A dark screen. Completely black. Then, an anonymous Skype user flashes on the screen, with an equally anonymous username showing on screen. Seconds later, and the call is accepted, revealing a young, mild-mannered Korean woman sitting just one screen away from me. Her name is Michelle La, and she plays Margot Kim in the hit new thriller “Searching,” a film about a father (John Cho) who must take the situation in his own hands when searching for his missing daughter.
In the movie, while Margot does not take up most of the screentime, the film’s constant analysis of her character reveals an angsty, shy teenager dealing with her personal troubles and demons. Michelle, however, is nothing like her on-screen counterpart: she’s fun, good-natured and positive. There’s something about her perkiness that continues to leave a smile on my face all throughout the interview.
Q: First and foremost, from what I understand, your role as Margot Kim in “Searching” was your debut feature film performance. What was the process of going for the first time into script read-throughs, into shooting, and what was that process like for you?
A: I used to be a scientist after I graduated college, and I just got an agent and a manager, I quit my full time job, and I started auditioning right away. So “Searching,” I booked within my first year of acting and my manager at the time got me the audition, and there were all these girls that looked exactly like me. The process for “Searching” was different in that the script looked completely different. The sides, which are the part of the script that you audition with, were just not like a normal script. I’m on a webcam and I’m just talking to myself. 95 percent of my scenes were by myself, so that was just a little bit different. To prepare for the audition, I just used my Macbook, opened up the Photobooth app, looked at myself on the monitor, and practiced that way. I had no idea what to think of the movie because I had never seen anything like it. The director was also a first-time director, so I knew he hadn’t made any feature films. All I had sent to me was the concept, a short film, which the filmmakers had made to pitch to the production company to have it made. I auditioned for it just like anyone else, and I was the first to audition, getting a call back from the producer and director, and I booked it the week after that. At the time when I booked it, it was only an indie film so I didn’t fully know what was going to come of it, but it got into Sundance, it won the Audience Award, and it just snowballed until it became a wide release film. It’s kind of crazy.
Q: Your costar would be John Cho, because you play his daughter. At any point in time, even if many of your scenes were shot solo, how much time did you two spend together in preparation for your scenes together to better your relationship for the movie?
The movie was shot very non-traditionally within 13 days. Normally it takes anywhere from 30 to beyond 45 days to shoot a full feature, but “Searching” was shot in just thirteen, so photography was really short. I was there 10 out of the 13, I believe John was there 13 out of 13 days. There was one pickup day when we shot in the spring after that. I spent a lot of time with him on set getting our hair and makeup done, which was probably the most common place where we hung out, aside from craft services and meals together. I got to know him through working with him on set, since we’re in and out transitioning through all these different scenes, but we didn’t really spend too much time in rehearsal, or talking to prepare to have the chemistry to be father and daughter. Outside of shooting, we didn’t really spend much time together, a lot of it came down to the five to 10 minutes of down time before shooting our two scenes. I think emotionally and relationship-wise, I was able to connect to my own father, we’re really close. He’s also Korean American, same as John, and they share a lot of similarities, even if they have an age difference of a decade.
Q: I watched the movie about a week ago, and one of the things I loved about it were the sheer number of plot twists that kept occurring. At one point, I would think a certain character was guilty, only to be proven wrong minutes later. When you read the script and watched the movie for the first time, what did you think of all the different plot twists and the various elements of the film that happened one after another, especially in the film’s climax?
A: When I first read the script, I was initially weirded out by the format of the script. The settings of the scenes took place on a computer screen, and it was hard to envision what the film could actually look like. But as I continued to read, I became completely engaged and blown away by the story. I was watching the movie in my head, and it was like reading a novel. I thought to myself that the elements of this storytelling were definitely what drew me to this project. Like I said, there was nothing quite like this. There was “Unfriended,” but I hadn’t seen it prior to this film. The elements of a loving family and something tragic happening to Margot connected me to this character. Her journey as a high school student and facing the challenges that most teens face, you know, like wanting friendship and wanting to engage people, but not knowing how to immediately express themselves. The plot twists were amazing as I kept reading the script, but I would say reading the twists was nothing like going to Sundance and watching it for the first time. That was crazy on so many levels! First of all, it was like an out-of-body experience for me to see my work on screen and seeing myself so present and in the moment. The movie was put together phenomenally by the filmmakers, I was just blown away. I probably had a similar experience to every viewer watching “Searching” for the first time, I just didn’t know what to expect. We knew that it would take place on screens and would involve the tech we used on a daily basis, but it was so cinematic that by the end of the movie, you’re just like “Wow…” I mean, you go to the movie knowing you’re watching it on screen, and when you leave, you say to yourself “I can’t believe the whole movie was also on screen!”
Q: Leading into that, I think a lot of media exposure around “Searching” has come from the fact that it’s shot so uniquely. This has never really been done before, only in several other movies. Do you think that being completely done over Facetime, over security camera footage, do you think this helped the intensity of the movie?
A: I think so. I think the filmmakers did such an incredible and creative job with it. I mean, it has the elements of a girl gone missing, all the traditional elements of a thriller, and yet you’re giving reason and life to the film. You feel like you’re David Kim, looking for your missing daughter on her laptop, you feel like you’re joining the investigation, you’re on the screen.
It’s incredible that the filmmakers could confine themselves into this method of filmmaking and yet produce something that is so unique to its style of filmmaking. The fact that it happened on screen is very limiting, and I’ve seen critics calling it gimmicky, but in so many ways, it puts a singular focus on the screen. Imagine looking for someone and the only way you can do it is on a screen, you know? It hone in your interest on what’s happening in front of you. The film score helped a lot too!
Q: Do you think that it helped with other emotions such as humor as well?
A: Absolutely! I think what the movie exposes about ourselves helps immensely, even through the small details the filmmakers were able to utilize. Typing something and deleting it, replacing an exclamation mark with a period, these little emotions and more that are so intuitive as to how we communicate online, I feel like they are accentuated by that screen.
Q: One of the things I noticed about “Searching” is that its runtime is shorter than a normal feature film. Do you think this shortened film length helped the movie?
I think so. I know one thing the filmmakers had done, I’m not sure if I’m supposed to speak on this, but I know that they had a lot of test screenings where they had people chime in and give feedback on how to improve the movie. I don’t know a lot about filmmaking on the post-production end, but I do think that its length is quite perfect to hit that sweet spot. 90 minutes is a little short, but it’s just above that time limit. I think the time is engaging! Some parts they cut out of the movie because it didn’t add much, so I think the filmmakers hit the sweet spot.
Q: This final question is less about “Searching” and more about you! What do you think your dream role is?
A: It’s funny, because I’ve been asked that question before, and I’ve put thought into it. Before you land a role, you’re constantly thinking of your dream role. Of course, I’ve had people I look up to in performances I work up to, but I would say that up until I played Margot in “Searching,” she was my dream role in a sense. I would’ve said that this is me, I’m going to crush it and try to immerse myself into my role, which I did! Now that I’ve played Margot, and other people ask me what my dream role is now, I think more of a dream career than a dream role. I see my dream role being my next role I get, my next opportunity for me to truly immerse myself and become one with the character. Being able to play multiple types of different characters is a dream, and I hope that I can achieve that dream!
With that, the interview is over. After exchanging our goodbyes, I hang up the Skype call, my computer monitor turning back into the black screen it was half an hour ago.
Catch “Searching” at your nearby movie theaters now, starring John Cho, Michelle La, and Debra Messing.