Taylor Sheridan may have populated 1923 with mega-stars but it wasn’t just Harrison Ford or Helen Mirren who blew away viewers with a stirring performance. For the first time on TV, Sheridan depicted the dark legacy of Catholic boarding schools and how they dehumanized young indigenous women — one of whom is played by the courageous Aminah Nieves. While the Duttons were busy saving the ranch in one part of Montana, Nieves’ Teonna Rainwater was being held prisoner by savage, paddle-swinging nuns in another. Here, the Indiana-born newcomer recalls how hard it was to decide whether to accept such a life-changing role.
DEADLINE: How did you first land the part of Teonna?
AMINAH NIEVES: I was not aware of the Taylor Sheridan universe before. It happens the way it always happens, you get it through your team. I read it and was emailing my manager like, “I don’t know man. I don’t know if I should do this. It’s just heavy and triggering.” My manager was so supportive and said, “you know what? I support anything you do so whatever decision you make is a good one.” My mom is my reader for everything. We talked about it a lot. I did the audition the day it was due because I waited so long. I was scared. My mom was like, “Aminah, you have to do this, not just for you, it’s for us. It’s for our communities and for all indigenous peoples across the world.”
DEADLINE: Was this your very first job in Hollywood?
NIEVES: I background acted for four or five years. I was working four jobs at once in New York, trying to make rent. I’m also an herbalist, so I was working at my herbal shop and doing my own practice outside of that. I was also a doula and worked in a clothing store. But I quit all of those at once because I realized I wasn’t fulfilled. The reason why I started background acting was not just because of the money, but because I wanted to know how it all worked. After I saved up money, I quit and moved to my parents’ house. I had $21 to my name when I booked 1923.
DEADLINE: Do you remember when you first wanted to act?
NIEVES: It’s kind of interesting because from the moment I could even dream or wish up on a star, I wanted to be on stage. I knew I wanted to perform. I did music. I thought I was going to be this traveling symphonic musician. And then I was like, psych! I’m going to actually go to New York and go to school for acting.
DEADLINE: Was your rep encouraging about the opportunities for indigenous actors?
NIEVES: We talked a lot about my expectations and my strong ability to say no, because I’m not going to do something that feels icky or doesn’t feel good in my body. He was honest that there isn’t a lot out there, but he was going to try to get me into every room possible. He only submitted me for leads. I was only with him for eight months before I booked 1923.
DEADLINE: Do you remember your first day on set? Did you have to get right into the heavy stuff?
NIEVES: I had to go straight into it. The first scene we did was the first scene that you see Teonna with Sister Mary [Jennifer Ehle}. The moment I put on the uniform, I looked at myself and couldn’t stop crying. I had to step away, go outside and just walk. It was heavy.
DEADLINE: Your character takes a lot of beatings. I imagine there was a lot of preparation involved.
NIEVES: Yeah, there was prep. Right before we shot the scene, we’d have a little conversation about it. But everything that you see, the leather mallets, the rulers and stuff, they had a furry coating. I was hit quite a bit and still got bruised up. But for the most part it was all pretty painless, unless I overextended myself, which I usually do because I like to do most of my stunts. Jennifer is just an incredible talent. I bow to her. She was so tender and kind, moving through everything that we did. We talked a little bit before each scene, but typically they would just give us the stunt choreography in like 10 minutes. Then we’d be, “alright, let’s shoot it.” You kind of have to separate yourself a little bit from what’s happening because it’s a lot of physical and spiritual energy. We always made sure to be with one another.
DEADLINE: You end up exacting revenge on the very nuns who beat you.
NIEVES: That was the hardest scene for Jennifer and I to do together. For Teonna, it wasn’t joyous for her. It was the hardest thing she’s ever had to do because she sees Sister Mary as an abuser. But it’s just like what she told her — “I am the land, no one who is the land is killing you.” In that moment she’s sitting there with her thinking, I wish she could have understood that we are way similar more than Sister Mary thought. We share the same soil. We walk the same.
DEADLINE: When you got back home after shooting each day, what would you do to get out of the dark mood?
NIEVES: I would first take a shower. Water is so healing and I would just kind of sit there, close my eyes and sing a little bit. Then I would stuff my face with goat cheese and crackers and an avocado and be like, “alright girl, burn your medicine, take a breath, go to sleep.”
DEADLINE: How much did you interact with Taylor Sheridan?
NIEVES: Taylor would call me sometimes and say, “don’t stop, keep going.” I’d be like, “OK, you’ll tell me if it’s not good though, right? That’s the last thing I want, but this is hard, so just be honest with me.” And he was like, “I’m never gonna have to tell that to you.”
DEADLINE: At the end of the season, how would you describe where Teonna was emotionally?
NIEVES: I think there’s a little childhood glow, showing her dad how worthy she is and how strong and capable she is. I want to focus on her joy right now. Episode eight was the first [gentle] human touch that Teonna had. Let’s see what Season 2 brings. I’m very excited but scared.
DEADLINE: Do you have any hint where things will pick up in the new season? Have you been told anything?
NIEVES: No, and I’m at the edge of my seat. I have no clue.
DEADLINE: So now that the first season is over, what kind of feedback have you received, especially from Indigenous community?
NIEVES: From what my family says and from what other cast members and their families are saying, it’s really great feedback. People have told me that it’s given them the opportunity to be more open with what is happening [within the community]. I think that’s the whole reason why we do this art, to share honest and real stories that spark curiosity and help people feel safe. Having a moment to see yourself and to feel strength to talk about certain things is super important. That’s all I wish for — sharing these stories that make people want to do a Google search to see what really happened.