Aminah Nieves, Mo Brings Plenty on Why ‘1923’ Doesn’t Look Away: “We Have to Allow the Audience to Witness”
The actress, who plays Teonna Rainwater on the 'Yellowstone' prequel series, and Brings Plenty, an actor and cultural consultant on the franchise, speak to The Hollywood Reporter about capturing a horrifying history and bringing Indigenous stars to the forefront in the megahit Taylor Sheridan franchise.
[This story contains spoilers to the 1923 season finale, “Nothing Left to Lose.”]
1923 has released its season finale and amid heartbreaking cliffhangers and treacherous uncertainty for many of the ensemble cast, the Yellowstone prequel series also delivered hope.
That ray of light surrounds Teonna Rainwater, the breakout Indigenous character on Taylor Sheridan’s Western saga played by Aminah Nieves. For eight episodes, 1923 has tracked Teonna’s epic journey. And not until the end of the finale, titled “Nothing Left to Lose,” was it revealed that — after everything she has endured — she is a survivor.
When Nieves saw what Sheridan had in store for Teonna, she tells The Hollywood Reporter that she had doubts about the role. When viewers first meet the teenager of Crow descent, she is being physically, emotionally and sexually abused for her refusal to culturally assimilate, shining a bright light on the Indian boarding-school era when Native children were sent to government-funded schools run by the Catholic Church. Teonna murders the nuns who abused her and escapes, heading on foot through the wilderness where she contends with wolves and men sent on horseback to find and return her to the head priest.
“This is my first big role,” she says. “It is a lot to carry, and also I think it’s our duty to carry it. It’s our duty to tell these stories and to share these stories. I wanted to get it right.”
Nieves credits her mother for ultimately pushing her to tackle the role, which carries with it generations of trauma. But the actress says what she conjured up was something different: “It’s ancestors moving constantly one at a time, moving and doing it with me. And they wouldn’t have showed themselves if I didn’t feel grounded.”
In order to create a safe set, particularly around the scenes of violence, 1923 enlisted an intimacy coordinator and turned to Yellowstone star and cultural consultant Mo Brings Plenty, who was present for all of Nieves’ scenes. Brings Plenty, who plays Mo on the flagship series, explains why 1923 couldn’t shy away from the horrifying reality of Teonna’s plight: “If you want to walk beside Taylor Sheridan, he’s so fearless that you, too, have to be courageous to do what needs to be done and tell these stories in a good way. And be aware and conscious of the boundary that you don’t want to cross.”
Below, in conversation with THR, Nieves and Brings Plenty detail the care that went into bringing Teonna’s story to life, what they think about the promise of Teonna’s final scene (including her romance with the character played by Mo’s nephew, Cole Brings Plenty), what they know about season two, and why they say they have to look to the past in order to preserve their present.
Mo, what is your official title on 1923? And can you explain what it involves?
Mo Brings Plenty: I’m the American Indian coordinator consultant [on 1923 and Yellowstone]. What I do is I make sure that we are accurate with the period and language. I go out and make sure that we have the right fluent language speakers of whatever tribe we’re representing.
Yellowstone viewers know Chief Thomas Rainwater (Gil Burningham), your character (Rainwater’s right-hand man) and the fictional Broken Rock tribe. Did the 1923 story of Teonna Rainwater stem from Taylor Sheridan wanting to show the origins of the Rainwater family and Broken Rock tribe?
Brings Plenty: You can’t have a backstory of the Dutton families without having it include members from the Broken Rock reservation. So, yes. And, Rainwater is a great character.
Aminah, how familiar were you with Yellowstone when the role of Teonna Rainwater came to you?
Aminah Nieves: I wasn’t familiar at all, actually! I didn’t know about the Yellowstone universe, so I came into this a little blind. I read the script and I felt all the feelings. And then I found out about Taylor [Sheridan] and I started digging into [first Yellowstone prequel] 1883, which is incredible. And then I got more versed on Yellowstone. But, funny enough, I still haven’t watched Yellowstone. My entire family now watches, and they’re obsessed, but I still haven’t. I want to watch it, I’m very excited to watch it. But with work, I just wanted to focus on Teonna.
Mo, were you involved in Aminah’s casting process? I’m curious about the process of finding Aminah and why was she right for it.
Brings Plenty: Taylor and the rest of the gang, they have great taste and they know what they’re looking for. So, I was not part of the casting process.
At what point did you two connect?
Nieves: We had conversations beforehand. It all happened so fast. I got the call and literally two weeks later, we were on our way to Montana. So I think about a week after I got the call is when I was introduced to Mo and [cultural adviser] Birdie Real Bird.
What were those early conversations like, were they welcoming you into the Yellowstone fold? And, what questions did you have?
Nieves: It was a mix of both. It was a welcome … almost a welcome home, in a sense. It was a bridging of families and coming back together, and reuniting more than anything else. It was a reunion, for me personally. It felt so nice! And of course, questions were asked. Because for one, this is my first big role, pretty much of anything that anyone has seen me in. So there’s a lot of anxiety around that, and questions. I wanted to get it right. But more than anything else, there was just love and knowing they were there and had my back, and vice versa.
Given the trauma in Teonna’s story, what hesitations did you have initially, and what convinced you to take on the part?
Nieves: My mom. My mom and, really, Spirit. I think after the second time I did the scene [for the audition] where I’m with Sister Mary [played by Jennifer Ehle] and I do, “Know I am the land. Know it is the land that is killing you. I am the land and I am killing you.” I did that scene in Crow on tape, and I think that’s when it all kind of hit me, and that it wasn’t really my decision anymore. Everything was flowing through me at once, and that’s when I knew I had to keep going. Not for me, but for everyone.
What did your mom say that impacted you?
Nieves: She kind of just broke down the first time I recorded that scene with her. She was in tears and said, “You have to do this.” Because I was still so hesitant. I didn’t know if I was mentally in the space to go there. But I was. And I am! She just kept encouraging me, saying, “You have to do this, Aminah. This isn’t just for you, this is for all of us. This is for all Indigenous communities. Do it for me.” I was like [in an emotional tone], “Are you kidding, Mom?!”
It’s a story that needs to be told, but that’s a lot to carry. Do you feel pressure?
Nieves: It is a lot to carry, and also I think it’s our duty to carry it. It’s our duty to tell these stories and to share these stories. Because I think to a mass amount of people, we still don’t exist. And people like to ignore the fact that we do exist. So I think I have a duty to share our stories, and to be a voice. Because it’s not just me doing it. It’s a mass amount of people coming through me at once. I’m doing it with Mo, I’m doing it with Birdie, I’m doing it with Leenah Robinson [who plays Teonna’s cousin, Baapuxti], with Michael Spears [who plays Teonna’s father, Runs His Horse], and Michael Greyeyes [who plays Hank] and Cole Brings Plenty [who plays Hank’s son, Pete Plenty Clouds]. And I take great pride and honor in knowing that our faces are being seen and that our voices are being heard during 1923 and beyond.
There have been articles explaining the historical accuracy of the church-run boarding schools like the one Teonna escapes from in 1923, and an audience who may not all know the history. Can you talk about how familiar you are with a story like Teonna’s and how that helped you tell this story?
Brings Plenty: I’m very familiar with the story. Like Aminah, I had my hesitations because I was revisiting different places and moments in my life, where I wasn’t sure if I wanted to reopen those wounds. I remember the rulers. I can tell you what a bar of soap tastes like. I remember getting a haircut in third grade and going through that because that era and that moment didn’t just end when those boarding schools closed. The mentality carried through.
But the game-changer for me to get involved and to get in-depth in all of it was the fact that, if we don’t tell these stories, then society will not know what we’ve been through. And neither will our own children. What it did for me was it fueled me to become more of what [the children at those schools] were told they could no longer be. Why not become that again? Hence, why I wear braids every day. That’s why I braid my hair. And understanding and knowing our language, our culture and traditions, and being an example of that. Every day that I’m given, I try to be more of an example of the past more so than the present, with hopes that I can inspire the present to also do the same.
All of this is horrifying, it’s a horrifying story. But if even our own people don’t know the price that has been paid for us to maintain and have our languages and have our traditions, our culture, then we ourselves as American Indian people will not pick that up and walk with that dignity and humility and honor to carry it on and pass it on. Because today, no one is absolutely saying that we can’t be Indian except for ourselves. It’s a choice. And so I want to utilize the positivity of it.
And I look at what we have today. We have allies, we have support. Now the media is opening up to our existence. And now we have to be prepared to be able to share who our ancestors once were — not just then, but who we desire to be again in the whole process. So, I’m just really proud of Aminah and what she’s done because I was a little nervous as well. When I met her, I couldn’t tell [she was nervous]. She was calm and collected. And I was very excited because I’ve seen that inner strength within her, and I just wanted to be a good support and be able to be there in the moments when she had to allow herself to go down into that darkness. I wanted to be a light to remind her, “Hey, you’re doing great. Let’s come back. We’re still here.”
Nieves: And I want to say that Mo was such a light for me. He was always there next to me before and after every scene. He and Birdie were standing there during every scene. I think that really helped. Mo and I have shared sentiments. People don’t know that behind the scenes Mo was there every second of every single day. That means so much. Leenah and I are just so grateful for him and Birdie, and for everyone [in] the crew.
I agree with everything Mo said. But I think it’s also reopening the world to maybe go more in depth in conversations within Indigenous families to talk more about what has happened. Sometimes it can be a little scary to go there and to bring it up. But I’ve heard stories, personally. People reach out to me saying, “This has really helped me and my family talk about it more openly, and talk about it to our children.” And even that is so huge, to be able to read or hear that from someone else. And, it’s accurate.
My father does a really great job at sharing stories; he’s a storyteller, all my life. And not just our stories but all peoples’ stories. So I’ve known this has happened. But I set out to learn even more. Because truly, even when this ended, there was still so much going on. Like, “the Scoop” was happening still [when Indigenous children in Canada were forcibly separated from their families in the 1960s], and we don’t talk about that. So it’s relearning and continuing to share and be open about stories, and to broaden our knowledge.
You recently said your grandfather shared how he related to Teonna. How has 1923 sparked your own family to open up more?
Nieves: My grandpa, when he was actually sick in the hospital, he told that to my little sister. And she called me and told me, partially. He said, “I’m so proud of her. Because some of the things that Teonna was doing I was actually doing.” It was a surreal moment. I’ve never heard that from him before, so even hearing it from his mouth while he was sick, and that last thing… (getting emotional) it hit.
Your scenes are powerful. You talk of the support you had, including from Mo. Did you have an intimacy coordinator to choreograph the violent scenes, and was there space when filming to pause if you needed a break?
Nieves: Yes, we have an intimacy coordinator for more of the tub stuff and [physical violence]. But we have an incredible stunt crew. They go through the action moments with us about 10 to 30 minutes before we go on. Really, the beautiful thing about this show and crew is, if we needed a moment, we could take as long as we needed. I felt so safe with everyone there, with Mo, with Birdie, with Ben [Richardson, director] that I could just go up to them and be like, “Hey, I need five minutes. I just need to catch my breath.” Or, “Hey, I think Leenah and I should have our own space that we could go to between setups.”
And that did wonders for us. So, there was a lot of breadth and tenderness throughout the whole crew. Everyone was very aware of what we were doing, and I think they were very spiritually aware, too, of what was being conjured and brought up, which made us feel that much safer to go there. If Mo and Birdie weren’t there, making me feel safe, and if Ben and the entire crew weren’t so gentle, I don’t think I could have done what I did. Because, like I said before, it’s not just Aminah doing it. It’s ancestors moving constantly one at a time, moving and doing it with me. And they wouldn’t have showed themselves if I didn’t feel grounded.
Mo, how do you find that line of showing the brutality but not being gratuitous or saying, is this too much violence?
Brings Plenty: You know, I live with the concept — I’m a realist — that if you do not witness something, then it can’t be true. So, we have to allow the audience to witness. The fine line is so fine that, at times, you have to double-check to make sure you’re near it. And do it in a tasteful manner and in a way that’s digestible, even for ourselves. Aminah was such a powerful actress that there were moments I had to walk away from the monitors and regather myself, or allow an emotion to flow. And to do it in private, away from the crew. But Ben, the crew, everyone was so amazing, that it was reassuring that we’re not in this alone. It wasn’t just about our ancestors, even though that was a given. But the people of today were there and supportive; it takes a village to bring to life a great story. I’m just so thankful to have shared that moment with Aminah and everyone.
I try to look at everything in a positive light, because we are still here. Life is still life. And if we have that life, then let’s utilize it as a gift and bring to light everything that we possibly can, because that’s where healing begins. And it was a healing phase for a lot of people. I’ve gotten a lot of positive feedback and it’s given me the opportunity to say, “Hey, just become what those children were told they can no longer be.”
Aminah, you have also said you felt there needed to be a payoff for Teonna in the end. The season one finale delivers that: In “Nothing Left to Lose,” Teonna is reunited with her father and she appears to be falling in love with Hank’s son, Pete Plenty Clouds. The three of them ride off to Wyoming, even though the priest (Sebastian Roché) and the men who are hunting her plan to meet them there by train. How did you interpret the ending?
Nieves: More than anything, it gave everyone a chance to see her as a child. And it gave her a chance for her child self to show. (Gets emotional.) That, for me, meant more than anything else. Because you don’t get to see her as a child. She doesn’t get to express being a child. And if she can have that one moment, that’s it. Yes, she’s getting away. But she could be herself for a second. And she could breathe. And she could hug someone who feels familiar. So yeah, let’s see what happens in season two!
And Mo, it’s your nephew, Cole Brings Plenty, who is playing Aminah’s love interest?
Brings Plenty: Yeah. (Laughs.) We call him my mini-me. It’s my brother’s son, but I look to him as a son, too. And that had nothing to do with him getting the role, that’s all him!
Based on their finale romance and the Rainwater connection, what role do you think these two could have in the bloodline for the characters on Yellowstone? Could this be Chief Rainwater’s grandmother and grandfather?
Brings Plenty: Honestly, I don’t know. I really don’t know. In my mind, I’m stuck with Teonna Rainwater and just getting to see some reflection of Thomas Rainwater’s character within her. Such a powerhouse and so emotionally and mentally strong, and well-educated even then. She knows what she’s doing and so I can just see a lot of that. I’m stuck on that story. I haven’t given any thought to the character of Mo himself [in Yellowstone].
Nieves: I’ve got some theories, Mo. You ready for ‘em? My theory isn’t about Teonna. My one theory is about Cole’s character [Pete Plenty Clouds]. I wish, in a perfect world — hear me out, Mo — Cole is your grandfather. But, I have nothing to do with you.
Brings Plenty: (Laughs.)
Nieves: It’s a loose-ended theory. But in my perfect world … yeah, it’s probably not going to work. (Laughs.)
Do you two know anything yet about season two, have you had conversations with Taylor Sheridan about where your stories will go?
Nieves: No, and I wish that we did. I’m left in the dust over here. Nothing. Have you, Mo?
Brings Plenty: No. I’m just taking it day by day.
Is there a timeline of when you shoot season two?
Nieves: No. It’s been everywhere. People tell me April, and then I hear August. Then we come to March somehow, and then we go to July.
But, I imagine you are excited there will be a season two. To speculate some more, what do you want to see or explore?
Nieves: Leenah, Julia [Schlaepfer, who plays Alex], Michelle [Randolph, who plays Elizabeth] and I are all best friends. And we’re all living together right now. We talk about it all the time, because I don’t think the audience really knew that Leenah’s character died. So we were up late last night theorizing that, too! We were like, “What if [Taylor] did it that way on purpose?” Because she does die in the script, but it is so open-ended [on the show]. So in a perfect world, what if she were to come back? Or even if Alex and Elizabeth and Teonna got to meet? That would be wild. But it’s too fairy tale — it’s not going to happen!
Mo, since you have the experience of doing this on Yellowstone and have tackled many Native storylines on that show, what do you make of some in the community saying that certain customs aren’t for sharing on TV? What makes you want to tell these stories, even if it’s within a show that has white and nonwhite characters?
Brings Plenty: I always go to the concept that years ago, our way of prayer was banned. And so, everything went into secret. I think about the children and the importance of them at least having something that would give them some type of acknowledgment of their bloodlines and of their existence, but also maybe an inspiration to get involved in their cultural identity. And so I’m fond of doing what we have done, because Taylor understands. He fully understands our cultural ways. He’s participated in a lot of our ceremonies, and so he knows there’s a fine line in that we can reveal some things to give a general idea to the audience, but also continue to protect these ways.
And I understand where a lot of people come from. There are so many spiritual predators out there, always looking for their next item they can utilize in their sales of considering themselves a spiritual leader or whatever the case may be. But that’s in all aspects of life, so we just have to stay in the positive aspect of everything and continue to look at our children and see what we can do to continue to influence or inspire them. The bottom line for me, at the end of the day, is if you want to walk beside Taylor Sheridan, he’s so fearless that you, too, have to be courageous to do what needs to be done and tell these stories in a good way. And be aware and conscious of the boundary that you don’t want to cross. That’s really what it boils down to for me.
I’m sure you’ve seen the reports about Yellowstone and Kevin Costner, and the situation there seems fluid. I’m curious if you have thoughts, or if you and Taylor have had conversations, of other Native stories you want to tell if and when Yellowstone ends, aside from 1923?
Brings Plenty: You know, I really haven’t been paying attention, because I’m so involved in so many other things in everyday life that I don’t have time to indulge myself with what’s going on in the media. So I have no answer for that. Honestly, I don’t. Right now, I’m just so focused on the finale of 1923, because it’s been such a great story. Every character in there is so amazing to follow, and just making sure we can maintain the spiritual capture that Aminah and others have brought to the screen. That’s where I’m at with all of it.
I’m also curious to hear your thoughts on the conversation around who can claim Native identity, and if you feel that 1923 has influenced that conversation as it’s been airing.
Brings Plenty: Well, as the show has been airing and when we talk about the continent, there is the Indigenous concept of tribal descendants from any tribe in this continent, whether it’s North America, Central or South America. But when it comes to the boundaries within the United States government, then we identify as American Indian people because we are tribally affiliated and it’s a tribe that’s recognized by the federal government.
When we are born, we are enrolled. That’s basically what they call it, enrollment. And so, honestly, tribal enrollment numbers, it’s a prison number. Because we are born prisoners of war due to the treaties that were implemented back in the 1800s and even before then, they were peace treaties. And so our people said, “OK, we just want to live in peace.” But we were confined into these reservations, aka prison camps. But for us, we didn’t view them as prison camps. We viewed them as our homes; they are still our homes. A lot of our family members still reside there. I have a tribal enrollment number. Or prison number, however you want to look at it.
If people really want to understand more of it, then look up the treaties. Look up what a tribal enrollment number is. But you have to go to the past to understand the true essence of what the meaning of an enrollment number is. I don’t like to try to pigeonhole everyone. We’re all human beings at the end of the day. Aminah is a great representative of us as the people — not just onscreen but offscreen as well. And I have a great deal of respect for her and people who take the time to represent us; it’s so vital and important.
Interview edited for clarity.
The first season of 1923 is now streaming on Paramount+. Head here to read THR‘s interviews with Brandon Sklenar and Julia Schlaepfer on the season one finale.