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RHS grad hits the silver screen at Sundance

Naomi Ko, third from the right, had never acted on film before she was cast in Dear White People, which received high praise at this month’s Sundance Film Festival. The 2008 Rosemount High School graduate and former Town Pages student columnist was in Park City, Utah, for the annual festival.

There’s beginners luck, and then there’s whatever has been happening lately for Naomi Ko.

Two weekends ago, the 2008 Rosemount High School graduate and former Town Pages student columnist was in Park City, Utah making the rounds at the Sundance Film Festival. She was doing interviews for festival darling Dear White People, in which she had a role.

On Friday, she has a deadline for a comedy pilot she is rewriting for network television. She can’t say much more about that project yet, but she was wrapping up work on the script this week.

All things considered it’s been a pretty good January for someone who — outside of some OnStage performances at RHS — had never stepped on a stage before 2011.

Ko, whose focus is writing, started acting at the suggestion of a college professor. The professor thought performing would give her a new perspective on her writing.

So, Ko took to the stage. Four plays later, one of her directors suggested she audition for a film that was coming to town. So, Ko did. She got the part. And now, if the film finds a distributor, she may be coming soon to a theater near you.

Dear White People, which filmed in Minnesota, follows four black students at a fictional Ivy League university and focuses on the challenges of being a minority at a white institution. Ko, who is Korean American, is a kind of intermediary between the group and the non-black audience.

It’s a situation Ko could relate to after attending RHS, which is statistically the least diverse high school in a largely white school district.

“I know what it’s like to have my racial background stand out in the sea of white that is Minnesota,” Ko said.

Performing on film was a big adjustment for Ko. It’s a different kind of acting than she was used to on stage, and much of her first day on the set was spent getting used to what it takes to look natural. Where stage actors have to emote to the back row, Ko had to learn how to be subtle and let the camera pick up small nuances. You have to stand in ways you might not normally stand because that’s what looks right on film.

“The first day was kind of rough,” Ko said. “That was my first day to do any kind of onscreen work. It was hard because I thought I could just go along with the business, but on film to look natural you have to be unnatural.”

Things got better after that first day, though, and Ko enjoyed the experience enough that even shooting days that stretched to 18 hours and beyond weren’t draining.

The finished product has gotten good reviews. Rolling Stone magazine called it one of the most buzzed about films at Sundance and it won the festival’s Special Jury Prize for Breakthrough Talent.

For Ko, the Sundance experience was something special. She went from interview to interview to talk about the film, all while surrounded by Hollywood stars and other smaller-scale artists.

“It was actually really weird to be there,” Ko said. “It was really busy to go from a press junket to a different press junket.

“It was really weird to have people know the film and ask questions and to be in the same league as some of the other films.”

To make things even more interesting, the US Ski Team was in town preparing for next month’s Olympics. The crowd was an interesting mix of artists and athletes, Ko said.

With Sundance behind her, Ko’s focus this week was on her comedy pilot. That project came about through a kind of six degrees of separation. Someone read something she’d written and passed it on to someone else who passed it to someone else until finally it ended up in the hands of a network executive. The network flew Ko to Los Angeles to talk about the project.

It’s been a rush of activity for someone still not long out of college, and Ko knows she’s been fortunate.

“I’ve got good beginner’s luck,” she said. “I realize that. A lot of people don’t get this kind of luck that I have.”

Nathan Hansen

Nathan Hansen has been a reporter and editor with the Farmington Independent and the Rosemount Town Pages since 1997. He is very tall.

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