The 12 Mighty Orphans actor is one of film’s unlikeliest recruits – he talks being mentored by Matthew McConaughey and why the deep south will always be home
Bordered by a winding tributary of the Black River, surrounded by lush forests and rolling mountains, Briggsville, Arkansas (population: 119) is the dictionary definition of rural bliss. The actor Jacob Lofland, an only child, spent his youth using what existed around him: cruising around on dirt bikes, commandeering boats and observing the bustle of his father’s saw mill. “After getting off work, the guys would have a beer around the fire and tell stories,” he recalls with evident nostalgia. “I spent my childhood sitting there, listening, understanding that there are more ways to look at life than the way you’re seeing it in the moment. I think that has a lot to do with who I am.”
Of the few short paragraphs that make up Briggsville’s Wikipedia page, the third is dedicated to its status as the actor’s hometown – he has lived there his entire life. “I just recently bought a house here, a couple miles from where I grew up,” he explains. “I like to stay close.” Lofland, now 23, is taller and lither than the kid we were introduced to in Mud (2012), the film he starred in with Matthew McConaughey at the age of 15 – though he shares his character’s quiet sense of purpose, and passion for the natural environment that he grew up around.
“I was home-schooled,” Lofland says over the phone in the soft southern drawl that has won over myriad directors, from Wes Ball, who cast him in the dystopian Maze Runner franchise, to Ty Roberts, who harnessed the actor’s talents for his forthcoming American football drama 12 Mighty Orphans. “(Sometimes my) mom would look for stuff for me to fill out online that she could grade me on. One day she found an (open casting call) for Mud, with the headline ‘Hollywood Comes to Arkansas’. They wanted a kid that could drive a boat and ride a motorcycle. It didn’t say anything about acting! So I filled it out, we sent it off, and I thought nothing of it.”
Within a week, Lofland was boarding his very first plane, to Austin, Texas, for an audition. “(Jacob) looked exactly like the mental picture I had of Neckbone,” director Jeff Nichols told the Arkansas Times of Lofland’s fit for the role of sceptical sidekick to the film’s romantic lead, Ellis (played by Tye Sheridan, fresh from his own debut in Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life). “Then his mouth opened, those teeth showed, and that accent came out. I was sold.” Before he knew it, Lofland was shooting on the Mississippi River in south-eastern Arkansas.
In 12 Mighty Orphans, set to premiere this autumn, we’ll be seeing a new side to Lofland. “Snoggs is kind of comic relief,” the actor says with a chuckle of his character. “He’s always got something to say, and he might be a little dirty-minded.” The film tells the true story of a highschool football coach (Luke Wilson) who leads a gangly team of orphans – including Lofland – to the state championships, against the backdrop of the Great Depression. “A couple of the kids had never acted before and just got thrown into it, like me in Mud. It was so cool to help them, to watch them get that same rush of adrenaline I did. That was the closest on-set family I’ve been a part of.”
“I spent my childhood sitting (by the fire), listening, understanding there are more ways to look at life than the way you’re seeing it in the moment” – Jacob Lofland
In Lofland’s breakout performance, Neckbone stumbles across Matthew McConaughey’s character Mud – a weather-beaten, straggly haired fugitive – while adventuring on a deserted island. Mud beguiles them with his mystical tales and professed love for a girl named Juniper, and persuades them to help him escape from the island (and the sinister men seeking him). A moving yet unsentimental coming-of-age story ensues, steeped in the indelible sense of place with which Nichols’ films are synonymous. “The whole eight-week shoot, I couldn’t believe I was there doing it, but it was cool that we were in Arkansas so it still felt like home,” Lofland says.
Off-screen, Lofland spends his time fishing, hunting, riding his motorbike and catching up with the other members of Briggsville’s small-town community. And while relocating to LA would undoubtedly be more practical for his career, the actor remains devoted to southern life – his performance as a tenacious Texan teenager in TV period drama The Son won a Texas Impact Award in 2018 for its “positive and unique impact” on the community. “It’s a big challenge, having to do everything over Skype or phone, but I’m willing to keep going,” he says. “I love where I live, it’s one of the most beautiful places in America, and I like trying to keep it that way.”
In turn, Lofland’s deep-seated connection to his birthplace has proved integral to his instinctive performance style. “There is an awake-ness to Jacob that’s impossible to deny,” confirms director Sara Colangelo, who cast him as the dogged, well-intentioned son of a miner who accidentally perpetrates a grave crime in her atmospheric 2014 debut Little Accidents. “I needed an adolescent boy who looked like he could fix a dirt-bike motor, who might have coal-dust in the creases of his neck – and Jacob had that quality to me. He told me stories of how he would go fishing for snakes when his town in Arkansas flooded. You can’t manufacture that sort of experience – you can see it on his face and in his mannerisms. It’s baked into everything he does.”
For Lofland, taking on emotionally charged roles at such a young age was a good way of living out experiences that his sheltered small-town life hadn’t allowed for. “You put yourself through so many different emotions that you start to figure out how you would handle different situations,” the actor explains. “Looking back now, I realise how much I was able to grow because of it.”
Another instance of this, he remembers, was Gary Ross’s civil war drama Free State of Jones (2016), which saw him reunite with Matthew McConaughey in a short but memorable performance as a terrified, newly conscribed Confederate soldier. Lofland’s role climaxes in a wrenching death scene, just 15 minutes into the film, for which he turned to McConaughey for guidance. “I was just 18 and for the first time my mom wasn’t with me on set,” he says. “I was sitting there with Matthew in a tent, stressing about the crying scene coming up, and I asked him if he had any tips. He said, ‘I do – nobody can ever tell you that you have to cry.’ And somehow that was exactly what I needed to hear to make it work. That scene is one of the proudest moments of my career.”
“(Jacob hasn’t) lost the instincts that made him such a raw talent” – Matthew McConaughey
The Oscar-winning actor was, in turn, impressed by Lofland’s progress. “In Mud, Jacob was innocent and had a talent for being able to be confidently honest in front of a camera,” McConaughey recalls. “In Free State he’d become a much more learned actor and I was so pleased to see that, in the time he’d educated himself on the craft, he hadn’t lost the instincts that made him such a raw talent in the first place – not an easy feat for a young actor, or any actor for that matter.”
It’s obvious – both from speaking to his collaborators, and from his own balance of genuine interest with straightforward, self-deprecating humour – that cultivating friendships comes naturally to Lofland. He talks enthusiastically of the camaraderie he experienced when he was cast as Aris in the second and third instalments of the Maze Runner films – The Scorch Trials (2015) and The Death Cure (2018) – after impressing Wes Ball with what the director describes as “his naturalistic sensibility”. Aris is a shy but smart character who helps to uncover a sinister plot against the teenage escapees of the first film’s deadly maze. And, as a fresh face among the close-knit cast of young actors headed up by Dylan O’Brien, Lofland says that playing the nervous outsider really did come naturally: “I just amplified that feeling of not really knowing if I would fit in.”
He did, though – and Lofland refers fondly to the sense of family he’s experienced on various sets through his work. Growing up in a town where everyone knew his name has left its mark on the actor, and his veristic approach to his art. As another southerner, the late author Eudora Welty, put it when she wrote in her memoir, “one place understood helps us understand all places better”.
12 Mighty Orphans is in UK cinemas this autumn
Grooming Homa Safar using Bumble and bumble. and M.A.C, set design Rasmus Jensen