After forming a bond on the set of the critically acclaimed series, ‘Legion,’ director Dana Gonzales (Legion, Fargo) and Amber Midthunder (Prey, “Roswell, New Mexico”) have once again joined forces for a spirited outing — ‘Centurion: The Dancing Stallion.’ The inspiring family film, based on a true story, stars Amber Midthunder, Aramis Knight (“Into the Badlands”), Michael Cimino (“Love, Victor”), Patricia De Leon (Station 19), Sal Lopez (Black Panther: Wakanda Forever), and the legendary Billy Zane (The Phantom, Posse, Tales from the Crypt: Demon Knight, Titanic). The captivating film tells a tale of overcoming adversity and finding strength from unexpected places.
The journey begins as Ellissia (Midthunder) adopts a white stallion to train in the art of Mexican horse dancing. As she starts teaching the handsome but previously abused Centurion, Ellissia falls critically ill, which keeps her from competing in a celebrated equestrian event. Under the watchful eyes of her father (Zane), new ranch hand Danny (Aramis Knight) steps in as trainer, hoping to win the competition — and, perhaps, Ellissia’s heart.
Icon Vs. Icon recently sat down with Amber Midthunder and director Dana Gonzales to discuss their creative bonds and the making of ‘Centurion: The Dancing Stallion.’
Your latest project is ‘Centurion: The Dancing Stallion.’ You have a creative history together. Tell us about what brought you back together for the beautiful film.
Amber Midthunder: We worked together on ‘Legion,’ so I had so much trust and admiration for Dana as both a creative and director. That was very interesting and exciting from the get-go. What is interesting to him is interesting to me. I remember getting on the phone with him about this movie long before I had read the script. The initial conversation of “Hey, these are the elements that interest me. Here is a space where I think we have room to play.” That concept is always fascinating to me creatively. Knowing that you’ll be working with someone who you admire and trust is a big selling point. Why wouldn’t you want to be there?! [laughs]
Dana Gonzales: I was drawn to the project after reading the script. I was told that I could pretty much do whatever I wanted to do with it. There were a lot of great elements in the material that I could tell in the story. Having Amber come aboard, and the other actors made it that much better. When you make a movie, you want to be surrounded by people you love and want to work with. It brings a level of comfort that makes the whole experience much more incredible. Making a movie is already challenging because of all the moving parts. It’s so important to find people willing to go down this rabbit hole with you, believe in the project, and give it their all. That is what really attracted me. I wanted to explore this story of triumph, family values, and young love. All of those things are very important to me. Having Amber and the other actors want to take that journey with me is something I am grateful for. We were all in it together, and I think you see it in the movie. So, that’s what interests me in making any movie. It’s not just the script but the people willing to go with you to make the best film possible.
Once you’d assembled your team, what were the biggest challenges you faced in bringing the film to life?
Dana Gonzales: It’s always time. Everything seemed to go together pretty well. We had the challenges of logistics, shooting big events, and the fact that Aramis Knight and Amber aren’t horse-dancing pros. They are basically playing people who are at the top of their game. They overcame that because we were surrounded by great people who wanted to ensure we got it right! While we had a lot of things coming at us, things worked out, and we were able to overcome all of that. Honestly, every day was an enjoyable experience. We had 19 days of shooting; it was supposed to be twenty. It also rained for about ten days straight in Napa, which it never does at that time of year! [laughs] We were so invested in the film that we didn’t care. We just kept moving forward and made this great movie!
Amber Midthunder: My challenges were obviously a bit different than Dana’s. Before shooting this film, I hadn’t really worked with animals. I didn’t know what to expect. I grew up with horses, but this world of dancing horses is such a different game! I wanted to be prepared coming into it. Playing a character who knows how to horse dance differs greatly from a champion horse dancer. It’s totally different. Learning that world was a big challenge. Additionally, shooting a movie that quickly is pretty crazy, but we did it!
What do you feel you bring out in each other creatively?
Amber Midthunder: Oh, man! I don’t know what I bring out in Dana. He has an incredible ability to see things, which is funny considering what he does outside of directing. His sight, literally and creatively, is very unique. That is the thing that makes the fluidity between DP and directing so easy for Dana, from my perspective. The story he tells visually is so deeply creative and narrative based that it feels like an easy transition to being a director. If anything, his voice and having a really strong point of view is one of the many ways I describe Dana creatively. That is really interesting with people and artists. That’s something I admire and gravitate toward. As Dana said, knowing you are working around good people is invaluable.
Dana Gonzales: Knowing that Amber could emotionally tap into the story was incredible for me. I get caught up in it a bit, especially when I know what is possible. That’s my biggest problem; I feel like I know what is possible in my mind! [laughs] When you are working and doing your scenes and rehearsing them, I find myself drawn to that emotional impact. This story has so much of that! It has so much arc in the emotions, and Amber can tap into that every bit of the way! That is what you see on the finished product. Suppose it’s not there when we’re doing it. In that case, it will not miraculously get better because I edited it differently. So, I knew Amber is an emotionally great actor and a physically great actor. She can do so many things and was asked to do just that in this movie! There is a huge physical element, yet it feels very natural. Since we only had 19 days to shoot, we could do a scene with horse dancing or horse riding in the morning and an emotional right after lunch. Being able to stay in it like that is so important to me! She was certainly up for it, so again, you see that in the movie. The movie could not have resonated without that kind of commitment. I admire that greatly! Nineteen days of being in and out of the different places and having that arc were so important, and Amber was always there!
You learn something from every creative endeavor you are a part of. I’m curious about your biggest takeaways from working on ‘Centurion: The Dancing Stallion.”
Amber Midthunder: Honestly, I got really close with Patricia De Leon, who plays my mother in the film. I love being around other actors and actresses who can lead and guide by example or exemplify admirable things. She is definitely someone who fits that bill. Just watching her move and navigate herself and the environment was so helpful. That is how I primarily learn; by being a sponge! That was an unexpected takeaway for me — not just that relationship but all I got from watching her.
Dana Gonzales: This movie is amazing because everybody bonded! We were up in Napa at this ranch, and I immediately felt this incredible bonding. With Patricia, Amber, and Billy [Zane], I felt very quickly that they were a family. I think Billy had made them dinner one night early on. It all has to happen so soon because, with only 19 days, you are into these scenes very quickly emotionally for the arc. Everyone was on board! The number one takeaway is that when you cast and get a crew for a film, you want that harmony. If you can achieve that, and for them to find that independently is something that comes through in the final product. To me, that will always be the takeaway. This experience had that in spades! There were so many positive people, and the actors truly loved each other. If you don’t have that, you’ll feel that in the final product as well. My goal is to always have that!
You’re both at different career stages but at the top of your game creatively. How have you most evolved at your craft?
Amber Midthunder: That’s a huge question! A good question! I don’t know if I have an answer for that. I try to think presently and have creative values. As my career has gone on, the biggest thing for me is that I am afforded the luxury of choice more often. I get to be more selective about what I do, and I hope that it continues. As I get to do that, I reflect more and more on my creative values and learn things about myself that I am open to or excited about that I didn’t want to try before. So I think about that and creative exploration.
Dana Gonzales: For me, everything I do, I want it to be the best. I’m always trying to push myself and everybody with me, no matter the project! [laughs] I’ve always had to do that. I’ve always felt that I was coming a little from behind in a way, so every project has to be the best! Whatever that means! It means that I’m going to push myself and push others! I don’t care how big or small the project might be; the next thing will always be the best!
I love both perspectives! Thanks for your time today, guys! You’ve created a beautiful film, and I can’t wait to see what is next for you both!
Amber Midthunder: Thank you, Jason!
Dana Gonzales: I appreciate that. Thank you!
Lionsgate will release Centurion: The Dancing Stallion, an inspiring family film based on a true story, on Digital and On Demand April 25th, 2023.
Jason Price founded the mighty Icon Vs. Icon more than a decade ago. Along the way, he’s assembled an amazing group of like-minded individuals to spread the word on some of the most unique people and projects on the pop culture landscape.