On July 12, 1990, the Emmy Award-winning comedy-drama, Northern Exposure, began its run on CBS. Created by Joshua Brand and John Falsey, a neurotic Jewish physician (Rob Morrow) from New York is forced to work as a general practitioner in the small, fictional town of Cicely, Alaska, in order to pay the state of Alaska for underwriting his medical school education. Over the course of the series’ six seasons, not only did audiences watch Morrow’s Dr. Joel Fleischman slowly adjust to his surroundings, but they also got to know the quirky residents of the small community and follow their day-to-day lives as well.
Among those residents is Marilyn Whirlwind; Joel’s extremely calm but straightforward receptionist of few words. Elaine Miles, who played Marilyn, couldn’t believe it’s been 30 years since the series’ debut. As she explained in a phone interview last month, “It’s crazy because when I first auditioned for that, I had no clue what it was. I never in my whole life thought I would become an actress. But with Northern Exposure, that first season, I was in awe the whole time.”
It was Elaine’s mother, Armenia, who was originally going out for the role. Elaine grumpily accompanied her, making it known more than once that she wanted to leave. Creators Brand and Falsey liked the interaction between mother and daughter (“She talked to me in our language and she was actually getting mad at me but she was smiling, so they thought my mom was talking to me nice and I’m like, ‘No she’s not,’” Elaine recalled) and asked her to audition as well.
The auditions were held on a Friday in Seattle, before the two made their way up to Canada for a powwow. It wasn’t long after they arrived before Elaine’s father called them multiple times, telling them that they both had callbacks. The final auditions were held that Monday in Bellevue. Elaine won the role of Marilyn while Armenia was cast as Marilyn’s mother. Elaine began filming for Northern Exposure just two days later.
Aside from this being her first role on TV, this was also Elaine’s acting debut. When it came to embracing the mindset of Marilyn, she followed the director’s advisement and played off of her frequent scene partner, Morrow.
“Marilyn had patience. She had a lot of patience,” Elaine said. “[Joel would] get agitated, he’d get agitated really easily. Marilyn was just always calm. She never got upset. She was just different.”
Elaine also described Marilyn as a jack of all trades, which proved to be one of the most difficult parts of playing her at times. “Marilyn was very knowledgeable. She understood French, she understood Russian, she played the piano, and I can’t play the piano. I can’t speak any other language other than my own.”
When asked to name a memorable episode, Elaine gave two. One of them is from the fourth season, “Learning Curve;” where Marilyn makes her first solo trip outside Cicely to Seattle, amidst Joel’s distress. While some fans may have argued that it sounded out of character for her to do, Elaine argued that, “Marilyn went because she knew so much about different places and that was one of her goals, which was to go to Seattle. She wanted to go to Seattle and she went whether if anyone went with her or not.”
The other episode is from the third season, “A-Hunting We Will Go;” particularly the final scene where Ed Chigliak (Darren E. Burrows) gifts Ruth-Anne Miller (Peg Phillips) land for her grave, followed by them seizing the opportunity of a lifetime to dance on it. “That was one of my favorite ones because that was so cool,” Elaine commented enthusiastically.
Elaine is said to be the first Native woman to be a series regular on a TV show, and that came with issues as far as how her character was portrayed. “That first season, they had me pronounce every letter and consonant,” she recalled. “It was crazy because Natives don’t talk like that.”
Other examples included how she constantly had her hair in braids and, in the case of one episode, had her in a powwow scene, wearing her own traditional dress. Elaine is of Cayuse and Nez Perce ancestry, and is a registered member of the Umatilla Confederated tribe. While Marilyn’s ancestry is never explicitly named on the show, she is Alaska Native.
“The Alaska Natives — they dress completely different,” she explained. “Each tribe has their own style of dressing and that was one of the biggest issues because they were like, ‘We don’t like that.’ I thought they would be happy because I was Native, but they wanted it to be correct.”
Due to being new in the industry during the first season, Elaine didn’t feel confident enough to tell the producers her discomforts. However, after the hate mail that was sent her way and having consultants that weren’t really around (nor was she even aware of), she eventually started speaking to the producers about it during the second season. They agreed to do their research going forward.
Elaine looks back on her time on Northern Exposure with fond memories. While it took some adjusting in the beginning, she ultimately loved being a part of the show and enjoyed the people that she worked with. “It was such a turnaround from my normal life, from going to powwows and rodeos, to working on camera for six years as a cast regular,” she expressed.
In the present day, Elaine still gets recognized by people in the Seattle area, where she is still based. Her son likes watching the show to see his grandmother Armenia, who has since passed away. He has also been encouraging Elaine to write a book about her experiences — an idea that she has entertained during the COVID-19 crisis.
It’s because of the pandemic that production for two new films she’s a part of have been postponed to next year. She also was supposed to speak on a panel about Native women in the entertainment industry back in April before that was cancelled.
Elaine has been praised for paving the way for Native representation, but in the midst of the changing media landscape, she wishes for there to be Native creatives working in the industry all the time.
“There are so many talented young Native actors and actresses,” she said. “We have some very talented Native writers and people that are trained to be behind camera, and it’s so hard for us to get in the business. I’d like to change that.”
Elaine is particularly certain that her son has the potential to continue paving the way. “He’s a good writer. He wrote a little script in high school for his senior project and it’s actually really good. I told him he should get it together and get someone to do a storyboard and present it to someone. It would make a great short film.”