marvel series Echo, sitting in front of a dark blue curtain. She is wearing a suit with orange, red and blue stripesDevery Jacobs crushed 2023. After racking up starring, writing and directing credits on Reservation Dogs—the acclaimed TV show that topped just about every best-of-2023 list—she wrapped the final season by nabbing a Critics’ Choice Award nomination for best actress in a comedy series. Meanwhile, she was co-running her production company, Night Is Y, and partnering with Elliot Page to produce Backspot, which premiered at TIFF and just got picked up for a US theatrical premiere this spring.

It comes as no surprise, then, that she’s entering 2024 with a bang—or likely several, knowing Marvel’s penchant for fight scenes. Jacobs is starring in Echo, Marvel’s new series that tells the origin story of Maya Lopez (Alaqua Cox), an assassin who first appeared in Hawkeye. The show premieres on January 10 and features a who’s who of Indigenous talent, including Tantoo Cardinal and Graham Greene. Here, Jacobs tells us about moving from the world of indie films to a big-budget Marvel production, the future of Indigenous representation in Hollywood and her vision board for 2024.

Let’s start with a contentious question: Before Echo, were you a superhero fan or a superhero hater?
Oh, I’m a huge fan. When Black Panther came out, I saw it in theatres and got emotional. I loved Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings and Ms. Marvel. The projects that focus on specific cultures have been especially inspiring for me. I was waiting for Marvel to introduce a project focusing on Indigenous people in North America.

How did you get involved with Echo?
When I originally got the casting breakdown for my character, Bonnie, they actually had her listed as “Julie.” That was her code name. Even though Bonnie’s not a character who had previously appeared in the comics, Marvel had everything under wraps. All the dialogue was totally fabricated, and there was no access to the real script. I had no idea what the character or the story would be like. I only saw that Sydney Freeland, whom I’d worked with on Rutherford Falls and Reservation Dogs, was at the helm of the project as the director and executive producer. I think she’s so badass, so I knew Echo would be something special.

Maya Lopez, the series’ main character, is both Indigenous and deaf—two big firsts in the superhero genre. Was that something that affected the tone of the set at all?
We were all super excited. I’m so proud to be part of the project. I think those of us who didn’t already know American Sign Language were a little intimidated by learning it. I take my hat off to Douglas Ridloff, who was one of the masterminds behind translating the dialogue into ASL. He mapped out each character’s proficiency, including characters who might be signing wrong at times because they aren’t fluent. The team also incorporated some of the many different dialects of Indigenous sign language that were present in North America pre-colonization. If I could have any superpower, it would be to speak every language. My goal is to become trilingual, if not quadrilingual, in my lifetime. So far I’ve got English, conversational French—though my grammar is pretty terrible—and I’m learning my ancestral language, Kanien’kéha Mohawk. I’m actually still taking ASL classes even though the project has wrapped.

I guess the pressure’s on if your character is meant to be a lifelong ASL speaker.
My character is a child of deaf adults and is so close with Maya that they’re essentially sisters. I needed to make sure that my signing was believable. I didn’t want all the onus to be on Alaqua Cox, who plays Maya and is a fantastic lead. In general, there was a big sense of responsibility to both the deaf community and the Choctaw Nation—but it’s one that I was really happy to take on.

Sydney Freeland, who’s Navajo, has spoken about some of the things she did to ensure the Choctaw Nation was portrayed accurately, including taking the production design team to a Choctaw powwow in Oklahoma. Did you have any kind of research process for playing a Choctaw character?
I did. I visited Durant, Oklahoma, before we started filming Echo. They have a beautiful cultural centre there. I got to learn some of their history, including their creation story and the Trail of Tears, the British and US governments’ forced removal of the Choctaw people from their ancestral lands. I also learned some of their language. There was this really beautiful sculpture of these two cousins. I ended up taking a picture of it and sending it to Alaqua and was like, It’s Maya and Bonnie!

If past Marvel productions are any indication, the series is bound to have its fair share of fight scenes. Was that something you were involved in?
I don’t want to spoil anything, but I can say that usually, in Marvel projects, you’re dealing with a lot of VFX and flying through different universes. Echo is the first project Marvel is doing under its new Spotlight banner, and the idea is that superhero stories can be more grounded and intimate. That applied to the fighting too. No one is attached to any wires, it’s just talented stunt people choreographing brutal and interesting combat scenes. It’s really gritty, and it fits into the film noir genre of the show. Getting to witness that made me feel like I needed to go back to the gym.

You’ve worked on a ton of indie projects, but I imagine being on a Marvel set would be a very different experience.
Oh my god, it was like night and day. It was clear from my very first fitting, when I first walked into my trailer. Some of my indie projects, like Rhymes for Young Ghouls, didn’t even have trailers: I had a little tent. This was easily the nicest trailer I had ever been in. Going to set and seeing cranes—all of these things you never thought you’d have access to—it was one of those wild pinch-me moments.

Was your indie experience helpful at all?
A lot of us brought an indie sensibility to the set. Sydney and I both got our starts in those kinds of projects. You’re used to having a super-low budget and very few days to shoot. I think you become resourceful, and you go in knowing exactly what you want to do—in indie film, there’s no time to dick around. It kept the shoot smooth. And as for the people who’ve been in the industry for a while, they’ve spent decades listening to conversations about how Indigenous people aren’t marketable enough, how there won’t be an audience for projects featuring people like them. It necessitated generations of guerilla-style filmmaking. So it was incredible to step onto a Marvel set and see those very creatives who’ve been fighting to break those doors down.

In many of your recent projects, you’ve been acting while also writing, directing or producing. Was it refreshing to be strictly acting?
It was great to be able to focus on the acting side of things. Honestly, I had my hands full with the language. There was definitely more homework than usual. And to be able to act opposite Alaqua and legends like Tantoo Cardinal, Graham Greene, Cody Lightning and Chaske Spencer was awesome.

I get the feeling it would be hard to keep a straight face around Graham Greene.
Graham is the biggest joker. He’s a brilliant actor, and he plays dramatic scenes so well, but he’s also so funny. He has that Indian uncle kind of humour where everything is a joke and you never quite know if he’s serious or just messing with you. And working with Tantoo was really inspiring. She’s been in the industry for over 40 years—hearing about how they were treating Indigenous actors back then and seeing how Tantoo blazed a trail for people like me was so moving. I feel a sense of responsibility to do what she’s done and leave this industry in a better place for future generations of Indigenous artists.

Marvel movies and series are sometimes talked about as benchmarks for representation—like, once there’s a superhero movie about a specific culture or group of people, they’ve broken into the mainstream. What’s your take on that?
I think that, with any project that marks a first, that there can be an expectation or a desire to represent everything about a certain culture. There is a lot of excitement about having an Indigenous Marvel project. It’s something I wish I’d had growing up. I’ve always known how badass Native people are, but for the masses to be able to see that is really heartening, especially on the US side. In Canada, it feels like there’s more outright prejudice against Indigenous people; in the US, for the most part, it feels like Native people are invisible. That’s a really challenging experience. How can you feel valuable if people think you’re extinct? So there is something to be said for having such a mainstream project. But, at the same time, it can’t be representative of all Native people. It’s about one family and one specific nation.

On that note, you’ve been vocal about your disappointment with Killers of the Flower Moon. What went wrong there?
I’ll just say that I think it’s important to have conversations about including Indigenous people at all levels. For so long, we were excluded from this industry. Lately, more consultants are being hired—but I don’t know if that’s enough. To borrow a phrase coined by the disabled community: nothing about us without us. That includes behind the camera.

Is there a type of Indigenous-led film you haven’t seen yet that you’re dying to watch?
We have the spookiest legends. They’ve kept me awake at night. I would love to see some well-done arthouse horror films from Indigenous directors. I think they would be scary as shit.

You also just starred in an episode of What If…?, Marvel’s animated series about how events in the Marvel universe might have played out differently.
I did. I play Kahhori, a Mohawk woman who discovers her powers in time to disrupt colonization. The whole episode is in Kanien’kéha, the Mohawk language. My young niece is a first-language Mohawk speaker. There are so few animated stories for kids from my community. Getting to create a project that was entirely in our language—it’s part of why I got into this business to begin with.

Between Backspot and Reservation Dogs, 2023 was a massive year for you. Are you exhausted?
Oh, I definitely took a few weeks in December to wind down. For three years straight, we’ve either had our heads down shooting Reservation Dogs or we’ve been promoting it or we’ve been writing it. The fact that I’m now wide open, and I don’t have any projects coming up besides my own writing, is exciting. I’m finally seeing the strides I was able to make in my career. I don’t know that I had time to fully notice until this moment.

What’s the writing project you’re working on?
I’m not ready to share just yet. I’m right in the thick of it and going through the ugly creative process that nobody gets access to but me.

Leading up to awards season, I noticed you and Emma Seligman sending each other a lot of love on social media. How did you two meet?
We’d met at TIFF at some point, but we met again at the Indie Spirit Awards in 2022, the year Shiva Baby was nominated. I knew she was Toronto born and raised, and we ended up becoming friends through the process of being like, What room are we in? Who do I talk to? What’s going on? She’s been so supportive. I think Emma’s so talented. I caught Bottoms when TIFF did an early screening of it. It was so wacky. I think there needs to be room for silly movies from our communities. It was the lesbian fight club movie I’d have loved to have as a teen.

Any goals for 2024? New Year’s resolutions, perhaps?
Mohawk New Year is actually mid-January—it’s called Midwinter Festival. I’m a big vision-boarder. Every year around this time, I’ll go through old magazines and chop up anything that jumps out at me for a little collage. I just let it speak to me. People in my life joke that I have Mohawk magic, because my vision boards become these manifestation checklists where I’m able to cross things off. I’ll definitely be doing that again this year.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.