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'The Rider' Will Rein Audiences In

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Brady Jandreau as Brady Blackburn. Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

Written and directed by Chloé Zhao, The Rider is the moving story of Brady Blackburn, a young cowboy struggling to hold on to the only way of life he knows after suffering a serious head injury while competing in a rodeo. In his acting debut, Brady Jandreau delivers a quiet, yet riveting, performance as Blackburn, a fictionalized version of himself. Like his character, Jandreau is a member of the Lakota Sioux cowboys who live on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. He also fractured his skull in a rodeo and ignored his doctor’s advice to say goodbye to the world of horses he loved.

This poignant ode to modern cowboys is getting rave reviews from critics and has garnered a number of awards and honors at prestigious film festivals such as Sundance and Cannes. Recently in town for the San Francisco International Film Festival, both Zhao and Jandreau sat down with Academy Art U News to talk about The Rider. The two met when Zhao was on the reservation making her first film, Songs My Brothers Taught Me.

“I was very interested in the Indian cowboy culture and felt like there was still another film I wanted to make, but I wasn’t sure what it would be,” explained Zhao, a native of Beijing. “I was looking for somebody who’s really living the way of life that he says he is. It’s easy to say young people on reservations are close to the land, but the reality is that we’ve been institutionalizing them for a long time and taking them away from their culture and their connection with the land. When I met Brady, I was very encouraged.”

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Writer/Director Chloé Zhao.

Jandreau—clad in a western shirt, bandana knotted around his neck and a white straw cowboy hat—said he figured he’d give acting “a whirl” when Zhao approached him about the film. That was before his rodeo accident. After he was injured, he thought the project might get scrapped. Instead, it was the catalyst Zhao needed to shape her narrative.  She was drawn to Jandreau partly because of his uncanny ability to bond with, and train, even the wildest horses.

“Just by a horse looking at me, he says more than we’ve said in this entire conversation,” remarked Jandreau.   

“That’s why we felt like Brady was the one to star in this film,” added Zhao. “That kind of connection doesn’t come easily. It’s lifelong, and maybe even goes back beyond that, to before he was born. We wanted to capture that.”

They did, through close-ups of the horses’ expressive eyes and showing Jandreau in action with an especially challenging horse, Apollo. That aspect of his role may have come naturally to Jandreau. But playing a movie version of himself wasn’t always easy.

“It was difficult on certain days,” Jandreau admitted with a laugh. “Chloe would give me directions that made it easier—she basically trained me to act.”

While the facts of Jandreau’s life are similar to Brady Blackburn’s, Zhao wants people to know that he and other characters in the movie—also played by his real-life family members and friends—aren’t just being themselves. They are acting.

“Brady’s got a natural gift—that’s something you can’t teach,” she said. “But there were little things and tricks, like moves and how the camera works, I could help him with. I treated him and the other actors the way I would treat a professional. Everything was crafted a certain way to give the audience that authentic feeling.”

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Brady Jandreau as Brady Blackburn. Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

Jandreau’s father, Tim Jandreau, plays Wayne Blackburn, his dad in the film. A boozing gambler, Wayne constantly criticizes his son and sells his beloved horse, Gus, for rent money.

“My dad’s not that much of an ass----,” joked Jandreau, when asked if their off-screen relationship was as difficult.

His sister Lilly, who has Asperger’s syndrome, also appears in the movie, as does his best friend and mentor, Lane Scott. A former rodeo champ, Scott sustained a crippling brain injury in a car accident. He can’t speak or walk. But the scenes in which Brady visits him at rehabilitation center are both wrenching and inspiring. Lane’s face lights up when Brady shows him videos from his rodeo days. The two friends help each other believe they’re both destined to ride again.

Joshua James Richards’ cinematography captures the rugged beauty of the reservation’s wide-open prairies and buttes, especially stunning when ablaze at sunrise or sunset. Scenes of Brady streaking across that land on horseback evoke a sense of freedom that contrasts sharply with the stifling, fluorescent-lit confines of the grocery store where he’s forced to take a job. Nathan Halpern’s stirring music provides the perfect soundtrack for Brady’s emotional journey.  

We won’t give away how Brady Blackburn fares in The Rider. But Brady Jandreau is doing just fine. He’s now married to one of his co-stars, Cat Clifford. They have a baby daughter and run a horse breeding and training program. Jandreau also hopes to do more acting. Given his impressive screen debut, we can’t help but think that’s more than likely to happen.

The Rider is now playing in San Francisco.