Creator, writer, and actress Naomi Ko brought her passion project Nice to life at Tribeca Film Festival this year. The television series is a half hour dramedy about Teddy Park, a young Korean American woman from Minnesota who finds out she has breast cancer…again. Throughout the show, she deals with the consequences of keeping it a secret from her friends and family.
For Ko, the inspiration for Nice came from her own life. “I was really inspired by my own personal experience with breast cancer, as well as so many of my friends and family members [that] have had breast cancer,” she told me during an interview at the Roxy Hotel. “A lot of friends in their 20s and 30s started getting cancer or even illnesses like type-2 diabetes or ALS or MS and these types of illnesses really shape your life. [They] shape the way that you can come into your own and be a young adult. How do you manage when you’re a millennial and you have to deal with your crippling college debt? And then are you going to buy a house? Are you going to find love?”
Ko revealed that while writing Teddy Park’s story she went back and forth on if she should play the role. “I’m not going to lie, I had always written it with me in mind. Teddy is a Korean American from Minnesota. That very specific regional experience, does anyone else really have that? Not really. It just narrows it further and further,” she said. “I mean there was a time when I was debating if I should play the character or not just because it is loosely based upon my own experiences. Sometimes revisiting this stuff can be painful. So I thought, ‘Eh, no, I’m not going to do it’ and then I’m like, ‘No, shut up. Shut the fuck up, just do it.'”
Watch my interview with the creative forces behind Nice, below:
While Teddy’s story is based on Ko’s own experience with breast cancer, the title of the series Nice comes from the state’s stereotype “Minnesota nice.” “Minnesota is known for its very nice people, but there’s a different between being nice and […] being good. Minnesotans are the kings and queens of passive aggressiveness. We project niceness, we’ll say, ‘Oh, hi, how are you doing? Great. How’s your hot dish?'” she said. “But really inside we’re like, ‘I hate you. You suck. Get off my lawn.’ So we’re playing up this idea of what does it mean to be a nice person and is being a nice person a good thing?”
Both director Andrew Ahn and producer Carolyn Mao had been friends with Ko for a number of years and were immediately interested in the vulnerability of the series. “I was just really struck by the personal nature of the material and the vulnerability that Naomi was putting into her storytelling. That was really inspiring for me,” Ahn told me.
“I felt like the writing was really strong and just seeing her be vulnerable and really express her experience in this very creatively written piece of material was the first thing that I was interested in,” Mao added. “Then, since I’d been following the development for the first couple of years, when the opportunity came to actually do this on our own […] it was a no brainer.
But Ahn also shared that he was almost wasn’t able to join the project due to prior commitments. “At first when [Ko] asked me to direct, I wasn’t able to do it. I was busy and I actually gave her suggestions of other directors to talk to,” he continued. “But she felt really strongly about me and I’ve always felt really strongly about the material so when the scheduling did work out I was really excited to come on board and be able to make this happen. It was something that Naomi has been developing for a number of years and so to finally have something to show is just really gratifying.”
Outside of ABC’s Fresh Off The Boat and the upcoming movie Crazy Rich Asians, there are very few mainstream pieces of work that really highlight the Asian American experience. With Nice, we’re getting into uncharted territory following a Korean American millennial in the midwest and Ko hopes the story makes audiences rethink stereotypes about people of color. “For all three of us, Asian American [and] Korean American representation is really important to us. Frankly there’s really not a show like this out on the television landscape. I think specifically what is unique about Nice and how great this potential series could be is not only [are they] Korean Americans but they’re in Minnesota,” Ko told me. “Minnesota is stereotyped as this very white, very Scandinavian-heavy state — obviously from Fargo — with folks who just speak with a really strong Minnesotan accent. I think it’s really important to show that Korean Americans, Asian Americans, people of color can be from America’s heartland. [They] can be from a flyover state and be apart of this greater American experience. […] I think a lot of folks are going to be able to relate to everybody in the show.”
Throughout Ahn’s career as a director he’s made numerous projects focused on Korean Americans, but sometimes being a voice for a group of marginalized people can be a lot of pressure. “I’ve made shorts and a feature that have dealt with the Korean American community but just in Los Angeles because that’s where I’m from. For me, there’s been a sort of feeling of ‘rep sweats,’ just feeling like I have to represent all of Korean America, which is not a fair thing to do because I’m telling one perspective,” he said. “In my career I hope to be able to support other creators to tell their story and to show the diversity within the Korean American community so that we’re not seen as a monolithic culture experience.”
“Just meeting Naomi’s parents and going to Minnesota to see her hometown, that to me was like, oh this is a story I should support. This is a story I should try and help happen,” Ahn continued. “I’m really glad for that different approach [and] different perspective on what it means to be Asian American in this country.”
Mao shared that while it’s not her goal to only tell Asian American stories, she’s glad people are paying more attention to these projects. “I don’t necessarily have an intent of trying to have the goal of making Asian American stories. It just happens to be a lot of the friends that I have, the filmmakers I know, are Asian and their stories are important and interesting,” she said. “I remember at the Oscars Kumail Nanjiani was talking about how he’s always related to stories of a white kid in suburban America growing up and he’s like why don’t we turn the lens and have a white person relate to our experience? In some ways, I think there’s a universality to all our stories.”
“Just because it’s Asian American — we’re in this weird bubble right now where everyone’s like oh it’s diversity and representative and it’s like these are just our lives. We have interesting, complicated, complex lives that should be relatable on a universal level and that’s the thing that I think is really important,” Mao continued. “It’s nice that people are paying more attention to these projects and seeing the significance of it but it’s not something that I think for us that we have to do because we’re Asian American. It’s just our lives.”
Ko did express the importance of representing the Asian American Midwest experience within the casting process for Nice. “What was great about our cast and crew is that every single one of our Asian American actors are actually from the Midwest. They’re either from Chicago, Illinois, or from Minnesota,” she said. “That was really important to us that if we’re going to highlight an Asian American Midwest experience that we were actually going to pick Asian American actors who come from those backgrounds.”
The series has been touted for having an extremely inclusive cast and crew. “For me, it felt like it wasn’t inclusion at all because even though I did grow up in Minnesota, even though I was surround by white people, you know black people lived there too, and Latinos and indigenous folks,” Ko said. “We just knew talented people and they are people of color and it’s great because then we can all rise up together.”
While Ko’s character Teddy Park is dealing with the return of her breast cancer, there are several big themes the series tackles, including femininity vs masculinity, adulting, and family. “One of the themes that we’re really going to explore throughout the show is this idea of what makes a woman. Breast cancer is a very feminine [disease] — yes, men can get cancer, but breasts are a very feminine feature and have been idealized in our culture — so what makes a woman a woman and what happens when you have something that challenges your womanhood,” Ko said. “And Teddy is the leader of this Fantasy Football league. She’s a two-time Fantasy Football champ so she feels like she can excel in this very masculine, testosterone-driven thing.”
The relationship Teddy has with her family, especially her sister, is another big topic of the series. “How [will] two drastically different sisters be able to relate as they diverge on their own paths? Hana, Teddy’s older sister, is more traditional. She wants to get married. She wants to stay in Minnesota. She’s okay with her job at a corporation like Target and watches HGTV. Teddy wants more,” Ko shared. “So how does that play out between those sisters?”
Ahn chimed in: “Identity. Adulting. Adulting is a big thing for me. Thinking about how do you make a living, how do you pursue your passions. How do you find love, support, whether that’s from a romantic partner or from your family or from your friends. There’s something about this that feels really precise and specific to young people our age right now.”
These real and raw themes came to life in Ko’s writing, but also visually through Ahn’s directing and work with cinematographer Ki Jin Kim. “When I was reading the material, and just knowing Naomi, I wanted to have this feel really authentic and grounded. I didn’t want it to feel like a different world like this is some fairytale land where Asians exist in Minnesota. It’s a real place and so we really embraced a very grounded, human visual style,” Ahn told me. “My cinematographer Ki Jin Kim and I talked about wanting to show the beauty within the humanity and the complexity behind the story and, at the same time, still have fun with the comedy and the fantasy elements, which we kind of touch upon in the pilot and will continue to show throughout the series.”
“We were also just so inspired by Minnesota. It’s such a beautiful place, Really, really cold, but super beautiful,” he added. “It was just about trying to show that natural inherent beauty and charm to this state.”
At the core of Nice, Ko hopes people relate to Teddy’s very human experiences, mistakes and all. “I want the audience to look at Teddy and to look at these characters in this world as humans. Humans who are trying. Humans who have very relatable experiences,” she said. “I want people to look at Teddy Park and, regardless of age or gender or ethnicity or wherever part of the country or world that you are, see if you can relate with her. [See] if you can empathize with her and reflect her decisions and her journey upon your life.”
“And then I want people to laugh and to see that you can have shit happen to you but you’re going to be okay,” Ko emphasized. “Things are going to be okay. After a while, things will be okay.”