Yeri Han plays Monica, the matriarch of a Korean-American family living in 1980s Arkansas in the acclaimed new film “Minari.” The actress just earned her first Screen Actors Guild Award nomination this year as part of the film’s ensemble.
Han recently spoke with Gold Derby contributing writer Kevin Jacobsen about the awards love for “Minari,” collaborating with Steven Yeun and lending her voice to the end credits song. Watch the exclusive interview above and read the complete transcript below, with Han’s answers translated by an English interpreter.
Gold Derby: The day we’re recording this is the day of the Screen Actors Guild Award nominations and you and your cast were nominated. How did you hear the news of your nomination?
Yeri Han: I first heard the news from my agent. We seem to be hearing good news every day on “Minari” so I’m starting every day very happy. I heard it’s a very important award in the American film scene, that a lot of actors and directors take part in this award. I’m trying not to have too high hopes about the award, but being nominated itself, I already feel honored.
GD: When you were reading the script for the film, what was it that appealed to you to make you want to play Monica?
YH: Actually, it was the fact that the story was based on Director’s own childhood and growing up, so that aroused curiosity from me and I wanted to get to know more about the film. Although it’s a fictional adaptation based on his own story, I knew for sure that there was going to be a lot of affection and love going in from Director [Lee Isaac Chung]’s part. Actually, in the script itself, there were a lot of blanks to fill about Monica’s character and I was sure that on the set when we started photography, that I would be able to talk more about the character and fill in the gaps with the director.
GD: Well, this film has a very distinct sense of place, on this farm in Arkansas. You’re doing some hard labor. There’s a physicality to the performance. Did you find any difficulties in the more physical aspects of shooting?
YH: More than anything, it was the climate, the weather. It was almost 40 degrees Celsius every day so I was concerned about the child actors as well as Yuh-Jung [Youn], but everything else wasn’t really that much of a challenge. Actually, it was the fact that every day just went by too fast, that it left me wanting by the end of the shoot, that, “Oh, my God, it’s already finished.”
GD: I can imagine. Well, your onscreen partner in the film is Steven Yeun. You spend a lot of time together in the film with him. Was there anything about Steven that stood out to you compared to other screen partners that you’ve worked with?
YH: Steven is actually a very sweet guy. He’s very honest with his emotions and he gave a lot of thought into understanding his character and he was very serious about it, which brought us closer because we wanted to talk about the character a lot together. He’s been always very open-minded and when something didn’t go as he thought or he wasn’t happy or comfortable with something, he would always ask me. He would always check back to me, “Yeri, are you OK? Yeri, how do you feel?” Which gave us the opportunity to talk about it a lot.
GD: Well, speaking of that, I’m not sure how much thought you put into what happened before the film in terms of what drew Monica and Jacob together, because she’s more of a city person, he’s more of the country guy. So it wouldn’t seem like they would be a perfect match, but they are so drawn together. How much did you think about the before?
YH: We talked about that actually quite casually between the two of us, and we thought that Monica probably met Jacob at a very young age, and it’s my thoughts, but I think Jacob must have been Monica’s first love and ended up being that last love, and when the love of her life had huge aspirations, American dream that he wanted to attain, she probably didn’t understand fully what that was. I guess it must have meant for Monica, “My love’s dream is also my dream, so if you want to go to America we’ll go together to make that dream come true.” But in reality, when she has kids and comes across with all this hardship, that’s what unfolds in the film. I suppose for women from that time, it wasn’t easy for them to have their own aspirations and pursue their dreams. So I guess it would have been the same for Monica. That’s why she dedicates all of her time with the family and gives them so much energy and love.
GD: Well, there’s a scene in the film that is quite meaningful when Monica tells her mother, “It must have been so hard for you to travel so far,” and Monica is so emotional in that scene. I actually spoke with the editor, Harry Yoon, a few weeks ago, and he mentioned that that is the scene where he knew this film would be something special. Was there a moment for you on set where you felt like this would be a film that people would really respond to in a big way?
YH: When Soon-ja visits Monica and they meet for the first time in the trailer, I wanted that moment, for the audience to instantly feel that they’re family, that they resemble each other so much and I wanted that very moment to feel classic. Through that reunion, I wanted to convey the very deep Korean sentiment of, although they’ve been apart for such a long time, they were still intimate and they were still connected by blood. I wanted the audience to feel instantly that special connection.
GD: And I think we do. I also did just want to talk about you working with the legendary Yuh-Jung Youn playing your mother. She is so funny in the film. Was that also how she was behind the scenes, too?
YH: She’s such a pleasant person with a great sense of humor, and she has that amazing ability to take a step back from even a tragic situation and to look at it in a different perspective. I’ve known all of her body of work and I know that she’s been acting for a long time and how much thought and effort has gone into all of her work. So I was just grateful that I had the opportunity to work with her on this film, particularly this film that is so meaningful to her. I’m just thrilled that I’m part of it.
GD: Well, before we wrap up here, I also wanted to talk about how you also sing the end credits song, which is called “Rain Song.” How did that come together for you to lend your voice to that?
YH: First of all, all of Emile [Mosseri]’s music was beautiful. He came to the set and played the soundtrack and would tell us stories about how he wrote the music and they were all beautiful. So when I was asked to do that, I first felt very grateful but at the same time felt daunted whether I can do it. But then when the ending credit rolls, if I can sing the song with a lullaby-like voice, then even if a non-Korean-speaking audience wouldn’t understand all of the words they would take away that warmth with them even when they walk out of the cinema.