We kind of shit ourselves when Reservation Dogs star Paulina Alexis asked if she could get on a horse for our cover. Imagine an editorial team used to figuring out looks at Queen West cafes, graffiti-laden back alleys or Eastern Avenue studio spaces wrapping their heads around how to get photographers to a stable at Enoch Cree reservation to shoot Alexis on a beautiful cookies-and-cream-coloured steed. It was worth it.
“I started riding about two or three years ago,” Alexis tells NOW. She explains that her dad used to do rodeo. But he never really trained her to saddle up or do Indian Relay, which is a race where a single rider does laps with three horses. “Once I got older, I was like, ‘You can’t tell me what to do! I’m going to get my own horse! I’m going to do Indian Relay!’”
She did that.
But newfound stardom with Reservation Dogs means the actor and self-professed “adrenaline junkie” has been missing consecutive training seasons for Indian relay.
“Hopefully I can still race this year,” says Alexis, speaking from Tulsa while on her way to a COVID-19 test before rehearsals on Reservation Dogs’ second season. She’s been figuring out how to manage the hectic schedule between the things she loves to do at home in Alexis Nakota Sioux Nation, a reservation outside Edmonton, and working on Reservation Dogs.
The groundbreaking series created by Sterlin Harjo and Taika Waititi is about Indigenous teens mourning the loss of a friend while planning an escape to California from their Oklahoma home. They guide us through various hustles on the rez in a show that brilliantly weaves together humour, heartbreak and healing.
Alexis plays fan favourite Willie Jack, a tough and wily teen among the Rez Dogs who is quick to defend her friends Bear (D’Pharoah Woon-A-Tai), Elora Danan (Devery Jacobs) and Cheese (Lane Factor) but also to check them when they need it. Her character also embodies the show’s spirit. Like Reservation Dogs, Willie Jack is scrappy, hilarious and in your face. But in quieter moments she’s sensitive and mature, understanding exactly what her friends, family and community need. And when her character gets vulnerable, it’s hard not to collapse into a puddle of tears.
“I’ve grown up surrounded by a lot of strong men and strong women,” says Alexis. “I’m used to seeing them act so strong. And when they get vulnerable, I will feel that.”
The actor says that Reservation Dogs was about suicide awareness.
“While we were shooting, I was getting calls from my family,” says Alexis, describing how her performance was informed by what was happening at the same time back home. “My reservation wasn’t doing too good. There were young people committing suicide and close loved ones passing away from natural causes like COVID. It was real. I wasn’t even acting. I was doing it for my people.”
Staying connected to her people is a theme for Alexis, no matter where the show takes her. And it’s taking her far.
We named Reservation Dogs the best TV show of 2021, which is not a minority opinion. The series has been on almost every year-end top ten list and is now enjoying an early run through awards season. Alexis is speaking to us following a week in L.A. attending the Critics Choice and American Film Institute awards, as well as the Independent Spirit Awards, where the show won best ensemble cast and best scripted series.
If you were watching the Critics Choice awards live broadcast, you may have seen Alexis distracted from the hardware being doled from the stage because she was tuned into her phone, watching the livestream from a hockey game back home. Her team, Southern Sage, was playing in the Alberta Junior Female Hockey League.
“I miss playing with them,” says Alexis, who has been with Southern Sage most of the Fall and winter, transferring over from her OG team, the more competitive Irma Chargers, after the Emmy Awards forced her to miss tryouts.
There’s an alternate universe where Alexis would have stuck to hockey if this acting thing hadn’t worked out. She’s been playing since she was four, practising with cheap rollerblades from the thrift store or playing on nets her dad picked up from the side of the road.
“I wanted to be the first Indigenous female to go to the Olympics for hockey,” Alexis adds, reciting a goal from the time before Brigette Lacquette represented Canada in PyeongChang at the 2018 Olympics. Lacquette also became the first Indigenous woman to scout for an NHL team, a gig she took on last year for the Blackhawks, which feels like a door opening for Indigenous people who dream of playing in the league.
“She’s one of my role models,” says Alexis, who has been sneaking in games during her off time while also coaching a novice children’s team. The players are so enthralled with their teacher they call themselves the Rez Dogs. “It really feels good to be the role model you always needed as a kid,” says Alexis by text earlier this week. She was taking a break from the Reservation Dogs set to play at a native hockey tournament with the Lac La Biche Ice Hawks (they won gold!) and then surprised her little Rez Dogs by showing up on their bench at the finals. They didn’t win, but Alexis is just overjoyed at how they played and how many of them who didn’t know how to skate at the beginning of practice improved. “I couldn’t be any more happy and proud of all of them.”
Alexis was actually playing hockey when she found out she got cast in Reservation Dogs. Her agent called her in the middle of a game to deliver the news that she would play Willie Jack, a character originally conceived as a dude. The producers loved Alexis so much they rewrote the part to suit her or gave her free rein to shape the character as she saw fit.
“It makes me feel good that I have the freedom to play that little shit,” says Alexis, who adds that she was also the only actor allowed to improvise or cook up her own lines.
“They were like, ‘Say whatever you want.’ I would be like, ‘Okay.’” And she would let it rip or hit up her brother on FaceTime to help come up with the stuff Willie Jack would say. Those improvised bits would become some of Willie Jack’s most memorable moments, says Alexis.
“I am Willy Jack basically,” says Alexis freely inviting the conflation between herself and her character. I wouldn’t argue with that assessment. The personality we fell in love with on TV is speaking with that same musical drawl from the other end of the phone. The way Willie Jack expresses herself, finding infinite ways to make the F-word sing, just hits.
“People were like, ‘Do people actually talk like that?’” says Alexis reciting the reactions to her character. “Where I’m from, yeah.”
Alexis even had input on how Willie Jack would dress, concocting a “hippie-type cowgirl vibe” with a wardrobe full of camo, Hawaiian shirts and sweats. “She has to be the one wearing hats and braids all the time. There’s always that one bro who’s wearing a hat and braids.”
Alexis now has her own street fashion line, SQWE Apparel, selling hoodies, T-shirts and sweats with plans to add hats and toques. An exciting thing about watching Alexis take Hollywood is seeing her switch out the streetwear to kill the red-carpet game.
She amusingly recalls discovering the whole machinery behind premieres and events, where every star has a stylist and glam squad orchestrating their looks. “’Oh, that’s why people always look so fly,’” says Alexis, reciting her “A-ha” moment.
Alexis hired Britt Theodora, a stylist she shares with the likes of Pete Davidson, who helped pull together the stunning yellow Naeem Khan gown at the Emmys. But simply looking elegant wasn’t going to cut it for long.
“I needed something that was going to make me feel grounded and beautiful,” says Alexis, explaining the evolution from her Emmys outfit to the more homely and show-stopping assemblage of ribbon skirt with moccasins and beadwork that she wore to the Critics Choice awards. That outfit warranted a whole-ass feature in Vogue.
“I just really wanted to celebrate my culture and represent where I’m from,” says Alexis, bringing a bit of Saddle Lake to L.A. “That’s what we always wear when it comes to ceremonial stuff. It’s ceremony. The awards shows are honouring all the people. I just felt that it was most right to do it how I wanted to do it.”
Alexis’s attachment to home is yet another sentiment shared with her character. Spoiler alert for those who haven’t yet seen the first season: Willie Jack is the first among the Rez Dogs to abandon dreams of moving to California because she wants to stay with her community. Though her career is taking off, Alexis also isn’t eager to make that move down south.
“Everyone knows L.A. is really toxic,” she says, explaining that she couldn’t stay around that. “If I’m going to stay connected to Willie Jack, then I gotta go home for a bit, do my own thing and stay sane. It’s therapy in a way. I gotta have my horses. I have to have hockey. I gotta be doing stuff at home. I gotta be with my family.
“Then I’m good. Then I can come do all this Hollywood shit later.”
Read More from our 2022 Canada’s Rising Screen Stars:
Miryam Charles: The Quebec-based filmmaker is heading to Hot Docs with This House, a meditation on her relationship to Canada and Haiti following the tragic loss of her cousin
Amanda Cordner: The fearless actor is letting the world see LGBTQ+ lives onscreen – unabashed and uninhibited
Alex Mallari Jr.: The Scarborough-raised actor shows his range in the time loop rom-com Hello (Again) and plays the heavy opposite Ryan Reynolds in The Adam Project
Amanda Parris: The CBC host pushes back against token roles in Canadian media and beyond with Revenge Of The Black Best Friend
Thyrone Tommy and Thomas Antony Olajide: The director and actor duo behind Learn To Swim are giving Scorsese and DeNiro energy