Dixieland, the Mississippi-set debut film from writer-director Hank Bedford that premiered last week at the Tribeca Film Festival, marks the first acting role for country music star Faith Hill since 2004’s The Stepford Wives. Herself a Mississippi native, she plays Arletta, the long-suffering and barely-getting-by mother of Kermit, (Chris Zylka), who is finishing a two-year prison stint as he re-enters society and faces strong temptations to return to a life of crime, leading to a bleak outcome.
It might not be intentional, but the film seems especially timely: While Dixieland focuses on the relationship between Kermit, Arletta and Kermit’s new girlfriend Rachel (Riley Keough), the film is shot somewhat like a documentary, with actual interviews from local residents (it was shot in Jackson and Pearl, MS) interspersed with the narrative. The result is subtle exploration of how poverty can trap people into criminality and make reform difficult, if not impossible.
As the film is currently being shopped around by CAA, Hill spoke to Deadline about her role, how her roots in that same region of Mississippi influenced her performance, and the film’s unexpected relevance.
DEADLINE: It’s been 11 years since you last appeared in a film. What brought you to Dixieland?
HILL: I had many scripts I’ve read over the years, but the timing never worked out. And then this character of Arletta, this really really interesting character written by Hank Bedford, came into my life. My agent called me and said, “I just need you to read this,” and I just related to Arletta. After having children, and just the thought of losing your husband, of the complexity of those things and what they impose on a human being, and how it alters your life in such a way you just can’t imagine it. How you find yourself having to make choices you never thought you’d have to make. The most important thing was the character. Obviously I read the entire script, and I thought it was incredible. It was a slice-of-life story but in such a tragic way. I remember saying on the panel at Tribeca, “slice of life isn’t always apple pie for a lot of people in the world.”
DEADLINE: Did your having grown up in Mississippi affect your performance?
HILL: I grew up about 20 minutes from Pearl in a town called Star, but in a completely different environment. We weren’t rich, but I didn’t come from a broken home, I didn’t grow up around drugs, none of that stuff. But just, as a mom, and feeling connected to people, I relate to that in such a way that I get it. I didn’t grow up in that environment, but I have compassion and empathy for these struggles, the way in which climbing the ladder of life is so much harder for some people than we can imagine, when you have every stake in the world just thrown against you and you still feel like you’re never going to get out of it.
DEADLINE: Dixieland feels especially relevant in light of the current conversation about how poverty can trap people in a cycle of crime. Particularly interesting is how the story deals with that in context with rural poverty, which isn’t always depicted.
HILL: There’s no way for anyone to understand what can happen in one’s life until you’ve gotten your hands in the midst of it, you’ve tried to figure out your way. How do you crawl out of a situation in which there’s no hope? Chris’ character, in his mind, there was absolutely no hope for him, and he’s ultimately right. I hate to keep using my role as a parent, but it has shaped me. It’s almost like I can fast forward my brain, 15 or 20 years, I can look at what my child is doing at this moment, how it’s going to affect them. Then you start going through the whole process of the pain of this decision, what they’re going to have to face. At the same time you’re trying to be loving and supportive, their teacher, but also they have to be disciplined. And I mean, [Kermit] just got out of jail, and Arletta hasn’t had him around for a couple of years. Going back to October when we were filming this, I connected to what she was going through, but I felt “he has a responsibility too.” Arletta was a little pissed about it. “How dare you be so stupid.”
DEADLINE: How do you feel about the film’s depiction of the South, and in particular a part of the South that is often more a source for humor or horror than what we see in Dixieland?
HILL: I did grow up in the South, I didn’t grow up in that environment, but I had friends and I was aware of it. The thing about the South is that people are unapologetic about the way we are. I think that’s why we sometimes scare people, but I think that’s why people love people from the South. We’re like “so what if it’s embarrassing, that’s how we are.” You don’t put any airs on for anybody. I didn’t feel at any time while shooting the film that it was going to be judged in a way that, “Oh my God all of the South was like this.” It was telling a story about a certain place, a family, a group of people and this is their life. I didn’t know Hank was going to do those interviews with people, which were incredible. In particular, that description of people skinning the deer, that’s life for people. There’s a great deal of poverty in our country, and it’s difficult to get out of that darkness and get outside a situation that has enveloped your entire life. You’re on a cycle you can’t seem to get off of. Sometimes because of what that’s like, I’m not even sure people realize that they can want anything different. I hope that makes sense.
DEADLINE: Definitely, it seems like sometimes people learn not even to think about options they don’t believe are open to them.
DEADLINE: Can you talk about your experience making the film, and working with Hank Bedford?
HILL: I’m so proud for Hank, and this hardworking cast and crew. You know his mom made food for us? It was an absolutely joy to work on the film. Hank was an absolute pro, I wanted the shoot to last another week, which is rare — usually I want to get back home to my family. After I read the script, I fell in love with the character, I thought it was so well written. Then I got on the phone with Hank and that sealed the deal. It was obvious this man is a lover of film and he’s been working his entire life to make his own film. It’s difficult to define sometimes when you find that type of aspiration and drive. He was filled with passion but also with compassion for these characters. We’re speaking the same language, we’re on the same page for how Arletta should look. We didn’t even have to talk about what not to do. I felt completely confident in him before I met him, and it was only from a phone conversation. When you have confidence in someone and their enthusiasm, it makes you want to work hard and not disappoint them, or anyone.