Set deep in the hallowed American Heartland, Chloe Zhao’s poignant second feature, The Rider, showcases young budding cowboy Brady Blackburn coming to terms with a catastrophic head injury that prematurely ends his promising rodeoing career. Tenderly and astutely played by newcomer Brady Jandreau, Blackburn’s plight offers heart-wrenching parallels to the actor’s own life. Jandreau himself suffered a catastrophic head injury whilst in the middle of a performance. In an exclusive, frank and honest interview with Hot Corn, which covered matters ranging from the horrific injury itself, his road to recovery and the political stereotypes of the cowboy community, he tells us, “The video footage in the film is the actual injury. We put the recreation right on top of my scar – that was still red. It was only four months after my head injury…”.
How close is the film to your own life?
I would say that the film is about 40 per cent fiction and 60 per cent based on actual events that happened in my life just re-enacted. There are times when the character is exactly how I would be and there are times when the character is maybe a little distorted or fictionalised. There are times when I’d say to Chloe (Zhao), ‘You know, I wouldn’t do that’, and she would say, ‘but the character would’.
In what ways does the character behave differently to you?
He’s more vulnerable. He’s more sombre.
What happened to you in your accident?
Basically, I got stomped on my head (by the bronco). I had a 3¼ inch break, that was 1¼ inch wide in the middle and about ¾ inch deep into my brain cavity. There were three parts of my skull that were broken and there were 2 parts of my brain that were pretty damaged. I had significant brain bleeds as well. It was a pretty bad injury, but it didn’t knock me out initially. When I got to the hospital, however, I had a full body convulsion seizure and they induced me into a coma. They did brain surgery and removed the manure, the sand and broken fragments. They then took the skull lining and put a plate in there and stapled a gauze over the top, put me on some high-grade antibiotics, anti-seizure medication painkillers, etc.
What do you remember from when you came to?
I actually woke up without any recollection of who I was at all. I jumped out of bed, started pulling tubes out, and the doctors strapped me back down – this is all what I’ve been told. I don’t remember this. I remember getting stepped on. I remember going to the hospital. I don’t remember when I first woke up the first couple of times.
How did your recovery proceed from there?
I regained myself over the next 3 days or so. Each time I would rest, I would come on leaps and bounds. My balance was off, my perception was off, my hearing was off, my sight was off in my left eye, but when I first woke up, I demanded to be let loose. They told me they couldn’t legally hold me if I passed a series of tests. I just felt horrible in there.
Did you always want to ride the rodeo and be a cowboy? Is it a common ambition in the American heartland?
In my part of the world, it is. It’s something I always wanted to do since I was two years old. I got on my first sheep with a diaper and t-shirt on, so began my love for rodeo!
Is it hard to make ends meet for those who have had to retire from the profession after injury?
Yeah, definitely. A lot of people still try to stay involved in the rodeo circuit and things. There’s a bronco rider that I used to look up to a lot growing up. His name is Nate Morrison. He broke his neck riding when he was young. Now he’s a contractor for rodeos. He’s still involved in that way.
What is it about the relationship between the cowboy and horse?
I love horses. Even if I couldn’t ride horses, I’d still be around them all the time. You can love an animal because of the way it looks at you. I don’t really have anything to do with rodeo circuit. I’m responsible for 105 horses and a whole breeding programme. Horses are my life.
This is your first acting role. Did you have any background in acting?
Zero background. Zero training. Nothing whatsoever. I literally went into this blind. I’m really hoping that I can act again. I enjoyed it. It was fun and a challenge and a lot of people told me that I did pretty good, so I figured I’d just as well give it a whirl, you know? I’m definitely going to be raising and training horses for the rest of my life as well.
How did you meet Chloe Zhao?
Chloe shot part of her first movie, Songs My Brothers Taught Me (2015), on the Neo-Sho Angus ranch (Jandreau’s elder cousin, Todd O’Brien is the owner of the Neo-Sho Angus ranch). She came back there to research ranch lifestyle and western heritage, because she wanted to make a movie about Native American cowboys and the Heartland of America. I was working there on the ranch and professionally rodeoing in South Dakota and the Badlands circuit. That’s where I met Chloe. Todd told me to take her out and show her stuff. Chloe actually wanted to ride horses and move cattle, so we got her on a horse. Both her and her cinematographer, Joshua (James Richardson), came out a several times that summer, rode with us and hung out.
How did that develop into her casting you and writing a film around your story?
Chloe talked to me about possibly acting in her next film. I kind of laughed about it because I knew nothing about it. I hadn’t acted. I didn’t know how films were made or anything like that.
What do you think drew her to you?
The first thing was my ability to work with young horses; and how people could be around and there could be all these things going on and I could still keep my connection with the animal. Similar to a connection to an audience. You have to keep their attention and keep them happy. It’s a very similar thing.
There’s a certain political stereotype about middle America. It’s seen as being very pro-Trump. Is that a fair picture from your experience?
I’m going to be straight up with you, sir. I’m enrolled with the Lower Brule Sioux Indian reservation tribe and I live on the Pine Ridge of the Indian reservation. I’ve primarily been around reservations. I’m a native American and most of my relatives are Democrats, because they are still looked at as a minority group. The state of South Dakota, however, is primarily Republican. Therefore, typically, most cowboys are Republican.
Is the image of the cowboy as central to American identity in the 21st century as it once was?
Even more so probably now, because it almost died out. It started to die out. When it came back, it was like, ‘we’re never going to let it die out’. It’s more and more popular to be a cowboy nowadays.
- Matt Bomer: “Acting is almost like being possessed”
Here, The Rider’s trailer