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SXSW 2023 Interview Deadland’s Stars and Director Talk Stampeding Bison, Drug Deals, And The Making Of A Cultural Touchstone

One of the biggest surprises of SXSW 2023 is Lance Larson’s Deadland. The raw and relatable film about border agents working the Mexican American border is a heartbreaking ghost story about love, loss, and terrible choices. I had the pleasure of talking with Larson and his talented cast about the making of this culturally relevant movie. The group of seven talented individuals were generous with their time and easily the most fun group I had the pleasure of speaking with at the festival. The film, which Larson describes as a “love letter to his father,” carries the cast and crew’s affection and commitment for each other and the material.

Larson said the film came from losing his father several years ago and wanting to honor that love. He explained that he read an article about a border agent, and the story developed from there. The love between father and son and the complexity of a border agent’s job was a good jumping-off point. The choices we make in the moment reverberate in ways we can’t predict. For Roberto Urbina, who plays the central character Angel Waters, the idea of a fatherly love letter resonated with him. He could tap into his “emotional memory” in playing the conflicted man. He often felt his stepfather was on the shoot “as a spirit, literally and figuratively.” The mystical film transcends the gritty plot beats and becomes a deeply “allegorical film,” Kendal Rae explained.

It’s about the duality of man. Urbino said it was that conflict of identity that drew him to the film. All of the actors point to Larson’s commitment to his art, and as McCaul Lombardi explains, his charisma is contagious. Shot in the heart of COVID protocols necessitated the cast and crew live and work in close quarters. It allowed a sense of family to grow that powers the entire film. Larson describes the process as “tough subject matter that was easy to shoot.”

Talented character mainstay Chris Mulkey plays a particularly nasty piece of work that acts as a cautionary tale for Urbino’s protagonist. He, like the Deadland, represented both sides of humanity. The affable man served as the chef and musician when he wasn’t shooting and then slid into his character Hobbs, an agent who continues to protect himself more than anyone else. He describes his character as someone who believes you should never stop pounding “that stake into the ground or your heart.” “When something bad happens, let’s make it worse,” he said.

Kendal Rae, who plays Angel’s wife, describes Hannah as the “leveler” of the story. She said it can be challenging to play the “B-line” of the story, but she was able to “bring the empathy for the story.” Fellow new border agent Veracruz played by Julieth Restrepo, was drawn to the film because “there’s not many scripts like this one.” She watched references and documentaries about coyotes and immigrants crossing the border to prepare for the role. Restrepo explained, “The stakes are high” for Veracruz. She said it was amazing to play her because you don’t judge Veracruz, Hitch, and Angel. Instead, you feel for them while condemning their behavior. She continued that Deadland “makes you think about humanity and values and “how selfish we are.”

McCaul Lombardi, who’s Hitch, is a complicated man struggling with PTSD. “To tell the truth, a veteran in that position would be able to resonate with” was very important to him.”Listening to my friends and buddies and understanding how veterans work in a world that doesn’t involve war every day” allowed him to access that dark place and bring it to the screen with authenticity. He praised the effects crew he worked closely with that did excellent work and were also veterans he could talk with about their experiences. The details mattered to Lombardi, and his commitment to breathe life into a conflicted character adds nuance to the story.

The film was shot in Oklahoma and Big Bend National Park. It was a wild and unpredictable place that was every bit as volatile as the subject matter of Deadland. McCaul Lombardi and Julieth Restrepo recall tornado warnings, and a bison charged Roberto Urbino. During the shooting, they even inadvertently broke up a drug deal when one of the film vehicles was mistaken for an actual police vehicle.

Luis Chávez’s The Stranger is a pivotal enigmatic focal point of the film. He vocalizes very few words but conveys a wealth of emotion and truth. Despite meeting Larson in 2008 and being offered the part of The Stranger asked to audition to ensure “they were on the same page.” He did not interact with the cast except when shooting his scenes. Chávez found his signature stare for The Stranger by looking at a childhood photo of him. He describes himself as “haunting.” The nearly silent character is haunting and heartbreaking, and oddly hopeful.

The in-demand group all have exciting projects coming up. Mulkey was recently seen in Amazon’s The Power and a Western coming next year. Larson has three projects brewing, including a series called The Fix about how sports betting controlled Wall Street, the Mafia, and the White House in the ’70s and ’80s. He is also working on a horror movie, Vinyl, with his son and a drama about a singer-songwriter. Luis Chávez has a film with Aaron Eckhart called Muzzle that he is excited about because it allows them to play a nonbinary drug kingpin. Julieth Restrepo has a timely movie about women’s suffrage in Colombia and a miniseries for Netflix. McCaul has Inspection coming up, and Rae is working in the gaming world for Forspoken. Finally, Urbino is still awaiting news about Snowpiercer’s fourth season, which is being shopped around, and is shooting a film in Colombia called Alix about child soldier recruitment.

The fantastic cast felt like old friends when interviewing them. The chemistry is apparent. Great things happen when filmmakers foster an environment that feeds on respect and collaboration. Mulkey put it best, “It was great being with the extraordinary group of talent and heart.” You can find our full review of Deadland here. Also, find all our SXSW 2023 coverage here.