From writer/director Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre and executive producer Robert Redford, the drama The Mustang tells the story of convict Roman Coleman (Matthias Schoenaerts), a man struggling to come to terms with his violent past. While locked up in a rural Nevada prison, he is required to participate in a state-mandated social rehabilitation program that pairs inmates with wild horses for training, in the hopes that maybe he’ll also be able to rediscovery his own humanity.
During this 1-on-1 phone interview with Collider, actor Jason Mitchell (who plays Henry, a fellow inmate and experienced horse trainer) talked about why he wanted to be a part of telling this story, his desire to overcome his fear of horses, what he liked about his character, and the experience of working with co-star Matthias Schoenaerts. He also talked about what he’s enjoyed about being a part of the Showtime series The Chi, making Zola with writer/director Janicza Bravo, and his desire to show people that there are many different layers to him.
Collider: I thought this was a really beautiful film with a very emotional story. When you read this, what did you find yourself most interested in or drawn in by?
JASON MITCHELL: I’ve been afraid of horses, pretty much my entire life, but I always try to challenge myself to show a different face. When I read this script, I was like, “This doesn’t just challenge me on camera, this challenges me in life. This is potentially skills that I can leave with, and nobody can ever take that from me.” Part of that was overcoming that fear. So, besides working with the amazing cast that I got to work with, that was pretty much the main perk. The fact that I would be able to really overcome a fear was big to me.
It’s not just about facing a fear. This guy is also really good at working with these horses, so that means you also had to seem very comfortable.
MITCHELL: Exactly! I had to be believable. They had wranglers and cowboys around to help, but a lot of the time, I had to do things by myself, so I really had to know what I was doing. I really had to be engulfed fully in the character. I think I hit the mark and it came out good.
Definitely! To me, just like there’s something beautiful and untamed about staring into the vastness of the ocean, there’s this majestic beauty to horses that you can’t really put into words. Do you feel like, now that you’ve spent some time with them, you understand the animal a little bit better?
MITCHELL: Absolutely! The powerful thing about horses is the fact that, like we say in acting, you can’t skip the work. You can’t expect to get the results, and not do the work behind it. If you choose to respect that space and respect them, as an animal, you can start making that bond, but it’s important to take your time and be patient. It was really beautiful, how you could just see Matthias [Schoenaerts] go through this entire thing with this horse, while I narrate the entire thing. I’m like that voice in the back, that’s telling him exactly what to do because I’m one of the only people in the movie that really talks a lot. So, it was cool to have that character.
Why do you think your character, in particular, connected so deeply to these horses and seemed to really develop this way of working with them, when that’s not something that everyone can do?
MITCHELL: I think Henry was one of those people who had inner peace. Even in jail, he was always with a big smile. He was always full of life. He woke up, every day, like he was going somewhere. Even if you just watched him, you felt like, “Oh, this kid isn’t gonna be in jail his entire life. Maybe in five or six years, he’ll be back on the street. He might have his own horse stable or something, one day.” I think that really shows in his work with the horses. Obviously, you’re gonna excel faster in this sort of program, when you have kindness on the tip of your tongue and at the tip of your fingers, and that’s exactly what he did.
It’s interesting how this story is centered around Roman (Matthias Schoenaerts), but we get to learn about him through everyone that comes in and out of his life, and they all play these important roles in shaping him. What did you enjoy about exploring your character, in relation to his character, and playing the dynamic between the two of you guys?
MITCHELL: To be honest, everything that I learned about Henry, I learned about from the way he would handle Roman. He was such a kind person, even if he was taking the piss out of you. He honestly wanted Roman to do better. That was the energy that he had. It was interesting to see a sort of love triangle between me, Roman, and the horse. You could see different shades of all of us. The horse doesn’t have a voice, so at times, I’m that voice that’s speaking back to him, from the horse.
What was it like to work together, as actors? Did you guys rehearse together, at all, or did you just jump into it?
MITCHELL: No, we didn’t have a crazy amount of time to get together because they had already started shooting, once I got onto the project. I actually met Matthias on set, but we just clicked. Like you do with some people, we just vibed. We had that thing where, even if it was two or three in the morning, he didn’t mind coming and knocking on my hotel room door, and being like, “Hey, I’ve got an idea about this. I’ve got an idea about that.” He seems really quiet, in real life, but he’s so full of life. He always has an opinion about things. Artists who are heavily opinionated, you get gold out of them. You can see that there was so much pain in his eyes. By the time he’s telling the story, you are fully engulfed. You’ve been waiting the whole movie to figure out what happened. I was like, “Wow!” It was just a lot to take in. Matthias has that really intense, opinionated, character vibe, and you’ve gotta really appreciate that. He’s so dope.
Congratulations on your NAACP Image Award nomination, for your work on The Chi.
MITCHELL: Thank you!
What have you most enjoyed about getting to tell that character’s story, for the ongoing and longer format of television?
MITCHELL: I feel like, a lot of times, movie characters are very mystic, and people on TV are just very mystic. You don’t see people that are like them, every day. They make hero-type decisions. They have this whole fantasy world. But, what’s beautiful about Brandon and about The Chi is that it’s all authentic. He feels so much like a person that’s trying to make it out of the ‘hood. He’s somebody who’s trying to turn the other cheek, and do better at their job and in their life. He’s a regular guy. Sometimes you’re super happy with him, and sometimes you’re super mad with him. He’s the realest person that I’ve ever played, which is really dope. So many times, people think that all of these situations in Chicago, or violence, period, especially in this country, comes from drugs or gangs, or whatever it may be, but this really humanizes everything. You can see some really different characters that are in some very real situations.
What are you most excited about with Season 2, and the journey that you are continuing to take with this character?
MITCHELL: You see him go from a boy to a man in Season 1, and now you see him go from this man to this father figure, to Kevin and to those around him, and even to himself, at times. He has to think a lot quicker and be smart because all he has is him. It’s interesting to watch him make that growth.
You also worked on Zola, for writer/director Janicza Bravo?
That sounds like a wild story (about a stripper named Zola, who embarks on a wild road trip to Florida). What attracted you to that?