Cotton Yancey, Actor and Filmmaker

Cotton Yancey

Sardis native Cotton Yancey has been making films since 2013. Originally a musician, he performed with several touring acts in the ’60s and ’70s, before becoming a prominent rodeo announcer.

Where did you grow up and go to school?

I grew up about 45 minutes south of Memphis in Sardis. Memphis was my stomping grounds, especially when I got into high school because I was playing music all that time. I graduated from North Panola High School in 1966, and went to Ole Miss on a music scholarship.

At what moment did you discover an interest in working in Film/ TV?

When I was seven years old! The first time I was on TV was when I was 7. My sister and I danced the bop to Elvis Presley’s “Hound Dog” on a local competition show that came on Saturdays in Memphis, and we won it.

That sort of lit my fire for entertaining crowds. I was already learning to play guitar, and by the time I was 12, me and some other guys put a little band together around 1963, when I was 15. We called ourselves The Barons and we actually got a little record deal and had a regional hit single called “Gimme Gimme Gimme,” and that really lit my fire.

The Royal American Showmen. Cotton Yancey is in the front row, third from the left.

I was in bands up until I was about 38. I had a band called the Royal American Showmen that lasted from about ’68 to ’78. We were a show band with a horn section sort of like Earth, Wind and Fire, Chicago, Tower of Power, Blood, Sweat and Tears. We signed to United Artists. We never did have a hit, but we released some albums.

I’ve since come to realize I’ve been an actor all my life. I mean, musicians are actors, for sure. I worked in the rodeo as an announcer for almost 30 years after being a musician, and that was definitely an acting job. It was a pleasant surprise that I had that kind of education in my background when I started to get into the film business, because I had done all the same things before, just in a live situation. Even all those years, as a cowboy especially, I was doing a lot of commercials. And I did a lot of a lot of interviews and panel shows throughout my career as a musician and rodeo announcer. I don’t know why I just didn’t think about the acting thing until I retired from professional rodeo.

One thing I learned from being a musician was always to get a group of great musicians around you. I never did hire anybody that wasn’t better than me. But that wasn’t a real high hill to climb. (laughs) I wanted to work with people that I could learn something from. If my band was better than me, that gave me a chance to step up to them. It’s the same thing with acting. That’s the reason why I love it so much. I love to see two good actors go at it, and I love it when I’m one of them.

Not to get too deep, but being 74 years old and everything, you start thinking about how many years you’ve got left. And I think about all my family that are gone now that made my life interesting and rewarding, and how I wish I had them on film to remember them. Think of all the great movie stars from the ‘40s and ‘30s, what a great gift for them to give those performances. We get to watch people perform that are long gone and get to see their personalities, get to see their smiles, get to see the way they talked. That is something that is pretty rare. Most people don’t get that. So, I feel blessed that as an actor I can leave that behind. I wish I had that of my parents and grandparents. It’s like they say, you know, John Wayne never dies.

At what point did you realize you could take steps to pursue your dream from Mississippi?

Well, I didn’t even start in the film business until 2011, where I was consciously thinking about being a filmmaker. Whether it would be behind the camera or in front of the camera, I didn’t really care.

I retired from rodeo in 2010, and my former manager in the music business, who I had talked to probably about ten times in 20 years, just called me out of the blue and asked me if I wanted to direct a film. I’d never directed a film before and barely knew what a crew was or what they did. I didn’t think I was qualified. But he thought I had good organizational skills and could realize the vision for the documentary, which was called Mississippi JUCO: The Toughest Football League in America.

My manager put all the best guys in town together he could find. Don Warren was one of them, I didn’t know him at the time but came to know what an extremely fine talent he is. Best jib operator in the southeast, no doubt. And his son Alex Warren was on it too. I was very fortunate to be able to work with them and many others. On the first day I told the crew, I’m the pseudo-director, you’re really going to have to walk me through this. When I had an idea, they’d let me know if it was feasible or crazy. (laughs) And that helped me so much. And it built my confidence up a lot, because I found out that a lot of my ideas were valid and they accomplished them.

So that lit my fire big time. I started auditioning for stuff, and then I started to get parts. In fact, the first part I got was in The Sound and the Fury with James Franco. A speaking part as a doctor. Boy, it just knocked me out. I couldn’t believe it was happening.

Here’s a funny story, when we finished shooting up near Greenwood, I jumped in my truck and headed back to Jackson, and I was so fired up I was like an 18-year-old kid. I started calling every cowboy friend I had telling them what I just did and got so into it I drove right through Jackson and was headed down I-55 South. I had to turn around and come back. (laughs)

So that inspired me to go back to school. I went to Hinds Community College and studied under Randy Kwan in the film department there when I was 65 years old. I got my degree in film and video technology so I could understand the language of what went on behind the camera. It was also a great place to learn what was going on in the film business around the state and region. Ever since then, I went nuts with it.

Are you working on any current/recent projects?

Coup de Grace, a short film I’m in, recently won the Best Narrative Short at the Oxford Film Festival, and I’m just tickled to death about that. And there’s several features that I’ve been in over the last two years or so that haven’t come out yet. I’m working on one right now with some very dear friends. Mike Mayhall is the director and writer of it, it’s a horror movie and it’s a passion project a bunch of us got together to do. We just finished two days on my place out here in the country and I’m really impressed with the way Mike works. And I’m working with (Meridian native actor) Jeremy Sande. He’s just a heck of a talent. I’ve been able to work with him several times throughout the years and have a real bond with him. And I’m doing a lot of documentaries right now with Frasco Films. That’s the same manager that managed me when I was in the music business.

I’m actually making a living in this business. It may sound strange to people that aren’t in the entertainment business but making a living in this business is a big deal because most people don’t. It’s sort of like the rodeo business. You’re a champion according to how much money you’ve won throughout the year in sanctioned rodeos throughout the country. Every dollar is a point. And I’m thinking that’s sort of the way it is in this acting business. Every dollar is a point, you know? (laughs)

What has been the most surprising thing about working in the film industry?

The most surprising thing to me is the collaboration aspect of it. Being in bands was always a collaboration. Same thing in the rodeo business. I was a horseback announcer. I was the first one out, I’m like Johnny Carson on a horse, introducing all the athletes and sponsors. I had to have a good relationship with everybody. To see that same kind of collaboration in the film business was impressive and a very welcome thing. It’s so important for a good production to have a bunch of folks that are going to collaborate cohesively where you can feel the excitement. There’s just something about the team thing. When it’s working, you can just feel it in the air.

You also learn everybody’s there to just do the work. When working on The Sound and the Fury, everybody there treated me like I was right up there with James Franco himself. I mean, this is my first movie and I’m doing a scene with Tim Blake Nelson when I had just watched him in O Brother Where Art Thou? I was just in awe. And he’s a real jewel of a person. I’d love to work with him again. So that’s also what surprised me. I had to get over that awe factor a little bit.

Who has been an influence on your career and why?

Charlie Daniels. We got pretty close back in the ‘70s. I got to play at the Charlie Daniels Volunteer Jam in Nashville, which was one of the biggest rock ‘n’ roll shows in the country. I remember I was standing backstage fixing to go on, and Charlie’s standing next to me just watching the acts. And I look out and at those 15 to 20 thousand screaming fans and I say, “Dang man, I’m nervous as a cat, I’m a little scared.” He looks at me and says, “So am I. If you ever lose that, if you ever lose them butterflies, you better get out of the business. Always cherish and embrace your butterflies. That’s God’s gift to you. They’re your fuel that takes you through the performance.” I think it was 1978 when he said that to me, and it’s stuck with me the rest of my life. He also said that the differences between professionals and amateurs is professionals have trained their butterflies to fly in formation. (laughs)

Also Lecile Harris, one of the most famous rodeo clowns of all time. He worked the Dixie National Rodeo forever and died at 83, still at it. He was one of the funniest natural people I’ve ever met in my life. Those two guys I guess are the strongest mentors I have when it comes to the film business. Getting to hear their stories was a real blessing to me.

How does being a Mississippian help you stand out in our industry?

I think there’s something about living in the south. I noticed it in the music business for sure, playing all over the country and even in Europe, they love people from the south because they love to hear us talk. And everybody loves southern charm. I’ve had producers and directors remind me, “OK, Cotton, you’ve got the lines. Now give me the charm because that’s why we hired you.”  They just wanted me to be myself. Now, you might have to clean up your lingo a little, because sometimes people just can’t understand when we talk. (laughs)

If you could create a scene built around one location in Mississippi, where would that be and why?

I was very fortunate about two years ago to work on the film Mysterious Circumstance. We shot it in Tishomingo County. I’d played music and done rodeo up there before but never really spent a lot of time there. But I tell you, when we were in Tishomingo State Park, it was gorgeous. You could mistake it for Colorado. Huge boulders, beautiful forests, it really inspired me a lot. I actually came home and started writing and have a few things, that if we ever make them, I’ll probably try to shoot them in Tishomingo. This whole state is just gorgeous for movie production, but that really reminded me of just how beautiful we are as a state.

Favorite moment on set or with a project?

My favorite would be getting to work on The Magnificent Seven with Denzel Washington, Chris Pratt, that whole great cast. Now I didn’t get to know them like we were old buds or anything, but enough to have a good time where we knew each others’ names. And I had just got off working on Free State of Jones with Matthew McConaughey, and he was the same way, just very warm and welcoming.

I remember when I got to set, and the first time I walked out the swinging doors of the saloon into the whole big town set they built sprawled out in front of me. It just felt wonderful. I love westerns. So just to be on that set of the Magnificent Seven remake with that quality of crew and quality of actors was really a kick in the pants. I was a horse wrangler, and I didn’t have a speaking part, but that job required me to be there the whole time. That whole year was extraordinary for me, and I have a lot of great memories.

What would you say to convince/encourage a producer to bring their project to Mississippi?

I’ve retained friendships with several producers from L.A. that have come here to make movies. So, what I would probably do is give them their names and numbers, and say, “Look, call this guy.” They can tell you all about the money you’ll save, the friendly people that we have down here, the quality of our crew. Then come down here and enjoy the hospitality, enjoy the friendliness, enjoy the beautiful country, enjoy the ease of getting around.

What’s your advice for someone looking to break into the film business?

I think getting a job as a production assistant is the best place to start. Or try the program at Hinds. Any time I do any kind of project where I can bring people in, I’ll call Hinds first. Every graduating class they have some guys that are really serious about what they want to do. I brought a guy out this past week. Talk about a hustler! I said, man, if I get a project and you’re still available, I want you on that project. He hadn’t had much experience, but he could see what needed to be done, and most of all he listened! Like I say, God gave us two ears and one mouth. (laughs) But seeing young people like that inspires me as much as anything. That’s the future of our business here in the state.

What are your hopes for the future of the film industry in Mississippi?

I hope we can continue to grow where we can rival New Orleans and Atlanta. And then even L.A. People like coming here. The people that come here are always going to be good ambassadors when they leave. I think that’s almost a given. I think the movie business is one of the very best ways to erase some of the misgivings that people have about Mississippi.

What do you do when you’re not working on a film set (other jobs, hobbies, etc.)?

I have horses, and I love working with them. I like to write and play music. I like working on my place, I’m up north of Pelahatchie in Leesburg, a little community that doesn’t even have a sign. But I’m sort of focused on this movie thing right now and fortunately, all the rest of the things I’ve done in my life sort of go along with it. I can’t say that I really relax from thinking about the movie thing. (laughs) If I’m out here at my place cutting a tree down and trimming it up to make a stack of firewood or something like that, my mind’s probably floating around somewhere thinking about a movie project.

How can people find/reach you?

My email is