In Billy Luther’s (Navajo, Hopi and Laguna Pueblo) feature film debut, “Frybread Face and Me,” Benny (Keir Tallman) is taken out of his comfort zone after he’s sent to spend the summer at his grandmother’s ranch on the reservation. It’s a feeling most adults can relate to — that first time when they were kids and sent away for the summer, whether it was to camp or to spend time with a family member. The film premieres in Toronto on Sept. 11.
Producer Chad Burris was drawn to Luther’s story because it was discussing something he hadn’t seen before, aside from the script being insightful and emotional, Burris says the characters were fun, punchy and humorous. “What I thought was interesting was how the story of Benny was juxtaposed with Native life, and I thought it was so fresh. It had a casual approach to what it was saying,” says Burris.
In the film, Benny is introduced to reservation life through Grandma Lorraine (Sarah H. Natani) and his cousin Frybread, played by Charley Hogan.
Casting proved to be a challenge due to COVID, so it was done over Zoom. Luther worked with “Rutherford Falls” casting director Angelique Midthunder.
While they looked at a lot of auditions to find that right combination and perfect dynamic, it was important to Luther that his leads be Navajo. Says Burris, “It has two Native youth, one is slightly effeminate, and one is just a funny guy. In casting Benny, it was about finding someone who had the right sensibility, demeanor and softness, but someone who could carry the role.”
Both leads were making their acting debut. Hogan was cast first. Burris says, “I was sold after her first reading. She brought the humor to that role. She got it. She’s very mature for her age and she has this whip-smart sensibility to her. She was so fierce in that role.” With Tallman, Luther was drawn to the boy’s experience of growing up in Arizona on his family’s res, but also his innocence.
Burris, also executive director of New Mexico Media Academy, was more than pleased to bring the production to New Mexico. “We built Grandma’s ranch from a blank piece of dirt. We built every single thing you see on screen. None of that existed. We brought the trailer in, the swing, the barn and the sheep coral. I was amazed at what the crew pulled off. It was an absolute work of art,” Burris says.