What sparked years of roles in plays, commercials and now films for USC senior and actress Ji-young Yoo originally started just as a way to get an easy A.
“In middle school, I was required to take an art … A girl in my dance studio said she took acting class because the acting teacher is super easy,” Yoo said. “And then I took the class and ended up loving it.”
As Yoo expected, the class wasn’t intensive, but she still remembers performing a three-page long scene called “The Funeral.”
“It was this scene where two women who don’t get along at all at a funeral, just arguing and horribly rude to each other,” Yoo said. “I just remember yelling a lot.”
But the feeling she got from performing that scene was unlike any she had ever felt before, even from performing dance.
“It wasn’t the nitty-gritty acting stuff, it was mostly just playing around, some improv,” Yoo said. “[But] I had never stood on a stage like that before. I performed a lot as a dancer, but it’s very different as an actor.” Contrary to what one might expect — acting is known as a risky profession — Yoo’s parents were relieved when she announced her plans to pursue a career in acting.
“I wanted to be a professional dancer before I wanted to be an actor,” Yoo said. “[But] as a professional dancer, there is a certain expiration date for what your body can do. At least you can still continue to act when you’re older.”
Yoo’s mother was particularly encouraging of her daughter’s aspirations.
“My mom has always been really artistic and wasn’t really allowed to pursue that side of her in a professional setting,” Yoo said. “So I think when I started to express a lot of interest in the arts, she wanted to give me the opportunities that she wasn’t afforded.”
Yoo then went from her middle school acting class to performing in theatre and landing her first professional show in eighth grade. The performance was for Theatre EspiritAsia, the first Asian American theater company in Denver.
In high school, she performed in a total of fourteen shows, such as the musical “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” and “Almost, Maine.”
“I was actually thinking about this the other day, I don’t know how I did that many shows,” Yoo said. “It’s like, a little ridiculous I did so many. I did some musicals, I did some straight plays and I did some improv shows. I did Shakespeare.” While Yoo cherished the ability to experiment with acting through such a wide variety of performances, she didn’t expect to act professionally during college. Instead of applying to the School of Dramatic Arts, she applied to USC as an Asian American studies major and later switched to cinema and media studies in her freshman year.
“I figured, especially because L.A. is so much bigger, I had no idea how to get an agent. I had no idea how to step into the professional world so I was like,‘I’ll just do student films and maybe some of the theatre shows at SDA … just get to know the lay of the land,’” Yoo said.
Yoo worked on several student films as both an actress and a crew member. “That really [helped] me understand what everyone else is doing on set. No one really expects the cast to know anything about [film crew] jobs,” Yoo said. “When the grips are setting up a sort of lighting rig, I know what they’re doing and why they’re doing it.”
On a whim, Yoo auditioned for the play “Man of God,” not expecting to get a role. To her surprise, she was given the role of Samantha, a high school girl who is distraught once she and her friends discover that their pastor has hidden a camera in their hotel bathroom. Described as a “funny feminist thriller,” the play was produced by East West Players, the nation’s first professional Asian American theatre organization.
“They’re the longest-running theater of color in the country and the largest producer of artistic work,” Yoo said. “And I guarantee you, nearly every single Asian American actor known today has passed through East West Players at some point in their career. So I worship at the feet of East West Players.”
Yoo was excited to portray Samantha because she was unlike any role that she had done before.
“She’s very, very convinced in the righteousness of the world and is very shocked to learn that the world isn’t as righteous as she thought it was,” Yoo said. “I loved … that show so much.”
Natasha Tina Liu, a friend of Yoo’s and a fellow actress, had first seen Yoo in “Man of God” and later met her again during an audition. “Before she went into the audition room, I was like, ‘Hey, you did a really good job in “Man of God.” And then we started talking and she wanted to grab coffee afterwards.’” Liu recently performed in the film “Synchronic” starring Anthony Mackie and Jamie Dornan.
Through her performance in “Man of God,” Yoo captured the attention of the entertainment agency CESD and launched her professional career.
Now Yoo is set to play Sarah in the upcoming film adaptation of the popular YA novel “The Sky is Everywhere,” her first major film role. Directed by Josephine Decker and written by Jandy Nelson (who also wrote the novel), the film centers around a high school girl, Lennie, struggling to cope with the death of her older sister.
“The Sky is Everywhere” is produced by A24, of which Yoo is a big fan.
“[It feels] very surreal. Earlier in 2020, I had bought a pair of A24 shorts because I’m a really big fan of A24. I was like, ‘I’m going to buy these shorts and someday, years down the line, I’m going to be in an A24 movie,’” Yoo said. “Then I actually ended up working on an A24 movie later in the year.”
Yoo originally auditioned for the main role but was called back for a director’s session for the role of Sarah, Lennie’s best friend. Although she didn’t get the role she originally set out for, it was almost a sort of relief for Yoo.
“I actually remember reading the script and really liking it but going, ‘Oh man, I don’t think I can cry as much as they want me to cry [for Lennie]’ … ‘I don’t know if I can pull all of that out of me,’” Yoo said.
After her director’s session in June 2020, Yoo was asked in September if she was willing to shoot in Northern California for eight weeks. “I was like, ‘Yes, let’s do that. I’ll drop out of school right now,’ Yoo said. “And that’s basically what I did.”
Yoo deferred her final semester and set off to shoot in Humboldt County. On set, she was able to work with high profile actors like Jason Segel and Cherry Jones, who play Big and Gram Walker.
“[Jones] is amazing,” Yoo said, laughing. “I just, I want her to actually be my grandmother.”
What drew Yoo to the role of Sarah was her unabashed confidence. “I would say Sarah is the most confident, joyful version of me,” Yoo said. “Part of what people are going to notice about Sarah immediately is her clothes, her makeup and hair … She really changes it every day and she’s never one type of style for long … She just couldn’t care less about what anyone else thinks and that was really fun for me.”
In what is otherwise a grief-filled, dramatic story, Yoo’s character brings a sense of levity and lightness. “I did so much comedy on ‘The Sky is Everywhere,’ Yoo said. “… I [had] to have so much energy to be Sarah on set, everyday.”
Yoo was also drawn to how the film approaches Sarah’s Korean American identity and forged a connection with the production designer Grace Yun, who is Korean American.
“I think what I’m really excited about is how much [Sarah is] Korean American and how much it … isn’t the center of who she is,” Yoo said. “I think her Korean American-ness feeds throughout her whole life, partially because I look the way I look but also because the production designer is also Korean American.”
She pointed towards how Yun designed Sarah’s bedroom as an indicator of the film’s authenticity in portraying Sarah’s character.
“I think it was very touching because you can see the Korean culture but nothing about it is exploitative,” Yoo said. “Lately, with a lot of Korean roles that I’ve been seeing, a lot of people are kind of jumping on writing Korean roles because of the Hallyu Wave and K-pop. And I think that’s a really cheap way to talk about being Korean or about any ethnicity.”
As an actress of color, and specifically as an Asian American actress, Yoo had no pretense of the difficulties she would face.
“I walked into this industry knowing how hard it was going to be. There was never a question in my mind that this was going to be easy at all,” Yoo said. “Like I knew it was going to be hard, just as an actor, and then even harder as an actor of color.”
Aware of the struggles of being an Asian American actress herself, her Asian Pacific American Student Services mentor, Jacky Jung, stressed the need for a supportive acting community when mentoring Yoo, whom she grew to be friends with throughout the course of their careers.
“I really emphasized the importance of being good with your craft, but also finding different instructors and different folks you look up to and can trust in the artistic process,”Jung said. “[I was also] candid about how it was like to navigate not only just USC’s acting program but any acting program as an Asian person.”
Although securing roles is an arduous process as an up-and-coming actress, Yoo was adamant on avoiding stereotypical or marginalized roles.
“At this stage of my career, it’s not necessarily me being really picky or choosy about what I audition for,” Yoo said. “It’s mostly what I will absolutely not audition for. And I think for Asian American actors and for actors of color and marginalized actors, the things we won’t audition is stuff that hurts us in terms of representations and stereotypes.”
Yoo pointed to her cinema and media studies major as one of the reasons she was able to better understand her Asian American identity within the context of the film industry.
“Because I was able to do a lot of studying of Asian American history in general, I feel like I have a really good understanding of how film operates as an object once it’s gone out into the world,” Yoo said. “[Everything] I do in cinema and media studies is based on the sociopolitical contexts of film, TV and other types of media. So when it comes to acting, I’m able to look at my career in a larger context.”
Yoo said that, at times, she felt demoralized by the slow pace of progress in the Hollywood industry, but has learned to overcome those feelings.
“An article came out recently that Daniel Dae Kim, after 30 years in the business, has finally landed a lead role in a TV show,” Yoo said. “I’ve come into this industry with the understanding that it’s going to take a while. And it’s a marathon, not a sprint.”