ALBUQUERQUE – While “Lone Survivor,” which is already a hit at the box office, was among a handful of high-profile, big-budget movies to be shot in and around Santa Fe last year, there’s one that slipped under the radar and made its debut Saturday at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah.
“Drunktown’s Finest,” an independent movie written and directed by Sydney Freedman in her first feature film, is the story of three Native Americans who grew up in Gallup and are struggling to break free of the cycle of drunkenness and substance abuse that plagues the city.
The main character, Sickboy, is played by Jeremiah Bitsui, an Albuquerque actor who had a secondary role in “Breaking Bad” as Victor, one of Gus Fring’s henchmen.
“It’s about three young people coming of age,” Bitsui said during an interview squeezed in during a brief stopover in Albuquerque on his way to Utah from shooting a TV series in New York.
“And some of the battles that they deal with in their community are related to identity.”
Most of the shooting in Santa Fe was interior shots, he said, inside houses and businesses, while other scenes took place in a shopping center in Española, all in a two-week whirlwind of activity during July 2013.
“We didn’t have a very big budget,” Bitsui explained. Actually, producers had to resort to public fundraising to come up with $30,000 to finish the project.
Santa Fe was used for some scenes because of its convenience, Bitsui said.
“Most of our crew and a lot of the cast had more accessibility into Santa Fe and our production office was based out of Santa Fe,” he said. “It was a central location that made it easier for us.”
Sickboy, he said, was in and out of trouble much of his life while growing up in a dysfunctional family rife with substance abuse.
“I identified a lot with the character and kind of some of the struggles he was going through,” Bitsui said. “I had a lot of friends that have had similar experiences, so he was a really interesting character. When they
brought the final script, I was really happy. I liked everything with it.”
Bitsui said he could empathize with Sickboy as he spent some of his teens years trying to find himself.
After moving to Albuquerque from the rural Chinle area of northern Arizona during middle school, Bitsui attended five high schools before finally graduating from Albuquerque High.
“I think it was because, maybe, I had troubles with authority and sitting still,” he said. “I guess it was kind of that.”
High school started to go south for him when he tried to land a role in the movie “Sunchaser,” starring Woody Harrelson, with whom Bitsui worked in “Natural Born Killers.”
“I went in a for screen test, and I tested really well,” he recalled.
The director, Michael Cimino, “picked me. He said that I was great. He loved for me to play the lead (alongside Harrelson). I was on cloud nine. I was like, ‘The heck with school. I’m good to go’ and all this.
I was literally starting to pack my bags.”
But movie executives later decided to go with Jon Seda for the role, because he had more experience.
“One of my favorite actors at the time was Woody Harrelson,” Bitsui said. “It was very heartbreaking. So I quit acting right after that. I started getting in trouble immediately after that because that was what was keeping me out of trouble in the first place.”
Upon high school graduation, however, Bitsui decided to give the screen another whirl.
“I took more acting and drama classes,” he said. “I actually got interested in screenwriting and directing. I thought that was probably more where my path was to be was as a filmmaker. Then I didn’t get into UCLA. Heartbroken again, and I decided to make a move out of LA.”
That seemed to be the turning point for Bitsui.
“Right at that time, I kind of started getting roles,” he said. “I got a call from director Chris Eyre, who was doing a film called ‘A Thousand Roads,’ and he wanted me to play one of the leads and so I jumped on that and it’s been kind of like a snowball effect.”
Bitsui said he realizes he’s been somewhat fortunate.
“I’ve been very blessed in many ways,” he said. “For many peole in LA to have this type of opportunity is very unlikley. You can be out there from the age of 18 and never really have a solid break.”
And while Bitsui had several roles in movies, it wasn’t until landing the gig as Victor in “Breaking Bad” that things really exploded for him.
“There have been some really great crews and casts that I’ve been able to be a part of but ‘Breaking Bad’ is just kind of the anomaly because it’s really working actors hitting it big, in a sense,” he said. “You’ll always have the Brad Pitts, you’ll always have the Johnny Depps. But there’s not many of them. And then you have a bunch of guys like us, you know, working actors.
“And so it was really cool to see a team of working actors really get a huge break and to really participate in something. I can’t compare it to anything else. We just won a Golden Globe. It’s just kind of amazing.” And he certainly wouldn’t be adverse to reprising the role in the recently announced spin-off, “Better Call Saul.”
“We’ll see what happens,” he said. “That’s the thing about Vince Gilligan. He could take something and spin it to a whole another direction, which is pretty exciting. We’ll see. It would be awesome.
“At this point, I’m just thankful just to have made it this far. To have been in three seasons and to be one of the longer-living bad guys that was a big thing so at this point, I’m satisfied. If they bring me back, that’s just going to be icing on the cake.” As for “Drunktown,” the four original screenings at Sundance were sold out the first day tickets went on sale, prompting a fifth showing, he said.
And with a little luck, it will hit big screens across the country at some point, he said, because the movie brings a powerful and important message.
“I like playing bad guys, bad guys with a glimmer of hope,” he said. “In this case, it’s guy who’s not
necessarily bad but just a little bit lost and confused. There’s hope and there’s redemption through the story… “I was told a few year back, don’t focus on the message, focus on the story so as an actor, my job is always just to deliver as realistically as I can the character and the character to the story. You walk away from it with what you walk away from it with, but there’s definitely a redemption for his character.”