“Valley of Bones” opens with a man perched on the edge of a makeshift grave, prepared to meet an untimely end deep in the North Dakota Badlands.
But after narrowly escaping his would-be killer, the man—a recovering meth addict called McCoy (Steven Moloney)—makes a stunning discovery in the loosened soil. In desperate need of money, he enlists the help of a disgraced paleontologist named Anna (Autumn Reeser) to unearth the epic payday they both desperately need.
Part thriller, part Western, “Valley of Bones” explores the costly mistakes and familial issues that have carved surprisingly parallel paths for Anna and McCoy, and dramatically sets the stage for the characters’ ultimate divergence in the desert.
The film, which was also co-written and produced by Moloney, co-stars Mason Mahay as Anna’s young son, Rhys Coiro as her former brother-in-law, Bill Smitrovich as her father and Alexandra Billings as the owner of the ranch land hosting the excavation.
I recently caught up with Autumn Reeser, best known for her roles in “The O.C.,” “Entourage” and a recent string of Hallmark Channel TV movies, for more on her return to the big screen.
David Onda: When you first read the script for “Valley of Bones,” what was it about the story that resonated with you personally?
Autumn Reeser: It was different than a lot of thrillers that are being made nowadays. It felt like a throwback. There was a classic quality to it. You’re not dealing with the internet and cell phones. It felt timeless. I was actually really surprised it was being made. A lot of scripts I read tend to be sort of formulaic and all similar, and this was really, really different, and I loved that about it. I was like, “This feels like a risk. I don’t know if people will see it.” And then you could just feel it from the beginning of working on this project—it was touched by magic. There was just a really cool energy around it that you only get very rarely. I’ve been in film and television for 18 years, and I think it’s only ever happened maybe five times. You can feel it when it’s there, and you can feel it when it’s not. This one always had angels around it, I guess you would say.
Onda: In the last few years, you've starred in several Hallmark Channel rom-coms. Was part of your attraction to this film the fact that's it's a little darker than your recent work?
Reeser: Absolutely. As you go through life, you experience more, and therefore you want to, as an artist, put that into your work. I had just gone through a sort of difficult time in my life, and was looking for a more nuanced, complex role of somebody who’d also suffered. I definitely found that in Anna. And I found it a fun challenge to play a character who’s not likeable, who’s not a good mother at the beginning of the story. That was appealing to me, to have the challenge to take the audience along on the journey with that type of a character.
Onda: Anna's somewhat of a mystery for the first half of the movie, but even at the end we're left with some questions about what role she played in her troubled past. How did you fill in the blanks to fully understand the character?
Reeser: I know what happened, for me, in Anna’s past that landed her where she did. I know why she has the emotions she does around it. I think of her as somebody who went from thinking she was untouchable to having everything fall apart in a very short period of time. And she hasn’t recovered from that when we start this movie. She hasn’t forgiven herself. She hasn’t rejoined the world, really. She’s still caught in that path of suffering. Through this movie, we see her escape, we see a new journey that she starts on that allows her to forgive herself and choose her life again.
Onda: To that point, there's a line in the movie where you say, "This T-Rex has been trapped. She deserves a new life."
Reeser: Yeah. That’s absolutely a parallel to what Anna is going through.
Onda: The setting and the cinematography is beautiful. Where was "Valley of Bones" filmed?
Reeser: It’s so gorgeously shot, I can’t even. It’s such a treat for the eyes. I’m such a visual person, and I just want to, like, soak up this movie when I watch it. I want to go live in it, even though I did go live in it. When I watch the movie, I wanna live in it again in that world. We shot on a working cattle ranch in North Dakota and in the Badlands of North Dakota.
Onda: I saw some photos of production where you appeared to be camping and living out on the land as you were filming. It looked like a lot of fun.
Reeser: Very much so. We lived on the ranch, went horseback riding on the horses and learned how to rope. I think Rhys even went on a cattle drive with the cowboys. It was an amazing experience. It changed my life. I came back from that experience like—that’s what I wanna do with the second half of my life. I wanna get some property and have a space away from it all. It was really soul-stirring.
Onda: Were any sets actually built for the film, or were these all real locations in the area?
Reeser: Everything was real. I think the only thing that was built were the dinosaur bones, obviously. We were out there in the middle of nowhere.
Onda: What about the bar with the single, lone stripper dancing in the corner? Is that a real place?
Reeser: The bar’s a real place. I don’t know if they have a single, lone stripper in the middle of the day. I don’t know if that’s a standing fixture there, but certainly the energy that is captured in that scene is indicative of a lot of what I experienced in the small towns in that part of the country. There’s a grittiness, there’s a tiredness. It’s a lot of hardworking people who’ve been in the same area for generations. My family is farmers from South Dakota, so the bar feels right. That’s what the area feels like.
Onda: What do you make of this McCoy character? He and you have this great scene where he seems to display redeeming qualities, but we eventually see a different side of him.
Reeser: He’s a character who’s driven by his demons. He’s under the spell of drugs. That was something the filmmakers really wanted to explore, because meth is a major problem in that part of the country and is destroying lives right and left. I think they treated it in a really truthful, sensitive way. I know Steven did a lot of research into that addiction. Both of these characters have a lot of baggage from their past, a lot of things they’re carrying from decisions that they’ve made and his is addiction. You see him really struggle with that and try and quit. And he does, and then it comes right back at him and it brings up all these emotions that he’s not equipped to handle. He’s really suffering, and I think Steven plays him with a lot of compassion, as someone who just can’t get out from under that umbrella of addiction.
Onda: Can you tell me about the young actor who plays your son? He's great in this.
Reeser: Isn’t he lovely? He has such a beautiful sensitivity on camera and as a person that I think is just so lovely and so truthful. He’s very effortlessly truthful.
Onda: You mentioned you’ve been acting for 18 years—do you find that you’re still learning new things about the craft of acting?
Reeser: Yes, absolutely. We shot this two years ago, and I watch it now and there are things that I would do differently were I shooting this now. I’m constantly learning. I think that’s one of the main reasons that I watch my work back—to see what I can improve on next time, and to see what decisions that I made and risks that I took worked, and if there were any that didn’t. That’s the whole appeal of it. I started in theater when I was 6 or 7, and that’s always been the appeal—to improve and to represent humanity more accurately the next time.
Onda: The movie blurs genre lines and could fall into multiple categories. How would you categorize "Valley of Bones," and who is the audience for this film?
Reeser: That’s such a good question. I struggled with that, too. I’ve tried out different things and I’ve finally landed on it’s a “Western suspense thriller.” That seems to be the best fit. I think it’s something that everybody enjoys. One of the people who came to [a screening] last night said they watched it with five or six members of their family from the ages of 16 to 60, and they all liked it. I would enjoy this film at pretty much any age. I would have enjoyed this movie quite a lot as a teenager, all the way up to my current age and I would imagine into the future. It’s got a timeless quality to it. There’s a lot to find in it for parents, because of the connection between me and my child, the connection between McCoy and his child and the connection between me and my father. All of that is really strong. And then you even have Alexandra’s character as McCoy’s sponsor, which has a parental quality to it, too. That really came through for me when I watched it last night.
“Valley of Bones” opens in select theaters Friday, September 1. Click here for more information or to order tickets through Fandango.