SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Justin Chon's film "Blue Bayou" is an undertold immigration story, the potential plight of thousands of people who were legally adopted as children from overseas before 2001, when they were not automatically made U.S. citizens, like Justin Chon's character, Antonio LeBlanc, who's looking for a second job in his small bayou town.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BLUE BAYOU")
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Antonio LeBlanc, how you get a last name like that?
JUSTIN CHON: (As Antonio LeBlanc) I was adopted.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Where are you from?
CHON: (As Antonio LeBlanc) I'm from about a hour north of Baton Rouge - you know, small town called St. Francisville.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Where are you from - like, born?
CHON: (As Antonio LeBlanc) I see what you mean. I was born in Korea.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Says here you have two felonies.
CHON: (As Antonio LeBlanc) Yeah, but they were for nonviolent crimes. You know, I wouldn't hurt nobody.
SIMON: Justin Chon has also written and directed the film, which also stars Alicia Vikander and Linh-Dan Pham. Justin Chon joins us now. Thanks so much for being with us.
CHON: Thank you.
SIMON: What made you want to tell this story? I've gathered you've talked to a lot of people who have an experience similar to this in the film.
CHON: Yeah. You know, I'm friends with quite a few adoptees, and I heard this experience and issue taking place of, you know, adoptees that were brought to this country as small, young children by U.S. citizens. The government acknowledged the adoptions. And then as adults 20, 30 years later, they find out that they're undocumented and they're not legal citizens. So some of them face deportation. And I just found it shocking and, you know, upon further sort of research found out that nobody even knew it was happening.
SIMON: Antonio, who you play, is an American. I mean, he speaks English with a pretty thick bayou accent. He was adopted when he was 3. He's been in this country for 30 years. He likes country music. He likes motorbikes. Never occurred to him he wasn't a U.S. citizen, did it?
CHON: No, it's very similar to what these actual cases are like because, you know, you were brought as a child, and as an adult, a lot of these people have Social Security cards. Nothing says that they are not citizens until they either apply for a government job or commit a crime or, you know, something that requires some sort of background check that gets them on ICE's - the Immigration Customs Enforcement - radar.
SIMON: Your character, Antonio, does have a criminal record - for nonviolent crime, as he points out - which makes him vulnerable. Then he runs into trouble over a trumped-up charge.
CHON: I didn't want this film to be like a propaganda piece, so I didn't want him to be some saint, you know? He does have some problems with the law in the past, but he is on the road to redemption and really becoming a great father and a great husband and really trying to do right. But. You know, this run-in with a stepdaughter's father, who happens to be a cop, gets him on ICE's radar.
SIMON: I saw an interview with you at the Cannes Film Festival in which you seemed to make a point of casting actors who weren't American in certain roles. I wonder if I can get you to talk about that.
CHON: Yeah. You know, Linh-Dan Pham is French, and she's Vietnamese. And there's a huge - the - one of the reasons I set the film in Louisiana is New Orleans has a huge enclave of Vietnamese Americans. They were relocated there after the Vietnam War. But then also, New Orleans - they're very French-inspired. So I thought it'd be fitting if I hired Linh-Dan because she has this French vibe to her.
And also, Alicia Vikander is Swedish. And the reason I thought that was interesting for the two of them was because they were both playing these strong American women. And every choice that they make would be intentional. It would be choices of what they wanted to bring out for their individual characters, and it wouldn't be taken for granted.
SIMON: Linh-Dan Pham's character is a woman, Vietnamese woman, who is an immigrant to the United States. And they meet at the hospital when his wife is there for a test. She is in frail health. What do you think she helps Antonio to see and realize?
CHON: She's a mirror. Linh-Dan Pham is going through a physical death. She's dying of cancer. And then Antonio is going through a death as an American. And I felt like there was this poetic nature to their relationship. But I also felt like she was a mirror to him. Because she's dying, you know, there's no way to trump those problems. So when you are dealing with someone like that, you have to become very introspective and honest with yourself about whatever you're going through. So he has to really get introspective about where he came from, who he is.
And also, she's Asian. He hasn't been exposed to that many Asians, so she'll act as almost like a mentor figure, a motherly figure. And when he goes to their backyard party with this Vietnamese family at the middle of the film, it's almost like he gets to get a glimpse of what it could be like for him if he gets deported, but also maybe the family he never had.
SIMON: Yeah. How do you direct yourself? And I must say your performance is so powerful, you must've had a great director.
CHON: Oh, man. I never intended to take this role. I was going to just write and direct. I am an actor of 20 years. And I've quickly realized that, you know, this is an issue film. You know, I don't think it's necessarily a political film. I think it's a human story. But I do know in success - and what I hope for is that it can create some change. And if that change requires me to speak about the film or travel somewhere to speak about the film, it's very hard to ask of an actor after the film has been released to do that.
But in terms of directing, you know, I just - I do as much preparation as humanly possible. I'd try to get as much rehearsal in. You know, the accent work I worked on for months before. But when you're working with the likes of Alicia Vikander, who is an Oscar winner, it's not very hard.
CHON: You just show up, be present and, you know, listen and respond.
SIMON: There's a series of photos at the end of the film that really - they really put the cap on the story, don't they?
CHON: Yeah. And the reason I thought that was important was, you know, you see this story, a fictional story, and you can walk out of the theater and kind of be like, oh, that was nice. But when you see real people, it's very hard to forget and also hard to turn away when you know this is happening to real people in this country.
SIMON: Justin Chon - his new film, "Blue Bayou" - thank you so very much for being with us.
CHON: Thank you so much.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.