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Growing up on the Fourche River in the rural community of Briggsville (Yell County), surrounded by national forests and rolling mountains, Jacob Lofland knew a life of hard work, hunting and fishing, and social activities that revolved around church. Then one day his mother, Debra Lofland, happened across a casting call online for a film set in Arkansas with a role that seemed to describe her son. She decided to make the application process an assignment for Jacob, whom she homeschools.
"I filled out the application, and we did it kind of halfway as a joke," Jacob, 17, recently recounted to the Times. "Even when I was a kid it was never something I thought about. It's not something from our area you ever hear about."
That homeschool exercise done on a lark has paid off. It led Jacob to a starring role in fellow Arkansan Jeff Nichols' sleeper hit "Mud," which in turn scored him a prominent part in the feature "Little Accidents" out early next year and a multi-episode arc on the critically acclaimed television series "Justified."
"You just don't expect someone that's grown up on the Fourche River to be going to France, Los Angeles, Miami and everywhere else," Jacob's mother said. "The opportunity that Jeff gave to him by choosing him for 'Mud' has opened up the world to him."
Nichols, in an interview with the Times, said there was a massive search underway for the character of Neckbone, the last major role to be cast for "Mud."
"I remember scrolling through the list of videos, which allowed you to see a photo of each kid," he said. "I immediately stopped on Jacob's because he looked exactly like the mental picture I had of Neckbone. I said, 'Please be good,' and hit play. Then his mouth opened, those teeth showed, and that accent came out. I was sold."
Jacob was then flown down to Austin to meet with Nichols, producers and fellow cast member Tye Sheridan, who would play his best friend, Ellis, in the film. He returned home and a day later, while taking apart a bulldozer with his father, he received the news he had landed the part. Jacob said he identified so much with the character of Neckbone that all he had to do was talk, there was no acting involved.
In "Mud," Neckbone and Ellis ride a motorcycle around their Delta town, travel across the Mississippi River in an aluminum boat and help the titular character, played by Matthew McConaughey, repair a fishing boat stranded in the trees of an island on the Mississippi.
"I've had a motorcycle since I was five, and the Fourche River is right behind our house, so I was pretty comfortable with those things," Jacob said.
"The character wasn't hard. I already had the accent; they just put me in the clothes. It was that simple."
While acting was something Jacob said he didn't have to put much thought or preparation into, Nichols was immediately impressed in rehearsals with how he understood the subtext of the script and knew exactly what the character was thinking in each scene. In particular, Nichols explained how the character Neckbone uses an expletive several times in the first few minutes of the film and each time Jacob delivered it a different way.
"Jacob has the very rare gift of being natural in front of a camera," Nichols said. "Lots of people can understand this concept, but very few can enact it. You don't see a change in him between action and cut. It's a natural gift."
A seemingly uninhabited island on a dirty, winding river — a setting right out of a Mark Twain novel — was an idyllic place for a teenage boy to make his first foray into acting. His "Mud" co-star McConaughey gave the young actors some acting tips, yet it was his sense of adventure and easygoing nature that stuck with Jacob.
"Really he's just like us, having fun with it," Jacob said. "He was having a blast. He told us it was like being on vacation. He had his family there, and they were camping on the river every night."
That same camaraderie and warm, encouraging atmosphere was what Jacob experienced this summer when he was shooting "Little Accidents" for six weeks in West Virginia. The film, which examines the aftermath of a tragedy in a mining community, was written and directed by Sara Colangelo and stars Elizabeth Banks, Boyd Holbrook and Josh Lucas.
"That's the most fun I've had on a set," he said. "We spent all the time together. All the actors were real close and we felt like a family."
While shooting the film, he was able to go whitewater rafting for the first time. This continued a series of firsts he has experienced through acting, including eating sushi for the first time in Miami and traveling abroad to attend the Cannes Film Festival in the south of France.
"Oh, wow, it was like a dream," he said. "We went out there, and it's like you don't wake up until you get home and you're like, 'Did that just happen?' "
The red carpets of Cannes and bright lights of a Hollywood sound stage are far removed from the slow pace of Briggsville. Yet, it's the countless hours spent hauling hay, mowing yards and working at a sawmill his father owned when he was younger that have given Jacob a perspective on where he is in life.
"Now that I've tried it, I love it and I want to make a career out of it," Jacob said. "It's fun and it's easy. Everybody is like, 'How hard is it learning your lines?' Well, it's not as hard as working 12-hour days."
Nichols is proud of Jacob's work and excited for the opportunities that lie ahead, but at the same time a little nervous.
"I just think Jacob is a great young man," he said. "I think he's smart and I think he carries real empathy for people. I don't want to see that changed in what is a very tough industry. That said, if anyone can manage it, I believe Jacob can."
While Jacob's days are now often filled with reading scripts, meeting with producers and directors, and traveling to film sets and festivals, he's not looking too far into the future, approaching each new project the same way he did when he applied for his first acting job.
"I haven't planned anything so far," he said. "I'm just going to let it go and see what happens."