Rudy Youngblood talks about working with Mel Gibson and facing down a live jaguar

Rudy Youngblood, 25, worked pretty hard for his big-screen debut — outrunning a jaguar, jumping off a 15-foot waterfall and mastering the Mayan language – and doing it all with Mel Gibson directing. Still, the Texas-born actor tells PEOPLE that he was up for the challenge after landing the lead role, Jaguar Paw, in Apocalypto. Youngblood, who has performed in music and dance groups, spoke about working with Gibson and what it’s like to shoot scenes in a loincloth.

How did you end up meeting with Mel for the role?
I came to California to create a dance production. I was here three months and stumbled upon an open casting call. I went in all cowboy-ed up in my boots and everybody else (was) all GQ. I met with the casting director and then I came back and met with Mel. He had me run around his conference table and he said I ran like an animal and I seemed like a man’s man. Later that day he called me and asked if I could get on a plane to Mexico City the next day. I thought I was flying out as a featured extra. I said, “What is this for?” And he laughed and said, “Hasn’t anyone told you? This is for the lead of my film; you’re the star of my movie.”

What was it like to work with him?
Mel is a great guy – very smart. We automatically clicked and came together. He would look at me, and I knew what he wanted. He helped me a lot because this was my first film.

The role is pretty demanding. How did you train for it?
I am a runner, always been a runner. I box. I’m an athlete, you know. If you are a Texas boy, you either play football or you have a tutu on. I made it a point to want to do the stunts. The role involved a lot of movement and I enjoy movement – any kind. It was very demanding, but I love the word “challenge.” I wanted to do it, whether it meant I got banged up or not. And I got banged up.

And the jaguar chase scene – was that real?
I ran in front of a live jaguar. It was running, you know. I believe it was from down there (in Mexico). They had wranglers for it. But it’s an animal, and you should never take your eyes off an animal. I am from the country and you don’t ever let your guard down. It was intense. My heart was racing. I loved it.

You wear a lot of tattoos and piercings, but not much else. How did that feel?
The makeup went on very morning for three and half to four hours. I was there at 1:30 in the morning putting on makeup. And I had to wear that little thong. I was making sure to do my leg lifts and butt exercises.

Then there’s all the blue paint.
Oh my god. Whe-ew. It took some getting used to. But after a while you get so used to it, just like me wearing a little thong with my cheeks hanging out. It becomes a part of you. After a while, people didn’t recognize me with clothes on.