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How an Injured Rodeo Cowboy Become the Unlikely Star of an Indie Western

After being kicked in the head by a saddle bronc, Brady Jandreau collaborated with director Chloe Zhao on a movie based on his life and his passion for horses.

Brady Jandreau was never supposed to be a movie star. He just wanted to compete in rodeos, maybe train horses, and make a decent living on a ranch.

That changed on April 1, 2016, when he was kicked in the head by a saddle bronc, leaving him with a fractured skull, an extended hospital stay, an induced coma, and a very uncertain future.

Then the South Dakota cowboy found a new path thanks to Chloe Zhao, a young filmmaker enamored with stories about life on the contemporary American frontier. They wound up collaborating on The Rider, a low-budget drama inspired by Jandreau’s harrowing experience and its aftermath.

As the film opens, Brady Blackburn (Jandreau) is recovering from a near-fatal head injury while dealing with a series of personal setbacks. Having grown up with a passion for horses and lacking other skills or experience, he contemplates a risky return to riding.

Zhao shot her debut feature, Songs My Brothers Taught Me, on the Pine Ridge Reservation near the Nebraska border, and returned there to research a potential project on Native American cowboys.

Jandreau recently landed a job on the reservation, training horses for Lakota cowboys. He had just returned home after attending Oklahoma Panhandle State University on a rodeo scholarship, and needed money to enter professional competitions.

“She would write down things I said about horses and cattle. She said, ‘You’ve got a good face and you’re good with words. I think we’re gonna use you in this film.’ She brainstormed a bunch of ideas, but nothing was quite right,” Jandreau said during the recent South by Southwest Film Festival. “After my head injury, everything was put on hold.”

Less than two months after his accident, with his head still heavily stitched up and against the advice of his doctors, Jandreau started training horses again.

“That was what really inspired Chloe to write this story — that I would risk my life to keep doing what I loved and hold on to my sense of identity,” Jandreau said. “I went back to training horses before my head was even close to healed.”

Suddenly, Zhao had a new direction for her film. Not only did it become Jandreau’s story, but the filmmaker doubled down on her earlier impulse to put him in her movie. She wanted him to star as himself — less than six months after he narrowly escaped death.

In fact, many of Jandreau’s true-life friends and family members play supporting roles, including his father, his sister, and his friend Lane Scott, who was paralyzed after a rodeo accident about eight months before Jandreau’s spill.

“Chloe makes it really easy to act,” Jandreau said. “I call myself a horse trainer. She’s like an actor trainer. Most of us had never acted in anything.”

Although Zhao’s screenplay lightly fictionalizes some of the narrative details, the film was shot on location to maximize its authenticity. Jandreau, 22, said the experience was initially nerve-wracking, but wound up therapeutic.

“I’m always up for a challenge. I really did enjoy it,” he said. “Seeing myself like that helped me to progress more and more.”

He acknowledges his rodeo days are over. So are there more film roles in Jandreau’s future? He’s open to the idea, but currently focused on training and breeding horses on his South Dakota ranch, and raising his baby daughter with his wife, who also appears briefly in The Rider.

“I get bad headaches from time to time,” Jandreau said, “but I’ve been doing real good.”

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