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Rumble in the Jungle

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rudy.jpg
Gibson gives his young star a rigorous workout in his Mayan-language adventure, Apocalypto.

YOUNGBLOOD SPRINTS THROUGH A STAR-MAKING TURN IN 'APOCALYPTO'
(Courtesy of San Francisco Examiner)

Six years removed from his high-school graduation, Rudy Youngblood is putting his education to good use – most notably, as the lead in Mel Gibson’s Mayan-language epic, Apocalypto. The film, about a young warrior’s desperate effort to save his family from a clan of killers, demanded great athleticism from its star, who would be required to dash about the sweltering Mexican rainforest throughout a grueling nine-month shoot. Youngblood, an accomplished track star and skilled equestrian at Belton High School in Texas, welcomed the challenge, even choosing to perform his own stunts.

“I’m an athlete,” he says excitedly. “All my life I’ve been running track and cross-country, so that came in handy. Also, I’m a boxer and a dancer, so naturally I loved the physicality of the role. The movie set was like my playground. I was running around all the time. I’m a country boy from Texas, I love riding horses and I don’t mind getting hurt. I got banged up pretty good, but I was working out and staying in shape, so it didn’t feel like a job to me.”

Born Rudy Gonzalez – he changed his name to Youngblood, purportedly as a tribute to his Comanche and Yaqui heritage – the award-winning grass dancer moved to Los Angeles in 2005, hoping to pursue an acting career. It was then that he attended an audition and caught Gibson’s eye. The director, who describes his young star as “a supreme athlete, the hero type,” was immediately won over by his looks and physical grace. Youngblood, who initially believed that he’d been cast as an extra, became fast friends with Gibson, whose off-screen controversies had little effect on the Apocalypto set.

“To me, he is my pal,” Youngblood says. “I was so focused on the job I was doing that I didn’t notice the stuff going on outside the set. I was determined to do a good job because Mel believed in me so much, and I didn’t want to let him down. Whatever he did in his own time, that’s life. He’s a man, I’m a man, we’re both human. I couldn’t let that affect me.

“As a director, he’s brilliant. He became my best friend, a father figure and a mentor. I couldn’t ask for a better person to work with.”

Now, with Apocalypto enjoying surprising success at the box office, Youngblood has been thrown into the spotlight, but he’s hardly blinded by the glare.

“It’s been a big, crazy train ride. I mean, we debuted at number one, so that’s incredible,” he says. “This was my first acting role – prior to this, I was just a dancer. But I moved out to California a year-and-a-half ago, and after three months, I went to an open casting call. Two days later, I was on my way to Mexico City, and it’s been nonstop since then. I take it day by day. It’s nerve-racking, and not always in my comfort zone, but I just take it as comes. I’m the same guy I’ve always been. At the end of the day, I’m still Rudy.”

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