Yeri Han grew into prominence as an actor in her native country of South Korea, where she has been nominated and received a number of awards. Despite her success in Asia, she was almost a complete unknown to American audiences. With her new film, Minari, directed by Lee Isaac Chung, that is about to change (as her Independent Spirit nomination will attest).
As Monica, the practical wife to Steven Yeun’s more aspirational Jacob, Yeri Han provides the anchor to the film by delivering a great performance in a very tricky role. In our conversation, we talk about how she grounded her role and managed to avoid coming off as an antagonist. Rather, she portrays a woman whose concern for her young children is at odds with her husband’s dream to grow Korean produce in the sweltering heat of Arkansas.
Awards Daily: How did you become a part of this project?
Yeri Han: When I first received a script it was the first version of translated scripts, so I wasn’t sure about the role. I was very concerned about whether I would be able to portray Monica’s character well. It was after meeting Isaac that I decided I wanted to do this film no matter what because he’s such a genuinely wonderful person.
AD: You shot this film in Oklahoma, basically in the woods, in a trailer. What was the shooting experience like? I know it was incredibly hot.
YH: Oh yeah, so hot! Other than the heat, though, everything else was great. I really enjoyed working on this film. Because we shot the film in this small town called Tulsa, it really helped bring us together quickly as a family.
AD: I talked to Yuh-jung earlier tonight and I asked her how the two of you built this mother/daughter bond so easily. And she said that you two were just together basically all of the time. You say it was a closely knit set. How closely knit?
YH: We were staying in the same Airbnb together, me and Yuh-jung. So, we were the first people to see each other when we woke up in the morning. We ate together, spent the whole day shooting together, then went to bed at the same time. So, really as close as can be. And I’m grateful for that because it really enabled me to get to know this person better.
AD: When you saw how personal the story was for the director, this story of Korean/American immigrants coming here and trying to find their way, did you feel a similar attachment to the project as it went along for you as well?
YH: I didn’t feel that I had to convey the life of an immigrant. I didn’t have to try to mimic or show life as an immigrant. But because it was based on the director’s own experience, this semi-biographical story, I knew there was going to be a lot of truth in it and a lot of heart in it, and that really became the power of the script. It was one of the reasons I chose to work on this film.
AD: I think your part is the trickiest role in the film, because there’s a way this could have been written or filmed to portray Monica as an antagonist. But really, she’s the practical one who is thinking through all this. When you were playing Monica, were you at all concerned about finding that balance?
YH: I constantly thought about the strongest energy or emotion Monica has, and I believe that the strongest power was her love. I believe that’s what drove her actions and what drove her to make her family stay together through all that. While Jacob’s dream lies in the farm, which is his self-realization, that’s why he’s pursuing it, that isn’t Monica’s dream.
Of course, a part of the reason that Jacob wants to build this farm is for his family, too, but the strongest driving force to keep the family together comes from Monica. I guess for that reason everyone can relate to Monica. And because it’s her love and power that holds the family together, she becomes a character that you sympathize with.
AD: You and Stephen had to build this relationship where you were married and it felt like you’d been together a long time, but also convey that you were in this difficult position of not necessarily agreeing on the right way forward for the family. How did you work together to give off that sense that these are people who love each other, but that they’re in a really tough spot.
YH: The Airbnb I was staying in was our meeting place. We spent hours there talking about well, why are we together, why is Monica still in love with Jacob, and so on. We talked about this over long conversations constantly, and that served as a great basis in portraying our relationship. I imagine that Monica and Jacob, in the beginning, would have spent a lot of time talking to each other, like we did in preparation for playing these characters. But they reach a point where they’re not talking anymore, so it was important to show that. Me and Jacob talked very deeply about how we were going to convey that emotionally.
AD: The thing that I love about the fire scene and what happens after, is that is shows that some bond are stronger than disaster. I love that the movie doesn’t tell you exactly what happens after the fire. Did it feel natural to you that they stayed together?
YH: My parents married young like Jacob and Monica did, which meant that their growing pains had to be shared with their children. Having to go through that with your parents and overcoming that eventually makes your family bond stronger. There’s a Korean proverb: marital argument is like trying to cut water with a knife. It’s useless. I’m sure that Monica and Jacob will continue fighting, even after what happened. This was just a part of their life, and I’m pleased that was portrayed beautifully on screen. Although the fire was a big pivotal event in the film, when you think about their married life together, it wasn’t that big of a deal. [Laughs]
AD: If I’m correct, this is your first film in America. It’s got to feel wonderful to have your first American film receive such acclaim and reach such a wide audience.
YH: The whole experience of making this film was so wonderful that I’m worried am I ever going to have a similar experience again. Although the film is finished there’s still more life for it to have, and I hope it wraps up nicely. The film hasn’t been released in Korea yet, so I’m curious and I’m also worried how it’s going to be received by Korean audience. This film is of course one of the monumental films of my life, and I’m very grateful that I was a part of it.