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When was the last time you saw a movie directed by an Asian American woman starring not one, but two mixed Asian American women? You probably can’t name one film, and if you can please email me!
Unseen is Yoko Okumura’s feature film directorial debut and let me tell you, this woman has heart and drive. With her bright green hair and killer matching green suit, Hollywood better watch out. Okumura is a visionary, and I totally have a low-key girl crush on her.
Unseen stars two mixed Japanese American women whom I am fortunate enough to call friends: Jolene Purdy and Midori Francis. Sam (Jolene), a gas station clerk who has been living the worst day of her life in years, receives a call from Emily (Midori) who is lost in the woods trying to escape from her crazy stalker, murderous ex-boyfriend. Sam, who has never met Emily, has to guide her to safety via FaceTime, all the while dealing with unhinged characters at the gas station. Unseen will be on MGM+ in May.
Chester-Iwata: I loved how camp, terrifying, and hilarious this film is. As a director, what drew you to the script and what were some key elements that you knew you had to have for your vision to be fulfilled, especially as an Asian female director? Did that influence your choices at all?
Okumura: What drew me to the project Unseen was, when I read the script I knew that I had all the elements of a fun, crazy thrill ride and all the tension and all the violence and the drama. But at the emotional center are these two women from two very different backgrounds becoming friends through this survival story. It’s the story of an unlikely friendship between these two that I knew I could put my authentic stamp on. As far as what was crucial for me to maintain—in general, and as an Asian American woman specifically—even though there’s so much threat to Emily’s physical safety, I never wanted to see her be the receiver of real results of harm. Whereas, Charlie does try to hurt her, and he’s the one getting beat up the whole time.
Francis: I get beat up a lot by the natural elements of “escape” rather than him.
Okumura: Exactly. I just didn’t want him to succeed very much. I didn’t want him to get too much of a comeuppance. To make this movie succeed, I wanted to imbue a really fun, high-octane pacing to it that had a lot of colors and split screens. I just knew that style was going to entertain the audience and carry this, as long as the two leads had out-of-this-world chemistry. None of the style was gonna be of any substance if the two leads didn’t have this genuine friendship developing between them. These two leading ladies were the most important component of the movie. Thank goodness I got them. That’s what allowed me to have a lot of fun with everything else surrounding them.
Chester-Iwata: Midori, I loved how the writers incorporated your Japanese heritage. Was it in the script before booking the role, or did the writers work to make Emily more authentic to you, and not just another ambiguous character most mixed-race actors are all too familiar with portraying?
Francis: There was a version of being Asian in school or being bullied in school for looking different in the script originally.
Okumura: I think originally it wasn’t necessarily Asian American, but it was a woman getting bullied. And then we talked about actually changing it to specifically being Asian American bullying.
Francis: We got to do the actor/director talk prior to shooting and I think that’s one thing that I talked to Yoko about, and she was very receptive about narrowing down the reference and the specificity of that moment. We were both very much on the same page of wanting that to be in there.
Chester-Iwata: Jolene and Yoko, in regards to Sam, I was wondering, was there a reason why her heritage was never mentioned? I kept waiting for that typical banter that occurs when two mixed Asians realize they’re both mixed.
Okumura: What’s interesting about Sam’s side is that because Emily can’t see Sam she doesn’t know her ethnic background. I always had imagined a scene that’s never in the movie where Emily gets to see Sam’s face for the first time.
She’s like, “Oh, this is what you look like.” Because she’s just a voice in her head. I think at that moment I guess Sam could have been like, “Oh, hey, I’m Asian American, too!” We just kind of felt like the pacing of the movie couldn’t authentically encapsulate an actual full conversation about each other’s backgrounds.
Francis: Something story-wise that I think is in there, Sam’s character (from Emily’s perspective) is unseen. I mean, just socioeconomically, Emily is a doctor, and Sam is a gas station clerk. We tend to be a little bit less interested in the backgrounds and the stories of people who kind of have those more day-to-day jobs. I think part of Sam’s pain is not being seen. This is a gas station clerk, and I need her to help me get out of the woods. I’m gonna do whatever I can to get her to help me. And slowly, as the movie progresses, I start to see her as a human being. I start to get to know her a little bit and, I start to care about her. That’s how I always thought of it. What’s beautiful is, by the end, Sam is such a human being.
Purdy: Even now, if I see someone who’s mixed I take a pause to be like, am I gonna offend? I feel like Sam wouldn’t have said it. She would’ve mentally noted it and waited for the other person to say it.
Okumura: I think for her, that wasn’t the moment to bring it up. If she was in the best mental state, then maybe she would’ve been like, “Oh, me too.” In the place that she was, all she could do was go along with the conversation, to the best of her capacity.
Chester-Iwata: I’ve known you for over a decade, Jo, and it was really fun for me to glimpse you in Sam, especially toward the end when you were put in the police car and flipped everyone off. I was like, “Oh, that’s the Jolene I know.” Are there any other moments that you feel in Unseen that are more Jolene versus Sam?
Purdy: Oh, my daughter found that picture [of me in the police car] and she started crying and asked me what I was doing, and I had to explain to her what acting was. To a 5-year-old, you just have to say, I play pretend.
Francis: She cried?
Purdy: She cried ’cause she was like, “What happened to you, Mommy?” She was going through my phone, and I was like, “That’s what happens when you go through my phone.” She saw the handcuffs and blood.
There are so many different facets of Jolene. I totally relate to [Sam’s| anxiety. I had postpartum depression. When talking about Sam having the worst day ever of her life on repeat, that’s what 18 months of postpartum depression felt like. Hopelessness, not finding a way out. Then, someone comes along and pours value into you and you actually see your worth. I guess there’s the flipping-off Jolene, and then there’s the panicked Jolene. There are so many Jolenes, so many.
Chester-Iwata: I really appreciate the arc and journey both Sam and Emily take together, the parallels, and how they ultimately saved each other. Can you talk about the casting process for all three of you?
Okumura: It was a really exciting process just trying to look for the two people who were gonna have the best chemistry together. In the audition, seeing the intensity and the raw strength that Midori was able to bring immediately. And then Jolene in her performances, there was this layered amount of vulnerability as she brought the anxiety, but also a strength she was ultimately going to arrive at. It was very clear. I just kind of knew, “These two people, when you put them in a scene together, sparks are gonna fly.” That was a process for me. How about you?
Francis: The first reaction I thought was, “I’m not gonna get this one.” Knowing that Yoko is the director, there was just an immediate gut feeling, this could be possible. I went in and I gave it my all. I think knowing I would be seen in the audition, like knowing that the person who is viewing me at the very least would take me seriously and was not seeing me to “see me.” Then I got a callback, kind of a long time after that first audition. I remember her telling me to heighten the stakes of being scared. I turned off the lights in my apartment, then we did the second scene, and I didn’t get a note on it. I was like, “Well, she didn’t gimme a note on the second one. I didn’t get it.”
Then all of a sudden I got a call for this job. It was crazy. It was awesome and so cool.
Purdy: I feel like I had a similar experience where I saw it and I was like, “Oh, I’m not getting this.” Then I taped for it, and you send your tape into the ether and you don’t know what’s gonna happen. Then I remember seeing Yoko in the callback for the first time and working with her and understanding the clarity and the vision she had. She was very clear about what she wanted. She gave me a note—and I think it was the scene where all the guns are pointed at me—of just whispering it because shit has to be quiet on her end. I was like, “Ohhhhhh okay. She’s smart. She sees the thing as a whole. We could do this.” And then I called my reps and I was like, “We gotta get this one. I have to work with her. I don’t care.”
Chester-Iwata: Something my bestie Melissa and I often say is that we will be the first to die in a real-life horror film because we both have terrible eyesight and wear glasses. Midori, you gave me hope that we will not be the first to succumb to a killer. What was your process like preparing for Emily? Are you like me and cannot see without your glasses or contacts?
Francis: Yeah, so I’m negative six. Negative six. I don’t even know what that means.
Chester-Iwata: Oh my god. Me too. Negative six.
Okumura: That’s so specific.
Francis: I was actually just thinking about this. If Emily were blind, which is a very different thing, she would be more astute in navigating [her surroundings]. Because I’m a person who has terrible eyesight, I’m used to relying on my glasses and my contacts. I wake up in the morning and I really can’t see what’s going on. My girlfriend will do something. I’m like, “Babe, I can’t read your facial expressions, so if you’re making me laugh, I can’t see it. Just gimme a second, please I need to put my eyes on.” I always say that. Then I put them on and the world comes into focus.
When I read this, I was like, “This is a really cool thing to explore.” Practiced a lot without my contacts running around some trees in Central Park, and I got to know that space of me without contacts.
Chester-Iwata: Jolene, as you know, you are probably one of the first actors I had ever seen on the screen where I went, “Hey, she’s mixed Asian like me.” What has that been like for you paving the path, navigating the entertainment industry from such a young age?
Purdy: I feel like I thought that when I saw Amy Hill. There are a few people that I have seen, and they’ve given me hope, so to know that I am that for someone feels incredible.
I feel like I have survived as an “other” for a while. Even on Orange Is the New Black, they started talking about having a group called “the others,” which is why I was really excited to sign on. They were gonna take a step into what it is to be not just a specific race, but mixed, but it kind of got garbled and messed around. I feel like I haven’t been able to find solid ground in that until now. I feel like this is the first time, even though we all happen to be the same, this is the first time where it just feels comfortable as opposed to trying to be something. I don’t wanna be in a box. I am what I am. I am Japanese. I am Japanese American.
Chester-Iwata: This film really is groundbreaking in the aspect that there are three Japanese Americans that are at the forefront of this. It’s the director, it’s the two leading characters. This really isn’t something that I’ve ever seen. What has it been like for the three of you to live in that space?
Okumura: It’s great ’cause it’s easy, right? It’s great ’cause it’s breezy, and what a privilege for this to be my first film and to have this array of these beautiful people making a super fun movie together, with heart and intensity. I want it to always be this way. I stepped back and recognized how rare it is and how this thing that we got to make was unprecedented, specifically in this genre. Not only have I not seen one person be the lead of a horror film like this that’s Asian American but two people and then three people. There’s no movie like it.
Francis: I think the thing that makes it monumental for us, or for me, is I felt a sense of empowerment and ease in this dynamic. I think what’s incredible is that we could just be ourselves.
Okumura: When you are with other people who are not Japanese American, or Asian American, then you might have to try to define yourself as an individual outside of what people might think you are. Because all three of us are, being Japanese is normal, and it’s everyday. We could be truly ourselves and never have to explain any of it.
Francis: It felt like we had a trifecta going on and we were just the norm somehow. It was cool.
Purdy: When you’re Japanese, you don’t eat the last of anything. I would say the most difficult part of it was we always had one piece left.
Okumura: We did. One-piece-left problem.
Published on March 13, 2023