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Pamyua’s Phillip Blanchett on his role in ‘True Detective: Night Country’

Phillip Blanchett seen in HBO's True Detective: Night Country.
Phillip Blanchett seen in HBO's "True Detective: Night Country."
Phillip Blanchett seen in HBO's "True Detective: Night Country."

The fourth season of the hit HBO show “True Detective” premiered in January and February of 2024. The season takes place in the fictional town of Ennis, Alaska, and follows a police chief and Alaska State Trooper as they investigate the disappearance of a crew of research scientists and the cold case of a murdered Inupiat woman.

Phillip Blanchett, of Bethel and Nunapitchuk, is well-known for his co-founding role in the Inuit soul band Pamyua. He made a foray into acting in “True Detective: Night Country,” where he played the brother of the murdered woman.

Blanchett joined Coffee at KYUK on March 6, 2024 to discuss the show and his role. A transcript follows below, which has been edited lightly for flow.

KYUK (Sage Smiley): Thanks for joining us.

Phillip Blanchett: Yeah, thank you. Thank you for having me.

KYUK: I have one absolute, ultimate question that I need to ask, which is now that the season is done, are you seeing spirals everywhere?

Blanchett: (laughter) I peeled an orange yesterday, and I saw one.

KYUK: Oh man.

Blanchett: I was working on some images for Pamyua, like going through images. And I saw them everywhere. So you're so right.

KYUK: So for those who haven't seen the show, can you sum up for us what this season of True Detective is about?

Blanchett: True Detective, it's on HBO. And it is a series, a show about solving a murder. Seven scientists in the small Alaskan community go missing. And so the whole season is trying to understand what's happening in the community, and what happened to these seven people. And then they are uncovering a murder that had been unsolved of an Indigenous woman from the community. So it's like trying to understand and solve these two murders. And there's two detectives in the show that lead this discovery, and that's the journey that we go on. And it was really amazing and exhilarating.

KYUK: Yeah, what a wonderful summary. How does your role in this show fit into that landscape that you just laid out?

Blanchett: So I play the role of Ryan Kowtak, and I am playing a Iñupiaq man from this community. The series is set in a fictional town called Ennis, Alaska. And so it's kind of – the way I thought in my mind, because I've traveled quite a bit up north, it's kind of like if Red Dog Mine was, like, right next to Nome. And so there's a community. And then there's a big, big mine. And so I'm a miner, I’m a Native guy from the community who works at the big mine owned by some big, multinational corporation. And so I'm just a dude that does my job and living in my life. But in the beginning of the story, you learn that seven years prior to entering this world, this story, you learn that my sister is the young lady whose murder was unsolved. And so one of the detectives comes to me early on in the show to begin her investigation about trying to basically reboot this investigation about my sister in the show whose name is Annie, Annie Kowtak, which they call her Annie K.

KYUK: So tell me a bit about that, about having a character that's a jumping-off point for this season, "True Detective: Night Country." What was it like to be on a set of such an iconic show?

Blanchett: It was a crazy, emotional roller coaster, I guess. You know, I hate to sound cliche, but I mean, it was like a storm of emotions that that started with, at the very beginning, with just choosing to audition. And then the whole process, going to Iceland, to filming. And then, of course, watching the series and now that it's out it's, you know, having it be done, but it was just really surreal. Because, like, I remember as a young little boy in Bethel when we got HBO for the first time, and when we got cable. And I remember just being completely mesmerized, almost to the – just like when I saw my first movie with the lion, you know, that roar, those iconic images. I remember the HBO because I was born in the 70s. So HBO, before the feature presentation, had this star field, and it went down to the Earth. And I could tell that it was a set or something, but it looked so amazing. And then it came down to like an aerial, flying down into a neighborhood kind of like E.T., when the bikes are riding in E.T. Anyways, it was just, so it was one of my favorite things that I always remembered was the feature presentation opening for HBO. And so when I was landing in Iceland, getting ready to start this experience, I was like, ‘I can't believe I'm gonna be on a show that I've been, like, dreaming about since I was just a kid in Bethel.’ It was just, like, wild.

KYUK: That sounds so surreal, and so exciting. So tell us a bit about the process of auditioning and then of filming itself. How long did you end up being in Iceland for this role?

Blanchett: I was in Iceland for about maybe three and a half weeks.

KYUK: And auditions didn't happen in Iceland?

Blanchett: No, no, I did the auditions, they were auditioning all over the north. So a lot of the cast was from Iceland, or from Greenland – a lot of the Native cast was from Greenland, and from Canada. And then, of course, since it's an Alaskan story, they had Alaskan casting as well. And so a friend of mine that I had worked with, she reached out to me, Deborah Schultz. And she has done all kinds of film productions, and is involved with a talent agency and film production, and has been in the film business in Alaska. And we’d worked with Pamyua, with our music, on different productions. And so I'd always get these casting calls for Natives, you know, for “Native man, 40s” and I’d always just ignore them because I always thought in my mind, because I'm mixed, I’m Black and Yup’ik. And I have a fade. I feel like what they’re looking for is someone like, in Pamyua, someone more or less like Ossie [Kairaiuak], you know: Yup’ik looking, long hair. And I always felt like I never fit the look. And so I always just ignored them. Anyway, Deborah sent me a message and I ignored it like I always do. I always ignore those casting calls, or just pass them along to somebody else. And then she sent me another message, like, ‘I think you'd be good at this,’ ‘I think this would be something good for you.’ And then I was like, ‘I don't know what that means.’ So I just said, ‘Okay, send me whatever information.’ And so she sent me a script, or like, they're called sides. And so there's, the side is a little section of the script that you'll audition with, and I had no idea, because I've never done anything like that before. I'd never seen a script and never seen a side. But I looked at it. And I was like – I read it. And it just reminded me of a lot of my friends up north that I've met through mainly the Native Games, because I've met a lot of Iñupiaq buddies over the years, at WEIO (World Eskimo-Indian Olympics), doing Native Games. And so I was just like, ‘Oh, okay, it's like one of those cool guys,’ and so I was like, ‘I think I can do this.’ So I auditioned. And I got the role.

KYUK: That is so interesting. And so I was going to ask if you'd had any previous experience on sets, but since this is your first foray into acting – in talking with other actors, was it a unique experience for them? And I mean, even for you in your first role, to be in an environment that's so focused on Alaska and integrating Indigenous culture into this show?

Blanchett: You know, a lot of the people that I worked with on set were all Indigenous, first-time actors. And so it was such an amazing experience for us. Because it was, like you said, surreal to be able to focus on something that we are intimately knowledgeable about and we love, you know, we love our community. And we love the fact that we're able to represent the community. And then as far as, like, the whole project – you know how when we go to down lower 48 and you tell people you're from Alaska, there's always like this mysticism, or like this – there's this interest. And people, ‘Oh wow, really?’ It's a really good way to get conversations started and to talk about Alaska. And so there's some interest. And so I felt like there definitely was a real kind of glow of interest with everybody in Iceland about the project being Alaskan. And then when they actually had people from Alaska, Indigenous people from Alaska, then there was a lot of respect. I felt like, when we were in Iceland, from the crew, to the people in the community, and so it just kind of felt like we were at, I'd say, summer camp, but let's say, winter camp.

KYUK: This show touches on an epidemic that is really, really raw and real for so many people in Alaska, which is [that of] Missing and Murdered Indigenous People [MMIP}. And in your role you bump up against that: your sister in the show has been missing for years. How did you approach channeling that intimate feeling into your performance and kind of balancing that and representing that struggle that is so endemic to so many people's lives?

Blanchett: Yeah, you know, out in rural Alaska things are real, very real, and those real deaths, and, you know, those things that we just live, it's a part of our experience, and it's just real life. And so I don't know, I just identified with that role in so many ways. And it kind of gave me, it made me feel definitely a lot more comfortable that I could be a lot, you know, even though I'm acting a role, that I could feel authentic and have the authentic feelings of seriousness, and that there was no, there was no pretentiousness in the feeling of the character when I was acting because I understood those dynamics. And, and that scene, I understood the level of emotions that could be happening between myself and then Kali Reese, who was playing, who was the head detective who was questioning me. Where we're from, it's real, it's real world with real emotion and it's not pretend, and it's not this kind of fantasy. And we feel it. And so I don't know, I don't know how to answer that question.

KYUK: I think that's a wonderful answer. Yeah, to have that reflected on the screen in such a real and authentic way. And with that thought, I think it is a late but important step forward for television. So beyond this show, what's next? We just have a couple minutes left. You're, of course, a member of a well-known band, Pamyua, and are we going to see you and other productions soon? What has the show inspired you to do, or return to, or to pursue further?

Blanchett: Yeah, as far as Pamyua goes, we're really busy. We're performing at the Arctic Winter Games, and I'm actually going to be the emcee for the opening ceremony. So there's like 2,000 athletes from all over the Arctic. I'm so excited for that.

KYUK: That's amazing.

Blanchett: And then after Arctic Winter Games, another dream is coming true. And we're traveling to New Zealand, Aotearoa, for the first time. And we're going to perform at two Maōri culture festivals, music festivals. And so that's a dream come true. And then we're going on tour. As far as acting goes, it's just – I do have an agent, an [Los Angeles (LA)] agent who is sending me more sides. And I'm sending in self tapes. And I've auditioned for several different roles. And one role I got, think I was down to the top two candidates. And it was for an ABC show. And I got a message saying, ‘Hey, they want to see you tomorrow in LA.

KYUK: Oh, boy,

Blanchett: On the Disney lot. And so I went and looked at my phone, went to the app, saw that there was a flight in two hours. I didn't even pack. I just jumped on the plane and flew to LA. And I went to the Disney lot in Burbank, and went into a room with, like, seven people on a couch, and camera, and a lady reading the sides with me. And I was so nervous. I was petrified. My voice – I didn't do my best job. But it was like, what a learning experience. The next day, I was waiting to hear if I needed to stay in LA for another week for filming, or come home to my son's kindergarten class where I was the guest speaker teaching them yuraq, teaching them dancing. And so I was like, ‘I'm going home.’ So I went home and I didn't get the role, but I got to come home and be with my family. And so that's just a good example of the nature of this business is: it's all over the place. It's very emotional, because there's so many things up in the air, but the main thing is to just remember what is important. And for me, of course, [that’s] my family at home, my wife and my kids and my community, and of course representing our culture, and that's also the realness that I love to live in.

KYUK: Absolutely.

Blanchett: It's a wild ride.

KYUK: Thank you so much for your time and congratulations on your silver screen debut in "True Detective: Night Country."

Blanchett: Quyana, thank you very much.

Watch Phillip Blanchett in HBO's "True Detective: Night Country" at

Sage Smiley is KYUK's news director.