'Okja' Breakout Ahn Seo-hyun on Acting With a CG Animal and Learning From Tilda Swinton

The 13-year-old star opens up about Bong Joon-ho's on-set humor and playing a new type of character onscreen: "This is not a regular girl that people have seen before."
Courtesy of Netflix
Ahn Seo-hyun in 'Okja'

Tilda Swinton, Jake Gyllenhaal, Paul Dano, Giancarlo Esposito and Lily Collins are among the starry cast of Okja, Bong Joon-ho's dramedy about a six-ton "super piglet" created to feed the world. But the actress who plays the pure and persistent Mija, the young girl who helped raise the animal and aims to save her pet friend from becoming a corporate food product, received the loudest applause at the Netflix release’s world premiere.

Mija is played by Ahn Seo-hyun, a South Korean actress whom Dano described as "an old soul" and Steven Yeun called "a force of nature." Though only 13 years old, she carries the emotional weight of the movie while showcasing her stunts with ease, and spoke with endless poise while chatting with Heat Vision (alongside a translator) at New York City's Mandarin Oriental hotel. Heat Vision highlights seven things to know about Ahn:

1. She's been acting for a decade. Ahn first began acting when she was 3 years old. "I probably didn't know anything about what was going on then, but as I went on, I learned that I love acting," she said excitedly. "In everyday life, people only get to live their own lives. As an actress, I get to live so many different kinds of lives and experience so many things. I not only do that but also get paid to do that." She has appeared in 19 Korean dramas and variety shows, and is mostly known for the 2011 series Dream High. Okja is her sixth film.

2. She didn't initially eye the role. Ahn never thought she'd star in Okja. After shooting a TV series, she was planning on taking a break when she saw an open casting call for Bong's film and responded simply with the goal of meeting the famous director. Bong then saw Ahn's performance in Hwang In-ho's 2014 film Monster. He and Ahn met multiple times over 10 months, discussing everything but the film. "She had her own perspective, and we shared the same views about her character," he previously told THR. "Ms. Ahn may be young, but she but has a very strong sense of self."

Finally, he gave her the script. "He said, 'Read it slowly, over a month. Let me know what you think, and if you want to play Mija,'" recalled Ahn. "It was so interesting that I read it 20 times [in that month]." Ahn nabbed the part of Mija over more than 2,100 actors who were submitted for consideration.

3. She curbed her diet during production. During a day off from shooting in New York, Ahn and Dano hit Broadway for a joyous performance of the musical Aladdin. But that New York set location also brought her toughest production moment — the final scene, which takes place in a slaughterhouse. "It was surprisingly hard, and I carried that heavy emotion during and after [that scene] whenever I pass factories or markets." During and after that shoot, she found herself eating less pork products, and continues to be more conscious of her meat consumption. (Still, Bong would joke to the cast, "Tonight's dinner is meat.")

4. She "met" Okja before all the other actors. Ahn saw bits and pieces of Okja during the editing process and saw the full film before its debut at the Cannes Film Festival, where the rest of the cast saw the final cut at its world premiere. She was most excited to finally "meet" her co-star — the animal Okja. On set, Ahn shot with a stuffed animal operated by a puppeteer, with whom she bonded throughout production. "I had already fallen in love with the stuffy [version of Okja,] but when I saw the CG version for the first time, I felt like I saw a child I had that had grown overnight into a gigantic person," she recalled.

5. She eyes variety in her career. Ahn looks up to actors with diverse careers like Korean star Hwang Jung-min and Swinton, who plays her nemesis in Okja. "They play a variety of characters — sometimes they're the protagonist, sometimes they're the villain — and it's always completely different. But every single time, they play them in a way that's unique and as if without any difficulties," she said. "They're also respected on and off set, not just because of their talent but also because of how they treat people." And when selecting projects, Ahn doesn't like to restrict herself to a specific genre, and instead searches for "unique things nobody else might try."

6. She's hopeful about Okja's viewership in her home country. Due to Netflix's distribution model, the majority of South Korea's theaters won't offer Okja on the big screen. "Anybody involved in filming a movie, at some point, would feel the same thing, which is that they're sorry that not as many people will have the chance to see it [in theaters]," said Ahn. Still, the title is available on the streaming platform. "This decision was made by corporations, but the victims actually are the potential audiences. I feel sorry about that."

7. She's optimistic of Okja's impact. For those who do watch Okja, Ahn hopes her performance reflects on all young girls and their unlimited potential. "This is not a regular girl that people have seen before. When you think of a daughter or a girl, you think of somebody precious, very delicate and fragile. But actually, Mija — and also, myself — are the complete opposite," she said. "Nobody can stop Mija. You could say that she's simply stubborn, but she goes against all these adults and a gigantic corporation, and that is astonishing for a little girl to do."

Editor’s note: Ahn's responses have been lightly edited for clarity.

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