The wildness of the West—and Western men—is dramatized with graceful poeticism by The Rider, which remains one of 2018’s true cinematic standouts.
Directed by Chloé Zhao (Songs My Brothers Taught Me), the critically-hailed indie blends fiction and non-fiction techniques to recount the story of a professional South Dakota rodeo rider who, after suffering a critical injury that threatens both his career and his life, struggles to acclimate to his unfortunate new circumstances. A realistic, starkly lyrical portrait of a unique individual and milieu, it’s an affecting ode to a fading way of life, and the myths that have long bolstered it. And it features the debut male performance of the year, courtesy of Brady Jandreau.
Playing a variation of himself (named Brady Blackburn), the 23-year-old Jandreau is a magnetic center of attention in The Rider, conveying his character’s constantly shifting emotional state with a sensitivity that’s anything but rough around the edges. Quietly charismatic, he brings not only authenticity to the elegiac proceedings, but complexity as well, as his Blackburn is an individual whose placid demeanor and youthful complexion mask the fact that his heart and head are at tumultuous war with each other. It’s an even-tempered turn that, in small gestures and expressions, suggests a tangled knot of interior thoughts and feelings—and, as such, indicates that, should he choose to, Jandreau could have a prosperous second career as an actor.
On the occasion of his feature’s recent home video release, we spoke with Jandreau about his youthful first forays into horse riding, the accident that almost killed him, and channeling his real-life experiences for the movies.
Growing up in South Dakota, did you watch a lot of movies?
I watched a little TV here and there, but we didn’t have satellite or cable growing up. We’d buy movies, or go stay at the grandparents’ house and record them on VHS, and bring them home and watch them. I mean, not really, no—I was too busy outside playing with sticks and horses and stuff.
When was the first time you rode a horse?
The first time I was ever up on a horse, I was like 10 days old. The first time I ever competed in a rodeo event, I competed in the mutton-busting event—the sheep riding. And I was only two years old. I rode in my diaper.
You were hooked from the get-go?
At what point did you realize that riding—and working with—horses was not only something you loved, but also something you could do for a living?
I trained my first two-year-old colt from start to finish when I was about 7- or 8-years old. I trained wild ponies before that, when I was 5- and 6-years-old. Basically, for the past 15-16 years or so, I’ve been training horses from start to finish—and I’m 23 years old now.
When did you seriously join the rodeo circuit?
I used to be a pretty competitive bull-rider, and rode in the PRCA (Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association) and PBR (Professional Bull Riders). I started getting injured too much riding bulls, so I started riding saddle broncs. And I actually got my worst injury riding saddle broncs. [laughs]
In The Rider, your character is told that continuing to ride may cost him his life. How traumatic was your own 2016 injury? And was there a fear that you might not ride again?
The extent of my head injury isn’t ever really portrayed in the film. I have a very, very severe head injury. It’s a comminuted fracture, three-and-a-quarter inches in length, and an inch-and-a-quarter wide, and then three-quarters-inches deep into my brain cavity. I had brain bleed. It didn’t knock me unconscious—they started treating me for a neck injury, and then when I arrived at the Sanford Medical Center in Fargo, North Dakota, I went into a full-body convulsion. They induced a coma, did brain surgery, and I woke up about five days later and pulled the tubes out of my chest. I passed a series of tests, I was allowed to go home, and I never returned!
I assume they told you that riding was out, though.
They told me I couldn’t even lift ten pounds, or jog, for at least three months. And I was training wild horses again, lifting an 80-pound saddle up on their back, a month-and-a-half later.
How do you explain that fast recovery?
It’s like I told Chloé. She said, “Brady, what are you going to do, you’re going to kill yourself.” I said, “Well, I don’t feel alive not being able to ride.”
Chloé uses some of the footage from your actual accident in the film, right?
Yup, that’s the actual accident.
Was it tough to watch, and to include?
No, it’s just another bronc ride—that I got hurt on, you know what I mean? [laughs] I want that horse back, though. I want to get on her one more time.
She’s still working on the rodeo circuit?
Oh yeah. She’s still bucking cowboys off of her to this day.
What’s the likelihood of that actually happening?
Well, unless I buy my PRCA membership, probably zero. [laughs]
Do you still ride?
Since the end of the shoot of the film, my wife and I have started a breeding program, where we raise American quarter horses registered through the AQHA. Our program is called Jandreau Performance Horses, and we have a page on Facebook, and we’re working on a YouTube Channel, and—what do you call it?—a web site. [laughs]
Has the film helped attract attention to that venture?
Well, most people like you usually don’t put it in there [laughs]. So no, it hasn’t really. If you put it in, maybe it will!
How did you first meet Chloé?
I met Chloé a full year before my injury—about a year-and-a-half before the start of the shoot. She talked to me about possibly doing a movie, and being the actor in her movie, before my head injury even happened. She was thinking about other storylines and stuff. So I had known Chloé, and we had hit it off right away. We always got along really good. Chloé would come out and ride horses with us, and if she’d get on a 1,200-pound animal, then why should I be scared to act, you know?
You’re an entertainer, so you obviously know how to present yourself to an audience. But what part of the acting process did you find the most difficult?
I didn’t feel like it was difficult. Basically, the only setbacks we had were people who weren’t involved making faces at the camera, like at rodeos. Other than that, the weather was a little bit of a problem. We had to get a 10-day extension because it actually snowed, and it’s supposed to be in the summer, so we had to wait until the snow melted. [laughs]
You felt comfortable in front of the camera from the start?
Yeah, it wasn’t anything different than anything else. It’s just being me. I don’t care what anybody thinks about me.
So there was, I presume, no hesitation in doing your first movie about your own life?
I’ve never done anything else, but I’ve had professional actors tell me time and time again that the hardest thing to do on camera is be yourself. So I don’t think [it made it any tougher]. By the end of the deal, Chloé told me that I have the ability to go and act. “You do realize that, right?” I wasn’t sure about it. But now I’m thinking I want to do it some more, probably.
Were there any things from your own life that were off-limits for the film?
No, I just kind of gave Chloé the reins.
As The Rider makes clear, you share a special, almost spiritual, relationship with the horses you train. Is that something you’ve always had, or is it something you feel like you’ve had to develop?
I feel like anybody who thinks they’re a master horseman, they’re not. Because anybody who thinks that they don’t have time to learn, or there’s nothing they can learn, then they’re only holding themselves back. I feel like, even little kids, they can teach me things about horses. Or even somebody who’s abusive towards animals—at least they can learn what not to do.
How did you and Chloé go about shooting those horse-training scenes?
I just stayed hooked up, and went through my connection with the animals. I kept all of its attention on me. One thing that was really difficult is, when there’s a guy carrying a 150-pound camera, and a guy carrying a big old long microphone, and people with clipboards and slates and lenses and film strips, it’s hard to keep the horse’s attention on you.
How did you deal with that?
One thing that would help would be that each member of the crew learned a little bit about horsemanship. So they would help me some—standing back, or whatever. There was one horse that was terribly scared of Josh’s [James Richard’s] camera. So Josh would walk up to the horse, pet the horse, let the horse smell the camera, then pet it again, walk around it a little bit, let it be relaxed. Then, pretty soon, it’s not looking at Josh anymore, it’s looking at me again.
Your sister and father, as well as your good friend Lane Scott, are all in the film. Was it tough to convince them to participate?
Lane Scott, actually, before his injury, he was going to be on a bull-riding reality show. That all got put out. He was going to be a main character on it. So he was all gung-ho for it. Lilly, she’d been recording things and memorizing lines off of movies since she was a little tiny, so she was pretty happy about it. And my dad chuckled about it at first, but then he had fun with it after a while too. Everybody had fun.
What are the biggest differences between you and your character?
The character in the film is a little bit quieter in the film, and not so joking. [laughs]
Were there ways you tried to differentiate the character from yourself?
Definitely. There were some ways that we would do that. “Well, Chloé, I wouldn’t act like this.” “Well, Brady Blackburn will, so go do it!” [laughs]
How was working with Chloé?
She’s a pretty direct director. She doesn’t beat around the bush—she just tells you how it is. A lot of times, she’d relate things to me training horses. That way, it’d be all clear immediately.
Is the back tattoo real?
Yup. I got it done for the film. It’s all happening in the film. Cat Clifford’s giving that tattoo, and I’m getting that tattoo, in the movie.
Were you planning on getting it before the film, or did it come about during production?
It was a very expensive tattoo that I’d wanted to get, but couldn’t afford. Chloé bought it and put it in the movie.
Do you have plans to do any future acting—and anything in the works yet?
Yes and no. I’ve talked to a few people, and nothing’s really set in stone at the moment. But I hired a manager the last time I was in L.A. So I think that counts for something. I hope so.