Interview – ‘The Stolen Valley’ star Briza Covarrubias on the importance of telling Indigenous stories

A Navajo girl (Briza Covarrubias) and an outlaw (Allee Sutton Hethcoat) rob a pawn shop and, in order to reach Alta Valley, must outrun the men tracking them down.

With The Stolen Valley launching on various VOD platforms in Australian on April 17, Nick L’Barrow had the chance to chat with the film’s star Briza Covarrubias about the importance of Indigenous story telling, and the similarities between shooting a dance sequence and a shootout!

Nick: It’s a pleasure to meet you, and I really appreciate you taking the time to chat!

Briza Covarrubias: Thank you for taking the time out of your day to talk about our little movie!

Nick: Oh, it’s absolutely my pleasure! I’m excited to talk with you because reading about your career and passions was so fascinating! One of the things I read about you is the importance of telling stories from different perspectives. And The Stolen Valley is a slick, cool Western, but it’s also exploring themes of racism, sexism, Indigenous cultures, societal power dynamics. When you first read the script, how did you find those themes were explored within this Western genre?

Briza Covarrubias: Absolutely! I mean, I think as an actor, I’m constantly in hopes of finding a story or character that can encompass all off that, or just be something different, right? But when I read the script, I understood that it was a huge responsibility, not just to tell a Latino perspective, but also an Indigenous perspective. It was a tall order!

I am Indigenous from Mexico, from Zacatecas. But encompassing the Navajo community—I’ve only been to Navajo nation. And here in the United States, there’s os much that we still don’t know because… I mean, we can go political, but it’s our duty and our responsibility.

So, I did my best that could, not only to work with the elders and learn as much as I could to learn the language, to learn the customs. And it’s interesting that there’s a lot of similarities between indigeneity.

Nick: What did the process of learning the Navajo language look like for you? How long did it take to learn it to the level you needed to for this film?

Briza Covarrubias: I worked with one of our Navajo elders, Carla Bay. I’m still in contact with her! I had to learn the language. I had to learn a lot of different women’s roles in the community. It helped me shape how Lupe sees her community.

I think in the United States, a lot of Latino’s aren’t allowed to speak Spanish because they don’t want to feel othered, or they don’t want to be less that. And that aspect, that fear, of speaking their language is something that I brought to Lupe and the way she speaks, because it’s difficult to be accepted sometimes by your own community.

So, learning it helped me understand wonderfully how beautiful the community is, and how much more we have to learn. That language truly reflects the beauty of their culture.

Nick: I think one of the universal aspects of the story that does seem specific to the Navajo people is the importance of storytelling. How important has storytelling been for you as an actor, and as an Indigenous person?

Briza Covarrubias: It’s been super important and super glorious to be able to show people our side of the story. Whether it’s, you know, our history, the way we see the world, some of our mythology. I was one of the producers behind the Hollywood Climate Summit, and if we marry climate change filmmaking and a lot of Indigenous stories, we can actually find solutions for problems that we’ve been having for thousands of years!

So, it’s important, but it’s also captivating and it’s fun! We exist! We can exist in sci-fi, we can exist in action, Westerns. That’s also the other side of the tortilla, as we say!

Nick: I love that! There are two scenes in the film that are tonally different – that is the dance sequence in the bar, and the intense shootouts later in the film. I’m curious to know if from an acting perspective, there’s any similarities to performing those scenes that you didn’t initially expect.

Briza Covarrubias: I think from an optics perspective, every move you make, you have to marry within your character and find the authenticity to it. But then, from a choreographer perspective, you have to hit the marks and make them believable.

With the dancing, there’s insecurity about, you know, what Lupe’s decisions were, and then just going with it. So, it’s technical in terms of hitting the mark, but it’s also very emotional, and you’re trying to make every move so intentional.

Nick: I read an interview you did where you spoke about how important mantra’s are to you. And that, in fact, you have a mantra you recite before filming or auditions, which is, “I’m a badass!”

Briza Covarrubias: [laughs] Oh my god!

Nick: I think it’s awesome. But I think for The Stolen Valley and Lupe as character, who is a badass, the mantra matches the character a lot! Is that something you’ve ever experienced before?

Briza Covarrubias: You know, specifically for this movie, it was a mantra that I had to continue telling myself because it was the first feature film I’ve made outside of LA! IT was the feature film that took the longest, and so you have to keep that energy up. And it totally worked!

I had a little playlist for Lupe! Do my little routine to get into character, and it helped because there’s good days and there’s bad days, but I’ve got to be Lupe no matter what! So, it was definitely rehearsal for what I hope could be a great career for my life!

Nick: What were some of the songs on that playlist?

Briza Covarrubias: So, very serendipitously, I really used a lot of certain old Spanish songs that I grew up with! But also, the soundtrack to Frida, starring Salma Hayek, who was in Bandidas with Penelope Cruz, who’s like a huge person in my life!

There’s a song called ‘Lupe’ on that soundtrack that I would listen to and I would get into character. But that was a specific soundtrack.

Nick: Another thing I read in an interview you did was about how when you were a little girl, your dream was to see your name on a big Hollywood movie. As someone who is now working in film, living that dream, how important is it for you to be that next trailblazer for that little girl who might watch The Stolen Valley as see you on there?

Briza Covarrubias: Oh my God! You’re making me cry here! It’s a mission, you know? I want this just as bad for myself as much as I do for my family, for my community. You know, growing up the way I did, my cultural background, these types of goals and dreams don’t really exist. I was very lucky to have a family so supportive!

Like, Lily Gladstone! Her and America Ferrera this year opened doors like never before! I want to be able to step in and do the same for young, little brown girls who might not see themselves represented! And I carry that with me everywhere I go.

Nick: Without spoiling anything major, the ending of The Stolen Valley alludes to the fact that Maddy and Lupe could go on more adventures together. Is their story something you’re interested in continuing?

Briza Covarrubias: Oh, absolutely! First of all, Allee [Sutton Hethcoat] is my Gemini sister from another mister, was incredible to work with! I know it’s not the last time we’ll see these characters evolving into another adventure! When Jesse [Edwards], our writer and director, is ready, we’ll be ready!

Thank you so much to Briza for her time, and to Lightbulb Films and Walkden Publicity for organising the interview. The Stolen Valley is available on various VOD platforms from April 17.

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Nick L'Barrow
Nick L'Barrow
Nick is a Brisbane-based film/TV reviewer. He gained his following starting with his 60 second video reviews of all the latest releases on Instagram (@nicksflicksfix), before launching a monthly podcast with Peter Gray called Monthly Movie Marathon. Nick contributes to Novastream with interviews and reviews for the latest blockbusters.

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