‘Seoul Searching’ Interview: Jessika Van

Jessika Van Interview on Seoul Searching and The Messengers
The cast of ‘Seoul Searching’.

Seoul Searching was my favorite movie of Sundance 2015 and it’s finally coming out in theaters this month. It’s already out in New York, and it opens this weekend in Los Angeles. Check local listings for appearances by the cast and an ‘80s prom on Friday night.

Jessika Van plays Grace Park, a punk rock girl who goes to a camp in Seoul, Korea in the mid ‘80s to join other Korean expats in learning about their heritage. It is based on a real camp writer/director Benson Lee attended, but he turned it into a John Hughes-style ‘80s comedy. Grace has a romance with Sid (Justin Chon), another American punk, full of ‘80s style shenanigans.

Have you found yourself nostalgic for your youth like Benson was for his time in the ‘80s?

Jessika Van: “Absolutely. I think about it all the time. I’m like, ‘It was really nice when I was young and my parents did everything for me.’ You hated it then but now you start to miss it.”

Was being on the set of Seoul Searching like stepping into a time machine?

Jessika Van: “You know what? In some ways maybe, but to tell you the truth it was more a new experience in general because it’s a different country, it’s a different place. I think that took the forefront more than anything, but the school was very run down. It was a very old school looking building.”

Did you ever drink too much when you were young?

Jessika Van: “That’s a secret.”

How was it playing the drunk scene?

Jessika Van: “It was kinda fun, actually. What wasn’t fun was all that gross stuff they had to put on me. They literally took Korean rice pudding, basically porridge and they would put it on my face mixed with lipstick. Then they would take out a hot blow dryer and cake it in so that it would stay.”

I’m surprised that didn’t make you really throw up.

Jessika Van: “I guess not. I have a high tolerance.”

Did you try a lot of different looks in developing the wardrobe?

Jessika Van: “That’s interesting. For me, I came up with my own outfit when I was auditioning. I got really excited after Benson told me what the character was and who she was. I took out black lace gloves and a crazy black lace tight skirt with rose patterns on it, and a short black miniskirt and jean vests and stuff. I did a lot for myself, but when it came time to actually shoot the movie, Benson brought on Shirley [Kurata] who’s amazing. She had all these options that she pulled from different places. Benson I think, between him and Shirley, they came in and fine-tuned that look.”

Did you keep any of it after?

Jessika Van: “I did. You bet I did. At one point Grace has this long tight black skirt that I still wear sometimes. That white T-shirt I still wear. A few different things. Oh, the shoes. I had these really cool shoes that I’m always wearing, the flat ones, not the boots. They were really uncomfortable so I didn’t want them but the flat shoes are really cool. They kind of have almost like a cowboy look to them. Those I kept for sure.”

How special was it to make a movie with all Asian actors, both established and new?

Jessika Van: “It was very special. It’s hard to get these kinds of things made. So oftentimes, I love to work on independent projects. I really believe in new voices and new ideas. So I work with a lot of short films. I work with a lot of really small projects with Asian filmmakers and Asian actors that you would never hear about and would never see the light of day. So for Seoul Searching to actually make it this far and premiere at Sundance and be interviewed by you and be seen by all these people is so special. It’s very unique. I think it’s more rare than people realize.”

We’re talking more about diversity now, but has that included the Asian sector enough? What will it take for diversity to really include everyone?

Jessika Van: “We have a long way to go and I think you’re absolutely right. There’s finally a lot of voices speaking out about this and I think that hopefully the more we create our own content and the more we get it out there, and the more people are aware because I think a lot of times people just don’t think outside the box about what it means for people of different cultures to be in the spotlight, to be the main character. They kind of look at us as supporting roles whether female or Asian or Indian or whatever. They kind of think, ‘Oh, I know this one guy not that well so they’re kind of the special character that I’m going to throw into this story on the side that I run into once, but I don’t really know what he’s thinking or what he’s going through.’ I think a lot of times, everyone’s stories are so much more universal than people realize. The truth is he’s not thinking anything that different than you. She’s not thinking anything that different than you. So if you put her in that main character’s voice, there’s absolutely no change that needs to be made. There’s not some exotic crazy different thing that you have to do because now she’s female, now she’s Asian, now she’s Middle Eastern. She can just be a normal American person because she probably grew up here. She can have the same thoughts as you.”

Have you kept in touch with the cast of Seoul Searching?

Jessika Van: “I have. I have. A few of them come to visit quite often. Crystal Kay has come in a few times and we hang out here. She was here for the Grammys and Justin of course I see, and Kang Byul I see. She came to visit us in L.A. once. I think we’ve all stayed pretty tight to tell you the truth. It was a special experience.”

What are you doing next?

Jessika Van: “I’m definitely auditioning again. It’s been a little crazy and I’ve also worked on a couple independent projects in the meantime that are still in the works and I’m also trying to develop my own, because I think that’s an important part of what we all do.”

Are you writing?

Jessika Van: “I am. I’m writing and I’m also writing music.”

What kind of music?

Jessika Van: “It’s like indie pop I would say. It’s cool. I was a classically trained pianist growing up when I was young before I ever started acting. I started writing songs so in the last year I started playing more with beats and electronic stuff and figuring out how to produce on top of all the classical training. So that’s really exciting for me.”

Have you incorporated piano into the music?

Jessika Van: “I do but what I do a lot of times is, it’s funny because people want to do loops. A lot of producers are just like, ‘Oh, I’ll just do a loop because I can’t really play it.’ For me, I’m like, ‘I can play this all the way through. It’s no problem.’ But what I can do is switch out the actual sound of the piano for a cool synth sound or a cool weird guitar mix synth sound. You still have the idea of the piano backing but it no longer sounds like traditional piano.”