Every time Han Yeri, star of the Oscar-nominated Minari, talks about her character Monica, she begins to cry. “I’m sorry!” she says in English over Zoom, laughing through tears as she reaches for a few tissues. Then, she shrugs and blots her face as she switches back to her native Korean. “You’d think there would be a point where I’d stop crying!”
That day will likely come, but it probably won’t be until after Sunday, when Han will be attending the Oscars in Los Angeles for the first time. Her film, Minari, was nominated for six awards, including Best Picture. “I just want to enjoy this time and not be too nervous about it,” she told Refinery29 through an interpreter. “I’m going to congratulate everybody involved in the project, and just be in the moment.” Her attitude seems in tune with the one Monica would have. Like Han, Monica is most content when those she cares about are enjoying themselves. Another way Han and Monica are similar: They both put in hard work and care into what they do, but tend to be overlooked.
Written and directed by Lee Isaac Chung, Minari follows the story of the Yis, who move from California to Arkansas so that father Jacob (Steven Yeun) can fulfill his dream of starting a farm. Jacob’s wife Monica, however, is worried that the move will be isolating, and negatively affect their children Anne (Noel Cho) and David (Alan Kim), the latter of whom suffers from a heart condition. Her skepticism is validated when they relocate to a trailer in the middle of a large plot of land, with no neighbours to speak of — except for a zealous but kind farmer, Paul (Will Patton). Eventually, Monica’s mother (Youn Yuh-jung), moves in with them from Korea.
Much attention has been paid (and rightly so) to Kim, Yeun, and Youn’s performances — Yeun and Youn are up for Best Actor and Best Supporting Actress at the Oscars, respectively. Han’s delicate performance, meanwhile, has been largely ignored by awards bodies, save for a nomination at the Independent Spirit Awards for Best Supporting Actress, which she lost to Youn. Still, it’s her moving turn as a woman torn between wanting to support her partner but needing to put the health and wellbeing of her children first that truly grounds the film.
But recognition by way of trophies and accolades isn’t on Han’s mind. “To me, success means that when I get older and become a grandma, that I can just stretch my legs and sleep ok,” she said, laughing. “Yes, this is a very eventful time of my life, but I can’t say that getting nominated for any award or going to any ceremony is the ultimate measure of success. What’s important to me is playing a role that I like in a time during which I can really enjoy it.” One thing is certain: She’ll definitely be keeping tissues in close reach.
Refinery29: What was it that drew you to this particular project?
Han: “At first I received a translated version of the script, and it was a rough translation so I couldn’t really grasp what Monica [was] like, so I felt like I had to meet the director quickly. When I met Isaac, the stories he shared of his past growing up were similar to the stories I had from my childhood. So, I thought that maybe in our lives respectively, we have [a] similar Monica.”
What was the most challenging aspect of playing this role?
“It was challenging for me to understand the generation before me: that of my mom, my aunts. By playing Monica, I came closer to understanding how my mom was, and her siblings too. In Korean families, the eldest daughter is an important but difficult position to hold. Growing up as the eldest daughter, sometimes I was carrying the role of a parent too. I think I kind of avoided trying to actively understand my parents because I had to carry their roles. So, it wasn’t easy.”
What did you feel was the biggest distinction between the generations?
“The biggest difference is that my mom’s generation didn’t know or couldn’t voice what they wanted when they were getting married, but now that’s not the case. I felt like because — in the film — Monica and Jacob married at such a young age, they were experiencing growing up at the same time as their children. And because they’re all growing up together, there has to be some growing pains."
Did you ever feel that conflict within you while playing her — wanting to help her or wishing she would change her own mindset based on your real-life biases?
“When I was playing Monica, I channelled the things I had observed about my mom, so those are the emotions I had growing up, looking at my mom. So, when I was playing Monica I came to understand that generation better — I thought Oh, she must have felt this way. [Begins to tear up].
“This is another reason why I’m so grateful to Isaac. He gave me the opportunity to understand my parents’ generation. And that’s so special to me.”
Are you drawn to characters who are very different from each other? Is that something you actively seek out when eyeing your next role?
“I don’t know myself well yet. It’s not necessarily that I’m looking for particular roles; if something comes to me and it seems like an interesting and fun project to work on, I join. I always develop through all these roles, and so that’s part of my growing process as an actor. Maybe I’ve been playing this variety of roles so that I can make different types of mistakes in order to be a better actor. Because you cannot really practice acting in real life. Acting only happens when the camera is on. I take roles and I make mistakes and I grow up.”
When you take a role, do you have to have some kind of connection or something in common with the character?
“Because all scripts are written by humans, there always is something there that we can relate to. I try to focus on what makes those characters human, and try to find some kind of commonality in those traits. I can’t inhabit someone completely, so I’ve found that the best approach is to be simple. Before the shoot begins, I try to think about a lot of different aspects of it, but once the camera is on, I try to just feel out what to do as the scene unfolds around me.”
Do you feel that your performance was affected by the fact that you and your fellow actors lived together during shooting?
“In Korea, actors don’t really spend that kind of time together. The time we spent together was so important to me, Steven, Isaac, and Youn Yuh-Jung — sitting together in one room and going through the script — that time is so memorable to me. That’s why I think we were able to finish the movie in such a short period of time together. That time together was vital to us.”
How has your background in Korean traditional dance informed your acting?
“Every time I play a role in a movie, I feel like I’m filling something within me. When I’m dancing, however, I feel like I’m emptying things out of me. So, I feel like I’m rotating those two cycles when I’m acting and when I’m dancing. These two states are very important to me, and both serve to recharge and energize me.”