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In the summer of 2016, Haley Lu Richardson arrived in Columbus, Indiana for an 18-day film shoot with a first-time director, and by the end of production, she gained her most cherished friend and collaborator, Kogonada. Along with John Cho, Richardson and Kogonada ultimately created Columbus (2017), a meditative drama that received near universal acclaim. Richardson and Cho’s performances were hailed as revelatory, and Kogonada, whose name is a pseudonym, immediately became a filmmaker to watch.
Now, five-plus years after Columbus‘ Sundance premiere, Kogonada and Richardson return to the big screen with the sci-fi drama After Yang, which has also been well received by critics. Richardson plays a supporting yet integral role as her character, Ada, helps Colin Farrell’s Jake understand the life of his family’s technosapien (humanoid robot) son, Yang (Justin H. Min), who recently malfunctioned. Any anxiety that Richardson may have had about working with Farrell was quickly put to rest by the Irish actor.
“Colin truly is the most present actor, and any nerves or worries that I had dissipated once I was actually doing a scene with him,” Richardson tells The Hollywood Reporter. “His presence automatically makes you the only person there in the moment with him, which feels so good. It’s really rare to work with an actor like that. Every single time I did a scene with him, I felt completely sucked into the world. So I’m just so thankful for feeling that.”
In July 2021, Richardson emerged as one of the top two contenders for the role of Barbara Gordon/Batgirl in HBO Max’s upcoming film, Batgirl, from the Bad Boys for Life directing duo, Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah. While the role ultimately went to In the Heights star Leslie Grace, Richardson took comfort in a consolation letter from J.K. Simmons, who plays Barbara’s father, Commissioner James Gordon.
“It was exciting regardless, and I did get a nice little personal email from J.K. Simmons out of it, which was really nice,” Richardson says. “Getting the role would’ve been pretty cool, but I told myself that his email meant more to me than getting the role. So I tried, but I’m not Batgirl at the end of the day. I’m trying to think of what freaking superhero I can play now because aren’t they all done already? My dance skills, my flexibility and my athleticism need to be utilized.”
In a recent conversation with THR, Richardson also teases her role on season two of The White Lotus, which she’s currently filming in Italy.
Just out of curiosity, are you Zooming from the world-famous White Lotus hotel in Italy right now?
I’m actually not staying at the hotel [San Domenico Palace, Taormina, A Four Seasons Hotel]. I’m staying in an apartment because I have my cat [Darbin] with me, and he’s actually sleeping on my lap right now.
I had to ask since the season-one cast didn’t leave their hotel in Wailea.
I think a lot of people are living at our hotel, but I had to prioritize my cat.
I have two myself, so I get it.
So you’re a cat person; I’m a big cat person. And Darbin is kind of my emotional support cat. (Laughs.) When I’m stressed, he kneads at my chest, and it calms me down. And when I’m on my period, he kneads at my uterus. (Laughs.)
When I spoke to you for Unpregnant, you and your movie got a Kelly Clarkson song stuck in my head, and now you’ve done it again with Mitski’s incredible cover of “Glide” [from All About Lily Chou-Chou].
Isn’t it amazing? It’s such a good song, and she’s so good. Kogonada introduced me to her. So I’ve become a pretty big fan in the last year and a half. Or when did we even shoot this movie?
Oh my god, we shot this movie three years ago. Holy shit! I filmed Unpregnant after we filmed After Yang, and that movie came out over a year ago. (Laughs.) Wow, life is weird these days.
You’re an accomplished dancer, so After Yang‘s title sequence was right in your wheelhouse. Do you think your solo dance in Columbus inspired Kogonada to up the ante?
Oh yeah! It’s interesting how there’s been a breakout dance-burst moment in both of his films. I’ve had a lot of conversations with Kogonada about dance, and that’s something that he’s always been interested in, in general. Since we very first met, he’s just been very interested and curious about my experience with dance, so we’ve had a lot of talks about it. So I’ve been glad to explore dance in certain ways with him, and I hope to explore that even more with him in the future. (Laughs.)
What do you find yourself saying about your character, Ada? I feel like the less people know, the better.
Well, when she’s introduced, it’s clear that she sees Yang [a technosapien] as an equal being who’s experiencing life. Colin’s [Farrell] character’s family loses him, and by seeing all of his memories, they learn about the life that he had with them and even before. But Ada and Yang had a really beautiful connection. She knows that he was able to experience life, and she’s known since she first met him. But the rest of the characters had to lose him in order to realize it, and then they also realize how much they’re not experiencing life. Ada is mysterious and melancholy. I think she’s warm, but I also think she’s very serious, which was fun for me to play because I’m not like that at all. (Laughs.)
Is this the first time you’ve received last billing (“and Haley Lu Richardson”)?
Oh my god, yeah. It’s so cool! And what an epic title sequence to have that in. Honestly, when I first saw it, I didn’t know that was going to be there. I think that was up to Kogonada. So it was a big surprise. It’s an epic “and” credit. (Laughs.) So cool.
Kogonada is an interesting figure since he doesn’t share too much about himself. While I’m not pressing you for details, is he at least an open book with you and the rest of the cast?
When it comes to the intimacy that you have to have when you’re collaborating with someone, he’s extremely open and giving. He’s not aloof in any way when it comes to actually talking about character and story … He’s so curious and so thoughtful and so smart, and he sees things. He really sees them. And I always feel like I have a really personal connection with him. So I don’t really know where the mystique comes from with him. (Laughs.) But I do know that he’s a very humble human being. If we’re having coffee or breakfast or doing something casual and I ask him too many questions about himself, he does not like talking about himself because he’s just humble. He’ll turn it back to me and ask me a question, and then he will literally sit there and listen to me talk for two hours because I don’t know how to shut up. (Laughs.) So from what I’ve observed, I really think it comes from just being humble and wanting to learn so much about others. That’s where he’s most comfortable.
Do you call him Kogonada as well?
Oh, I call him Kogonada. Everyone on Columbus called him Kogonada. But when I was traveling to New York to do After Yang, I kept getting all of these emails from producers and costume people, who were calling him “K.” And I was like, “What the heck? Why are you calling him K? His name is Kogonada.” So I felt kind of protective of him, but I’m sure he’s not like that at all. So a lot of the people that work with him call him K, but I will always call him Kogonada.
Does he address you by your H.L. nickname?
No, he calls me Haley Lu. Actually, I call him Kogonada or best friend. BFF. Because he’s truly one of my best friends! And there have been a couple of times where he’s returned it. But most of the time, it’s me saying, “You’re my best friend,” and him being like, “Thank you, Haley Lu.” (Laughs.)
When you wrapped Columbus, were you confident that you’d work together again?
Yes, I truly was. I mean, we were already talking about possible things for the future. I forget if it was while we were filming Columbus or soon after, but he had mentioned that he was interested in exploring the sci-fi world from his perspective. So he’d been talking about that for a while. But I’m pretty confident I’ll work with him again and again, too. I don’t mean that in an overly-confident way or whatever, but he’s just my favorite person that I’ve ever worked with. It’s really rare to find a creative relationship in this industry that’s this pure, where you genuinely have only mutual respect and trust and inspiration. It’s really rare to find that, at least in my experience so far. So I’m going to hold that close in every way I can. (Laughs.)
Michael Caine is Christopher Nolan’s good luck charm, so I think it’s safe to say that you are Kogonada’s Michael Caine.
(Laughs.) I’ll take it!
After Yang is filled with Yang’s three-second memories, but generally speaking, three seconds of screen time can take hours, if not days, to pull off in some cases. So did Kogonada find efficient ways to shoot a bunch of memories on an indie budget?
Yeah, I worked less than 15 days on this movie, and like with Columbus, the visuals are just so important. So I wasn’t a diva at all about getting called in to do a little three-second blip because I understand how important those moments are. Yang’s memories of Ada are quick, but they mean so much to Yang. He decided those moments were worth capturing. It was definitely interesting because I really didn’t even have a proper scene with Justin [Min, who plays Yang]. But you still feel their connection throughout the story and even in the script. And it’s because of those memories. In those moments, I was literally just looking into a camera as if it were Yang. So it was definitely an interesting way to try to create a character and express the character just through those little moments. But I do feel like it comes across in the film, and it even came across in the script.
For example, in Yang’s concert memory of Ada, there probably wasn’t much set up beyond what was in the frame, right?
Yeah, it was kind of just what was in the frame. It was just great lighting and background [actors]. So there wasn’t any more than what you see in that shot, but I’m used to playing pretend. That doesn’t feel too weird for me.
At this point in your career, are you pretty unfazed when you work with an actor like Colin Farrell? Are you just used to that sort of thing now?
I do get nervous in a way, but it’s more so a recognition of how much I care about it or how important it is to me. I obviously knew Colin Farrell. (Laughs.) I knew his work and I knew he’s an incredible actor. So you have this feeling, like, “I’m going to be working with this person.” And Kogonada had already met him, so I knew that Kogonada wouldn’t put someone in his movie that was a shitty guy. So I didn’t have any worries about that. Sometimes, when you know you’re going to work with an actor that you really admire, you’re like, “Oh my gosh, I hope they’re nice, I hope they’re giving as an actor and I hope they aren’t a prick.” (Laughs.) But I didn’t have those worries because I trust Kogonada so much. So I recognized how much I cared about it and how much the whole project meant to me, and I just knew that I wanted to do a really good job.
But Colin truly is the most present actor, and any nerves or worries that I had dissipated once I was actually doing a scene with him. His presence automatically makes you the only person there in the moment with him, which feels so good. It’s really rare to work with an actor like that. Every single time I did a scene with him, I felt completely sucked into the world. So I’m just so thankful for feeling that.
So last summer, I campaigned for you to play Barbara Gordon/Batgirl in HBO Max’s Batgirl. I was really rooting for you.
Oh my god, I’m so sorry that I disappointed you. (Laughs.) I really tried, let me tell you. I really did try. (Laughs.)
Was that an exciting time regardless of the outcome?
Yeah, it was exciting regardless, and I did get a nice little personal email from J.K. Simmons out of it, which was really nice. Getting the role would’ve been pretty cool, but I told myself that his email meant more to me than getting the role. (Laughs.) So I tried, but I’m not Batgirl at the end of the day. I’m trying to think of what freaking superhero I can play now because aren’t they all done already? Haven’t they all been made?
There’s plenty more.
Can we campaign for me to play someone else? (Laughs.)
Well, I’m confident your time in that genre will come soon. Somebody has to take advantage of those vertical kicks you can do.
Well, yeah! I’m right there with you. My dance skills, my flexibility and my athleticism need to be utilized. Are there any superheroes that are dancers? (Laughs.) [Writer’s Note: My colleague Richard Newby recommends Dazzler.] Thank you, though, for rooting for me.
Since he wrote you a consolation email, does that mean you read with J.K.?
No, I actually didn’t. I never auditioned with him. I did a tape and then a meeting and then one with the directors. So I actually never met J.K., but I did receive that nice little note from him, which made me feel really good. So I didn’t get to do any of the fun stuff. I just had to do shitty auditioning. (Laughs.) But it would be pretty fun to explore something like that, and it would also be fun to figure out how to ground a comic book.
You also played Marissa Cooper towards the end of 2020, and it was hailed as one of the finest performances of your career.
(Laughs.) You saw that? The “quaranscenes.” Yeah, that was fun. I felt pretty honored that Sarah [Ramos] asked me to do one of those.
So what can you tease about White Lotus season two? Is your character actually named Portia?
Yeah, Portia is my character’s name, which is a great name, isn’t it? (Laughs.) She really wants to have a nice adventure. I guess I can say that. But I’m going to be here doing this show for a while, and it’s going well so far.
Did you at least try to see if the hotel would accept Darbin as your guest?
Yeah, I think they were kind of on the fence about Darbin living there. There’s also no kitchen in the hotel rooms, and I like to cook myself some food. And I need to have another room so that when Darbin’s biting at my feet in the middle of the night, I can lock him out of the room. (Laughs.) Why are cats like that? They always get the zoomies in the middle of the night. When you have to wake up at four in the morning or something, they start freaking out at midnight.
Does this job feel like a paid vacation in some ways?
In some aspects, yes. I mean, it is work, but I love my work. So I always feel gratitude that I get paid for a job that’s so deeply fulfilling for me. So many people don’t find that, and that is sad. So I’m aware of how lucky I am to have a job that’s genuinely fun and fulfilling. I feel like it betters me as a person and doesn’t take away from my life.
Last time we spoke, I praised The Edge of Seventeen as it’s a masterpiece of the coming-of-age genre, and I’m mentioning it now because Kelly Fremon Craig’s follow-up, Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, is finally coming out this fall.
Oh my god, yeah! I’m so excited for that!
Isn’t it criminal that her follow-up to Edge took six years?
Yeah! But I’m so excited because good things come to those who wait. I read the little synopsis online, and it sounds great. I love Rachel McAdams, and it’s the same producers [James L. Brooks] as Edge, I believe. So I’m sure it’ll be great. I’m really excited to see it and for her.
Are you pumped to see [your Support the Girls costar] Regina Hall host the Oscars?
Oh my god, yeah. I love Regina. Regina is honestly the most positive and kind human being and actor I think I’ve ever worked with. She’s the most positive human being, and she just gets along with every single person. It’s amazing.
So you’re going to support your girl…
(Laughs.) Oh gosh, why didn’t I think of that? I’m going to support my girl! Should I show up at the Oscars wearing my Support the Girls outfit? (Laughs.)
That’d be an amazing show of support.
I’ve actually never been invited to the Oscars.
Edge and Columbus should’ve brought you there, but that reminds me of a great scene in Columbus. When John Cho’s character asks your character to explain what moves her, music comes in as she starts talking. Was that moment always designed that way?
No, that was a huge surprise, and it’s my favorite part of the movie.
Actors sometimes gripe when their monologues are replaced by music, but when it’s done well like in that glass bank scene, the music and the performance convey everything we need.
When I saw that the first time, I was sitting on a couch with John and Michelle [Forbes], who played my mom in the movie. We were sitting on this couch, watching the movie, and when that moment came on, I literally just burst into tears. I was like, “Oh my god, it means so much more!” Kogonada is just a genius. He’s actually the smartest human being I’ve ever met. But it wasn’t that way, originally. And that’s something that’s so cool about Kogonada and filmmakers like him; they are true whole-hearted filmmakers. It’s their vision from the very beginning to the very end. Kogonada was literally a part of every aspect of the thing, but he still collaborated with everyone. And then he edited it. It’s just so cool what he can do.
When I take all this time to collaborate with people or do re-writes or improvise or act my best in a scene or whatever, it’s terrifying sometimes to put that in someone else’s hands. It’s like, “Oh my gosh, who’s the editor? I don’t even know the editor, and they didn’t write the movie. What are they going to do with everything we just spent two months making?” And sometimes, that’s terrifying. Things change or things get cut out, and it is disappointing. It’s like, “Maybe that could’ve been better if this, this and this.” But I can’t imagine having a worry like that with Kogonada. Whatever I do in a scene, he’s going to take that and he’s going to make it a jillion times better. I just trust him so much.
After Yang is now available in movie theaters and on Showtime.
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