South Korean movie director Bong Joon Ho had a job subtitling bootleg DVDs while he was in film school decades ago. One of the films he worked on was Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing and one of the actors in that film, Giancarlo Esposito, made a huge impression on him.
Esposito was so memorable that almost 30 years later, when thinking about casting for his latest film, Okja, he wanted to use the actor for the role of company man, Frank Dawson.
Esposito, who also appears on television in Better Call Saul, Once Upon a Time, and voices the narrator for Netflix’ Dear White People, recently spoke to this Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder contributing writer while promoting the film, which debuts on Netflix on June 28.
It wasn’t a huge surprise when Esposito revealed that one of his favorite books is the Autobiography of a Yogi. Dressed in an all-black ensemble — a popular choice for dyed-in-the wool New Yorkers — he exuded an air of preternatural calm as he chatted from the 39th floor of the famed Mandarin Oriental Hotel at New York City’s Columbus Circle.
Okja is a family-friendly film with a number of themes, including man’s relationship with nature and corporate greed. For Esposito, “The heart of the movie is a love story between an animal and a little girl and to me that was the important part of the story for me.
“I was really involved in that part of the story so it was the biggest most fantastical journey ever undertaken for me in working with this wonderful, wonderful director.”
Also starring Jake Gyllenhaal (Brokeback Mountain), Tilda Swinton (The Chronicles of Narnia), Steven Yeun (The Walking Dead), and young Korean actress Soo-Hyun Ahn, the film follows young Mija, who travels from South Korea to reunite with her best friend, a “super-pig” named Okja that was engineered ten years before by the Mirando food corporation and shipped to her grandfather, Heebong. Her grandfather was one of a number of farmers across the globe who received a super-pig as part of a contest to see which would be the “best” in 10 years.
The film opens with a brief flashback after which the action picks up at the 10-year mark when a Mirando representative, a mostly addled and self-involved Dr. Johnny Wilcox, played by Gyllenhaal, has reached the last super-pig Okja, and declares it the winner.
Mija, an only child and orphan who lives with her grandfather, is distraught to learn Wilcox on behalf of the Mirando Corporation, will be taking Okja back to America to be part of the launching of this line of super-pigs to be used as food for consumers. She does everything in her power to get Okja, her best friend, back.
There is also a flurry of action and drama created by an animal rights group that tries to rescue Okja from Mirando and expose the company’s nefarious practices.
Today the Mirando Corporation is run by the overly sensitive and high-strung Lucy Mirando.
According to Esposito, Dawson owes his career to Lucy’s father. He says, “Old man Mirando gave him his start and taught him how to manipulate a large amount of people and allow that energy to become corporate.” Now many years later, Dawson is a higher-up in the multinational food hegemon.
Running his hands lightly through silver-flecked hair, Esposito describes Dawson as, “Someone who a long time ago realized he wanted to become a part of a corporation to not necessarily have power but to develop a new means of feeding many people and that’s valid.
“We’re in a world now where we’re facing food shortages and I think part of Frank is that his scientific brain that thinks there’s a way to solve that and to make money in solving that but Frank also has loyalty and allegiance to the Mirando corporation.”
A self-described vegetarian, it is easy to see why the movie with its message about having compassion for animals and being mindful of what we consume, resonates with the multiple award-winning actor.
Frank Dawson is more than just a loyal employee, though. It is clear that the Mirando family is deeply dysfunctional and Frank acts as something of a handler for Lucy, talking her off the ledge multiple times per day.
Clearly having a magic touch in choosing roles, Esposito’s career consists almost entirely of parts in well-made, meaningful, critically acclaimed films that have stood the test of time.
There are just simply too many to name. He acted in one of the earliest films based on the work of writer James Baldwin, Go Tell it On the Mountain.
He is also closely identified with the early films of renowned director and passionate Prince fan, Spike Lee. Asked to what he owes this uncanny instinct for choosing great material, Esposito at first seemed caught off-guard by the question.
He thought for a moment before replying, “When you say this and when I hear it from other people, I just feel this huge sense of gratitude that I’ve had the ability to make the choices that have put me in this position.
“I also think it’s partly a testament to my surrender and allowing the universe to guide me. So many of us are not connected to asking the question, is this the right thing for me to do?”
For more information on Okja, go to www.netflix.com/title/80091936.
Nadine Matthews welcomes reader responses to firstname.lastname@example.org.