On a break from shooting the second season of the critically acclaimed HBO series The White Lotus in Italy, rising star Haley Lu Richardson is at a seaside hotel overlooking a harbor filled with small, colorful boats bobbing along on the waves.
Phoenix-native Richardson, best known for her guest-starring role as queen bee Tess on the supernatural teen drama series Ravenswood and more recently the indie female buddy dramedy Unpregnant, now stars as a young woman overcoming trauma and finding forgiveness in the drama Montana Story.
As Erin, she returns to her estranged father’s Montana ranch as he lies in a coma following a stroke. There, she uncomfortably reunites with her younger half-brother, Cal (Owen Teague) whom she also hasn’t seen in seven years after she ran away from home as a teenager.
As the story unfolds, the viewer learns what led to her hasty exit, and why she has been out of touch with her family for so long. Planning to stay only a day, Erin instead ends up extending her visit when her brother decides it’s time to put down the last of the ranch’s horses, an old black stallion named Mr. T. Erin, who is the same age as the horse, balks, and begins to make plans to buy a truck and trailer to transport her beloved pet to upstate New York, where she now works as a cook.
During her stay, Erin and Cal gradually open up about the incident that caused the rift in the family years before. Meantime, the siblings get to know their dad’s caregivers, a Kenya-born nurse Ace (Gilbert Owuor) and Native American Valentina (Kimberly Guerrero). The film also stars Eugene Brave Rock and Asivak Koostachin.
The touching drama about siblings coming together to confront a deep and bitter family legacy was co-written and co-directed by Scott McGehee and David Siegel, whose previous collaborations include What Maisie Knew and The Deep End.
Bleecker Street’s neo-Western Montana Story opens in theaters May 13.
Angela Dawson: How long have you been in Italy shooting The White Lotus?
Haley Lu Richardson: I’ve been here for three months.
Dawson: This coastal location is quite a departure from shooting in Montana in December, I’d imagine.
Richardson: Yeah. It was cold there, but it was beautiful. There were some days when it was freezing cold. The times I complain about being cold is when you’re doing a summer movie in winter weather so you have to wear a t-shirt and shorts, and there’s no heaters on set. And you’re doing a night shoot at a carnival. That’s when I’ll complain. But, in Montana, it was so beautiful and we were wearing coats and such, so it was relatively bearable. I do miss being there; it was so calm.
Dawson: What initially drew you in to Montana Story?
Richardson: I’d been talking to (co-writer/directors) David Siegel and Scott McGehee for a month or maybe longer about another movie they had in mind. We were throwing around ideas and really getting into the process of collaboration of that, but then that got put on hold. A month later, I heard from my agent who told me that they wrote this other script and there’s this character that I’d be perfect for. Before even reading the script and knowing the character of “Erin,” I had known from their last script and meeting them both that they were people I trusted and really respected. The other movie they’d written was beautiful so I was interested in doing (Montana Story) even before I read the script, which is rare for me to feel that sort-of blind trust in people.
Finally, I got the script, and they offered the role to me. After reading just the first page, I knew I wanted to do it. The relationship between Cal and Erin was just so full and so real. It’s very specific to them and their experiences but because it’s so specific, it’s even more relatable. There’s more to attach to and it connects with some of the experiences I’ve been through, even though they’re completely different experiences. I also felt that Erin was a different girl than I’d gotten to play before.
Dawson: Erin’s been away from her family for a long time and left under difficult circumstances. She has mixed feelings about her father who is in the final days of his life.
Richardson: On the surface, she could have come across as so bitter and angry. Yes, there’s a lot of bitterness and anger that she carries, which is certainly valid. But her dad treated her this way when she was a (teenage) girl. I felt like there was this suppressed child-like vulnerability and sadness as well as a yearning to feel loved and protected that was at the core of all that anger. I really empathized with her and cared about her. I feel heavy just thinking about her.
Dawson: The catalyst in saving this family turns out to be a horse. Mr. T has been in her family for her entire life and Erin can’t stand the thought of the old horse being put down so she extends her stay to try and arrange to take the animal with her to her home upstate New York. Are you passionate about horses in real life?
Richardson: Actually, I’m not a horse girl. I feel like I have a lot of amazement for horses; I’m in awe of them. They seem like these godly, beautiful spiritual creatures. I can see that from afar. Getting into (the character of) Erin, I felt that. But, actually being with a horse is something that takes a specific type of person for them to really trust you. Before I went to Montana, I started working with Crackers, which is the horse that played Mr. T. He was a bit crazy. (She laughs.) I actually hung around several horses for about a month and felt I built a real connection with them. I hugged a horse for the first time in my life. I was alone with a horse in a corral and learning to work my energy with horses. It was very interesting for me because I feel my fear coming up when I’m around them because they’re just so big.
They sense it even if you try to mask (your fear). You have to get over it and feel comfortable with the horse and have a certain level of alpha energy around them, and I’m not an alpha person. I don’t even have an alpha energy around my cat. (She laughs.) So, it was a bit of a struggle for me working with Crackers because he wasn’t chill and gentle like the other horses I had been around. Between every line that Owen and I would say, he’d head-butt us. It was definitely an experience and a test. I think it’s amazing how the scenes were edited together. At the end, it was a little sad to leave.
Dawson: How much longer will you be in Italy shooting The White Lotus?
Richardson: I don’t know because I literally get my schedule the night before or the week before. I think I’m supposed to be done in about a month. It’s been an adventure.
Dawson: The first season was such a huge hit. How does the second season compare, so far?
Richardson: I think it’s even crazier than the first, and I loved the first season. I’ve been a huge fan of (show creator) Mike White for years so I’ve literally been manifesting working with him. I wrote a scripting letter to the universe. Eventually it worked, I guess.