chat room

Minari’s Han Yeri Wanted a Korean Actress to Play Monica, Even If It Wasn’t Her

Photo: Cindy Ord/Getty Images

On a recent episode of the Korean talk show You Hee-yeol’s Sketchbook, the actress and dancer Han Yeri did a live performance of “Rain Song,” the Minari track written by the composer Emile Mosseri and translated into Korean lyrics by Stefanie Hong. Originally conceived as a lullaby her character Monica Yi would sing to her kids, the song plays over the final credits at the end of the film. Much like her performance in Minari, her voice is unflashy but emotionally precise. As Monica, she has the thankless task of playing the resistor: the wife who wishes for stability for her family, whereas her husband Jacob (Steven Yeun) is ready to gamble their savings on his dream of starting a farm. In subtle flickers, she manages to hold fear and doubt alongside love and warmth. Speaking in Korean, we discussed the film, sharing an Airbnb with one of her acting idols Youn Yuh-jung, and why she believed Monica should be played by a Korean actress.

My understanding is that the producer In-Ah Lee, who brought Youn Yuh-jung onto the film, did the same with you.
Yes, she sent me the script translated into Korean, but honestly, looking at the translated version, there were a lot of things I didn’t understand. But I figured I should at least meet the director [Lee Isaac Chung] first and listen to his story. We met and he seemed like such a good person, and his childhood stories [growing up in America] weren’t that different from mine. He still has this Korean sensibility about him. If I had to play the role of David or Anne, it might have been really difficult. But since I’m playing the role of Monica, she’s someone that still carries a strong sense of Koreanness within her, so I felt like I would be able to express who she is.

There was a bit of a scheduling conflict with the Korean drama Nokdu Flower and I almost couldn’t accept the part. I told him even if it turned out I couldn’t accept the role, I would introduce him to a really good actress. I said, “If it can’t be me, don’t worry. I’ll get you the very best Korean actress I can find.”

Who were you thinking of introducing to him?
There is this actress named Chun Woo-hee. She came to mind as someone who would be good.

That’s generous of you.
[Laughs] Do you think so? No, it’s just that I felt strongly that it would be great if a Korean actress took the part. Someone who really had that Korean sensibility.

Why’s that?
Monica seemed to be the most Korean. I was hoping it wouldn’t be someone who grew up in the States, but someone who grew up speaking Korean. Monica is someone who struggled to make friends with others in America. She just raised her children. It was a lonely existence, and she has a hard time communicating with others. She’s someone who was thinking, “there will be some kind of answer in the States.” In the end, Monica loves Jacob. She really wants him to fulfill his dreams, but when that process starts to threaten the family, that’s where the conflict arises. Monica always roots for Jacob, and loves him first and foremost. I think that’s why the family stays together.

How was the first day of shooting?
It was insanely hot. It was the kind of heat where it was hard to breathe. At times we were nauseous. Usually, I’m not bothered by the heat, but even for me, I was like, “Wow, this is really hot.” It felt like we were being made into dumplings. [Laughs.] Sometimes I was thinking, I hope we make sure [Youn Yuh-jung] gets through the shoot okay. Health comes first. If we don’t eat well and rest, she might get sick. We worried about that a lot.

You lived with Youn Yuh-jung in an Airbnb during production, correct?
Yes, I had a lot of fun. If it had been just the two of us, it might’ve been a little challenging, but we had In-Ah with us, and her niece, so there were a lot of people coming in and out of the house. It was a homey feeling. If we were a bit stressed, that was something we left at the shoot. It became a place where we could rest.

It was natural for the crew and the director to stop by for a meal, and we all just became much more at ease with each other. We were all like, “I don’t know what we’re doing, but I hope it’s going well!” If we were at a hotel or something like that, I don’t think we would’ve had the opportunity to have all these conversations.

How did you get to that space of intimacy with the rest of the cast?
I think it was because of that house. We ate dinner together every night, talked a lot. I spoke to Steven a lot about Monica and Jacob’s perspectives. We discussed what their thought processes must have been before coming to the U.S., and why they were always in such conflict. Why were they having such trouble understanding each other and how did things come to this point?

As for Youn Yuh-jung, we didn’t really have to say a whole lot. I was her daughter, and she was now my mom. It felt very natural. And to be honest, there was not a lot we could lean on during the shoot. She even told me, “Make sure you stay focused, because no one is going to help us. We need to get through this together.” That made me lean on her a lot. When we started shooting, [Youn’s character] Soonja was so clearly there, so I could just be Monica.

I learned a lot from her. I would just watch her act. Sometimes I wondered how she had the courage to do all this. She’s in her 70s. I was thinking, Would I be able to continue doing projects like this at that age? Would I be able to travel to a foreign land where they use a different language? Sometimes I had to remind myself, “She’s doing it. Why can’t I?” So in the future, whenever I get scared, whether I’m 70 or 80, if it’s something I haven’t tried yet and it looks difficult, I’m going to think of her.

I heard she told you not to get plastic surgery.
Yeah, she did say that to me a few times. For an actress, as you grow older, you are, in a sense, responsible for your face. Meaning the way you live your life is often reflected by the contours of your face; we have to live with that in mind. As actresses we get stressed about a lot of things, like beauty. As we grow older, we don’t necessarily get prettier, so we think back to times when we were younger. I think she was worried I might try to get a Botox shot or plastic surgery. [Laughs.] She said, “There are going to be a lot of temptations, but I really like Yeri as she is.” She also said, “Don’t get swayed. You will definitely regret it. If you do it now, in your 50s your face gets really weird.”

Why do you think that was important to her?
She’s seen a lot of people over her career, and I think she wanted to see how their faces change naturally. In some ways, she might have really felt sorry for people who had their faces change in weird ways. She feels a sense of responsibility for her face and her acting. She was stressing the importance of not doing something to it. So even if I have some wrinkles here and there, these are just by-products of the life I’ve lived. Each and every wrinkle is me. It was almost like she was trying to teach me how to accept all of that and live my life that way.

Translated by Jay Choi.

Minari’s Han Yeri Wanted a Korean Actress to Play Monica