After Yang's Haley Lu Richardson On Working With Kogonada And Being Very Serious About Dancing [Interview]

"After Yang" debuted at the Cannes Film Festival last year, but it also made a splash at the Sundance Film Festival this year. The latest film from "Columbus" director Kogonada stars Colin Farrell and Jodie Turner-Smith as Jake and Kyra, a pair of parents who purchased a big brother android (Justin H. Min) as a way to instill more Chinese heritage and culture into their young, adopted daughter Mika (Malea Emma Tjandrawidjaja). Their family is forced to reflect on their relationship with each other and Yang himself when he suddenly malfunctions — and there doesn't seem to be a way to repair him.

As Jake takes a powered-down Yang around town with the hopes of having him repaired on the secondary market, he starts to learn that there's more to Yang than meets the eye. Not only does Yang have a special feature that makes him different from the rest of the androids on the market, but he seems to have enjoyed a relationship with someone his family had never met: a clone girl named Ada, played by Haley Lu Richardson. Leading up to the release of "After Yang" in theaters (and on Showtime) this weekend, /Film spoke with the "Unpregnant" star about working with Kogonada, the making of the delightful opening credits dance sequence, and much more. Check it out below.

"Everything I did was very strong and down to business."

So I have to ask, did you ever think that your work in "Just Dance: Disney Party" would prepare you for a movie like this?

[laughs] Funny! You're a jokester. Yes, I really did. I really drew on my experience from that for both times I've worked with Kogonada. I've really reflected back to "Disney: Just Dance," back to the time I played "Sophomore Slut" in MTV's "Awkward." I did a Sylvan Learning Center commercial. I really draw from those experiences.

[laughs] In all seriousness, I think the "Just Dance" experience kind of works out because of the fantastic opening credit sequence.

Oh, you know what, that's true! I am a dancer, I've danced my whole life, and when I first moved to LA, I danced professionally for my first year out here. So yeah, I was very excited about that.

What was it like preparing for that sequence? Did everybody work together, as far as learning the moves and the choreography? Because everyone is perfectly in sync with each other.

I think that everyone learned it relatively separately ... But yeah, the choreographer, I went to the dance studio and she taught me it, and I watched this video and everything. I think everyone kind of did that individually? I think the family of Colin, Jodie and Malea and Justin all worked together to get how they were going to be working as a family.

My family was me and then my family, who you don't really meet in the movie, but we decided that we were going to be really serious about it. And it was a legit thing for us. Everything I did was very strong and down to business. But that was very cool, just such a freaking cool way to start a movie! The choreographer said to Kogonada, and then Kogonada shared with us, that it's like confetti going off. Then the rest of the movie is just watching the confetti fall to the ground.

Oh, wow, that's a great way to describe it. Because it's just a sudden burst of energy, and it's so much fun.

Yeah, it's also just such a poetic thing. It's this big intro, and then you just watch what all brought them to that point. It's just so cool.

"Kogonada's my best friend. He's my favorite person!"

You worked with Kogonada before on "Columbus." What was it about this script, this movie, that made you want to be part of it?

Well, I didn't even read the script at first. After I did "Columbus," I just ... Kogonada's my best friend. He's my favorite person! So I would work with him, if he ever said, "Hey, there's maybe something in here for you to do," or, "Hey, I want to do this with you." I would not even question it for a second, because working with him has been that impactful on my life, and knowing him has been that impactful on my life. 

So he told me about this movie, and I was like, "Well, just in case there's a role for me, I'm around, I'll do it". Then he sent me the script, and I just thought Ada was so mysterious. She's a smaller character, but she's really important. I feel like she's important. There's stuff, how she sees Yang, her different perspective and her life, it's different than the family and how they view Yang. That contrast just helps them to see him in a different way and understand the effect that he's had on the world and how he's seen the world, and truly existed and lived.

So working with Kogonada and getting to play this cool gal? I was just really lucky. The word "lucky" bothers me a lot, because we work hard for things like that, and I know circumstances and opportunity have a lot to do with it, but if there's anything I feel just truly lucky about, it's meeting Kogonada and being able to work with him. I don't know what I possibly did to get there and deserve that truly.

You did the work!

Well, yeah, but you can put in work and then some ... Those types of things don't just plop into your life all the time, you know?

That's true.

That's a special gift that I cry about often. Good cry. Yeah, last time we had breakfast, I cried to him telling him how much of a gift it was. So it's like a real thing for me, it's been huge for my life.

Speaking of the work, I was curious, how do you prepare for a role like this? Because you mentioned that Ada is mysterious, and we do get pieces of her background and her relationship with Yang. But as an actress, do you have a process of preparing and filling in those gaps, and creating a whole character, even though we don't necessarily see that entire character on the screen?

Yeah, I do have a process for that, or I do care about that and think about that. Sometimes in roles that I've played, that have been supporting characters where it's not really about their journey, it's been really hard for me to fill in those blanks. But this wasn't like that, because even though you only see her for a handful of scenes and moments, she's so full in what you see of her and what she says. The feeling you get from who she is and what's important to her, even on the page, was just so full and complete, that I kind of felt like I already knew it. I read it, and I already knew who she was as a whole outside of those scenes.

"His symbolism and the way that he tells stories is so restrained."

What is it about Kogonada's directing style that you really like?

Everything. I never thought that I could have a creative experience with someone like that. First of all, he's just the most interested human I've ever met. He can ask you, "How are you today?" or "Where were you born?" Literally a simple question like that, and something about him genuinely invites you to be honest and also makes you feel like he actually cares about what I'm saying, which is so rare in this day and age — for someone to ask you something and then for you to answer, and for them to feel like they really care, or they're very interested, or they're learning about something interesting. It's so cool to feel that from someone, and I think that's why he creates such beautiful, complex, and thought-provoking stories, because that's how he sees the world.

But working with him, it was the first time that I had ever felt trusted as an actor, and, really, as a person! I was 19 or 20. I forget, how old was I? I was 21. I was playing a 19-year-old. So I was very young, still am, and I think that he trusted me, and he respected me. There was really no reason why he should have, because it's not like I was doing great films before that, you know? So I don't really know why he did, but he just did. That made me feel so safe and so trusting of him and respectful of him, and that collaboration with that foundation, of the trust and the respect and the openness, was just so much freer because we just had that for one another. Just the subtlety that he cares about, the less is more. How you can say things without saying things? His symbolism and the way that he tells stories is so restrained.

That's been an amazing concept for me to learn from him, because it's affected me creatively and how I approach acting and other jobs, even jobs that are like bigger characters and more broad movies. Not being like "Ah!" all the time, or like, "Ah, I have to be funny!" Or whatever, you know what I mean? There's something to just being grounded in the truth first and then adding whatever is needed on top of that.


So he really taught me all that. He's also so calm. On "Columbus" and "After Yang," the most calm, respectful sets I've ever been on in my life. I don't even remember one hectic day. "Columbus" was a small, little, independent film, and there wasn't a day where people were yelling at each other and freaking out and scrambling. It wasn't that in the slightest. He has this energy that spreads out that's like, "We are here to do service to this story and to collaborate and make something that we all truly believe in." 

I'm rambling a little bit now, but it actually feels like he allows me to be an artist. It is so forgotten, a lot of the time on movie sets, that we are kind of artists, in a way. I know that's kind of cringe to say, but we are. That's why I love doing this. That ability to tell a story and be an artist in that way, with my emotions and with a character. He allowed me to feel that, without saying, "Ooh, we're artists!" in this pretentious way. He's the exact opposite of pretentious, but the way that he invites you to join him and make this piece of art, it's so fun and cool.

"I did this movie two years ago, but I am just now still answering questions."

Because your character has a history with Yang, did you and Justin collaborate at all in creating the background for your characters and figuring out what their path was outside of what we see in the movie?

Yeah, Justin and I, we only had one little moment that we actually worked together. I think it's in the movie, in a memory of his, of us looking in the mirror. I think that's the only time we actually were on set together. But yeah, I talked with him, we got coffee before we started filming, and then we hung out while we were in New York. Me, Justin, and Malea were like a little hang over there.

We talked about just what he was really focusing on with the character, what I was focusing on, and that connection. I remember, there's a time in the scene when I'm in the car with Colin and Malea, who plays Mika, is sleeping, and we're on our way back from the museum place, whatever it's called. I say a line, and it's something that Yang had always said to me, always asked me, and I forget the exact line, I don't want to butcher it. But I remember asking Justin to record himself saying that sentence, so when I said it, it could have some sort of memory or inflection of how he would ask it when we would hang out. So there were a couple things like that.

Since you mentioned memories, this movie does such an incredible job of giving significance and beauty to even the most ordinary things in our lives. Did this movie, after you saw it, or even while you were making it, prompt a change in your perspective, as far as how you choose to remember certain things or the moments that latch onto in your mind?

Honestly, I feel like this movie is so open to interpretation and asks so many questions that we can connect to the thing that resonates with us as an audience member. I felt so official saying that... [laughs] But I didn't really think about that specific question until the interviews today when Justin was talking about it. I was doing a couple interviews with Justin, and he was talking about that concept that the movie proposes, and I think that it subconsciously affected me, honestly. Because when Justin was talking about it today, I was feeling myself being like, "Oh my God, that's so true." And I felt that, and that's in me, but I haven't even gotten to — I did this movie two years ago, but I am just now still answering questions, literally. But also, just in my mind and heart and everything, answering the questions and reflecting on it and what it's brought to my life and awareness. 

"After Yang" is playing in theaters now and is also available to watch on Showtime.