Jessika Van Talks Madonna, Playing a Pastor’s Daughter in ‘Seoul Searching’

by JAMES S. KIM | @james_s_kim

When Jessika Van first read her lines for her character in Seoul Searching, she didn’t have much to go off of: Writer-director Benson Lee had initially sent her only three pages of dialogue. Fortunately, Van (MTV’s Awkward, Paper Lotus, The Moral Thief ) had a place to work from when portraying Grace Park in Lee’s Seoul Searching.

Grace’s provocative style of dress and come-hither look draw every guy’s attention, and she doesn’t hold back when it comes to toying with their emotions. The teenage boys at the Seoul summer camp—in particular, Sid, who is played by Justin Chon—don’t stand a chance against Grace, who channels an ’80s Madonna at the height of her sexual prowess.

The persona, however, comes from a repressed home environment. Grace has always wanted to break free of the constraints that come with being the daughter of a pastor. The role resonated with Van, who had played a similar character in a previous short film. This time, Van was able to explore that character a bit further as Grace in Seoul Searching.

The actress spoke with KoreAm earlier this year before Seoul Searching premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. In our conversation, Van discussed her experience in South Korea filming with the cast and working with Benson Lee, as well as the universal themes in the film that connected with her personally.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

JessikaVan_Field2(Photo by Daniel Nguyen)

What did you think of Grace Park when you first read about her?

Jessika Van: I luckily had a little heads up from Benson because we talked a little bit, even though he only sent me three pages. He looked at another short film I’d done where I played a pastor’s daughter, where it was a very dark take on the character. She was in an abusive family, and he really liked it.

That’s kind of the jumping off point where we started our conversation. He told me how much Grace wants to be Madonna and that she’s also a pastor’s daughter, and she’s struggling before she shows up at the summer camp.

When I read the script, I could really relate to Grace because I feel like I grew up maybe not dissimilar to other Asian girls in America, or even in Asia. There’s a lot going on underneath that we feel we need to cover to stay safe, because we’ve grown up in families where showing pain or vulnerability or showing weakness isn’t thought of as a good quality.

Growing up, I was really close to both my parents but in later years, I’ve really looked up to [my dad] in the way he works and how well he did that work, and how smart and business-minded he seemed.

In many ways I tried to emulate that—I tried to emulate how put-together he is, how strong he is. Because of that, sometimes, a lot of our vulnerability and pain gets trapped inside, and it becomes even more difficult because we can’t let it out.

That’s what I love about Grace. She’s trying so hard to be Madonna. She thinks that look is strong. [She wants] to be able to express her sexuality, to know what it takes to control her sexuality. She doesn’t want to let guys be controlling that.

She grows up in a church environment where women are second-class, and they have to be kind of timid and well-put together and let that male culture dominate. But she doesn’t want to do that. This is her first chance outside of home, outside of church where she can really let loose and create her own personality.

JessikaVan_6436(Photo by Julian Walter)

What did you think about Grace’s story arc?

I loved it. It was really important to me. Benson was wonderful in that he let me really take control where I wanted to go with the character. I remember the last few days of filming, he saw (laughs) the front of my script, and I guess I had all these pages of research stapled together and things I’d written for myself. But I also had a timeline the night before my first day of shooting, which kind of took my character from the beginning of the script to the end and included everything that she went through on the inside.

I guess he saw it, and he laughed. (laughs) At the time, I kind of took it personally, because, jeez, why is he laughing at me? This is personal, you don’t have to look at it! Go away!

But later he was like, “No, I’m not laughing at you–I’m laughing because I’m impressed. I didn’t realize you did all this work, and now it makes perfect sense because I see it throughout the arc.”

To me, it was really important that Grace really is able to show that she’s not just a tough-girl act. I felt like it would run a risk of being over-sexualized, and it’s really important to me that I fight for female characters who aren’t just going to be some sexualized object in the male vision.

I really liked that she had that chance to see for herself, that maybe she isn’t as strong as she thinks she is. Maybe strength doesn’t just come from putting on some show, in which you’re acting really sexual.

Also, she can see, as Madonna did in real life, that it comes with a risk. Sometimes when you think you’re in control and you can express your sexuality the way you want to, it’s possible that people might take you the wrong way. It is possible you might put yourself in dangerous situations and that the woman needs to be aware of that. You need to be making sure that you take care of yourself and aren’t naive about the choices you’re making.

What was it like working with an ensemble cast?

It was my first experience in Korea, so it was so exciting on so many levels. The people were just the nicest, both the cast and crew. I honestly couldn’t have asked for more.

At the wrap party, Benson asked me to make a speech, and I just started crying because I felt that all the crew and cast had been so welcoming to me, and I didn’t know what to expect. Everyone was so welcoming and showed me so much love from beginning to end that I was overwhelmed by it. I was so grateful.

I have nothing but the best things to say. I thought that some of the girls were just the best. We became really great friends. They took me out in Seoul—we went out all the time*. We went shopping and bought too many things, I made them wait too long for me because I was indecisive and looked at all this jewelry and got too excited. They really took care of me. They took care of me like I was their own and I was so grateful. They were the best people.

(*Note: Van apparently went out to explore by herself and got lost, too. You can read about her exploits in Korea in her interview with Audrey Magazine.)

SAMSUNG CSCJessika Van with Nekhebet Kum Juch and Uatchet Jin Juch, who play the Im twins.

What was the atmosphere like on set?

Working on set, it was pretty crazy. It was up and down. There were days that were more chill, but there were also days when we were there for a really long time. I don’t even know how to say how many hours. (laughs) The whole day, probably. We were really there for a long time. Sometimes, everyone was just really exhausted.

For Benson, I think his relationship with every person on set was different. I don’t feel that I can speak for anyone else because I know he probably has a different actor-to-director relationship with every single actor.

He talked to me about that afterwards as well. He said, “With you, I really left you alone because I felt like you already knew [what to do].” I think every actor has a different relationship with the director, because he’s smart to know to cultivate the individual relationships.

He’s a strong person. He will get sh-t done.

Benson Lee on Jessika Van:


“I think she’s one of the best Asian American actresses out there. She’s a completely undiscovered talent. She’s been in movies [and TV shows], but not many people know of her. They’re going to, because she’s a phenomenal actress.”


What were some of the themes in the film that resonated with you as an Asian American?

I guess it’s funny, that as Asian Americans, sometimes, you get this big mish-mosh, and some of us don’t even know anything about the culture or speak the language. I definitely saw that growing up. Some of my friends don’t speak the language, some do speak it. Some are really cued-in to the culture, some aren’t.

Now I see and meet more Asians from Australia and New Zealand. The other day, a cast member of mine on set showed me videos of Asian guys from his country. And I’m listening to these people, and they just sound like they have accents I can’t even comprehend. It’s crazy. Even as an Asian American, it’s crazy.

I think it’s really cool that Benson brought us all that together. But I think the themes of Benson’s story are a lot more universal. I don’t know if I would just attribute them to Asian Americans, you know? I think they would pertain to anyone growing up in America.

I also think it’s great that Benson’s putting together a film where we can really see how [Koreans] growing up in America become American. Wherever we go, if we go into other countries, the people there going to perceive us as American. We’re not going to walk into Korea and expect Koreans to perceive us as Korean, because we’re so different from them. I think that’s really an interesting fact that he’s bringing up.


Seoul Searching premieres tonight at the Center for Asian American Media Film Festival (CAAMFest) in San Francisco. We’ll keep you updated on further news regarding the film’s distribution and screenings, so keep your eyes open and ears peeled!