Sometimes those we love can hurt us the most.
In Reservation DogsIn the fourth episode (available now on FX on Hulu), Bear (D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai) eagerly awaits his ridiculously rapping dad’s trip to the city, where the musician will play his latest stunner “Greasy Frybread”. perform in a local conference. But pop Punkin’s relationship with his son has been on shaky ground since Dad walked on Bear and his mom years ago. In pure teenage fashion, Bear’s idealization of the man runs wild, and when his apology turns out not to show a father’s factory, the boy learns some hard truths that completely crush his mind.
Below, Woon-A-Tai talks to TVLine about the teen’s realization that his father “doesn’t really care about him.” Additionally, the actor discusses how he landed the lead role in the Taika Waititi/Sterlin Harjo series, and teases what awaits the characters later on.
TVLINE | How was your first meeting with Taika and Sterlin?
LIVING-A-TAI | The first time I met them was at the last audition. I ran through those lines in my head for so long and went over them hundreds of times before going there. I took a deep breath before I walked in and did my thing. What Sterlin later told me was that he was interested in me because I got very physical with them. They had a camera – you know in the pilot when Bear grabs his camera and shows the gang? — I grabbed their camera and did [the audition] selfie style in exactly the same way Bear did it. I thought, “These are my friends!” and I showed the casting director and stuff [of them]. I got really involved. It was a good experience. I feel like that really helped me get the part.
Sterlin Harjo is thousands of miles from me, and Bear is very much like D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai. It was pretty scary to watch. When I first read the script, I thought, “Is this bastard spying on me? Did he hack my phone or something?” [Laughs] It was so accurate for what I did, what I saw and what I felt. I’m from a big city [but] just like how there are times where [the Reservation Dogs] want to run away and find a safe haven, it was the same for me. I know where I live isn’t where I want to be, so I feel a full connection to Bear. It feels so real.
TVLINE | At the start of episode 4, Bear is super excited about his estranged father’s visit. How would you describe their relationship in the episode?
They left in not the best tone. He left. What’s interesting about Bear, he looks past a lot of that s–t. It’s not like he hated his father’s departure. He still loved his father. His dad is a rapper, so he kept thinking, “Oh, he’s going to continue his career.” Bear loves his family no matter what. He loves his father in the beginning and puts up with those things. Even in the episode, when he’s on the phone with Punkin, he’s heard all this before, but this time, he didn’t think he’d hear it. In the episode, he says, “I know my dad,” although he probably doesn’t. The memories he was talking about were from his childhood. Do you know what it looks like? Have you seen Boy, Taika’s movie?
TVLINE | I have! I loved it.
You know how Boy talks about his father who escaped from prison, and he has this whole picture [of what he’s like] in his mind? It’s very similar to Bear’s experience. That’s their relationship, in my opinion.
TVLINE | We see clips of Bear’s dad, Punkin, throughout the episode and the dude is a total character! How would you describe him?
[Laughs] He is over there! The man who plays him, Sten Joddi, is a great actor. This was his first role, and it’s funny! He took his time, which is great. He was nervous when I first met him, but he killed it in my eyes! I want to get that out first.
Bear would tell you that Punkin is the best rapper ever. He made a hit that hit all reservations across America! But honestly, he’s just a floppy dad. He makes promises that he knows in his heart he will not keep. He still has the idea that Bear is super young. He thinks Bear will just forget about it later, but the more he does and the more Bear grows up, it sure takes its toll, as you see at the end of the episode. I’m not quite sure if Bear really thought Punkin was real or not [when he was faking a conversation to an airline about trying to get a flight to Oklahoma]. It could have been both ways. Bear knew he was talking nonsense, but it could still fit his belief that his father was trying. Both go through my head. It can be either or, which is pretty depressing. We don’t know if he knows he’s being manipulated or manipulated.
TVLINE | The scene with Bear and his mother in the car was very emotional. Was it particularly difficult to photograph?
Yes, it was hard to shoot. When we shot that day, I wanted to get inside my own head. It’s not that he starts the scene angry, he doesn’t, but that’s the bottom line. I got a little bit from personal experience. On hearing those words, “Oh, I’m not going to make it,” and… [thinking about] how Bear spent $90 of their money to see him, and the… godzilla movie he buys…it hit me in the middle of a conversation. That prompted me and brought out that natural emotion of, “This is my dad who doesn’t really care about me.”
TVLINE | Is there anything you can tease about what’s to come for this father/son relationship? Will we see Punkin again this season?
When I spoke to one of the writers when we first started filming, they thought maybe Punkin was coming. He would come [to Oklahoma], but they changed it. I don’t know if I should say this because maybe they’ll use it later [Laughs]!
He’s alone in that episode [of Season 1] actually, but will we ever see him later when we get a season 2? I’m sure we will. Do I think Punkin is coming to Oklahoma? No, I do not think so. If (and it is a) big “if”) the reservation dogs go to California, I don’t even know if Bear wants to see his dad at that time. By the time they get there and grow up a little, [he might have the] realization of, “Hey, he doesn’t care about me, why should I care about him?” Will Punkin redeem himself in later episodes? I can certainly see that. I don’t know what the writers are going to do with it! They are so unique and hit you when you least expect it. The writer’s room is great, and I’m glad and fortunate to have such wonderful people representing us.