‘True Detective’ Star Kali Reis Talks Season 4 Fan Theories & Indigenous Representation

Former world champ boxer Kali Reis is a pro at throwing jabs, but she’s never had a sparring partner quite like Jodie Foster. The 37-year-old two-spirit Afro-Indigenous actress holds her own opposite the Hollywood heavy hitter in True Detective: Night Country , the fourth installment of the popular HBO Max anthology drama series.

Reis plays Evangeline Navarro, a hard-edged Alaska Native (Iñupiaq) cop trying to solve the mysterious disappearance of a group of scientists during Alaska’s months-long polar night. But it soon becomes clear not all is as it seems in the fictional far-north town of Ennis, where Indigenous activists are protesting a nearby polluting mine, and several Native American women have gone missing in recent years.

In just her third acting job, Reis steals the spotlight while simultaneously making history as the first Indigenous co-lead of an HBO series. She brought her own experiences as a biracial Cape Verdean and Seaconke Wampanoag woman to the role, but also spent plenty of time immersed in Iñupiaq culture in order to properly represent that tribal community.

Reis first showed off her acting chops in 2021’s Catch the Fair One, earning an Independent Spirit Award best actress nomination for her performance as a Native boxer who joins a sex trafficking ring to find her missing sister. Both that film and now True Detective shine a light on the Indigenous issues Reis has been amplifying throughout her career, such as environmental concerns, mental health struggles, and the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women crisis.

Here, the boxer-turned-actress talks about why authentic representation is so vital, what it was like going toe-to-toe with a Hollywood legend like Foster, and what she really thinks of all those kooky, complex True Detective fan theories.

What does it mean to you to make history as the first Indigenous co-lead of an HBO series?

I didn’t even realize it until I got tagged in an Instagram post saying that. Right now, we have this trajectory of Indigenous artists finally being noticed by the mainstream—you have Reservation Dogs, you have Lily Gladstone winning a Golden Globe and being nominated for an Oscar for Killers of the Flower Moon, you have Echo that just came out, you have the What If…? Kahhori episode. But we always knew we had talent among us. Honestly, I’m kind of beside myself to be considered amongst those names. I’m also so honored that I get to represent not only Indigenous people, but mixed Cape Verdean and Wampanoag from the Northeast Woodlands.

Kali Reis in True Detective: Night Country

Michele K. Short

How did you bring your lived experiences as a biracial two-spirit woman and a pro boxer to your performance as Navarro?

Navarro is part Iñupiaq and part Dominican, and she doesn’t feel like she’s “enough,” which I totally get. Amongst the broad spectrum of Native American people, I look different because I’m from a certain region and I’m also mixed. But we’re not supposed to fit in a box or look like everybody else—we’re supposed to look like our ancestors.

[Writer/director Issa López] constructed this character with so many layers, so she’s very hard to read. I’m told that, with my boxing background, I’m hard to read, too. It’s like you got to get to know me. So that whole duality I have really matched up with her. There’s also the background of her being two-spirit.

Navarro is an ex-military policewoman in a male-dominated profession. I don’t have a military background, but I brought my athleticism and my boxer physicality. There are all these mixed views of law enforcement in Indigenous communities, because you’re trying to patrol the community you live in and you’re not always fully accepted by the community. I brought all these different layers to Navarro, but I also just had to wait for her to reveal herself to me. Navarro is a fierce little Scorpio, she is. [Laughs]

Reis in True Detective: Night Country

Michele K. Short

Looking back on filming, are there certain scenes that stand out to you?

In episode three, the birthing scene is one of my favorites. It was so beautiful. I’ve never experienced a traditional water birth, but it was familiar because I know the energy of ceremony, even though it was just a set. You get a bunch of Indigenous women together and all we do is talk, cackle, and tell stories. People also get to see in this scene that Navarro didn’t actually know Annie; she’s just obsessed with finding justice for this woman.

Then in episode six, one of my all-time favorite scenes is when Navarro and [Foster’s character] Danvers are sitting in front of the fire trying to get warm, and Danvers finally says what she feels. Navarro is probably the only living person who could get that out of her. Navarro doesn’t say much, yet she also says a lot because at that point she has completely lost her shit. It’s such a powerful scene.

Why is it so important to amplify the issues highlighted in the show, such as the Land Back movement, the Missing and Murdered Indigenous People (MMIP) crisis, and high suicide rates among Native youth?

What’s happening in Indigenous communities doesn’t get mainstream attention. I started bringing awareness to issues like MMIP with my boxing, and it just baffled me how many people didn’t know about it. So I’m like, “Alright, it’s my duty to bring awareness.” If I have a voice and a platform, I’m going to scream it until I can’t. You’re not going to shut me up.

The way [Native people] get taught is if you have a gift, you give it. It’s kind of an insult to Creator to not give it. And you do things for people who can’t do them. Like if our elders can’t walk, you bring them their food and you dance for them in the circle. So I got presented with this opportunity—why not take it? It’s not about me; it’s about we. If I do something and I win, then we all win. Fighting is my medicine. Somebody else’s medicine might be beading, singing, or sharing words, but mine happens to be fighting for the larger purpose.

What was it like to work alongside and learn from Jodie Foster?

Man, I compare it to having a chance to train with Mike Tyson for his heavyweight fight during his prime. Watching her in her element was amazing, and I learned a lot from her. She’s so intelligent. She’s also hilarious. But when the camera was off, I was so impressed with how she treated people and how generous she was with her time and knowledge.

She was also really interested in telling this story the right way. She even altered her character to make her more of a racist-ass white lady who has no idea what’s going on around her culturally in order to bring out the journey of Navarro. It was just really refreshing, surprising, and educational. I went into it knowing I had a hard job to do and thinking I’d have a good coworker, but I left feeling like she’s my homie now.

Reis and Foster in True Detective: Night Country

Michele K. Short

What are your thoughts on all the fan theories out there—like that Ennis is a portal to another dimension, the scientists experienced shared psychosis, an ancient microorganism is behind all the deaths, or even that Navarro has split personalities?

It makes me so happy that people are taking the time to really think about the show, because it means that this story was so well crafted. People are coming up with things I didn’t even think of; like it never crossed my mind that Navarro has split personalities and killed everybody. The portal one is actually pretty good, because Rose says Ennis is this place at the end of the earth and it’s coming apart at the seams. But I was like, “What?!” when I saw the one about the organism that’s killing everybody. There’s just this constant suggestion of both the logical and the supernatural in the show. Whichever [theory] you choose to believe, it means Issa did a really good job crafting the story. I’m sure there are going to be a ton of new fan theories once people see the finale, too.

We’re in this moment of really beautifully authentic Native storytelling, but it doesn’t stop here. What do you hope the future of Indigenous entertainment looks like?

Reservation Dogs really set the tone of, “We want to tell our stories from our perspective, but not just in a one-dimensional way.” I’d like to see more diverse representation. Just like how there are so many different ways of being Latina or Asian, there are so many different ways of being Indigenous. I’d also like to see more contemporary stories that aren’t just sad and somber with the typical abusive, drunk husband with a wife who does drugs living on a reservation.

And we don’t just have to tell Indigenous stories. I want to see more opportunities open up for Indigenous performers to play superheroes, villains, cops, nurses, lawyers—not just to check a box but because we’re the right person for the part. I can’t wait to see more Indigenous comedies, because we have some funny people. As for what’s next for me, hopefully I’ll get something that isn’t so cold and dark, and where nobody dies. [Laughs] It sounds cliché, but I’m up for pretty much whatever the universe has planned for me.

All episodes of True Detective: Night Country are now streaming on HBO Max.

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