“It was like being at a training camp with Mike Tyson in ‘86, in his prime.” With that response alone, so far removed from the usual clichés utilized by the bulk of actors during their promotional duties, Kali Reis makes it clear that you’ve never seen anything like her before. With that pugilistic simile, an unexpected reference from one who walks Hollywood’s red carpets, Reis pays homage to her co-star, Jodie Foster. They play the leads of the new season of True Detective: Night Country (HBO), which is making good on its previous success with the new story of two detectives who are investigating the disappearance of a group of scientists from an Artic research facility in Alaska. The series marks Reis’s entry into television acting, and it has served to crown the 37-year-old, three-time world champion boxer as one of the industry’s newest breakout stars. In front of her, there is a slate of projects that include a sequel to the celebrated crime thriller Wind River and Asphalt City, a paramedic thriller with Sean Penn. And this fight has only just begun.
19-7-1. That’s the tally of victories, defeats and draws on Reis’s scorecard. She even had the honor of starring in the first women’s fight aired on HBO — yes, the same network now premiering her phenomenal leap into acting — for a nationwide audience. Reis has been a world champion in different weight categories, and has also become the face of different activist organizations that offer support in fighting discrimination to Native women. She identifies as two-spirit, and her nickname in the ring is KO Mequinonoag, based on her tribal name, which translates to “many feathers” or “many talents.” Based on the accolades she’s received for her work on True Detective, she can certainly add acting talent to that list.
A descendant of Cape Verdeans and Native Americans, Reis’s rise to fame in Hollywood coincides with the victory lap of Lily Gladstone, who has made history by becoming the first Native American to be nominated for an Oscar, for her role in Martin Scorsese’s Killers of the Flower Moon. Although much of the critical acclaim for the new iteration of the True Detective saga has been focused on the chemistry of its lead duo, the premiere of Night Country has also been met with a backlash that smacks of machismo, whose trolls have done their best to sabotage the ratings of the show’s episodes on review sites. Why? Surely it has nothing to do with the fact that two empowered women serve as the season’s protagonists, and that there is a lesbian in this iteration of the series. Happily, there’s no misogynistic boycott that can successfully face down such a hardened fighter as Reis, both in and out of the ring.
Reis took refuge from a troubled adolescence in the boxing ring. She grew up an outcast child, in a neighborhood where she was neither Black enough nor Native enough to fit into any social group. She is the youngest of five siblings who were raised by their mother, Patricia, after their father abandoned the family. At age 12, Reis was repeatedly raped and beaten by a young man who she considered part of her circle of friends. “Once on a waterbed, and another time in a shed. I remember everything about it, too; what I was wearing, what I was doing. I was so embarrassed about it that I didn’t want to tell anyone. I was so confused and hurt that I kept it to myself for years,” she said in an interview.
In order to numb the trauma, she turned to alcohol and drugs. She drank a bottle of whiskey a day. When she couldn’t afford it, she stole. Until boxing came along. “When I found boxing when I did, at 22, that became my outlet to channel that anger,” she said. “I was mad about being raped. I was mad watching my father beat the shit out of my mother. I was mad about a lot of things. I knew I was a fighter. I didn’t know I was that good,” she says. It took decades to reconcile with her childhood self, and she says she only began to heal with she started sharing her story with other young women who had experienced similar trauma. “It’s taken awhile to like myself, oh, yeah, absolutely. I was ashamed about a lot of things that happened to me for years, and I didn’t understand why. I was punishing myself for reasons I didn’t know. I used to think there was a black cloud following me everywhere. But if I didn’t go through all the things I did, I wouldn’t be where I am. I can look myself in the face and be proud of the little 12-year-old girl still inside of me.”
Like the protagonist of Million Dollar Baby, Reis had to sleep on many a couch during her years as an amateur boxer. While battling it out in the ring, she worked up to three jobs at a time to be able to afford the cost of traveling to competitions. On one of these trips, she met Brian Cohen, who became her trainer and best friend, then her manager and, since 2021, her husband. Her acting debut — and first co-writing credit — also came in 2021 with the film Catch the Fair One, which is about the story of a former boxer who becomes a vigilante to take revenge on the pimps who led her sister into sex trafficking. Her performance was described as a “knockout” by publications like Variety, and earned her a nomination for Best Actress at the Independent Film Awards, in addition to winning the Audience Award at the Tribeca Film Festival.
Foster, who is also a producer of this season of True Detective, needed only to see a few clips of the athlete to know she was the right one for the role. “She’s a legend in the game,” Reis says about Foster. “She’s so intelligent, so collaborative, supportive. I went in having this goal, wanting to tell the story, but I left with a friend and such a mentor.” But beyond the fame, the spotlight, and the opportunity to shadow a legend such as the protagonist of The Silence of the Lambs, acting has been most important as a therapeutic and cathartic experience for Reis. “Acting is a big therapy session, because you have to pull a lot of deep shit from your past. I can talk to that little girl who was raped. I can hug her and tell her I love her.”
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