SPOILER ALERT: This review contains spoilers from Part 4 of “True Detective: Night Country,” now streaming on Max.
The leading role in a season of “True Detective” has traditionally been reserved for established stars, but for Kali Reis, it’s only her third time in front of a camera. The veteran boxer first turned to acting for the 2021 thriller “Catch the Fair One,” for which she also shared story credit with director Josef Kubota Wladyka. “Catch the Fair One” shares a number of themes with “Night Country,” the fourth season of “True Detective” created and directed by Mexican filmmaker Issa López. Both deal with the vulnerability of young Indigenous women, personified on screen by the protagonists’ younger sister. And both hinge on Reis’ natural intensity as a woman pushed to the brink while in pursuit of righting cosmic wrongs.
On “True Detective,” Reis plays Evangeline Navarro, a half-Dominican state trooper in Ennis, a fictional town in rural northern Alaska. After losing her mother at an early age, Navarro is somewhat estranged from her Native Iñupiaq heritage. The disappearance of the scientists at a local research station reunites Navarro with her former partner Liz Danvers, the Ennis police chief played by Jodie Foster. The case also rekindles Navarro’s obsession with the unsolved murder of midwife and activist Annie Kowtok (Nivi Pedersen). As Navarro and Danvers investigate, Navarro is plagued by hallucinations and flashbacks to her time serving in combat overseas — the same breaks from reality haunting her younger sister Julia (Aka Niviâna).
In Sunday’s episode of “True Detective,” Navarro’s demons start to catch up with her. On Christmas Day, days into the unrelenting darkness that envelops the Arctic for weeks on end, Julia checks herself out of a mental health facility and walks, naked, onto the ice. Navarro responds to her death by berating a front desk staffer, provoking some local miners into beating her to a pulp, and finally breaking down in front of her casual hookup. But before long, she’s called to pursue a suspect in an abandoned ship, where she sees her sister’s corpse calling her into the void.
“True Detective” plays with the possibility that whatever killed the scientists and whatever’s afflicting the Navarro sisters are part of the same otherworldly force. Danvers is a steadfast denier, partly out of an insensitivity toward Native beliefs and partly as a coping mechanism for dealing with the loss of her own husband and child, years prior. “The dead are gone. They’re fucking gone,” she insists at the worst possible time, even as Navarro worries that whatever took Julia is coming for her next.
It’s a fantastically tense scene that depends on Reis, who spoke with Variety from a room full of stuffed animals about her advocacy for Native causes, working with Foster and the surprising parallels between boxing and acting.
I’m very into your Zoom background.
Everybody is! This is my stepdaughter’s room, aka my personal rave.
I feel like the rainbow really gets you in the mood.
It does, it does. Keeps me all bright and happy. Care Bear Stare.
I read that Evangeline Navarro wasn’t originally written to be an Indigenous character. Were you part of the process of developing her into the person we now see on screen?
When Issa first approached me with Navarro, she informed me that she originally made her just Latina, and she was going to be strictly that. But after finding out [rural Alaska would] be anywhere from 70 to 80% Indigenous Iñupiaq people, Alaskan Natives, she made the conscious decision to make her part of the community. So she made her Iñupiaq and Dominican, with the last name Navarro.
I don’t say I created the character, because Navarro was already created when she decided to introduce her little Scorpio ass to me! I made her a Scorpio. It just kind of unfolded from there. The fact that she was a part of the community, that she was Iñupiaq, was a huge deal for me. And the fact that she wasn’t completely full — she’s half and half — it was a very personal identifier for me as well, to be able to really dive into that.
Can I ask why you decided to make her a Scorpio?
Well, I’m a Scorpio rising. And after reading the script and seeing how much of a hair-trigger and that little tail comes out?
After building the character, she just had this very watery way about her, but very to the point, detailed, mission-based, compassionate, blunt type of personality. So I was like, oh, yeah, she’s definitely a Scorpio. I can identify with that a little bit too much.
You said you also identified with Navarro’s between-two-worlds feeling from being of mixed race. What aspect of that resonated with you and your own experience?
Being from the Northeast woodland tribes, the first contact tribes, I’ve dealt with the not being enough, and, “Who are you? Are you sure you are who you are?” for 37 years now, from the rest of the world. We’re kind of an excluded, isolated, misunderstood part of the world, or part of the Indigenous background. So I’ve always gotten questioned: “Well, you don’t look Native.” And I’m like, “I won’t look Navajo because I’m not Navajo. I’m not Lakota. I’m not what they are. I’m what I am.” I look exactly Indigenous to my ancestors. So that was a very, very familiar thing to me — and the fact that Navarro’s background being Iñupiaq and Dominican, and not growing up there, but having to return there.
You know you are part of this community, but you’re not enough, and you’re also a part of another one. That was just something I really honed in on. I know how this is, and I can ride off into the sunset with this backstory, because it’s a lived experience.
Then you tie that in with the very ignorant, very not-woke, not-awake part of Danvers as her counterpart, her being able to defend the very thing that Danvers comes after her for with her stupid jokes. But it’s also like, “Yeah, I’m defending it, but am I defending the whole part of me? Am I defending half of a part of me?” Even with me personally, being Indigenous or Native American or Indian or Afro-Indigenous or Indian-Black. I don’t say that. I say I’m Wampanoag and Cape Verdean. I’m Afro-Indigenous if you want to put a label on it, but it’s hard to put a label on Navarro. It’s hard to put a label on me. So I identify with that.
I know the Iñupiaq aspect of Navarro’s heritage is less familiar to your lived experience. What kind of research did you do to familiarize yourself with that community?
I didn’t really know anything, up until now, about the Iñupiaq Alaskan Natives. We were blessed to have two Alaskan Native women that were producers, and I was able to link up with them. They’re now like sisters to me. I’d pick their brains, like, “Listen, yo, tell me some stories. How do you want to see yourself on screen? Tell me stories, food, experiences.”
It’s funny. Not to use a line from the show, but like, the Mukluk telegraph is serious! A Native knows a Native that knows a Native that did something. So I actually knew somebody that knew an Alaskan Native woman state trooper. I’m like, “All right, so tell me some stories about that.” I really wanted to know what it was like to have that experience.
We share similar morals, being Native American or Indigenous people, basic beliefs: Four Directions, Seventh Generation, stuff like that. But even within the same nation, creation stories, ceremonies, language — what you do is all different. I loved learning about what was different from what I was used to, and I really wanted to make sure I got it right for them.
When watching the show, I couldn’t help thinking about night shoots, which are notoriously brutal. It’s called “True Detective: Night Country,” so I’m sure it naturally entailed a lot of that. What were the physical conditions of that shoot like for you?
Well, I’ve had the blessing to grow up in New England. We had those nor’easters over there; when it’s cold, it’s cold, and it’s a different type of cold. So I actually got used to the weather, but nothing can prepare you for night cold wind at negative 15. So I will say that my background did help, but layers! Layers was the way to go. Heated socks and heated everything else. But it was brutal.
I will say, getting lines out at negative 15 at 2 in the morning is a little tough because your mouth gets all freezing cold, but it also helped to really get into the psyche and into the bodies of these characters. Like, we’re really here. It’s really cold, it’s really windy, it’s really dark all the time. It was a helpful experience. And thank God my character wasn’t like Travis [Cohle, played by Erling Eliasson] and I actually had a hat and coat.
Did Erling actually walk around in just a flannel and jeans?
Costume took precautions, making sure he had other underlayers. But he’s from there, so he was like, “Oh yes, fine.” I’m like, “What do you mean it’s fine?! Y’all are built different out here.” The natives from Greenland, it gets even colder over there. Walking around in T shirts at like, zero degrees. Y’all are just built different. More power to you.
You’re also working with Jodie Foster. To call her a veteran feels like an understatement. Did she have any advice for you stepping onto a production this high profile relatively early in your acting career?
It wasn’t like she had to sit me down one on one like, “Hey listen, this what you need to do, kid.” I was, of course, like, “Oh my gosh, this is Jodie Foster.” But immediately walking into the room, she was just so collaborative, open and generous with her time and knowledge. She had a directorial view. She had an actor’s view. She has all this experience that she was willing to put on the table. We could tell that she really wanted to just tell the story in the best way possible. It was a great experience, being in this crazy world that I’ve never been in with her as a legend. It was getting thrown in the deep end, but having this legend as your life jacket.
I learned from her not to take everything so serious. She takes her work very, very seriously, but it wasn’t like she would get mad if she would forget the line. It was what she did when the camera was off, and just to see how she maneuvered through her territory. She’s been doing this. “Don’t take everything so serious. You’re gonna get it. Try it; if it doesn’t work, try something again.” One thing she has said that’s really resonated with me was, “If it rings true to you, and it’s 100% yes to you, and it feels good to you, do it.”
The tone of the piece is so serious. I was wondering if there was anything to break the tension or lighten the mood going on on set.
She’s hilarious! That’s one thing that surprised me, pleasant surprise. She’s hilarious. Quoting movies back and forth. There were times where they were yelling “rolling” and we’re laughing about something, but this is like, a really messed up scene. Like, “hahahaha” — and then get right into it. To be able to have her and the whole cast and crew, to have that very committed, communal, family-oriented kind of break, it gave us a lot of room to breathe in, space to work in.
To turn to this specific episode, it’s an incredibly emotional one, given the death of Navarro’s sister. Her first reaction when she finds out is not sadness. She doesn’t burst into tears. She’s very angry, and takes out that anger on others. I was curious for your perspective on why you think that’s her first emotional response in that moment.
Navarro in that moment, the only thing holding Navarro together — besides the fact that she has an insatiable passion for fighting for justice, especially for women — her sister Julia is the only thing holding her together, for her not to go completely off the deep end. So once her sister is gone, she feels like she failed. She’s scared because she knows she’s about to unravel. But she wants to feel something. What’s the best thing I can feel? I’m pissed. I’m gonna go pick a fight.
Anger is the top layer of so many emotions. It’s the easiest one to get to first. And she’s quick. Navarro’s a quick trigger, so all that goes into anger. That’s where she wants to feel something. Because she knows Julia was going through so much pain. She knew this day was going to come, and she just wanted to save her sister. She wanted her sister to be okay. But she knew she wasn’t going to be, so she needs to feel that pain physically, that she knows her sister Julia’s been going through her entire life.
When Navarro does eventually break down and let that sadness set in, it’s with Qavvik (Joel D. Montgrand), the bartender she’s sleeping with. How would you characterize that relationship from Navarro’s point of view?
Qavvik is safe for Navarro. That’s not her boyfriend. That’s not her man friend. That’s not her boo. That’s just her Qavvik. He brings out a side of her that’s how she would be if she was a teenager. I love her relationship with him. I think it’s adorable, because you get to see that soft side of her. He allows her to be who she is, does not judge and he’s just there. It’s like a dog: “All right, I’m gonna come to you. But wait, don’t move. No, I’m going to leave. I’m gonna go. No, I want to be here.” But that’s Qavvik. He’s just like, “I’m just gonna wait.”
I think in that moment, when everything settles in, she’s able to let go and just let it out with that side of her. To a certain extent, he’s her safe space. He’s not going to tell her she needs to toughen up, or she shouldn’t have done that to those guys. He’s just gonna let her let it all out, and that’s really important for her in that moment.
One of the things I personally really responded to in this season is the ambiguity around whether what’s happening can be explained by pure reason or if there’s some supernatural or spiritual element. Navarro and Danvers are kind of at odds on that question, which comes to a head in this episode with the argument over whether Navarro is cursed. How do you approach that ambiguity as a performer?
I actually like it. It’s one of my favorite things about even the first season of “True Detective.” Issa really hit the nail on the head: We give you so much, but we don’t tell. We just say, “This is what this is on the rational science side. This is what this is on the supernatural side.” And the supernatural side is also intertwined with the Indigenous part of it, which I literally like, because there’s the stories behind it. It’s actually of that land, and ancient, as old as the ice.
As a performer, especially with my character being so intuitive and so pulled into that spiritual world, it was a great way for me to be able to play around with the balance. How much is she going to get pulled in this scene? How much is she really hearing right now? She’s trying to block out, it could be screaming, but the fact that she’s trying to block it out is also a performance. Like, OK, she hears all this. Maybe she hears it all the time and she’s just trying to block it out. Maybe she’s even more gone than Julia is right now. But she has to hold it together. She has a duty as a police officer, a trooper on this case, and she’s able to walk a little bit more into that practical mission based part, which was fun as well.
But how far does she go? And how much is influenced by that spiritual intuition? Because she does act on intuition. Maybe back in her military days, she was a lot more practical, more rational. This is what it is. No intuition here. But she’s in a place now where it’s loud. So it was actually really fun to balance the two. Again, especially because Danvers was so not in. She’s trying to ignore it so hard. That also helps push it a little bit more in some instances where you could really see the difference, the contrast between the two.
In addition to the more prickly and adversarial relationship with Danvers in this episode, you also get a really lovely scene between Navarro and Rose, played by Fiona Shaw. Their relationship is a lot more warm and friendly. What draws those two together?
Like attracts like. Rose is a lone wolf. So is Navarro. Navarro prefers to be on her own. Rose has a past, too, and Navarro can sense and see that. They have a respect for one another. Rose has seen some things; Navarro sees some things. There’s just such a mutual respect for them. It’s like the toy thing. “She’s not trying to have a relationship with me; I’m not trying to have a relationship with her. So we’re probably going to be attracted to see what’s going on.” I can remember from my personal life, that’s exactly how me and my best friend of 12 years met. We were both security officers, bouncers in a nightclub. Didn’t say nothing for the first two weeks, until we had to throw somebody out. And I was like, “Oh, I hope she throws on two, because I do too! One, two…” It was kind of like that vibe. And I was like, “OK, I see you didn’t force it.” It just kind of happened.
Your feature debut “Catch the Fair One” has a lot of thematic overlap with “Night Country” in terms of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women as an issue and even your character’s specific relationship to their younger sister. What makes that specific kind of story important to you?
You know, I initially started highlighting missing and murdered Indigenous people with my boxing career, because there were just so many people that didn’t know about it. Being in sports and having a platform where I do have a chance to speak, it’s never been about just me — it’s always been about we. With the entertainment business, there’s a fine line between getting a message out and trying not to beat it over the head. It’s a whole different audience that wouldn’t normally look at things like this, whether because they just didn’t want to hear about it or it’s just not in the mainstream media.
We have Indigenous and Native American platforms, news media, that puts it out, and we know what types of issues that go on in our communities. But it’s the communities that aren’t ours that need to hear about this. So it’s extremely important for me to be able to voice issues like this, to be a voice for the voiceless. It’s just something I was taught, to do things other people can’t do any more, or didn’t have the chance to, or the resources. So if there’s an opportunity, if there’s a platform for me to give voice to this issue, conversations can lead to motivation to some kind of change.
I did want to touch on the transition from boxing to acting and how that’s been going. What’s been the most challenging aspect of that, and on the flip side, the most rewarding?
The most challenging is just learning on the job — the things I don’t know, like intimacy scenes, or how long I’ll be gone, or how much I’ll be working. To learn on the job has been difficult, but I’m kind of a sink or swim type of person. The theme of my life has been, “This doesn’t usually happen, but…” That’s been the most challenging: learning the business, learning the lingo learning film. I don’t have a method.
But on the flip side of that, I didn’t go to school. Nobody taught me. I am learning on the job. So everything you see me do is really authentic. It’s really organic, from my perspective.
The positives — I mean, there’s so many parallels with boxing and film. You have to be extremely present. It doesn’t matter how much you rehearse or practice. You have to be present, to think on your toes. You have to hone in on your craft. There’s never a ceiling to any kind of learning. You can learn until the day you die with this — what not to do, what to do, what works for you. There’s so many different avenues to expand in this industry. There’s a lot of trust that’s involved with both boxing and film. I have to trust this group of people to tell me what I need to do, and I have to take that information and apply it to the situation. I have to be able to not take things personal, to take criticism and turn it into something that makes me better versus to put myself down. I know it’s just to get the best out of me. The endurance to do things over and over and the Virgo brain that I have to [chase] perfection. I just feel blessed to be able to have this background, because I feel like I’ve been training for this my entire career. It’s an art. It’s a story. We tell a story with boxing, and it’s a violent art, but it’s an art nonetheless.
This interview has been edited and condensed.