The 7-year-old firecracker won over crowds in Park City in January at the film’s Sundance premiere (and subsequent press tour, cosplaying as Woody from “Toy Story”) with his portrayal of David, the youngest son of actor Steven Yeun’s character and his on-screen mom, Yeri Han.
Uprooted to a remote plot of farmland in Arkansas, David must play in empty fields under the watchful eye of his sister, Anne (Noel Cho), as his parents attempt to build a business and understand life in the Bible Belt. Fluent in English and Korean, David becomes a vessel for his father’s Korean pride and his American ambitions. He’s also ridiculously cute.
Kim conveys childlike wonder, hilarious mischief, staggering boredom and palpable fear with an ease well beyond his years — especially when paired with Yuh-Jung Youn, who plays David’s foil as a highly unconventional grandmother. Kim rises to easy challenges like a memorable prank switching Grandma’s glass of Mountain Dew with something far worse, just as he does to convey the seriousness of a heart condition he was born with, which plagues his mother with worry.
“He has an innate ability for make-believe,” says Chung, who auditioned only a handful of kids for the role in the Los Angeles production offices of Brad Pitt’s Plan B. Yeun read scenes and played some improvisation games with Kim, who showed a knack for following his movie dad’s lead.
Production was no picnic. In the heat of Tulsa, Okla. (standing in for Arkansas), union rules said Kim could work only six hours a day. He appears in nearly every frame of the film.
“We had to shoot out all of his things and then get all the reaction shots from his co-stars after he was gone,” says Chung. “There’s a lot there that was pieced together in a weird way. We didn’t have the time to do too many takes with him.”
Kim tells Variety he is a fan of TV and movies (current favorites include “Sonic the Hedgehog” and Cartoon Network’s Lego series “Ninjago”), but he was drawn to audition “because I wanted to see myself on video.” Kim’s older sister, Alyssa, is a working theater actor, currently playing young Elsa on the national tour of Disney’s “Frozen” musical. He consistently turned down theater opportunities but warmed to the idea of trying film. His parents say he wants to continue on camera.
On location for “Minari,” Kim and his family spent free time at their hotel pool and participated in group dinners with the filmmakers. Yeun says he watched in real time as Kim became more technically savvy, following which cameras were picking up the actors.
“By the end, he was like, ‘I’m saving my best take for my close-up,’” Yeun jokes, who found it easier on shoot days to remain in character as Alan’s father figure.
Kim, who has a wicked sense of style and plans to hit early bedtimes as much as he can during quarantine, says he managed the ups and downs of the shoot with a key piece of advice from Yeun: “Be yourself. Don’t try to be anyone else.”