For those of you who saw Cloud Atlas this weekend, it was likely your first introduction to Doona Bae, the Korean actress making her English-language debut as the reluctant revolutionary clone Sonmi-451 (and, like all of the film's actors, a few other roles as well). Bae had standout performances in the Korean film The Host and the Japanese film Air Doll that inspired Andy and Lana Wachowski-- who directed the Sonmi-451 portion of Cloud Atlas-- to audition. But this wasn't the kind of flashy thing where the actress gets flown into Hollywood, all-expenses paid. Bae had her brother help her make an audition tape.
And believe it or not, she didn't even know she'd be playing multiple roles until she flew to Berlin for a makeup test. I learned that and much more when I spoke to her on the phone two weeks ago, asking her about how the Wachowskis worked with her as she adjusted to English, what it was like switching over to work with Tom Tykwer for one day (as "Mexican Woman" in the Luis Rey section of the film), and how her friendship with Jim Sturgess made all that adjusting a little easier. Read all about it below, and see Doona Bae in Cloud Atlas in theaters now.
You recorded an audition tape with your brother, right? How did they describe the role to you when they asked you to audition?
They just asked me to read some of Sonmi's part, and they didn't say anything when I took the audition.
It's a complicated part. Did you realize how complicated it was when you auditioned?
When I read the script, I just immediately got into the character, I think. I could relate myself to Sonmi immediately.
What was it about her that struck you so deeply?
Her loneliness, about her miserable life. The isolation, isolated from the human world.
When you read the script and saw that you would play Sonmi and several other characters, was that an exciting challenge?
Yes, everything was a challenge for me. I didn't know that i was going to play Tilda or Mexican woman or some other characters when I first got the part of Sonmi. When I went to Berlin for a makeup test and some other things, Lana and Andy told me that I would play some other characters. I was just excited.
Was that scary too?
A little bit nervous, but no, I love challenges. And I love learning something. It's just exciting.
Were you aiming to work on an English-language production?
Not really. I didn't think about Western films or anything before I got a call. I didn't expect it. But now, it was so joyful and enjoyable, and I really loved it. I really loved working with all the people, the crews and directors and actors, they're incredibly nice.
Lana and Andy directed you as Sonmi and Tilda, and Tom Tykwer directed you as the Mexican woman. Did it feel like you were working on two different movies, working with both of them?
Yeah, they are different. Actually I worked with Tom for just one day, as Mexican Woman. I think 98% of the shooting I worked with Lana and Andy. And Lana and Andy are so, they're so amazing, they're just geniuses. They have a clear picture of what they want in their mind, but at the same time they seem inspired, they seemed inspired by me. I really love it when it happens.
Did they encourage you to do thing that weren't in the script, or would they give you ideas to make changes?
I think they always did, they tried something else, something different all the time. I remember when they told me that they were counting on me. They just watched what I was doing and then added direction. It was so fun.
Because Sonmi is not a human, but she feels very human-- how do you play that balance between being a machine and also a person?
I emptied myself, and filled my heart with her thoughts and feelings and everything. It felt very natural to speak like Sonmi, I think.
With Jim Sturgess, you have a romance in two different times-- as Tilda, Adam Ewing's wife, and as Sonmi. How did you build those two different relationships?
It was different for me. They connect to each other, obviously. When I play two roles, it is quite different. I got a little bit confused when I was playing Tilda, I really got into the Sonmi character at the time, so Adam, when Adam got home, when Tilda opened the door, I was standing opposite him, but in my point of view, he looked like Chang with an old-fashioned beard. So I asked Lana to give me a key to open Tilda's mind, Tilda's heart. She told me some of Tilda's history with Adam, their love story, or what Adam said to her. So I finally got into Tilda's mind. It was quite different for me.
Did you and Jim Sturgess build a relationship off-screen that helped that?
He helped me a lot. There was one line, when I talk to Archivist, where I say "it was the first time a pureblood had shown me kindness." jim was like that on set. He became my friend. He was so kind and considerate. We just laughed a lot, hanging around Berlin with each other. We just built up some friendship.