'Always keep learning' Searching star Michelle La reveals how she prepares for acting roles and more
Searching is a Sundance-winning, break-out hit that smashed the box office, grossing £54 million ($70m) on a budget of just £780, 000 ($1m). The film follows the disappearance of 16-year-old Margot as her father (John Cho) desperately tries to find her with the help of a police detective (Debra Messing). Here Mandy News has the pleasure of talking to Searching's lead actress Michelle La about how she went from studying science to becoming an actress, how she got an agent and her process of being Margot on screen.
Please introduce yourself and explain how you got involved in the film industry and acting.
My name is Michelle La and I've been acting for three, almost four years now. I grew up in LA, born and raised around this industry but I was kind of blind to all that was happening. I knew that it was the film capital of the world, but I just grew up in a small suburb of LA, Glendale.
I studied science in college, at Biola University, and was a biochemist right out of school. I got my first job working for the government at the Los Angeles County Sanitation District and worked as a scientist for three and a half years, doing water quality analysis on wastewater.
The week after I got married, for some reason, I had this crazy idea that I wanted to try acting. I didn't know what it would be like and I didn't know what it entailed. I didn’t necessarily have this inner craving or desire, I was just wondering what else I would enjoy doing. So I told my husband, took a Groupon course and that's how I first entered.
I took the Groupon course because I didn't know where to start. I didn't even know if I'd like it or be good at it. The Groupon course was a five class package and since the first day I was in love. I found something that I hadn't realised I was passionate about my whole life, which is being understood: being able to understand and empathise with other people. Acting was an avenue where I could do that.
As I continued taking acting classes and learning I just got obsessed. I immersed myself. For a year, I saved up with my husband and we finally made the jump to quitting my full time job, so I could be ready for auditioning. As soon as I got an agent I put in my two weeks notice and I was out.
How did you go about getting an agent?
I didn't know anything about how to do anything. I read countless articles, watched videos and asked people. It seemed that the most reliable way was through referral, but when you're starting out, that's hard. You don't want to be an actor going around saying “Yeah, can you refer me to your agent?”.
I'm going to be brutally honest. First of all, I want to preface everything with “I'm still new”. Searching has been my big break but I've only been doing this for three and a half years now. Also, everybody's journey is different, so this is how I found my success but it might not be the same way another person does.
I would say it's about mindset and taking it seriously. I quit my full-time job to make this my full-time job, so I get up in the morning and treat it like one. I put the hours and the work in and what I've found is that it's neither talent nor opportunity alone – it's a little bit of talent, but it's mostly preparedness. When you're prepared and you meet the opportunity, then it's a go. If you have a wealth of opportunities but you're not prepared for it, you're not going to hit the jackpot.
With finding an agent, I Googled the top 50 commercial agents in LA and then cold-called them. I got seven meetings and then the second meeting I took I just signed because they wanted me across the board.
Trying to break in theatrically is really tough because a theatrical agent will not normally represent you if you’re brand new. The way to get theatrical representation is to look for a commercial agent. They're willing to take commercial actors right off the bat because they're always looking for commercial talent, non-union and people who are no-name faces to do these commercials. Once you're theatrical you need to be pretty well established to get an agent because it's hard for agents to make money off theatrical clients unless they are at the top.
So I got signed across the board with my first agency and that's what put me in the game commercially and theatrically. I'd say the best way to get an agent is to be signed across the board with a smaller agency, who maybe has seen something in you and is willing to invest their time into establishing you and building your career.
You don't want to be an actor who comes off as a lot of work but you don't want to go to a theatrical agent and be like “Aren't you looking for me? Build me up”, so I tried to not be that way. I could see that's what set me apart, if I seem like I'm ready.
With Crazy Rich Asians and Searching becoming number one and two at the box office, how does it feel as an American-Asian person to have that billing at the moment since it’s been in discussion recently in the media?
It's amazing. It’s incredible to be a part of this experience. In so many ways my eyes are just completely open to things that I never knew about, or understood, or quite honestly, cared about. It's not something I cared about until recent years and now everyone is looking to me and asking me. It's weird to be a frontrunner in this (what seems to be) “diversity race”. I don't have enough experience to really speak for the plight of other Asian-Americans in Hollywood, who have been at this for way longer than I have, so I tell most people “Ask me in ten years and I'll tell you my experience, because I can't speak on an experience that's not my own”.
But it's wonderful that I'm part of change and something that's leaning towards progress.
How did Searching come about? How did you get involved in the production?
My agent and manager at that time had submitted me and I went out for the audition. The night before, I'd practiced in front of my laptop, just like the Skype call. It wasn't like any other audition – I just hadn't seen anything like it.
The audition was different – the casting director did it on a home video camera and flipped the screen around, so we could see ourselves, and that was perfect for how I had practiced. I had total freedom. There was nothing to base it off so I just lived in my imagination, pretended I was alone in my room and said my lines.
When I walked out of the audition, all the girls were like “How was it? What was it like? We're all wondering”. I just said “The casting director gives you freedom to do whatever you want, so you just go in there and do your lines”.
I got the callback with the director and producer of Searching and then a week later found out I had booked it. I was excited! It was my first feature film. I had no idea that it would keep snowballing into the success that it's become today. I couldn't have imagined.
And how did you go about becoming Margot?
It was definitely going back in time, to all the feelings that I had when I was a teenager. Margot and I are similar in a lot of ways, but we are also different.
I think the reason why (and this is just my belief), so many people resonate with Margot's character, is that if you've ever been a teenager before, you understand what it means to feel isolated, even among your friends. You understand what it's like, even if you haven't had the tragic loss that Margot experienced. You understand what it's like to want to engage your friends and to want to hang out with them and feel accepted. You also understand family dynamics. Not everybody's family dynamics are the same, in this particular case Margot grew up in a loving home (just like my home) and when tragedy struck, there was a communication barrier and challenges to Margot being able to express herself.
I think that everybody feels that way at some point in their life, where they're experiencing something and they don't really know how to let that out. They don't know how to tell people and they don't know how to ask for help sometimes.
For Margot's character I definitely revisited my own upbringing and my own childhood and what it was like to be in that place. I put myself in her shoes.
An interesting side note is that the producers actually used a lot of photos from my own social media to build the pages. You can ask the producers themselves but I want to say 90 to 95% of the photos were straight from my Facebook. In a lot of ways we melded as one character. I've evolved since I was a teenager, so I'm no longer the same person that she is but I was able to understand and go back to that place.
Is there anything you're working on at the moment that you're allowed to talk about?
With the success of Searching, I'm auditioning and I'm still in the “Hire me!” position, but it has changed in a lot of ways. People are really excited and looking at what I'm going to do next, so I'm waiting for a good one if that makes sense. It's an interesting time.
What further advice for actors and actresses wanted to come up in the business, what would that be?
I'd say “Be a smart actor, be keen”. There's so much I could say, it's so hard. The general stuff is hard to talk about because there's so much behind everything that I've done, I can't really say what exactly has led to success. I guess just preparedness - the opportunities may or may not come, but you want to be ready if they do come.
Be kind and courteous and respectful at all times. Remain humble and grateful through everything that you go through, because we as actors know more than anyone what it's like to be at the bottom of the food chain. We understand what it's like for pieces to move above us, that trickle down and we get the opportunity and get affected - we don't cause our own success.
I know it's weird - the different perspective that other people have tried to tell me that I should hold, is “You deserve it. You did so good, you deserve your success”, but I don't feel like I deserve it. I feel grateful for all the pieces surrounding my success, that I wasn't in control of. I feel gratitude, I don't feel that I deserve to have anything. I just work hard and I try to get smarter.
Sometimes you make the wrong decisions but you keep learning, always keep learning. Remain grateful and humble because there's so much you can't control as an actor and if you keep that mindset then you will be primed and prepped and ready for anything that's coming your way; good or small or big or bad or whatever.