kentucky1

Emilie Dhir as Aria in "Burning Kentucky"

Her clammy hands clenching a paper script, Emilie Dhir walked through the hallway toward the rehearsal room. Every step was more excruciating than the last. She walked into the rehearsal room at the University of Kentucky and performed two scenes in front of a filmmaker and three film producers. They were looking for a young Kentucky actress to be the star of their film.

Dhir, now a 20-year-old UF advertising junior, was 14 when she auditioned and was cast in “Burning Kentucky.” The film was released Tuesday on iTunes and Amazon after a brief run at the Hippodrome in January.    

The film centers around Dhir, who plays Aria, a young woman consumed by a mysterious event that killed her family. Aria evolves throughout the film and is eventually forced to choose between the love of a man or avenging her family.

The film was written and directed by Bethany Brooke Anderson, a Kentucky native who moved to Los Angeles in her early 20s. Anderson initially wrote “Burning Kentucky” as a novel but then adapted it for the screen, hoping to cast Kentucky natives for a realistic feel.

“Emilie was one of over 300 people we auditioned in Kentucky and I knew immediately she was special and would play the role of Aria in our film,” Anderson said. “Little did I know that she would also become my family.”

Dhir was born and raised in Lexington, Kentucky, where she honed her acting chops early by performing in community and youth theatre.

The film was shot for about two weeks in 2015 before running into financial trouble. This caused a delay in production, and filming was not completed until August 2017 ― just days before Dhir would be leaving for her freshman semester at UF. 

She decided to come to UF because she hates the cold and wanted the feel of the University of Kentucky but in a different location.

“Everyone at my high school went to UK, and I just wanted to get out,” she said.

“Burning Kentucky” premiered Feb. 8, 2019 at the new Mammoth Film Festival in California, taking home awards for Best Picture and Best Actress. The film went onto the respected Garden State, Con Nooga and Chattanooga Film Festivals and won awards in all of them. 

One of the biggest highlights for Dhir was the July 25, 2019 Kentucky screening. The event was a homecoming for most of the cast and crew who are from Kentucky.

“Even my middle school teachers were there,” she said. 

Dhir says that over the course of shooting, she and her mother, an executive producer of the film, grew very close to Anderson. 

Inspired by Anderson’s move from an “unexciting town” to Los Angeles to pursue directing, Dhir plans to move to L.A. after graduating UF to see where things go. Even if she does not act for a living, she says she can fall back on her advertising degree but still work in entertainment. 

Florence Pugh, the star of 2019 films “Midsommar” and “Little Women,” is a big inspiration to Dhir, especially because of her recent and early success.

Dhir is not currently acting in any projects but she hopes to work with Anderson in the future. Anderson plans to continue her career with two more films based in Kentucky to complete a trilogy of Kentucky films. 

For Anderson and most of the crew, “Burning Kentucky” is a love letter to the state they once called home.  

“Returning to Kentucky to make the film was a dream come true,” Anderson said. “Kentuckians are so creative, resourceful natural storytellers. Making our indie film there made so much sense. And the beauty of the state is undeniable. It was such a perfect backdrop. I was also able to have my dearest friends and family on set while I worked. That was so invaluable to me.”

You can find the iTunes purchase link for “Burning Kentucky” here.

Contact Christopher S. Cann at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter at @chrstophercann.

Correction: This story has been updated to reflect the correct date of the July film screening.