1923 is the latest entry into the widely popular Yellowstone universe from creator Taylor Sheridan. Following the challenges faced by the Dutton’s in early 1920’s America, the series introduces a new generation to the family as well as a number of supporting characters including Teonna Rainwater played by Aminah Nieves.
In my conversation with Aminah, we discuss how she found the character of Teonna Rainwater, a resilient indigenous woman who is brought to life by Nieves imbuing her with depth, strength, and authenticity.
During this interview, we explore Aminah’s experiences portraying Teonna Rainwater and the broader theme of representation of indigenous peoples on screen. Aminah shares her insights into the importance of accurate and respectful portrayals of indigenous characters, shedding light on the importance of telling her and her family’s stories on screen. Aminah also discusses her personal connection to the character and her commitment to ensuring that indigenous voices are heard and respected in the entertainment world.
Read my full interview with Aminah below.
Hi, this is Danny Jarabek, here with Awards Radar, and I am super, super excited to be talking with Aminah Nieves from 1923. Aminah, how are you today? Thank you so much for joining me.
Aminah: Thank you! I’m good. I’m good. I’m excited.
I’m very, very excited to be talking with you because I love this show, and I specifically love your character and your portrayal of this character, Teonna Rainwater. I first want to start off by asking, what was it like to step into this broad Yellowstone universe? It’s a very wide universe at this point with many shows involved. It’s a huge fan base. How did it feel to step into that?
Aminah: Well, for me, just in general, it’s always going to be a crazy experience. This is my first TV show ever. But I had no clue about the Yellowstone universe and how big it was until I stepped on set. I became more aware as time went on how huge of an impact the universe has on many people. So, it’s really cool. Caught by surprise, but I’m really honored to be here.
Yeah, absolutely. And I feel like, in some ways, too, it maybe even helps that you maybe were outside of the whole universe, in a way. That could’ve possibly helped build your character as well, which is told so well. But, of course, I want to get into this story. 1923 takes place in a time where you face incredible hardships as an indigenous person in this story. And indigenous stories are not told or portrayed often with this level of authenticity and honesty. What was it about this show that made that possible, that made that story be able to be told from your perspective?
Aminah: I think, for one, Taylor [Sheridan] really honors and respects indigenous communities and is really close-knit himself, actually. But he brought on such amazing people to the team, like Mo Brings Plenty, who is also in Yellowstone. Mo Brings Plenty was head of Indian Affairs, and he was there with us every single day on set. Birdie Real Bird, too. She was brought on as our language coach. We speak Apsáalooke, which is the Crow language. She was brought on, and she was with us every single day as well. So, having all of us be with one another and to be held down and not feel like you’re going into something kind of on your own and having to advocate for yourself constantly on your own was super, super special and very important. And 1923 made sure to really hold space for all the indigenous cast. And the rest of the cast, too. They did a really good job at keeping it safe and gentle for us.
And what did it mean for you personally to be able to be a part of that to tell a story of indigenous people that many people may not even realize how much truth and how much has generational impact, what actually unfolds in this story and in history.
Aminah: Mm-hmm. It meant a lot. These are stories, these are situations that had happened to indigenous peoples here. Also, indigenous peoples and BIPOC communities in general still face so much adversity to this day. And it’s still under wraps. A lot of the adversities and the trials and tribulations that BIPOC communities face to this day are hidden. You know? They’re kept quiet. So, to be able to share a very important story about history that the government did its best to hide for so long was very important for me. I just really wanted to do my best and to honor all indigenous communities and honor my family as much as I could. I hope you can feel that through the work that we all did as a collective, not just myself, Aminah, but Mo, Birdie, Michael Spears, Michael Greyeyes, Cole Brings Plenty. I really hope that you guys feel it.
Yeah, I personally can say for myself, I absolutely did. And I think all of the work that you do as a collective, as an ensemble, and with everyone else involved, too, absolutely shines through in honoring that, as you said. But, of course, you have a lot of difficult scenes, a lot of difficult things to portray in this series, too. How did you build trust between yourself and other cast – Jennifer [Ehle], Sebastian [Roché], Leenah [Robinson], many of these people who you have to undergo a lot of really heavy moments with together.
Aminah: I love how you brought up the trust between myself because I think a lot of people often forget that part is almost more important than the trust with outsiders, with other people. And I’ve said this before to people in passing. I don’t think I would’ve been able to do this two years ago because I didn’t trust myself enough. I didn’t trust myself enough to explore my fear and to surrender to everything. You know? But when it came down to trusting the people around me, trusting Leenah, Jennifer, Sebastian, Michael, everyone, it was easy. They made it that way. They made it easy. With Leenah, I met her in Wyoming when we were both doing our chemistry read. And the moment I found out that she booked Baapuxti, I Facetimed her immediately, and she was playing video games or something, and we instantly became sisters. With Jennifer and Sebastian and Kerry [O’Malley], they are some of the most humble, kind, big-hearted humans. They carry something really special within them. They’re not scared to explore their child self and they’re not scared to be vulnerable. So, we would have a lot of conversations together as a group just to make sure we were all on the same page, but more than that, to get to know one another and to build a bond. To love one another. And we still talk, you know? I still talk to all of those guys to this day. I was just texting Sebastian, probably like an hour ago. They make it easy. They just make it so easy.
That’s so delightful to hear, too. I love hearing a little bit behind the scenes of that environment and atmosphere, that you were able to build a safety and security with one another. How did you personally build this character of Teonna, physically but also spiritually, emotionally. There’s a lot of layers to what this character goes through. How did you prepare for that? How did you adapt to those challenges in starting to build this character?
Aminah: Yeah. I think it was difficult, at times, to build Teonna and to be with her. More than anything, it was to just be with Teonna and to feel everything that she was moving through, but also to be with community and to talk with many elders that have went through those experiences. To talk to my family, to go to gatherings. One of my aunties would be like, “Don’t talk to them!”
Aminah: Just sitting with everyone and listening to their stories, that was huge, and I think that made more of a difference than anything else for me. It’s weird though. At a certain point, I couldn’t do anything anymore. There came a point where it just wasn’t me. And I had to surrender to that, and I had to trust that whatever was happening, it was good, and everything was going to be okay and that is was safe to allow whatever to move through me to move through me. I promise, I tell my mom about it all the time. So many of those scenes that you see, I wasn’t present. I knew what was going on in my mind, but something else was happening exteriorly. Yeah. Did that answer your question?
Yeah, absolutely. And more, of course. Part of the show that I love is, of course, the authenticity of all the locations that are filmed, too, and the scale of the production. There’s filming in multiple locations throughout the season. How did that impact your experience? You said this was your first TV show. I’m sure the scale and scope of everything was a big surprise, so how did you adapt to that and seeing how all of this unfolds and shooting on these big locations.
Aminah: It was wild. I was like a kid in a candy store. I did background acting for years because I always wanted to know what was happening, so whenever it would be my time because I always knew that I would be a little prepared, I was not prepared at all. I thought I was preparing for four years, being a little background actor, but no. It was incredible. The minute you get on set, every time I wasn’t working, I would go on set and watch the Dutton story go down. Their sets were crazy. All of their exterior sets were wild horses everywhere, buggies everywhere, hundreds of background actors. It transports you, and I think that’s something to mention and to give thanks and to honor all of the people that made that happen. The crew. They made the 20s come to life. And all we had to do was show up and you’re instantly dropped there. It was hard for Teonna and for me, and I’m sure it was hard in circumstances for the Dutton storyline as well, but man, it’s on the nose. Props to the crew because that’s a lot of work. When I tell you, miles. Just miles. It was crazy.
I’m sure. And I’ve heard from some of your other colleagues on the show, too, just how amazed they were with the size of everything.
But just before I wrap up and let you go, in this journey of Teonna and in your journey of portraying her, is there anything that you take away from this? Anything that has really just resonated with you throughout this process?
Aminah: I wrote this down and now that you ask me that question, now I can’t answer it because it totally left my brain. I think more than anything, truly, Teonna has taught me what it means to have compassion and to lead with compassion. I honestly think Teonna has taught me how to love more and to be in the moment and to be present.
That’s amazing to hear. Thank you so much for your time and thank you for the bravery and the resiliency that you brought to this character in your portrayal of it. And thank you so much for your time, I really appreciated getting to chat with you here a little bit behind the scenes of how this character came to life.
Aminah: Thank you so much, Danny! It was great talking to you, too.
Yes, absolutely. And congratulations on all of your efforts in this. It was very well deserved, and it was beautiful to watch.
Aminah: Thank you!
All right. Yeah, thank you, and hope to chat soon.
Season 1 of 1923 is available to stream on Paramount+.