At the heart of Netflix’s latest big swing at prestige movies is an extremely precocious 13-year-old. Okja, the story of a girl named Mija palling around with a massive superpig in a whimsical mountain setting—a fantastical friendship in the vein of classics like My Neighbor Totoro—stars actress Ahn Seo-hyun in the main role. She’s a bundle of fierceness and unrattled stoicism in a high-concept film replete with madcap plot points, the kind we’ve come to expect from celebrated director Bong Joon-ho and his top-tier talent (Tilda Swinton, Jake Gyllenhaal, Paul Dano). Though Seo-hyun was only 11 when she was cast (and 12 when she filmed), she holds our gaze in the palm of her hand. She’s a bottle-rocket talent and a surprisingly adept action star, someone who will sear a lasting impression on anyone who watches Okja once it’s available to stream, or see in limited theatrical release, on June 28.
In real life, Seo-hyun is petite and polite, with long bangs skirting her eyes. She speaks Korean, her first language, during interviews, but there are occasions where she happily blurts something in English to really convey her point—like when she’s talking about Tilda Swinton. The Oscar-winning actress was kind and protective of the young star on set, Seo-hyun’s translator explains, even taking her to see Finding Dory when they had some free time.
“I loved it,” Seo-hyun gushes in English.
In fact, all of her co-stars were warm and protective, she says. When they filmed certain scenes in New York, Paul Dano took her to see a musical. Jake Gyllenhaal sent her a black luggage set as a wrap gift. Director Bong Joon-ho gave her near-total control of her character, which, for an actor, is one of the greatest gifts of all. When she was cast, Seo-hyun quickly rattled off a number of ideas to the director for what motivated Mija in certain scenes, to the point where she was even illuminating ideas to Joon-ho, who created the character and wrote the script. “Oh, this is why she does this,” she recalls the director saying. In the script, there was “an idea of who Mija was, [but] it was still kind of in the dark,” she says. Seo-hyun gave it the spark of life.
In the film, Mija is a quiet girl living in beatific mountains with her grandfather and Okja, a superpig gifted to her family by a livestock company called the Mirando Corporation, led by a slightly manic woman named Lucy Mirando (Swinton). But after a few idyllic years, the company decides it’s time to take Okja back and make him serve the purpose they bred him for, sending along deranged zoologist Dr. Johnny Wilcox (Gyllenhaal) to pignap him. A fearless Mija immediately goes after them, aided along the way by an extremist group called the Animal Liberation Front, which is led by a man named Jay (Dano).
The role is surprisingly physical, with Seo-hyun spending nearly half her time running after someone or something, bursting through glass, leaping from one thing to the next. The actress started training for the role before filming, but didn’t get to use most of what she learned, as Joon-ho ultimately employed stunt performers or special effects for most of the scenes.
On screen, Seo-hyun also spends a lot of time acting with Okja, a friendly C.G.I. creature with the temperament of a dog and the size of a growing triceratops. On set, she was actually acting with a sponge-filled, Okja-sized puppet nicknamed “Stuffy.” At first, the young star was worried about how she’d convincingly build that necessary connection to it. “How will I express falling in love with this inanimate object?” she muses in Korean.
Thankfully, she found her way in thanks to a man named Steve, who operated Stuffy, playing to him instead of to the giant puppet. On the final day of shooting with Stuffy and Steve, Seo-hyun felt like she was “saying goodbye to a little pet she had for 10 years,” her translator explains.
Seo-hyun has seen the film about four or five times now, she reckons, including sitting through the contentious Cannes premiere and the more welcoming New York City premiere, attended by the film’s stars and splashy producers like Brad Pitt. At a late-night after-party at the Top of the Standard, she quietly stood in the corner of the room, while adults all around her sipped Champagne and swapped industry gossip—a perfect dichotomy of the surreal life of a talented child actor wrapping up a whirlwind press tour. If Okja gets the praise it deserves (and it really is quite lovely), this won’t be the last time Seo-hyun finds herself espousing her craft and balancing the industry’s everyday fishbowl of oddities. But if she can handle Joon-ho’s dark, ethereal worlds and the stranger-than-fiction landscape of Hollywood, she can probably handle anything.