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The Dropout’s Camryn Mi-young Kim on Capturing the ‘Groundedness’ of Whistleblower Erika Cheung

Camryn Mi-young Kim Photo: Steve Granitz/FilmMagic

As depicted in The Dropout, Elizabeth Holmes built her doomed blood-testing start-up Theranos, valued near $9 billion at its height, on technology that never existed. But it wouldn’t have collapsed the way it did without the bold efforts of whistleblowers Erika Cheung and Tyler Shultz. The Hulu series focuses largely on the rise and fall of Holmes, played by Amanda Seyfried, but midway through, Erika and Tyler, played by 13 Reasons Why’s Dylan Minnette and newcomer Camryn Mi-young Kim, get their own spotlight as a pair of Theranos employees who quickly realize something is wrong from within. They coordinate their efforts to get in touch with reporter John Carreyrou, and in Erika’s case, she eventually files a complaint with the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. The series is Kim’s first TV role, and she spoke with Vulture about the daunting prospect of joining the star-filled cast, thinking about Erika’s story as a compare-and-contrast case with Elizabeth Holmes’s, and learning about the joys of craft services.

In the finale, Erika tears up on the phone with Carreyrou after he calls to tell her he knows she submitted the complaint about Theranos. What was filming that like?
That felt like a culmination of a huge emotional and traumatic life event for the real Erika. Putting her name on that letter came with a lot of risks. It wasn’t something to be done lightly, especially as someone who did not know how Theranos would come after her. She didn’t have the same security as other people who worked at the company who were more privileged. It felt like a huge release of all the fear and attention she must have been feeling over the years she was pursued by Theranos. She could finally take a breath.

Did you have any contact with the real Erika?
I have not spoken to the real Erika. I would very much love to, but I haven’t been able to contact her. She’s got a lot going on in her life, so I understand.

Were you familiar with the Theranos saga before filming the show?
A few years ago, one of my uncles told us about Bad Blood. He gave us the basic summary, and my mom and I bought the book that weekend and read the whole thing. By the time the audition rolled around, I remember reading the description and being like, “Wait, I know what this is!”

In the show, you and Dylan Minnette kind of take over the plot for a buddy investigation. How did you two build their dynamic?
It came relatively easy because offscreen Dylan is a very likable person and easy to get along with. There were some scenes in that arc that were a little lighter in tone, and we were able to banter and build that dynamic together. We were encouraged to have fun in those moments and just be two young people working at this terrifying company.

There’s a scene where Erika confronts Tyler about the fact that speaking out against Theranos would be a lot worse for her than him because she’s an Asian woman from a poor background and he’s a privileged white guy. How did you approach playing that?
That scene tells us a lot about Erika as a person. Both Tyler and Erika took a major risk stepping forward, but she didn’t have the same protection. She can’t just quit this job and go get another one. I was thinking about the feeling that you’re maybe throwing away everything you’ve worked for. Props to Liz Meriwether and the team of the show for thinking more deeply about these kinds of dynamics.

Was there any prepping for the role that really helped you understand Erika?
I watched her TED Talk. Her intelligence speaks for itself. She is so eloquent about the way she talks about her past trauma. That struck me. She had this deep humanity about her. I really wanted to capture her groundedness. She seems like someone with her head on straight who is very observant. She catches onto things pretty quickly. She’s watching when other people aren’t, asking questions when other people aren’t.

Did you have to learn how to look like you knew what you knew doing in a biotech lab?
When I walked onto the set, I felt like I was in a real lab. The detail in the production design was insane. I had to touch pipettes. I had to move around fake blood. I didn’t get any Bill Nye training, but the environment they created felt real enough that hopefully it translated onscreen.

If anyone says the lab work on the show looks fake, you can just say that Theranos’s lab work was also fake.
They weren’t there, so how would they know?!

This is your first TV role after doing a short film. What was the audition process like?
Getting this part was a long process. I’ve been acting and auditioning for a while, but it’s tough in this industry. In order to make a name for yourself, you have to work, but in order to work, you need to already have a name. When this audition came along, I wasn’t sure if I was gonna get it given the people who were attached. I wouldn’t have been surprised if they went with someone who had a little more information about themselves online. [Laughs.] It was very surreal when I got the call that I booked it. I’m very lucky.

It must have been strange to land your first TV job in the middle of a pandemic.
I don’t really have a point of reference, but I can imagine the overall energy on a set would be very different. This is where having people like Dylan around was super nice. He answered all my questions. I had a lot of questions!

Did he give you any particularly good advice about being on a TV set?
He was very helpful in understanding craft services. I was like, “Wait, we can go get anything we want?” And he was like, “Yeah, let’s go!” He’s been pretty prolific in his career, so he would talk about what it was like on other sets. At the time, he was working on his new album, so I also got some insight into the music industry.

Was The Dropout craft services table full of green juice? There’s so much onscreen — I’m imagining it was flowing everywhere.
Did they have green juice? I wouldn’t be surprised if they did! Maybe I just never asked for it. Surprisingly, my family has been drinking green juice for years now, so I love the fact that it’s so prominent in this show.

You said you’re doing a language program in Korea. Are you in college right now?
I’m not. I was at NYU for a year for the acting B.F.A. program, and I decided to leave after because I wanted to go back to L.A. and pursue acting. I really wanted to work and be on a set. Looking back, I was like, Girl, that was a big risk, but my parents always backed me, and it felt attainable. Now I’m here in Korea independently.

Now that you’ve booked a TV show, do you have any specific kinds of acting roles you’d like to do going forward? A genre you’d want to try, for instance?
I’m mostly excited to keep working. This is what I’ve wanted to do forever, so hopefully this show is a platform to something. I’m bad at picking a favorite genre, but maybe some kind of indie film, like an A24 movie? I know she’s the girl of the minute right now, but something like that. Maybe an indie comedy. I love humor. But I’m open! Whoever wants to hire me!

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

The Dropout’s Camryn Mi-young Kim on Capturing Erika Cheung