Paulina Alexis Isn’t Ready to Say Goodbye to Willie Jack

The Reservation Dogs star talks the show’s final season, and how she plans to bring her beloved character into future projects.

Photograph by Chris Shintani

This interview took place prior to the 2023 SAG-AFTRA strike.

Paulina Alexis discovered season three of Reservation Dogs—the groundbreaking FX series that has been lauded for its honest portrayal of modern Indigenous life—would be its last midway through filming. The actress, who plays Willie Jack, (a sharp, down-home member of the quad that comprises the main cast) found out the news with her costars while on set in Oklahoma through director Sterlin Harjo who, along with co-creator Taika Waititi, has made Reservation Dogs into a bonafide hit. During an afternoon when all the core actors—Devery Jacobs, who plays Elora Danan; D’Pharoah Woon-A-Tai, Bear Smallhill; and Lane Factor, Cheese—were working, Harjo gathered the team to deliver the tough news. “We were like, ‘What?! No way!’” Alexis recalls during a recent Zoom interview from Alberta, Canada, where she was participating in the Calgary Stampede, an Indian Relay horse race. “Sterlin said, ‘We don’t know for sure, but we’re writing it like it’s going to be the last.’ I thought, there’s no way we’re freaking done with this shit already—we didn’t even go to a pow wow yet!”

The 22-year-old’s reaction to her show’s cancellation may seem standard, but the context of Reservation Dogs’s cultural impact makes its series finale downright heartbreaking. Created by a nearly all-Indigenous cast and crew, Rez Dogs turned tired stereotypes of Indians on their head while painting an accurate, heartfelt picture of the everyday lives of four teens on a reservation. Alexis’s Willie Jack, who has become a fan favorite, was based on the born-and-raised member of the Alexis Nakota Sioux Tribe herself—her manner of speaking, her humor, even down to the way she dresses. Alexis has been so deeply involved in developing the character that, upon hearing news of the final season airing on FX August 2, she thought to herself, “Get me into the writers room! I’ll tear it up.”

These days, Alexis is expanding her repertoire with hush-hush writing gigs on future television shows and feature films. She’s also got directing on the brain. Below, the actress discusses taking unused material from Reservation Dogs and making it her own, and what fans can expect from Willie Jack in the third and final season.

How did the energy shift on set when you found out Reservation Dogs’s third season would be its last?

[The whole cast] was just really sad. We were like, bro, what the heck? But I was taking in every moment with everybody. I started counting the days at work: I’d be like, this is the third-to-last time I’m gonna get mic’d up! But I just accepted it. And in the future, there’ll probably be some other stuff—hopefully a spinoff.

A Willie Jack spinoff would be amazing.

That would be sick, I’m not gonna lie.

Wes Studi as Bucky, D’Pharaoh Woo-A-Tai as Bear, and Paulina Alexis as Willie Jack on Reservation Dogs.

Courtesy of FX Networks

How do you feel Willie Jack has changed since audiences first met her?

I’ve really grown with the character. In the beginning, she was a little shit ass, doing hood rat things. Throughout the seasons, you see that she actually does have a heart and cares about her friends and family. In season two, she was trying to get everybody back together again. And season three is more focused on healing.

In the past, you’ve said “Everyone knows a Willie Jack. You’ll find her on every rez.”

Go to any reserve, and there’s always that bro who has two braids, the backwards hat—who’s nervy, with no filter, who will talk mad shit just because they feel like it, and they can get away with it. My character was originally supposed to be a boy, but they rewrote it for me. When I found out I got the part, they asked me: “What do you think Willie Jack would wear?” I was like, I gotta be the one with the braids and the hat. We thought, hippie-cowgirl vibes, cozy queen—but she always has to wear a hat. She hunts, definitely. Willie Jack is just like me. I was playing myself. A lot of people have told me that my character is the most relatable on the show, and that’s what I was going for. I wanted to show that there are actually people like us—we’re everywhere, but it just hasn’t been shown on TV before.

How do you go about getting into character?

I read the script and then I look at the intention of my character. What is she trying to do? I don’t like to rehearse. And once we start filming, if I forget a line, I’ll just say something that I would say. Sterlin was like, “Paulina is the only one who can say whatever she wants, whenever she wants. No one else.” That gave me so much freedom.

What was one piece of Native culture that you knew you wanted Willie Jack to possess?

The humor and the love that she has. Because Native people can be really raunchy, but we also have such an awesome culture and we’re all very loving people. I’ve grown up with a lot of strong people, so I wanted to represent that—to show that we do have hearts and we care about our people a lot. Showing that—and getting our humor, because we’re funny—was the mission.

I also wanted Willie Jack to get into relay, even before we did season one. And you can see in some interviews Sterlin saying, “Yeah, I’m gonna get her on a horse.” Bro! I want her to do that. I’ve still got it up there, though [points to her own head].

Paulina Alexis as Willie Jack in Reservation Dogs.

Courtesy of FX

Perhaps you can take some of these ideas you had for future seasons of Reservation Dogs and make your own thing.

I’m definitely thinking about doing that, for real.

In previous interviews, you’ve identified Willie Jack as your dream role because it was so close to who you are in your real life. Going forward, what’s another dream role for you?

I really want to get into action. I specialize in comedy, but I want to do some Assassin’s Creed shit, some Spider-Man moves, you know what I mean? I want to be the female Tom Cruise or Jackie Chan—do my own stunts. Because I’m an adrenaline junkie. I’ve been skydiving twice. Just imagine doing a role so crazy that I have to skydive!

Let’s get into the Social Qs questions. What are some of your favorite accounts to follow on social media?

Rez Dog Resources, which helps to connect Oklahoma tribal communities to animal rescue resources. The account was founded by some of the crew members on Reservation Dogs. Last year, we found a stray dog on set. We all started feeding it, giving it water, and we rescued it. In the next couple weeks of filming, I found a whole cat family: the mom had about six babies and I saved them from getting eaten by a husky. Smudge the Blades, because they’re always updating about Native hockey players. Ataumbi Metals, because she makes me a bunch of my jewelry. She made me this horse necklace that I wear in the show—it’s mine in real life. Oh, and I gotta give a shout-out to Bear Grease. These actors redid Grease as a play, but they made an Indigenous version. The name comes from [a pomade] we use for our hair to help it regrow.

Is there anything you would never post?

Ceremony stuff: Sun Dance, sweats. Pow wows and round dances are fine, because those are public. But I hold sweats and Sun Dances close to me. They’re personal. I don’t wanna exploit my culture. Now it’s basically a rule. I’m not doing it for show. I’m doing it ’cause I have to do it to bound myself.

Do you respond to DMs from fans?

I try to as much as I can, but I am not really on my phone as much right now because it’s summer. I’m always outside, riding horses, running around, in the bush all the time.

Is that how you typically unplug?

Basically. To unplug, I’ll go home, have a shower, do a face mask, chill with my dog or go ride. Maybe I’ll watch TV or a movie, chill with my family and my friends. That’s really all I need.