With the release of Crazy Rich Asians in theaters and To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before on Netflix, the Asian-American experience is getting its long-overdue moment in the pop culture spotlight, and one film that looks to benefit from a higher profile is Screen Gems’ hyper-modern cyberthriller Searching, which debuted at Sundance to raves from critics and audiences alike.
The film stars John Cho as David Kim, a father searching for his missing teenage daughter, whose laptop may hold the key to her disappearance. While director Aneesh Chaganty deserves credit for expanding the language of cinema with Searching, the film only works as well as it does because you care about its young star, Michelle La, who plays David’s somewhat mysterious daughter, Margot.
La makes her feature debut with Searching and the actress has a remarkable story, having worked as a scientist in a lab (analyzing wastewater for the Los Angeles County Sanitation Districts) just a few years ago, before a Groupon offer inspired her to take an acting class. She may not have faced the years of rejection that many Asian-American actors suffered through while waiting for (and working towards) this moment, but you can’t chalk her rise up to sheer luck. She clearly has the talent and work ethic to carve out a career for herself in this industry, and thanks to the success of Crazy Rich Asians, she should have even more opportunities to shine onscreen.
Born in Orange County and raised in Glendale, California, La booked small roles on CBS’ Mom and Netflix’s Gilmore Girls revival before landing the co-lead in Searching, which arrives in select theaters this Friday before expanding to more cities next weekend. We spoke about the unique audition process for the film and Asian-American representation in Hollywood, so enjoy our chat, and keep your eye on La, because she’s certainly one to watch.
What sparked your passion for acting and made you decide to get into this crazy business?
MICHELLE LA: I studied science in college. I was a biochemistry major. I went to Biola University. I still love science. It’s just fun for me. I like to learn and I’m super curious. I spent most of my college years cooped up in the library, just reading. When I graduated, my first job out of college was as a water quality analystL
Yes, analyzing “poop water,” according to the bio I read.
LA: Yeah, so I worked there for three and a half years, and it’s kind of just a weird story, but it’s actually how it happened. The week after I got married, I just had this crazy thought that I wanted to try acting, and I knew it was just, like, weird. I remember lying down on the bed at my apartment with my husband Frank and I was like, ‘I think I want to try acting,’ and my husband was like, ‘um, you sound crazy. I mean, that’s like me telling you I want to be a professional golfer even though I’ve never tried it before. I don’t know why, I just want to try professional golfing.’ And then I understood. I actually bought a Groupon for an acting class, and that’s how I took my first acting class, and that’s how I fell in love. So I saved up for a year, and then after a year, I decided to make the transition, because I really felt that my passion had just kind of switched. It’s not that I don’t like science anymore, but I just found something that was worth pursuing. What inspired me about acting was just understanding somebody else who has experiences that might not be the same as yours — just putting yourself in someone else’s shoes and walking a mile in them. I really just vibed with that plight, I guess. I don’t know, it’s crazy. Searching is my first feature film, and I think my career is just taking off…
How did you go about finding your manager and getting signed?
LA: Well, in my acting class from Groupon, I was really motivated by the teacher to basically be in or out. It’s funny, because so many of my friends have asked me, ‘how did you get into it?’ or ‘how do I start?’ and I think that with acting, it’s just allowing your curiosity to kind of take over and be obsessed. Read articles, look it up, ask people, go watch interviews. I just became, like, obsessed. I think my curiosity about science and the world and nature just really translated right over to acting, but it was this whole new world. The business of acting, all this stuff I’d just never thought about in my life, I immersed myself. I try not to go too into detail about my own story, only because I don’t want people who are trying to break in to compare their journey with mine. Everyone’s is so unique and different. But at least for myself, I pretty much cold-called agents. I think the first marketing tool is your headshot, so get headshots from a good photographer and just roll with it. Just put yourself out there. That’s how I got my first agent.
Are there any actors who you admire, or whose careers you’d like to emulate?
LA: I personally grew up loving Reese Witherspoon. I thought she was hilarious in Legally Blonde. I loved her character, and just thought she was so quirky and cute, and in later years, I watched her as Tracy Flick in Election. I like Zooey Deschanel in New Girl. I just like female actors who are quirky and cute.
Tell me about the audition process for Searching and how Aneesh discovered you for this role.
LA: I got pulled in for the first audition by the casting director Lindsey Weissmueller, who set up the audition with a DVR-type home camera system. They’d sent us the proof-of-concept short film, but it was different from every audition. The sides, which are the part of the script you audition with, were totally different. It was just me and a camera, me talking to the camera, and a bunch of scenes. I thought, ‘okay, this is weird.’ I’m supposed to be on a computer screen right now. I was first to go in for the audition. There were like 20 other girls in the room, but I had come first, so I just signed in, and went in and I didn’t know what to expect. Nobody else knew what to expect. But Lindsey had flipped the screen on the camcorder so you could see yourself. So that in itself right there was completely different, but in conjunction with how the movie was shot, and how it was gonna be portrayed, it was perfect. So I just went with it. I knew I was first, and in a lot of ways, that’s daunting because they’re going to give adjustments based on the first audition, but I just decided to be free and do what I wanted, and I was super in the zone. I actually prepared for the audition using my MacBook. I opened Photo Booth and I just saw myself on the screen and did my lines. I was like, ‘alright, I guess this is what I’m gonna do, because I don’t know what else to do to really prepare.’
I feel like you get to set the tone in the room when you go first.
LA: Yeah, and it’s funny, because I walked out of the audition and all the girls were like, ‘how was it?’ and ‘what was it like?’ And I was like, ‘you just do it. There’s a camcorder and you can see yourself and just be free. Just go with it.’ I just remember running around. I would see myself on the screen, and I would step off the screen, because she had given me freedom in my blocking, and then I would just do each scene. It was really comfortable. She gave me as many takes as I needed to nail it, and then I got a callback audition, which was with the producer and the director, Sev [Ohanian] and Aneesh [Chaganty]. I just did it again for them, and then I booked it the next week.