Korean Star Doona Bae On Sonmi-451 And Her Crossover Journey To 'Cloud Atlas'

Doona Bae Cloud Atlas

You'll hear much of the movie stars and familiar faces that pop up again and again in Tom Tykwer and Lana and Andy Wachowski's sprawling, ambitious Cloud Atlas, from Tom Hanks to Halle Berry to frequent Wachowski Starship performer Hugo Weaving. But the beating heart of the film belongs to Korean actress Doona Bae, who makes her English language debut as the luminous Sonmi-451, a genetically-engineered "fabricant" whose fierce humanity and love for a freedom fighter (Jim Sturgess) will change the future.

Like Sonmi-451, Bae's world opened up with an unexpected offer from a stranger. A successful model and actress in her native South Korea, she starred in Park Chan-Wook's Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance and Boon Jong-Ho's The Host — two of the most popular Korean crossover hits of the last decade, although the humble Bae is still surprised to hear that American audiences may have seen her work. Courted for the role of Sonmi-451 by the Wachowskis themselves, Bae won the part, then took a crash course in English to film her scenes.

Bae's Sonmi-451 (her name a nod to Fahrenheit 451 courtesy of author David Mitchell) inhabits the futuristic world of Neo Seoul circa 2144, where she's broken out of capitalist enslavement by Hae-Joo Chang (Sturgess), a rebellion operative. Although the actress, like her castmates, portrays multiple characters through the film's nested plots (including a pre-Civil War Caucasian belle with freckles and a hoop skirt), Bae commands the screen in one of the most transfixing performances of the year every time the film alights back on her ethereal Sonmi.

Movieline spoke with the eloquent, soft-spoken Bae in Los Angeles about her journey with Cloud Atlas and the childhood dream of traveling stateside that she couldn't follow then, but is living now.

How did you first meet the Wachowskis and hear about the vision they and Tom Tykwer had for Cloud Atlas?
They just called me! It was weird because I had no American agent at the time, and I didn’t even have a manager in Korea. I was in between managers, so it was hard to find me. [Laughs] But I got a call from my Korean friend, the film director Pil-Sung Yim [Doomsday Book], and he said, “Doona, some famous Hollywood filmmakers want to send you a script – do you want to read it?” I said, “Yes, of course!” I got the script and I found, “Oh my god – this is Lana and Andy Wachowski and Tom Tykwer, this must be amazing.”

After you got the script, what happened next?
I did some auditions and sent in a self-taped recording – my older brother recorded it, and I just read the Sonmi part at home.

Which scenes did you record?
The scenes with the Archivist in the interrogation room, and one with Chang after I see the slaughterhouse. Two scenes. Then we met each other in Chicago and had camera tests. Then I got the part. [Laughs] It was like a dream. I’m still dreaming.

Were you already interested in doing English-language films or attempting to find Hollywood movies to cross over with before Cloud Atlas came along?
Actually, no. I wasn’t looking for any parts – if so, I would have learned English earlier. I think if so, I would have prepared. But I thought it might not be possible.

Here, science fiction and foreign film fans have seen your work – Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance and The Host in particular played well stateside – so it felt like it would make sense for you to make that move.
Really? I haven’t thought about it. Actually, I wasn’t ready, I think – but I worked hard. I worked hard on the language. My favorite subject was English and I wanted to study English abroad when I was young, when I was a kid, but my mom said “No, it’s too dangerous to go abroad by yourself.” So I gave up. Now I’m learning English. I’ve been learning English in London for six months.

Jim [Sturgess] says your English has improved quite impressively, and fast.
Oh, thank you Jim! So sweet.

Had the Wachowskis seen your film Air Doll? Your character follows a slightly similar path to Sonmi’s.
Yes! When I first met Lana and Andy on Skype, I was so curious about it. “How do you know me?” I asked. [Laughs] And Lana said, “We saw Air Doll and The Host and Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance." "Oh, Air Doll!" I see. There is some connection between the two characters.

Sonmi has such a big arc – she changes so much, from being naïve and childlike at the beginning of her story to becoming such a powerful and intelligent woman.
That’s exactly what I think of her, actually. I like Sonmi because she has both purity and innocence and at the same time she’s got such a strength.

When you were playing her, did you feel a moment in her journey when you felt like she changed the most on her way to becoming who she would be?
Actually I don’t study the script – I didn’t analyze anything, I just emptied myself and felt Sonmi, let her into my heart. So when I first saw Yoona-939 die, it was a big shock. It was like I realized something at that time. Also when I met Chang and saw the slaughterhouse – it was gradual.

There are so many actors in this cast, but beyond Jim who you spent most of your time with, who did you bond with the most?
Ben [Whishaw]. We became good friends. We actually had no scenes with each other but personally we had a good time – and actually, I was very lonely because I went to Berlin by myself, on my own. I was lonely and a little bit depressed and stressed, and Ben was so sweet. He cheered me up. I’ve got some good energy from him.

You recently starred in As One, a film about a Korean table tennis team. Did you ever challenge Susan Sarandon to a match?
Oh, not yet! She’s got a ping pong club in New York City, I want to go there! I trained for six months with my left hand, so I can play ping pong with both hands. I should challenge her. I can beat her!

Read more on Cloud Atlas, which opens Friday.

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  • AJ says:

    I've seen her movies with subtitles before and they were good, nothing that blew me away.

    I don't get why she thinks she has to go abroad to learn English? There's no english classes in South Korea?

    Looks like a great cast, should be interesting to see her in a English speaking role.

    • Morgan says:

      I liked her in the host. I cant wait to see her play this character

    • Jen Yamato says:

      She's learned incredibly fast regardless, it's quite impressive.

      • Jennifer says:

        Hi Jen Yamamoto! Thank for this interview. I love Doona Bae and Jim Sturgess. When did you meet her? Did you meet her and Jim at the same time? Thanks!

    • James R says:

      uh, excuse me? how DARE you speak about the Queen of Korea like that. she is a flawless unrivalled actress who's just about ready to effortlessly stomp the life out of your faves with Cloud Atlas. and what business of it is yours where she learns to speak English? you probably didn't know, but Doona produced a series of photobooks called the "Doona's Play" series where she writes about her time spent in Seoul, Tokyo and London, as well as bestowing upon us lowly mortals a very generous amount of the most stunning selcas the world has ever seen. so that's why she was in London.

      i think you're just mad because your broke-ass irrelevant faves could never be as beautiful and talented as the High Queen Bae Doona. please take your rage out on yourself and don't even try to have her waste her time on you xoxoxo :-))

    • Scott says:

      The best way to learn foreign language is to be in that Country. In that way, you are forced to speak, and live in that language. Duh...

    • Ben says:

      She does not have to go abroad to learn English but some want to and she is just one of many Koreans that feels a different place and setting is best for her. But I agree with Scott, going to the country where the language you want to learn is being spoken is by far the best way to learn. To learn a language you must learn the culture of the people or you will never become fluent.

  • SP1234 says:

    She should be at the top of the Supporting Actress list! Such an amazing performance and discovery.

  • Carlos Gonzalez says:

    I did watch all her movies already, since a few years ago I was asking to myself, Why she still do not have a movie in America?, well now she have one, now the world will have knowledge of her acting skills, btw, in my humble opinion she is the best actress in the world

  • couch kimchi says:

    Bae Doo Na is one of my favorite Korean actresses, and I am so happy that she's being recognized internationally. She is recognized as one of the few really talented actresses in Korea, but she doesn't have the kind of fame Hallyu stars have, which isn't a biggie but nonetheless, bites. She's also a very gifted photographer, and maybe that'll come in handy for a future role 😉

    Anyway, I watched the Cloud Atlas press conference at TIFF (on YouTube), and it was obvious that she and Ben struck up a very good friendship. When each cast member was being called to the stage, and Doo Na's turn came up, Ben Whishaw was probably her loudest cheerleader.

  • Victor Logan says:

    Would be interesting to see a Korea United with all the land and worth ethic at their disposal. They could possibly be a super power in 100 years. When you have one land, one people, and very little immigration that is permanent, yet you embrace elements of other cultures and not allow them to dilute your own.......Korea will be wonderful and I predict the new leader will push for some type of federation.

  • Bryan says:

    I saw her performance in Cloud Atlas this past weekend. She was amazing and stole the film. I actually cried when her character was executed towards the end of the film. I hope she gets an Acadmey award for her performance.

  • Joan says:

    Doona Bae is the highlight of the film Cloud Atlas! She is an amazing, talented, gifted actress, very unique and has her own style and charisma. She is purely gifted from god. She is hard working but she follows her heart and mind and really goes into the role! She emptied her heart into the role and she should win an oscar for this movie!!! Btw, what an ignorant comment here by someone, the best way to learn English is to be and live in that country!! To hear the language every day and to be forced to speak it.

  • Jennifer says:

    Hi Jen Yamamoto! Thank for this interview. I love Doona Bae and Jim Sturgess. When did you meet her? Did you meet her and Jim at the same time? Thanks!