You might say Kerry Knuppe grew up around the movies.
In 1996, the TNT movie “Crazy Horse,” about the legendary Native American warrior of the same name, filmed on her family’s ranch east of Hot Springs. A few years later, some scenes for the 2004 western action-adventure film “Hidalgo” were also shot there.
“I realized acting looked like a pretty cool gig,” said Knuppe. “At one point, I thought, ‘Yeah, this is what I want to do.’”
Fast forward another decade or so, and Knuppe — who now lives in Santa Monica, Calif. — is starring in a movie of her own: “Solver,” a mystery-adventure film drawn from the world of puzzles, treasure hunts and escape rooms.
Filmed on location in Rochester and across upstate New York, it’s been described as “an Indiana Jones junior” according to writer-producer Jack Kelley. “Solver” will be screened Jan. 21 in Sioux Falls with a live appearance by Knuppe and Kelley. Kelley said the film will also play across the state in other locations like Hot Springs, Mitchell and Huron.
The movie is planned for digital release on iTunes and Amazon on Jan. 29, which is also National Puzzle Day. The film is directed by Xandy Smith and co-stars John Ruby and Antonio Jaramillo.
While the film’s content is for all ages, the world of “Solver” isn’t for everyone, cautions Kelley.
“Our fans tell us they’re disappointed with formulaic Hollywood filler. They’re intelligent, hungry for an experience that’s challenging and meaningful. They love exploring this world we created, and appreciate the craft, detail and thoughtfulness that went into it,” he said.
“Solver” tells the story of Luke (played by Ruby), a young professional whose grandfather disappears under strange circumstances. Arriving at his grandfather's remote cabin in upstate New York, he discovers a series of clues and puzzles, each more baffling than the last. With the help of a woman from his past and an eccentric sidekick, he must unravel the puzzle before someone else gets to the dark secret it hides.
Knuppe plays Alex, a female mechanic who helps Luke solve the puzzle. “Alex is very practical and savvy, and I like her transition by the end of the film,” she said.
“I had never played a mechanic, so I requested to shadow the mechanic whose shop we’d be using. A couple hours into it, a customer came in. They got to talking, so I continued to go over changing the oil. Pretty soon the guy goes, ‘You training someone new?’ The owner laughed and said, ‘No, it’s for a movie being shot here. She’s an actress.’ It took both of us to convince him this was the truth. He thought I was interning there and thought it was cool to see more women in the mechanic field.”
Top to bottom, Solver was crafted differently than typical Hollywood fare. The team shunned CGI in favor of old school filmmaking techniques: hand-crafted props, clever camera skills and real materials. Solver wasn’t shot on the back lot of a studio, it was made in everyday places, with real history.
“We’re returning an authenticity and art to the moviemaking process,” Kelley said. “It can be difficult to do things this way, but it’s what we believe.”
From the ranch to the movies
After graduating from Custer High School, Knuppe enrolled at University of Colorado Denver as an art major. During her second semester, she took an acting class and performed in a play. She was hooked.
That next fall, Knuppe didn’t go back to school. Instead, she signed with an agency and started auditioning all around Denver for films, plays and commercials. She stayed in Denver for a couple of years working as an actress.
“Eventually, enough work came from Hollywood to allow me to get into the union, and shortly after, I made the move to LA,” said Knuppe.
While working as an actress in Los Angeles, Knuppe has been involved in several movies and TV productions. A few of her favorites include “Like a Country Song” — which was shot in Nashville — and “Home” with scream-queen Heather Langenkamp. She also enjoyed playing Laura in “The Glass Menagerie.”
“That was a role that I felt changed my approach to starting a new character,” said Knuppe. “Laura has a limp and is painfully shy, and I had to change the way I walked and talked. It was vital to the play for this to feel very real and took a lot of practice to portray someone who lived like this her whole life. It was one of those discovery moments in my career as to how you can create and layer a character.”
Knuppe is a Lifetime Member at the Actors Studio, where she continues to study and perform.
“I consider that one of my biggest accomplishments as an actor,” she said.
She hasn’t yet seen the finished version of “Solver,” but Knuppe said filming the movie was fun.
“It is this myriad of puzzles, and each day I would show up on set thinking, ‘How are they going to pull this one off?’ Then I’d see it on set and really love it," she said. "It’s one of those movies the whole family can watch and have a good time. It has a lot of ‘what is going on?’ moments to keep you interested.”
In the future, Knuppe would like to do more films set in small towns.
“I think there is a lot to work with in terms of story and character that isn’t often explored and can be incorrectly portrayed,” she said.
She would also like to do more TV and comedy — and maybe win an award along the way.
“Of course, winning an Oscar is always in the back of my mind, but ultimately I would like to create memorable performances that can be enjoyed for many generations,” she said.