“Minari,” a 1980s-set story about a Korean family that starts a farm in the American Midwest, dives deep into the meaning of immigrant narratives and the American dream. It offers a poignant depiction of a multi-generational family trying to build a life in a new land. Julia Kim, a casting director who herself is the child of Korean immigrants, was tasked with assembling this onscreen clan. The search took her into Korean American pockets of the United States to find bilingual kids, as well as into South Korea itself—all to create an authentic family portrait.
What was the casting process for “Minari” like?
I had about five weeks. We were dealing with international travel restrictions for actors from South Korea, so we had to think of backups. The kids and the backups were top of mind. Choices for 7- and 11-year-old first-generation children of immigrants is not exactly a long list in traditional databases. I dove into the community, which is not versed in the film industry. I found a Korean language school [and] Korean churches, and I knew Orange County had a huge Korean population. I went to the Korean newspapers and I put out an ad, and they put it out onto all their different branches nationally. That first leg of the search was really about getting the word out—as wide of a net as possible—and then, the momentum built. Before I knew it, I was watching self-tapes of kids who had never acted before and narrowing it down, knowing that Steven Yeun was playing the father and having the mother in mind. They had to be bilingual and also come from families where they would have a parent who was able to go to Arkansas for the shoot. It was about finding the right kids and then tackling all the other little hoops.
Did you hold chemistry reads to cast the family?
We had virtual chemistry reads. We put the brother and sister together to see how they interacted, because neither of them had acted onscreen before. We had them improv and gave them scenarios, and they had a natural chemistry. Noel [Cho] has a little brother, so she already had that big sister vibe. Alan [S. Kim] has a twinkle in his eye. He likes practical jokes. He loved to laugh; he wasn’t shy. We knew that temperament was right. It’s somewhat easier to dial someone back than try to coax a shy kid to be more energetic. Alan came down to do a bunch of scenes with Steven, ad libbing and creating scenarios.
In general, where do you look for new talent?
If it’s an older person or somebody who’s not an actor but I want to find some unique faces or types, I go into senior community centers and the Y. I look up where certain ethnic communities congregate and go into that community, whether it’s a market that sells certain foods or a mini mall that has a lot of shops from a specific community. I talk to people, and I create these very simple flyers so when they think of someone, they reach out to me. I go to churches, religious centers, skate parks for kids. It depends on the assignment. I try to disarm people, because everybody is a little shy or has their guard up. Schools are savvy to casting people coming in. I love the challenge of thinking of creative ways to find people.
“I love the challenge of finding and thinking of creative ways to find people.”
What made this project different from others for you?
One, my family was able to enjoy it and follow the film. I work on a lot of interesting experimental or left-of-center topics, and not all of it is family-friendly. I really embraced that this was something that was going to touch my family on a personal level. I’ve been in casting for a really long time, and to see a story like this being produced and being made by two major companies with a track record like A24 and Plan B just makes me love them even more. They have such a knack for picking interesting, unique stories and then trusting the filmmaker and the team do what they do and letting it breathe. Kudos to them for recognizing when to leave it alone and when to weigh in, and also for fighting to have the film be in Korean, because it would not have rang authentic if there were subtitles and mom and dad were speaking English, because that’s just not the experience. This film is touching so many people, and it’s really not just the Korean aspect of it—it’s all sorts of multicultural and multigenerational homes. It just shows that there are common elements to all of us. It’s really wonderful to read and to feel that from everyone watching it.
What advice do you have for actors auditioning remotely right now?
The actor needs to do their homework in this new phase that we’re entering, which is to have your self-taping space be dedicated to self-taping. Make it so that you’re the person that stands out and not something in the background. Not only do I have the performance that I need to watch and redirect or tweak, but if a technical glitch comes from a self tape, I have to ask you to do it again because the sound wasn’t good or the lighting was bad or there was too much background noise or I can’t see you clearly. Actors really need to bring their A-game, technically. Pilot season is coming up and there might be a lot of auditions if you’re lucky. You don’t want to have to scramble to get a space right away. Get a light so that you’re not beholden to natural light. Invest in a device that records you with utmost quality, and then know that the Zoom audition is the new normal, so you have to find a reader. You have to find ways to be creative to read the scene opposite someone else. If you’re really in a pinch, you can pre-record yourself reading opposite, but it’s not ideal. I want to see your body language, so I like to have you slate a little bit and tell me how tall you are and where you are based because people are all over the place. It’s just a simple “hey, how do you do” and then cutting and then going into the scene. Get the technical and creative part of taping yourself down so it feels as natural as can be.
On a self-tape, what catches your eye in young talent with little to no acting experience?
On “Minari,” shyness was the first red flag. I had to see if they have the right nuances and the right elements. David had to be someone who was lovable throughout his antics, and a little bit of a hellion. The key thing was the likability factor; even though he’s doing something that might be considered misbehaving or disrespectful, he’s just still being a kid. The audience really needs to still love him throughout his antics. When watching self-tapes, you have to see if the kid has that kind of likability. I’m looking for something about him, even if it’s a rough tape, that’s endearing and that makes you want to watch him throughout the length of the film. Noel was the older sister, responsible. They were latchkey kids, so she had to have a very sort of matriarchal spirit at 9 years old. Those were basic qualities that needed to shine through in their initial tape, and then I would give them redirection and see if there was something fresh and new that came back or not.
What don’t you think actors realize or know about what you do as a casting director?
I think an actor should feel very good about their audition; they should trust that, because the rest is out of their hands. The decision-making that goes on behind the scenes to get the final cast doesn’t always have to do with their ability or how they did. It really is about the mosaic or the tapestry of the whole piece and making it interesting and servicing the story. It’s heartbreaking when somebody I know did such a great job, and there’s no reason why they shouldn’t be cast, but it just isn’t servicing the story the way the filmmaker envisioned, and I to have to tell them they didn’t get it, but that they did a great job. I think the actor knows when they’ve nailed it and should feel good about that, and then the rest is really out of their hands.
This story originally appeared in the Jan. 14 issue of Backstage Magazine. Subscribe here.
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