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Outer Range's Tamara Podemski Takes On the American West

Outer Range's Tamara Podemski Takes On the American West

Tamara Podemski, 'Outer Range'

The actor behind Outer Range's gay Native American sheriff talks representation, family, and why the Western genre is due for an update.

The myth of the American West is getting a shakeup with Amazon Studios series Outer Range -- and Indigenous Canadian actor Tamara Podemski has been preparing for that discussion her entire career.

"I think we're doing something new here," she told The Advocate about the upcoming thriller from creator and executive producer Brian Watkins and Plan B Entertainment. "The Western is in great need of a recontextualization."

Outer Range centers on a feud between Royal Abbott (Josh Brolin), an old-fashioned rancher whose family has owned their Wyoming property for generations, and power-hungry, capitalistic Wayne Tillerson (Yellowstone's Will Patton), who is obsessed with claiming the Abbotts' west pasture for himself. The story takes a supernatural turn when a fathomless black void appears on Roy's land, and people start to report disappearances and mysterious sightings. Swinging between dark and weirdly funny, the show combines a classic Neo-Western with mind-bending visions about the mysteries of the universe.

Podemski plays Deputy Sheriff Joy Hawk, the first gay Native American in Wyoming to become acting sheriff; but she's facing an election that could replace her with yet another white man, no matter how good she is at her job. A suspicious death in the community sparks an investigation that pulls Joy deeper and deeper into the conflict between the Abbotts and the Tillersons, putting her career and the stability of her own family on the line.

Experienced in playing marginalized characters -- she won the 2021 Canadian Screen Award for Best Supporting Actress for her role in Coroner, and a special jury award at the Sundance Film Festival for her performance in Four Sheets to the Wind -- Podemski felt that on paper her role was "all the diversity ticks, let's put it all into one character, and then make her real -- go!" she said. "I felt like, okay, hold on a second, let's backtrack and see where this creation of a character even exists in reality."

Joy's struggle to hold onto authority is familiar to anyone who's fought for better representation in politics and law enforcement. Less than 2 percent of sheriffs in America are women, according to the National Sheriffs' Association, and that number gets vanishingly small when considering LGBTQ+ women and women of color. Examples like Dallas County's Lupe Valdez, the nation's first openly gay Hispanic sheriff, only became a reality in the last 20 years.

"I'm very aware of what it is to try to take up space in a place where you're not welcome," Podemski said. "Even when given the opportunity to take up space, I'm well aware of how much threat you are creating for others around you, and being able to read those signals from those around you."

It's particularly interesting in terms of how the American West is portrayed in pop culture, and how possessive straight, white men can be about it. Just last month we had Sam Elliott, star of Yellowstone prequel series 1883, ranting about the Oscar-winning film The Power of the Dog and how its "allusions to homosexuality" are an insult to cowboys everywhere.

"I just come from fucking Texas where I was hanging out with families," Elliott said. "Not men, but families, big, long, extended, multiple-generation families that made their living, and their lives were all about being cowboys."

RELATED: Sam Elliott Goes on Homophobic Rant Over Power of the Dog

So it feels important that along with families like the Abbotts, we get a chance to see Joy at home with her wife Martha (queer Indigenous actor MorningStar Angeline) and their adopted daughter Rose, and their place in a tightly-knit Native American community.

"Whatever allows a woman [to] hold her head up high in a community that wishes she wasn't there, that needs to be supported by something very rich, as a strong family, as her strong cultural basis, as her community," Podemski told The Advocate. "That was what I created because there's too many forces against her and how many things that she has to bite her tongue, how many emotions she needs to swallow."

Throughout the eight-episode season, Joy endures everything from casual slights and microaggressions to, in one pivotal scene, a brazen public display of homophobia. Any emotional reaction could derail her chances in the election, but failing to protect her family could pull them apart.

"The struggle has a cost. For all of us that have been fighting for our voices to be heard, fighting for representation, fighting to see our authentic lives represented on the screen, it's important to understand that the fight comes at a cost. Even on a personal level, we know how many things we have to compromise to push something forward a little bit."

Lurking behind the investigation are the strange occurrences taking place in the area, and growing pressure from white folks for Sheriff Joy to explain what she's going to do about it -- a discussion that would go very differently among her own people.

"There are stories, old, old stories, of voids and black holes and different dimensions. I think there would be a comfort [discussing it] because we know these stories. The fact that there are stories now being told by these white cowboys and ranchers, something isn't quite right there, and that creates a suspicion. Because in her own understanding of the world, these aren't such strange things, and they're certainly not supernatural."

Outer Range premieres on Prime Video on Friday, April 15.

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