Albert Kong Sees His Younger Self in ‘Seoul Searching’

by JAMES S. KIM | @james_s_kim

There’s perfect casting, and then there’s too perfect casting. Actor Albert Kong was not particularly thrilled when his fellow cast members in Seoul Searching would tell him that he was just like his character, Mike Lee–a mean, bullying, racist military student.

“I hope I’m the opposite of my character,” Kong said. “Everyone at the beginning was telling me, ‘Oh you’re so Mike.’ And I didn’t know how to take that, you know what I mean? In the movie, that’s not a good thing.”

“By the end [of filming], they were saying, ‘Oh you’re so not Mike,'” he added. “I took that away as a point of comfort. I don’t know, I think it’s hard for me to differentiate, because when (director) Benson Lee did the casting, he did such an amazing job. All the actors he pulled in, they were from all over the place, they had all these unique backgrounds, and they really put that into the character and melded it so well.”

As for his own character, Kong looked to his own experience growing up in an area where there weren’t too many other kids who looked like him. “I could speak for myself, I was an idiot in high school,” Kong said. “I think everyone humbled themselves and drew from that.”

This interview has been edited for length, grammar and clarity.

SAMSUNG CSCMike Lee (Albert Kong) looks even more surly and angry next to the bright personality of Sergio Kim (Esteban Ahn).

What did you first think of Mike?

Albert Kong: (Laughs) To be honest, the first time I read Mike’s lines, he was really abrasive, right from the get-go. He’s such an angry guy. At a first glance, I think it’s really easy to just write him off as one of those people. But to me, it’s always interesting to unpack people like that.

Generally, someone like that comes from a place with a lot of pain and hurt, you know? For me as an actor to try and flesh out an otherwise really flat character, it was definitely fun. Benson and the production team allowed me the flexibility to do that.

What characteristics of Mike did you really wanted to focus on?

I just really wanted to flesh him out. This movie as a whole has so many different types of characters. It’s unique in that aspect, this huge melting pot of a bunch of different people, and it’s very reminiscent of high school with all the different cliques and character types.

The biggest thing I’m hoping that people take away from it is that even though Mike does come off as the antagonistic character and a bully, [he’s doing that] just to create that sense of sympathy for him to a certain degree. I think it goes both ways. Everybody deserves a fair shake. It’s not to justify the way he behaves by any means, but if I could just get people to consider, “Oh, this is where someone like this could be coming from,” then I’d feel like I did his character justice.

What aspects of your background did you draw from to create your character?

I was born in Los Angeles, and then my parents moved when I was young to Valencia, a suburb area where it’s predominantly Caucasians.

What I was able to draw for my character was that sense of not belonging, the sense of constantly having to prove yourself. Because there were no other Asians where I was. It was a very small Asian population. That was back when people didn’t even know what Korea was.

Obviously, you look physically different. The food you bring to school is different. Everything is so different, and that sense of trying to fit inI actually got in trouble when I was younger for being a bully. I don’t remember this, but apparently my mom would get calls from other kids’ moms. But I remember having the feeling that I had to fight for everything. I really did have that chip on my shoulder. And by God’s grace, as I matured, that eased over.

SAMSUNG CSCFrom left to right: Sergio Kim (Esteban Ahn), Sue-Jin Kim (Byul Kang), Mike Lee (Albert Kong), Sid Park (Justin Chon) and Klaus Kim (Teo Yoo).

What were some of the themes in the movie that stuck out to you or personally connected with you?

I think the most universal theme that anyone can relate with, whether they’re Korean American or not, is just this sense of finding identity. Time period-wise, it’s set in the ’80s, but it’s a high school class. I think everyone remembers, especially in high school, college and even as a young adult, trying to find that sense of who you areyour place in the world.

I think that’s what resonated with me the most because you see all the insecurity. It really takes me back. Just remembering that place where you think you’re cool, but you’re not sure and you’re just trying to find your place, you know? And then meeting people in that journey who help shape and help you to realize who you really are as an individual. I think that theme of finding yourself and coming of age, it’s something that’s going to resonate with a lot of people.

How was it working with Benson as a director?

Benson is a man with a lot of vision. It was an honor to support him and just to be a part of this project, because for him, this really is a passion project. He’s been working on this film for such a long time, and to see it all come together and be along for the ride, it was an absolute pleasure.

Working with the actors, he was really nice because he allowed a lot of opps for rehearsal and exploration. I think that’s what’s really going to carry in the final product and what people see. Even just the chemistry between the actors, on set and off set, that was only able to be cultivated because Benson really helped create an environment where we could really do that.

What was it like being with the cast for that long?

I’m sure that this is an analogy that’s brought up often, but being in an ensemble cast, it was really like family. There were times when people had little scuffs here and there, but that was just close proximity, being there for long hours and traveling all the time. It was really good; it was fun. We would find little ways to keep ourselves amused.

If one of us was down, everyone would all kind of rally. All in all, it was awesome. Everyone was hustling, everyone knew what they were doing, what we were trying to make. Weather and cows aside, it was good.