How Jason Mitchell Overcame His Biggest Fear, And His Dreams Of Playing Louis Armstrong

Matthias Schoenaerts (left) as Roman Coleman and Jason Mitchell (right) as Henry in Laure de Clermont-Tonnerreâ  s THE MUSTANG, a Focus Features release. Credit : Focus Features

How Jason Mitchell Overcame His Biggest Fear, And His Dreams Of Playing Louis Armstrong

His latest film, "The Mustang," forced the New Orleans native to overcome some childhood trauma.

Published March 15, 2019

Written by Jerry L. Barrow

When Jason Mitchell isn’t bringing audiences to tears with stirring portrayals in films like Straight Outta Compton or Mudbound, he is a font of positivity. His Instagram is dedicated to his smiling visage, and it’s this boundless energy that he feels landed him his latest project, The Mustang.

“She just wanted me to be able to add some life to it,” Jason says of why director Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre chose him for the film. “I definitely always bring a smile to it - no matter where I am - even in a jail setting. Because it’s not necessarily a hard movie to watch, but there’s a lot of sorrow in it, and Roman (played by Matthias Schoenaerts) has a hard time sort of even connecting with anybody. I’m one of the first people he connects with, and it's a beautiful thing to watch.”

Set in the present-day Midwest, The Mustang tells the story of a violent inmate named Roman, who his forced into a horse-training program designed to rehabilitate inmates. Prisoners are drafted to break and train wild Mustangs that are then sold at auction, sometimes to law enforcement and border patrol officers. Roman, who is estranged from his family, is having a hard time training his horse, and Mitchell’s character, Henry, is tasked with getting him into shape.

BET spoke with Jason Mitchell about filming The Mustang, the incident that caused him to fear horses, and the challenges he overcame while filming the movie.

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BET: Tell us about your character in The Mustang, Henry Cooper.

Jason Mitchell: He actually was born and raised in L.A., but he was one of those guys who could potentially be back on the streets in maybe five years or six years. He’s also not only the best trainer but trick rider in the program, so he really has a love for these horses. And he really has a huge, huge heart. But he’s also stealing the Ketamine from the horse stables and selling inside the jail to, obviously, support himself.

This movie managed to combine two things I don’t really care for, jail and horses, but this was a positive experience for you.

It was kind of dope to be able to work with horses and also inside of a jail, because as a young Black man, that’s one place that I’m never gonna sign myself up to going in, but for them to pay me to go to jail was beautiful. [laughs.] I had a bad experience with a horse when I was about 15 or 16 years old. I grew up in New Orleans and a lot of police ride horses during Mardi Gras season and all of that. I had a really bad experience where a good friend of mine was trampled by a horse right in front of my face.

Oh, no. What happened to them?

She lived, but she was really beat up, and she was like 4-foot-11, so it couldn’t have been worse. I was like, “Oh, my god.” It was really bad. After that, I would never get close to [horses]. I was just like, "Eh, you’re a little too big to be going crazy like that on me.” [laughs]. I always kept my distance. [But on set], I was working with some really great guys, great wranglers, around me. They broke me in and got me really used to it. That was my first time actually taking charge like that. Not only did they teach me how to ride but they taught me how to bond with the horse, which is amazing. Now, I no longer have that fear, so it’s great.

So, the scene where you were doing flips off the horse and doing tricks, was that a stunt double or you?

The only stuff I did -- they have what you call a canter, which is like a fast run -- and that’s pretty much the most-safe stunt that they let me do. I did have a big scene were I’m teaching Roman how to handle the horse, and as I’m giving him the whole rundown, I have to be alone with the horse by myself. It was the biggest task ever because I had to take everything I learned and apply it immediately. We knew the horse was going to rear up. We knew the horse was gonna go crazy. They had three different horses that [played] the one horse; they had the wild version of it, the sort-of-trained version of it, and the super-trained version of it. I was in there with the intermediate one, [and] I could’ve still been easily kicked or trampled or I could’ve just spooked the horse, and then it could’ve all went bad. The wranglers were over there crossing their fingers, and as soon as they hollered cut, they were like, ‘Woo, Jason you gonna be a cowboy!’ They were so happy. It was a good time. I feel like I learned a lot. I feel a little bit more like a man. [laughs]

One of your cast mates, Thomas Smittle, was actually in this program and owns several mustangs. What was it like working with someone who had actually lived this experience?

Thomas was amazing. First of all, as an actor -- he just completely killed it. We made it comfortable for him to just fall into it. A lot of the stuff was improv, and he just knew how to stay in it. Thomas was the guy who actually -- aside from the wranglers -- was the person I actually bonded with, the person that made the most sense to me and the person who I could actually study to create this character. Because Thomas, he smiles and shows all 32 every time. A really cool guy and happy person. He was somebody who I could talk to and base the entire experience on, because I’ve been to jail, but I’ve never been to prison, which is a totally different thing. He was somebody who I could really bond with. He and I became really good friends.

How did playing Henry challenge you as an actor?

There was the huge leap of dealing with a horse at all. Me being in the presence of a horse was like… I would literally walk across the street. No exaggeration. It was the thing I was the most afraid of besides probably dying on a roller coaster. It was something super important to me that I overcame, because he had to sort of have this swag that made Bruce Dern (Miles) feel like I was the best. I really wanted to have that attitude. Just the challenge of getting into it, learning how to ride, learning all these different things about a horse, that was a super huge challenge for me. It was a big deal.

What do you want audiences to take away from the film?

I think we should take away from The Mustang [is], first of all, family is everything. You have to have a radar that turns on and that monitors the type of energy that you put out into the world. If you don’t think, you could end up losing your whole life. But if you love somebody else or you love your neighbor like you love yourself, you can get that sort of love back, and it’s reciprocated. That’s what you get to see with these horses and these guys. This different side that has no mask. It’s not trying to be a tough guy [or] all these different things but actually homage and true respect. If you go in a stable with a horse and you scream at the top of your lungs, it’s liable that horse is going show you what it’s made of. It has this respect boundary that you have to abide by, otherwise it could be tragic for the both of you. You get to see that growth, so hopefully people take that from it.

I don’t know if you’ve seen it, but there’s been some discussion, since you are from New Orleans and kind of favor him, about you playing Louis Armstrong in a biopic. Is that something you would consider?

Absolutely. I believe I might have actually started that [conversation], to be honest. [laughs]. Because a lot of people asked me, if I had a dream job, who would I play? And I always said Floyd Mayweather. But I started to look into it a little more after people would ask me that question, and I think Louis Armstrong would be perfect. Because it would bring a different sort of flair, and we kind of look alike, so I might be able to pull that off. That would actually be super dope. Dream job potential right there.

The Mustang is in select theaters now.


Photo Credit: Focus Features


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