Former Boxing Champ Kali Reis On Her Knockout Role In True Detective: Night Country: “From A Thought To An Avalanche, That’s How My Acting Career Began”

Halfway through True Detective: Night Country, Kali Reis’ character experiences a loss so traumatic it would make most people lose their minds. Steely State Trooper Evangeline Navarro has but one way of coping with the situation: She instigates a brawl, in essence begging for a physical manifestation of her pain. Watching one of the most heart-wrenching sequences of the anthology series play out, and Reis’ portrayal of her stoic character’s momentary collapse, it is near impossible to comprehend that this is only the 37-year-old’s third on-screen role.

To those who have followed her career, Reis is still best known as a champion boxer with six world titles in two weight classes under her belt. All this to say, Reis has never been afraid of hard work and discipline. But her move from competitive sports to acting was not the kind of career evolution she had consciously been looking for. “My brother had just passed away from brain cancer, and boxing was our thing,” she says. “Boxing has been an outlet, it’s been a job, it’s been everything to me. But for once in my life, it just wasn’t really doing it for me. I needed something else.”

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Much like boxing had found her at a transitional time of her life — “As a teenager, I was going through some things. The solo aspect of boxing and the self-accountability aspect have always intrigued me. I found a lot of purpose in it,” she says — acting came to Reis in a way that felt serendipitous. “Josef Kubota Wladyka, the director of Catch the Fair One, was educating himself on the Highway of Tears in Canada, but he knew it wasn’t his story to tell.” Reis, who is of both Cape Verdean and Seaconke Wampanoag descent, had been posting about missing and murdered Indigenous women online. “He saw that I was bringing awareness to it and reached out to me via Instagram,” she says. “He was like, ‘Do you ever think about acting?’ And I’m like, ‘This weirdo in my DMs. What is going on?’ But I’d had a thought: ‘If it’s meant for me, it’ll find me,’ and that’s when I talked to Josef. From a thought to an avalanche, basically, that’s how my acting career began.”

Kali Reis interview
Kali Reis and Jodie Foster in True Detective: Night Country.

In the independent thriller Reis portrayed Kaylee, a Native American former boxer conducting a search for her missing sister, whose disappearance the authorities have no interest in investigating. Although Reis’ role was tailor-made for her, she still found the endeavor challenging. “It wasn’t a tough transition as far as having the mentality to do something new,” she says. “Being someone who’s gotten used to being comfortable being uncomfortable — meaning your back is against the ropes, you have to survive, you have to fight — I’m very familiar with that. But it meant that I was going to learn something about myself. It’s me against me. I was like, ‘OK, I got this opportunity because I can handle it, I don’t know how, but I’ll figure it out.’ It was hard as hell.”

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Reis received an Independent Spirit Award nomination for her role, which both surprised her and affirmed her choice to move into a different arena. “My first thought was, ‘People will be like, ‘What does she get Best Actress for?’ And they’ll watch the movie and see the message that we were trying to convey. That’s really what it meant,” she says. “But it also meant, ‘I have something here.’ I really wanted to do this. It just gave me more motivation to get better.”

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Much as in boxing, Reis knows that even if fighting looks like a solo endeavor, you are only as strong as your team. “In the ring, you have corner people that see what you don’t see. Everybody in your corner has the same goal, they want to see you win,” she explains. Whenever she doubted herself on Catch the Fair One, Wladyka was the one to raise her up. “Josef kept saying, ‘Yo, Homie, you got the sauce, you got the juice.’ I’m like, what sauce?” she says. “But he was genuine. He saw something in me that I couldn’t see in myself. It’s that little look of people that you trust, and I don’t trust many.”

On True Detective, it was series creator Issa Lòpez and costar/producer Jodie Foster that manned her corner. “Issa is such an amazing mind,” Reis says. “Her explanation of the story, and who Navarro was, was very clear. The thing that resonated with me was that Issa made a conscious decision to make Navarro part of the community. This half-Dominican, half-Iñupiaq, who is also a police officer — that’s a very layered and convoluted type of position to have as an indigenous woman. There’s a fight she has to fight within herself before she can fight outside. I thought that was very brave [of Lòpez].”

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When it comes to going toe-to-toe with Foster, Reis can’t get over the Oscar-winner’s lack of airs. “It’s freaking Jodie Foster,” she laughs. “But there was no hierarchy, it was ‘How can we tell this story?’ She was also interested in my process. And I’m like, ‘Process? I don’t know how I got here, what you mean process?’ But it was amazing to feel like I was accepted into this elite group of creators that have been doing this for their entire lives. Here I am just showing up, and I’m welcomed with opened arms.”

For Reis, inhabiting Navarro was in some ways like slipping on a familiar pair of gloves. “I’ve learned that I do darkness and troubled very well,” she acknowledges. Her mission is now to excel at her new craft. “It is challenging being so new, learning terminology, learning how things move. And just learning myself in this has been cathartic,” she says. “Just like the first time I got my ass whooped in boxing. I’m like, ‘OK, how do I make that not happen again?’ It’s the same mentality. I need to understand it so that I can just give it my all and do the best I can. And I really want to be the best.”

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