I first saw Minari at Sundance last January, just before the world changed forever, and despite the year we’ve had since, I haven’t been able to stop talking or thinking about the film — or more specifically, its unbelievably precocious breakout star, 8-year-old Alan Kim. Lee Isaac Chung’s funny, heart-wrenching, semi-autobiographical story follows a 1980s Korean American family whose determined patriarch Jacob (Steven Yeun) moves his wife Monica (Han Ye-ri) and their two children, David (Kim) and Anne (Noel Kate Cho), to a small farm in the Ozarks in pursuit of the American Dream. Monica and Jacob are at odds over whether the move makes real sense for their family — particularly David, a mischievous and adorable 7-year-old with a heart defect, an indomitable spirit, and a penchant for sporting incredible ’80s ’fits. As they wrestle with their marriage and their future, Monica asks her mother Soonja (Yuh-Jung Youn) to leave Korea and join them in their literal and figurative limbo.
The real joy of the film is in watching David and Soonja play off of each other: At first, David is resistant, insisting she’s “not a real grandma” (she gambles, swears prodigiously, and doesn’t cook) and pulling insolent pranks involving the swapping of identical liquids, which ultimately only serves to draw the two closer. Under Soonja’s influence, David becomes even more brave and exuberant and puckish. Despite Minari’s incredibly stacked cast, the two actors simultaneously run away with the movie, especially Kim, stomping around the farm swilling Mountain Dew in his too-big cowboy boots and displaying a startling emotional range. It’s all the more impressive because Minari marks Kim’s film debut, and because, again, he’s in second grade. Before the movie’s February 12 digital debut, I hopped on Zoom with Kim, who was exceedingly polite and resplendent in a Commes des Garçon button-down and bright-yellow bow tie.
I love your outfit. Is that a heart on your shirt?
Thank you. I got it while I was doing a photograph, and the photograph man said I could keep it.
It’s very cool. What’s it been like doing all of these interviews?
I find it … fun? But I get a little tired after a few minutes.
What made you want to be in movies?
Probably … my mom said, “Let’s do this movie.” So I’m like, “I guess I’ll do this movie! I guess it could be kinda nice!”
What was your first time acting like?
This was my first time making a movie and acting, but I had auditioned for some things, I think? Yeah. I did something with Pottery Barn Kids.
Do you remember auditioning for Minari?
Well, I went to Plan B and A24, and I went into a room where I met Steven [Yeun], Isaac [Chung], the casting director Julia Kim, and Christina [Oh], the producer. And Steven would teach me this Korean paper game [called ddakji], you’re supposed to make a paper square and try and make your opponent’s paper square flip. If it flips, you win. And we practiced some of the lines.
Were you nervous?
I guess it was a fun day. But a nervous day. But more of a fun day than a nervous day.
What was your first impression of your movie family?
My first impression was probably, “Hello!” to everyone.
What was the first scene you guys filmed?
[Thinks intensely.] I think it was when I gave pee to grandma. I think that was my first scene. No? [Alan’s mom whispers offscreen.] Oh, no, that was not my first scene. It was the part where I pointed to a new red tractor.
What was it like to film the scene where you give pee to your grandma?
I go watch my medicine like I am doing a staring contest with it. I bring my cup to the bathroom, and I pour all the medicine out. And then I fake take off my pants and pee. And it’s filled with Mountain Dew. And I carefully walk because I don’t want the Mountain Dew spilling. And in the movie, I don’t want pee to get on my hands.
So you used Mountain Dew to fake the pee?
Yeah. Yellow Mountain Dew.
Do you like Mountain Dew as much as David does?
Not really, but after I tasted it, I guess it was pretty good.
Do you think you’re similar or different from David?
Hmm … 2 percent different and 98 percent same.
What’s the 2 percent that’s different?
Well, he lives in a house on wheels, while I don’t. And he had an unhealthy heart, while I don’t. We both have older sisters. Also, I have a dog and he doesn’t. He also likes to prank people, like me. That’s mostly it.
What’s a good prank you’ve done in real life?
Hmm. Probably scaring people. Because if I kind of like, sneak, I’m like [makes whooshing noise] a ninja. I try making no noise. And if I do, I pretend I am my dog, and then I say, “Boo!” And then my sister is like, “Whoa!” She didn’t really say “whoa,” but she did kind of jump.
Do you ever scare your parents?
Just my sister. My mom and my aunt and my dad can see me from a mile away. Even if I am a tiny dot.
Who was your best friend on set?
Everybody, I guess.
What’s something fun you did with Steven?
Probably we ate snacks, we relaxed, we practiced some of the lines, and when I peed on the bad seed, all of the water went up to my underwear, and so I had to wear different ones, and then wore my pants again, and then I put it on the van to make it dry, and Steven was just like, “Whose underwear is this?!” That was super funny.
Did you and Noel play together when you weren’t on camera?
We kind of played video games and watched Captain Underpants together.
Is that your favorite show?
Well, not exactly, but I guess it’s close to my favorite.
How did you memorize your lines?
My mom would help me practice.
How did she help you?
She said the Korean lines, and I would repeat it, and if I still didn’t get it, she would do the motions, like [acts out the following words, later translated by his father]: 엄마가 eomma-ga [my mom]; 이렇게 ileohge [like this]; 기도하면 gidohamyeon [if you pray]; 꿈에서 kkum-eseo [in dream]; 하늘나라를 haneulnalaleul [heaven]; 볼 수 있대요 bol su issdaeyo [you can see].
Did you and Noel ever get to do any improvising? Or was it all memorized?
No, not much. But when Steven and I were at the field, and Steven was digging up the giant hole, my screaming actually came out of nowhere. He said, “Scream more! Louder!” So I was like [whisper-screams loudly].
You have a few scenes where you have to pretend to be asleep. Did you ever actually fall asleep?
In the bed, I would pretend to fall asleep. But in the car, when we were driving to the shop, I was so tired that I actually fell asleep. So when I wake up, I’m like, “What am I doing in the movie car?!” I was like, “Oh, right, I was taking a video shoot.”
Why do you think David is scared of his Grandma at first?
He wasn’t scared, he was just shy. He didn’t want his grandma to come because if his grandma came, his parents would start fighting a lot. Yeah. So he was kind of afraid.
In the scene where you’re playing with your new friend, and you dip tobacco, what were you really putting in your mouth?
When we first put in the tobacco, it was real tobacco. How I felt? [Dramatically gags.]
It was real tobacco?
Yeah. Disgusting! [Dramatically gags again.]
Was there anything you liked to eat or drink while filming?
I’d like to drink lemonade. But since they didn’t have that, I would just drink water bottles. I was fine with that. And since we hated the tobacco so much, I would eat the sausage thingie snack. I would put it in my mouth and gulp it in.
You get to wear a lot of great outfits in this movie. Did you like the cowboy boots?
Well, the cowboy boots, they kind of became stiff if I kept on wearing them. That’s why I put my heel up where my leg should be, and my leg was higher. If I ever did that, I’d be like, “I grew!”
At the end of the movie, your character witnesses a horrible fire. What was it like to film that scene?
It was dreadful. Because the smell was so bad. I’m like, “No! This smells so bad!”
Was it real fire?
No, it wasn’t real fire when I was there. They just put in lights that looked like fire. And when I was not there, they actually burned it down.
Who’s somebody that you really want to be in a movie with someday?
Honestly, I’d go with anybody.
Do you have a favorite movie?
Probably next to Minari, it’s Harry Potter.
You’re already filming another movie, right? What’s happening in that one?
In Latchkey Kids, I come home, I am lactose intolerant. So I’m not supposed to drink milk or ice cream. But in a scene I think I eat ice cream? I come home and watch TV and order a pizza and eat the pizza. And … yeah.
Is that at all like your real life? What’s a normal day in your life like when you’re not doing a movie or interviews?
Wake up. Choose a random outfit. Go downstairs. Eat breakfast. Do school. Take a break. Do more work, I guess. And then … mostly sleep, I guess?
Do your friends think it’s cool that you’re in a movie?