Sean Wilson talks to the star of Searching, Michelle La…
The pervasive nature of social media lurks at the heart of gripping new thriller Searching, one that melds smart, topical commentary with a gripping missing persons story – all the while unfolding entirely from the perspective of technological devices.
Star Trek’s John Cho gives an excellent performance as the father forced to dig deep into his daughter Margot’s (newcomer Michelle La) social media accounts in order to discover her whereabouts. But in doing so, he uncovers more than a few surprises…
Produced by Unfriended’s Timur Bekmambetov, Searching is a bold and innovative feature film debut from director Aneesh Chaganty. I was delighted to catch up with Michelle, who also makes her feature debut, to discuss the challenges of portraying the mysterious Margot.
So, congratulations on your feature film debut! What was it about this particular script that appealed to you?
Thank you so much! Well when I first read the script, I was completely confused because it was written in a very specific way, given the nature of the way the story plays out. So I didn’t know what to expect. That said, I loved the rollercoaster elements of the plot but, more specifically, I just felt like Margot was me.
We have a lot of similarities. Margot is very close to her family, and that’s how I grew up. We both love school, so there’s that too. In fact, a lot of the pictures from the movie are from my personal social media account. So in a lot of ways, the character is bound up with me, and in other ways, I’m very different from her.
That’s interesting because the movie is a missing persons thriller and it’s also a statement about our relationship with technology. Has social media impacted your career as a performer?
You know, I’ve always used social media to engage with my friends, and I think that’s a large part of Margot’s character too. If you’ve ever been a teenager, you’re going to want to hang out with your friends, and you’re not going to tell your parents everything. But it’s interesting, in this world where social media is so widespread, it’s the consensus of each individual person as to whether they want to use this tool to portray themselves as accurately as possible.
At the end of the day, social media is curated. You post things from your life, and that ends up influencing the way people perceive you. So when I use social media, I try to be as true to myself as possible, but at the same time, it’s not like I’m posting clips of myself crying. In terms of it impacting my acting career… well it’s led to this movie!
One of the interesting things about Margot is we learn more things about her, in stages via social media, as the film progresses. What challenges does it present when you’re portraying someone who harbours secrets yet who ultimately commands our sympathy at the same time?
Yeah, well go back to what I just said, social media is in many ways an extension of the relationships we have at school – when I was a teenager I wanted to hang out with my friends, right after school. We would call each other, go to the mall and hang out. Social media is a way to feel connected, even though you can’t physically be with that person.
So, there’s that, and it’s also an easy way of keeping things under wraps from your parents. The challenge is just the fact that I didn’t have anything to compare it too. I didn’t have any preceding movie to draw on, so I just depended on the Aneesh’s lead and his vision to understand what was needed in each scene.
How exciting was it to work with Aneesh, given he’s also making his feature film debut with this movie?
Yeah, I’m so blessed and fortunate that my first feature film was with Aneesh. Working with him, he’s so focused and energised, because this is the first time he’s ever tackled a feature film. I think everyone was infected by his energy. We all just trusted his vision. He had a crazy idea and we all worked with him in order to support that. He’s made an incredible movie.
Another reason why the film is so great is the stuff you share with John Cho, who’s also terrific in the movie. What was he like to work with?
John was really funny, and he’s goofy and charming. I didn’t have too many scenes with him, so I wasn’t working with him too much, I was alone for the majority of my scenes. He didn’t know he was teaching anything but I learned a lot from him. He’s so respectful of the cast and crew and also so collaborative. Just watching him, I learned things that I’m going to take with me forever throughout the rest of my career.
Why do you think Searching is a film for the here and now?
I think now, more than ever, it’s about the prevalence of social media and devices. Nowadays, parents are even talking about how much screen time they should grant their kids. That wasn’t even a phrase that was used when I was a kid. I guess my parents would have been like, turn the tv off, or something.
But at the same time, you can’t take phones off kids nowadays without them screaming bloody murder. It’s funny because the movie isn’t trying to lecture people about what people means to them. It does it subtly, via a story that’s gripping, moving and speaks to audiences.
When you finish seeing the movie, the impact sinks in and it’s like, that’s incredible, I just saw a whole movie play out entirely on screens. The movie is so intuitive, it doesn’t need to spell anything out. Yet come the end, it makes people reflect on what these devices mean to them.
Absolutely. I said to Aneesh one of the great triumphs of the movie is the way the approach feels spontaneous. It feels like a stream of consciousness playing out in front of us. What was your response when you first saw the movie?
I first saw it at Sundance during the world premiere and I was floored. I had read the script and played Margot but at the same time, I could not have expected it to turn out the way it did. It was completely riveting the way the screen editing was accomplished.
My reaction to the movie is everything I just said. It’s deeply personal for me to even tell you that I went home and thought very deeply about what these devices mean in my life. It’s not like I was over the experience having just watched the movie. It made me reconsider how I portray myself on social media and how I connect with people.
Searching is on release in the UK from 31st August. Read our review here.
Many thanks to Michelle La for taking the time for this interview.