Up and coming screenwriter and actor shares her insights with Northern students
ESPAÑOLA, NM — The AMC/AMC+ series “Dark Winds,” based on works by the late Tony Hillerman, has received rave reviews and has already been renewed for a second season. The launch drew 2.2 million viewers and was the No. 1 new series launch in AMC+ history.
A former Northern New Mexico College film student plays a supporting role in the series. DezBaa’ (born Sharon Anne Henderson) plays Helen Atcitty, mother of a young woman murdered in the first episode.
This role brought many aspects of DezBaa’’s life full circle. Her sister, Shannon Henderson-Herrera, who is a background actor in some of DezBaa’’s scenes, helped launch DezBaa’’s career by urging her to audition for her first role several years ago. Their father, David Henderson, is also on set as a background actor.
Then there is the family story that DezBaa’’s great uncle was one of the police officers Hillerman interviewed when he was developing his characters.
“If you look at my great uncle’s obituary, his information looks just way too coincidentally similar to that of Joe Leaphorn (one of Hillerman’s and “Dark Winds” main characters). I don’t know how many other Navajo men on the police force have the exact same curriculum vitae as my great uncle,” DezBaa’ said. “All these things coming together just makes me feel like I’m doing exactly what I’ve been meant to do my whole life.”
DezBaa’ was born in Santa Fe and raised in the Española Valley. She is a citizen of the Navajo (Diné) Nation, born for the Tó'aheedlíinii (Water Flows Together clan). She is also of Basque, Spanish and Mexican descent.
DezBaa’ was working as a geologist for the Navajo Nation’s Division of Natural Resources in 2015 when her sister sent her a casting call. Her first audition landed her a lead role in a feature film. Unfortunately, DezBaa’ had not learned Navajo growing up and the director decided to replace her with a Navajo-speaking actress. It was devastating, especially since she had quit her position with the Navajo Nation to take the role. DezBaa’ threw herself into auditioning, making connections in the film industry and taking film classes at Northern.
Her first break came when she landed a feature background role in the 2016 Scott Cooper Western "Hostiles," followed by her first speaking role in "Woman Walks Ahead." DezBaa' has also appeared in “Better Call Saul” and in the 2020 HBO Max comedy "Unpregnant."
DezBaa’s relationship with Northern goes back to childhood.
“I’ve always been at Northern, since I was about six years old. My mom took some psychology courses when I was younger and I would go with her to class,” DezBaa’ said. She took dual credit classes at Northern when she was in high school and took a break while pursuing her bachelor’s degree in geology at Amherst College to get a massage therapy certificate at NNMC.
“So to me, Northern New Mexico College is just a staple, a guiding light and a beacon for the Northern New Mexico area,” DezBaa’ said. “I’ve often made the analogy that it is a mental oasis for me, and that’s why I returned to it for the film aspect.”
At the urging of David Lindblom, one of her instructors in NNMC’s Film and Digital Media Arts program, DezBaa’ applied to the M.F.A. screenwriting program at the Institute of American Indian Arts. She ended up earning two M.F.A.’s, one for Screenwriting and one for Creative Nonfiction. She is still considering finishing her Associate of Art in Film and Digital Media Arts at NNMC “because I like the idea of completing things.”
Last semester, Lindblom invited DezBaa’ to provide guest lectures for NNMC film students on topics ranging from representation, appropriation, acting, cinematography and more, something she found very rewarding.
“One of the goals in my life is to try to facilitate education improvement and growth in various ways. It helps me to be a better person, because then I understand where other people are coming at and I’m more compassionate and then I grow. And it’s just this mutual growth,” DezBaa’ said.
One of the students she has been coaching is her father, David.
“For me, the proudest kid moment, or facilitating moment – kind of like a midwife moment for me – is that my dad’s been asking me, did I do this right? Is this formatted right? Does this sound good?” DezBaa’ said. Helping him write about the challenges of being a Navajo man raised outside his culture (aspects of his life he has never shared with anyone) has been a moving experience for DezBaa’.
“It’s so fulfilling to me to see that transformation, that progress and that ability that he’s exploring with screenwriting,” DezBaa’ said. She is just as enthusiastic about seeing other students in the class thrive. “I do it because I love it. I do it because it gives me a sense of joy, and in that joy I connect with other people. And then by connecting I continue that cycle, and it keeps coming back like the waves in the ocean and it just never ends.”
The guest lectures culminated in an appearance by Zahn McClarnon, who plays Joe Leaphorn in “Dark Winds” and Big in “Reservation Dogs.” McClarnon took the students on a Zoom tour of the set of “Reservation Dogs.”
DezBaa’ has not abandoned her hopes for a screenwriting career. Two writer/producers whose credits include shows like “Miami Vice” and “ER” told her she is a “naturally talented writer” after reviewing one of her scripts. DezBaa’ is hopeful the producers will develop that project in the future.
“But the greatest gift they gave me was just that validation, that I actually do know what I’m talking about,” DezBaa’ said.
A short film DezBaa’ appears in with a working title of “Sunset Special” is currently in production and she is also in an upcoming episode of “WACO.” She dreams of writing a best-selling memoir that makes the New York Times Best Seller list, moving forward with her screenwriting and becoming a producer and director.
Early in the filming of “Dark Winds,” DezBaa’ decided to honor her sister Shannon for being the spark that launched her film career. She presented her with a squash blossom necklace on set, which Shannon wore for that day’s shoot.
“I felt I needed to honor her with that and thank her for believing in me and giving me this larger opportunity to do something that brings me alive and is part of my dream,” DezBaa’ said.
“Dark Winds” is available on demand on AMC+ and for those whose cable subscription includes AMC.