Yo-Yo Ma's Glass Onion Cameo Relied On A Sneaky Special Effect

At the start of Rian Johnson's 2022 murder mystery "Glass Onion," several characters — each from seemingly disparate walks of life — receive mysterious, elaborate puzzle boxes in the mail. The boxes seem to have come from Miles Bron, a wealthy tech industrialist, and self-proclaimed "disruptor," clearly modeled after dubiously important blowhards like Elon Musk. Each of the characters in question are old friends with Miles, and he occasionally sends out these puzzles for fun, but also when he has "important" to share. The first ten minutes of "Glass Onion" are devoted to Miles' compatriots calling each other on the phone and solving the boxes together. 

One of the challenges in Miles' box is a tinkly piece of music from a miniature orchestrina. None of the characters can identify the piece in question, however. Not the politician Claire (Kathryn Hahn), not the scientist Lionel (Leslie Odom, Jr.), not the Men's Right activist Duke (Dave Bautista), and not the flighty party girl Birdie (Kate Hudson). 

When Birdie received Miles' box, she was in the middle of an enormous party, surrounded by well-dressed celebrities. Portentously, Dr. Fauci's face appears on a screen in the background, implying that COVID-19 lockdowns are nigh. When the music box begins playing, Birdie immediately rushes to a nearby electronic device, hoping for an identification. While Birdie attempts to activate Shazam (from what later reveals to be a mere lamp), one of her guests, eating a sandwich, helpfully slides into frame to help. 

It's world-famous cellist Yo-Yo Ma. Ma immediately spots the tune as Bach's "Little" Fugue in G minor, BWV 578, originally written for pipe organ. One can trust an expert. Sad to say, according to the "Glass Onion" commentary track, provided by "Watching With," Ma wasn't actually on set for his cameo.

Yo-Yo Ma and the tennis ball

In an interview with Vanity Fair, Johnson revealed that he wrote "Glass Onion" as a bromide during COVID-19 lockdowns. He envisioned a distant, exotic location in his mind at a time when international travel was banned. The COVID news on screen in the final cut of "Glass Onion" was based on real anxiety. It also seemingly allowed Johnson to think of novel ways to film, and his murder mystery contained many notable cameos, all filmed separately, completely in keeping with social distancing measures. /Film previously wrote about how Angela Lansbury, Stephen Sondheim, Natasha Lyonne, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar played a game of "Among Us" with Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig), the film's central detective. 

For Ma's cameo, it turns out he didn't film his part until many months after the fact. On the commentary, Johnson described it thus:

"Yo-Yo Ma. He's not here. I'm giving away the movie magic. Months and months after we shot this scene — Jess [Henwick] was looking off-screen there at nothing — Yo-Yo Ma came in and sat in front of a green screen and delivered his lines to a tennis ball on a C-stand, for Jess. What I'm saying is he did a fantastic job in a very high degree of difficulty; just walking onto a blue screen stage and delivering these lines."  

Ma's lines are a little silly, of course. While he does identify the Bach tune in question, he also explains briefly what a fugue is, explaining that it is one melody layered over itself to create a new aural dynamic. His clue, perhaps weirdly, inspires Lionel to pull on the puzzle's knob. The cameo is more fun than the clue. 

Yo-Yo Ma on film

According to an interview with Classical FM, Ma also insisted on changing a little bit of his own dialogue, as to refine Johnson's musical terminology somewhat. That same article also pointed out that the score to "Glass Onion" had to be recorded with each member of the orchestra in their own homes. That the film came together as slickly as it did may be a testament to Johnson's directing acumen and the skill of the performers. Ma, however, does not play on the soundtrack. 

Ma, of course, being the world's premiere cellist, is no stranger to film, and has performed on many film soundtracks. In addition to appearing in and producing multiple concert films and specials, Ma played cello solos for films like "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," "Naqoyqatsi," and "Memoirs of a Geisha." 

Additionally, Ma has acted a few times in the past, although, like in "Glass Onion," he most often plays himself. He appeared in the animated series "Arthur" and on "The Simpsons" as himself, and even once showed up on a Christmas episode of "The West Wing." He also cameoed on an episode of "Frasier," playing one of Dr. Frasier Crane's many one-time call-in patients. "Frasier" was notorious for featuring celebrities in these voice roles, and Ma was game enough to play along. 

And thank goodness he was also game to crouch in front of a green screen for Rian Johnson. The cameo was inspired.