Cowboy Brady Jandreau Portrays His Real-Life Brain Injury in 'The Rider'

Brady Jandreau stars in "The Rider." (Sony Pictures)

Brady Jandreau is a Lakota Sioux cowboy who agreed to star in director Chloe Zhao's film "The Rider" shortly after he suffered a traumatic brain injury in a rodeo accident. He plays Brady Blackburn, a rider recovering from a similar injury and the movie follows both his and his character's efforts to put their lives back together.

Zhao is a Chinese-American filmmaker who moved to South Dakota in 2013 to make her acclaimed first film "Songs My Brothers Taught Me." She's put in the time in the local community and she's populated her cast with first-time actors who do a remarkable job of telling the story.

"The Rider" is an incredibly beautiful film that captures both the landscape and the majesty of the horses that its characters depend on to make their living. It also captures the economic struggle that many Americans face in small towns all over America. The characters may be Native Americans but their challenges will be familiar to anyone scraping to get by.

In the movie, Brady plays Brady Blackburn, a cowboy who needs to get back to work training horses after his accident. He ignores his doctors, gets grief from his dad and hangs out with his best friend Lane, another rider who was even more severely injured in an earlier accident. Lane is played by Lane Scott, Brady's real best friend who got his injuries in a car accident.

Zhao uses footage of Brady's real accident in the film and there are moving scenes where Brady and Lane watch old footage of Lane's real rodeo career. That may sound exploitative but it's not. There's a real human connection between the director and her cast and obvious deep ties between most of the people appearing in the film.

Traumatic brain injuries are life-altering and they're especially challenging for people who don't have straightforward access to health care. "The Rider" is a movie that treats real-life challenges with dignity and delves into character instead of using those injuries as a plot device.

Brady has married and started a family since he made the movie. He's training horses in South Dakota. He talked to us about making the movie and his experiences with TBI.

Tell us how you got involved in making "The Rider." 

Well, I met Chloe in about April of 2015.  And she came to Sharps Corner, South Dakota to research ranch lifestyle because she wanted to make her next movie about cowboys in the heartland of America.  But she didn’t really know that much.  It was completely different to the world she grew up around.  

She started seeing me work with horses and, the more she got to know me, the more she talked to me about possibly acting in this movie. After the head injury I sustained in Fargo, North Dakota at the CRCA Rodeo in April of 2016, one year after I had met Chloe, she had her story.  

Brady Jandreau gets back on the horse after a brain injury in "The Rider." (Sony Pictures)

You're incredibly fearless and brave to make this movie while you were recovering from the accident.  Did it make you more or less likely to agree to be in a film while you were dealing with a brain injury?

At that point in my life, I felt like I had nothing to lose.  I wasn’t going take any handouts and I had to make money somehow, so I went back to doing the only thing that I know how to do, which is training horses.  And yeah, it was just another thing.  

It was just like if you went back to your job, I guess. I never had any fear, actually.  I just had faith. 

A traumatic brain injury is a possibility for anyone who serves in combat, but I guess it's also something rodeo riders have to consider when they ride. How does the injury you face in the film compare to the one you suffered in real life?

In a film there's staples.  They were much easier to recreate the injury with.  In real life, I had stitches.  The gauze was actually stapled to my head, though, and I actually did take those out with my knife.

The movie never comes out and says what the extent of my injury was, really. For all the viewer knows, they could just think, well, he hurt his head, he cracked his egg or whatever.  

I had a three and a quarter inch in length break.  It was listed as a comminuted fracture, being shattered.  Many small fragments.  They actually had to remove some small fragments of my skull.  And it was about an inch and a quarter in width and about three quarters of an inch deep into my brain cavity and caused a significant brain bleed, which bled to the other side of my brain.  There were like six or eight screws, something like that.  

"The Rider" (Sony Pictures)

How has that injury affected your ability to ride in real life?

At first, there were a lot of things it affected, from motor skills to confidence things.  But through my faith and my connection with the animal, I just would take it slower, very much the way I would train horses when I was a young kid. I'd make sure that certain steps were achieved before I would try to progress any further.

Are you able to ride now?

Oh, yeah. I ride horses and I train horses for a living still to this day.

Brady Jandreau plays Brady Blackburn in "The Rider." (Sony Pictures)

When you were in the months leading up to making the movie, was there ever any question about that kind of recovery, if you'd be able to ride again?

Immediately after my head injury, all ideas of a movie with me in it were basically snuffed out.  Chloe didn’t know if I was even going to be me when I woke up from the coma. 

Immediately after, she was just worried about me. Then she saw on Facebook when I posted a video of a successful training with a horse I'd been working with.  She asked, "Brady, do you miss it? What do you think?  Could you do it again?"  And I was like, "What do you mean, Chloe? This is a video we took this morning." 

She said, "You're crazy, you're going to kill yourself."  Well, I don’t feel alive not being able to ride.  And she thought, okay, we have a movie here.  

Did the doctors tell you not to ride before you started riding again?

Oh, yeah, of course. Their simple instructions were not lift over ten pounds above my head and to not even jog for at least three months. Then I would have to be reassessed and then cleared to do those two things.  And then further on, cleared to do anything else.  

But I never returned to the hospital. I wasn’t worried about it. You know what I mean? I don’t know. They weren't going to keep me from lifting a gallon of milk up in the cupboard or in the fridge.  I figured they just will not keep me from riding horses either.  

Since the movie shoot, I've been married and had a daughter.  My wife, Terri Dawn, who is also in the movie, and then my daughter, Tawnee Bay is 13 months old as of yesterday.

We started a breeding program where we raised American Quarter Horses registered through the AQHA, to do everything in and out of the arena, from rodeo events to just simple trail riding. 

Lane Scott and Brady Jandreau in "The Rider." (Sony Pictures)

One thing that's particularly moving in the movie is you're character's relationship with Lane Scott. After I saw it, I found out that you guys were friends growing up together in real life.

Probably more than brothers growing up, honestly.  

On screen, you're really recovering from an injury and he's dealing with his condition, which I guess is from a car accident in real life. The way interact with each other in the movie is something we don’t ever really get to see in movies or TV shows. I think it’s a big deal.  Have you seen the movie with Lane?  Have you guys talked about it?

Yeah, of course.  Dozens of times. 

Do you guys give each other sh*t about the movie?

Oh, of course.  Lane gives everybody sh*t about everything.  Since the day he's born, he can't ever let anybody have an easy, soft time, you know?  It’s gotta be a hard time all the time. 

Lilly Jandreau plays Lilly Blackburn in "The Rider." (Sony Pictures)

Your real dad plays your dad in the movie and your sister plays your sister.    Yep. And my father-in-law plays the gentleman I break horses for.  The girl who I have a talk with in the back of a pickup, that’s actually my wife, Terri Dawn.  Tanner Langdeau is my second cousin.  Catlin Clifford has been a bull riding mentor to me since I was very young. I know all these guys.  James is a kid that looked up to me a lot growing up. I helped him out in sports and rodeo and training horses.  

Everybody involved is either from right there around the area or is one of my family members or close friends, basically.  There's only one person that I acted with that I had never met before that day, I believe.  And it was the woman at the hospital.  

Tim Jandreau plays Wayne Blackburn in "The Rider." (Sony Pictures)

How much is your relationship with your dad like the one in the movie?

Oh, he's a total d*ck in real life too.  No, I'm just kidding. Chloe wanted him to be like that. We might be joking around and doing a scene and my dad might be supposed to be all mean and then he just can't take it anymore.  He’d be like, "Okay, I'm going to the bar and just laugh."  My dad is a pretty happy-go-lucky guy, really.  My dad has expected a lot of me my whole life too and he's always made me step up to the plate and never let me settle for less.  

Brady Jandreau trains horses in real life and plays a trainer in "The Rider." (Sony Pictures)

Every young person thinks they're invincible. Obviously this kind of injury is something that’s very possible for rodeo riders. But is that something that you think about as you're a kid coming up? Do you still think about it?

I still do.  Look at me, I crushed my skull and I'm still here talking to you.  I don’t know, it’s a part of it, you know?  When I was eight years old, I broke my arm riding a steer. When my brother was three years old, he got a very severe concussion riding a sheep.  He was three years old, you know?  

Honestly, my dad always wanted my brother to be a rough stock rider and he wanted me to be a roper, but it didn’t work out that way. I've been hurt.  Almost every scar on my body is from either training horses or rodeoing. I feel like it just made me better, it made me stronger, it made me more of who I've always wanted to be. You can't live with fear.  

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