Brady Jandreau, a diminutive cowboy in faded blue jeans, beige Stetson, and a paisley neckerchief fastened with an intricate silver slide sauntered casually into the sterile conference room in the heart of Austin, Texas on Saturday. His handlers for the day set up an easel with a large movie poster while he wrapped a black jacket featuring his horse-raising and training business: Jandreau Performance Horses over the back of a chair.
The 22-year-old, former-bronco-riding star is the lead in Chloe Zhao’s elegiac drama The Rider, based on Jandreau’s real-life struggle to recover from a life-threatening injury after he was thrown from a horse and trampled during a rodeo competition. He’s traveled all over the world promoting the film and seemed as comfortable at South by Southwest in promotion mode as he once was on a horse.
Zhao’s sophomore feature—her first was the tiny, yet well-received Songs My Brother Taught Me centered on the same Lakota reservation, the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota as The Rider—first debuted at the Cannes Film Festival to a rapturous response. It won the Director’s Fortnight award and went on to screen at the Telluride, Toronto, and the New York Film Festival before making its way to Sundance, the True/False Film Fest in Columbus, Missouri, and its final destination at this weekend’s South by Southwest Film Festival. Sony Pictures Classics will open it in theaters on April 13.
Since the film was made, Jandreau got married and had a baby. He said he found the pace of the festival circuit not that dissimilar to that of the rodeo. “You do a lot of traveling, you meet a lot of new people. You don’t have to ride any bucking horses, but you get to ride, maybe, some, mental, emotional bucking horses,” he said, with a bit of hesitation. Thus far Jandreau has participated in some 11 question-and-answer sessions following various screenings of the film. The movie, which looks at the construct of masculinity through the lens of Jandreau’s recovery also paints a moving picture of a world oft-forgotten, where fortunes are made on the backs on young, desperate riders willing to risk their lives for brief shots at glory. Jandreau said whether he’s in a big city or a smaller town, the response to the film has been the same. “From everything I’ve seen, no matter if it’s in part of the world where there’s horse people or not, I don’t think it makes a difference,” he said. “The storyline in this movie is just so universally easy to follow. There was a certain point in time where we all got around on horses.”
Zhao first met Jandreau during the filming of her first movie, where he taught her how to ride. According to the Jandreau, she wanted to work with him on a second feature, but she couldn’t find the storyline to center things. "She said that I have a pretty good vocabulary, a decent face, I’m funny, and I’m not scared of what people think," he said. “So she knew I’d be able to act, at least, somewhat.”
Jandreau’s accident happened on April 1, 2016. Once Zhao found out that he was able to train horses again, only six weeks after the incident, she approached him, this time with the idea of centering the film loosely on his recovery and all the implications that surround giving up on a dream because of your body’s limitations. She cast Jandreau’s father and special needs-sister in supporting roles and featured his best friend, bull rider Lane Scott, who is recovering from a debilitating brain injury following a car crash back in 2013.
Jandreau had no qualms about sharing his story on screen. “I’ve already told so many people my stories,” he said. His biggest hesitation revolved around balancing his work-life—he still needed to make a living—with the shooting schedule. So they made a deal. Jandreau trained horses each morning until noon and then Zhao got him for shooting and magic hour every afternoon. He trusted Zhao and he never looked back.
“She’d been around. She knew the lingo and how people are. She was able to step into our world: riding horses, moving cows, stuff like that. Why should we be scared to step foot into her world,” he said. "She would do things like get on a 1,700-pound animal for us. And trust us. So we did the same. We got on her 1,700-pound animal.”
What’s next for Jandreau? He’s using this opportunity to promote the horse business he runs with his wife in Rockyford, South Dakota. As for acting, he hasn’t ruled it out and working on The Rider taught him a lot. “I’ve always been up for a challenge and you gotta connect with the camera and the audience the same way you gotta connect with the horse,” he said. “There’s just a little bit different way of going about it. Less words with a horse.”
Get Vanity Fair’s HWD NewsletterSign up for essential industry and award news from Hollywood.Full ScreenPhotos:The Kentucky Derby: Hats, Horses, and MoreNicole SperlingNicole Sperling is a Hollywood Correspondent for Vanity Fair.