Sandra Oh and Fivel Stewart talk intergenerational trauma in 'Umma' In the new horror film, three generations of Korean American women grapple with the haunting repercussions of motherhood. Actors Sandra Oh and Fivel Stewart talk about what made the film so personal.

In 'Umma,' intergenerational trauma takes on a demonic form

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/1087723841/1087766214" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

ELISSA NADWORNY, HOST:

Villains in horror films aren't usually moms and grandmas. But a new entrant in the genre called "Umma" shows how the traumas of motherhood can haunt and even destroy the strongest family bonds.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "UMMA")

SANDRA OH: (As Amanda) She needed to understand my pain was real. We had an old lamp, my favorite lamp.

(SOUNDBITE OF ELECTRICITY BUZZING)

OH: (As Amanda) The broken wire.

(SOUNDBITE OF PERSON CRYING)

OH: (As Amanda) So I made her hold it until my pain became hers, and we could feel it together.

NADWORNY: Emmy-nominated actress Sandra Oh plays a beekeeper named Amanda. She lives off the grid on a farm with her teenage daughter, played by actress Fivel Stewart, from the Netflix series "Atypical." But one day, the ashes of Amanda's mother, her umma, arrive in a box and the demons from Amanda's past awaken. The two stars, Sandra Oh and Fivel Stewart, join us now. Welcome to you both.

FIVEL STEWART: Hi, thank you.

OH: Thank you, Elissa.

NADWORNY: OK, let's start with the title of the film, which, you know, is the Korean word for mother.

OH: Yes, it's the Korean word actually for mom.

NADWORNY: What drew you both to a scary film about motherhood?

OH: Fivel, why don't you start?

STEWART: So I'm a big horror buff, and I love Sam Raimi. So I knew it was produced by Sam. And I've always wanted to do a horror film, but really specific - wanted to be specific about which one I did. And then I heard it was a Korean American horror film, and that really drew me in, as well.

OH: I met up with Iris Shim, the writer-producer, early on, and she suggested this as a concept for her film. And what was really interesting to me absolutely was, like, a horrific relationship between a mother and a daughter, because I think, ultimately, it's such an interesting, fraught relationship. But I also was interested in, like, the difficulty or the enmeshment that can happen between a mother and a daughter, which can be horrific.

STEWART: Yeah, especially in the Korean culture. Like, I mean, there's a lot of ceremonies that you're supposed to do respectfully for your elderly. And "Umma" shows how scary it could be if you weren't to act on these respectful send-offs (laughter).

NADWORNY: I know at one point in the film, Fivel, your character, Chris, threatens to run away, and there's kind of an echo of that because, of course, Amanda tried to run away when she was young.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "UMMA")

OH: (As Amanda) Hey, what did you call me?

STEWART: (As Chris) I called you a crazy psycho. And you know what? I can't wait to leave.

OH: (As Amanda) Leave? Oh, honey, you're not going anywhere. You can't force...

NADWORNY: What do you think when you hear that clip? Like, tell me a little bit about that tension, to leave and to stay and kind of how mothers are trapped up in that.

OH: I think there's no way that every single person hasn't thought that their mother wasn't a crazy psycho [expletive]. It just is. I mean, these are very, very heightened circumstances because her mother is losing her mind. But I think that that's how everyone understands how it - difficult it is to try and make sense. Like, you feel like your parents are crazy, you know? And from the parent point of view, you know, definitely, Amanda - she's caught in her own trauma. And what she can't see and differentiate is that Chris is her own human being.

NADWORNY: Yeah. So, Fivel, on the other side of that, as the daughter, as you're playing Chris, how are you thinking about kind of this relationship with your mom? And, you know, the two of you have such an interesting relationship that changes throughout the film. Like, what was that like?

STEWART: Yeah, I mean, I think it's really - it was really interesting to play Chris because I really realized that I'm very similar to Chris in a lot of ways that I didn't even think of. But I think the reflection of the mother and daughter relationship is really accurate to a lot of people, and so hopefully when they watch it, they'll kind of realize that maybe they are kind of repeating history, especially mom - I mean, my parents do it. Like, they always talk about how they were raised and how they don't want to provide me with that life. But when I am not with them and I think about it, I'm like, oh, interesting. They're trying their hardest but, like, inevitably, they still are.

NADWORNY: I'm wondering, you know, when you play a role like this, especially when it touches some of your own experiences or your own lives - yeah, how much of yourself do you put in characters, and especially in these, you know, two roles?

OH: I'd say, like, a huge amount, but it's very difficult to pinpoint, like, direct lines, meaning, like, you're in the space of metaphor. Like, you're in the space of the genre. You're in the space of horror or psychological horror, I'd like to say more. We really called on a lot of ancestor guidance. We had a table that you would pass on your way to set, and we invited everyone on the crew to either bring in pictures or little symbols of your ancestors, of your grandparents. And a lot of people did. I have actually a really beautiful picture of the table. And it was just - you were bringing up a lot of ghostly, powerful forces and energies that were playing around with. I was absolutely bringing in my lineage to say, will you please protect us?

STEWART: It felt quite personal, especially just, like, the relationship with you, Sandra. Like, the relationship between you and I just felt so intimate and so close to where, like, going to set was like being with my mom and like being watched by my mom and being guided by my mom. So I think for that, it really sat, like, internally with me, very close to my heart. So it wasn't too much to pull from.

OH: Yeah. I really felt very pleased with the chemistry between Fivel and I. And - because I do feel like we never had to reach too hard or far. No one had to - and that's a - that's the beautiful place you want to be with your fellow actor, is that you're just kind of moving in and out and so easily you affect the other person's emotion.

STEWART: One hundred percent. Like, that fight scene.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "UMMA")

STEWART: (As Chris) It's just a made-up thing, some demented, imaginary thing in your head. And it's [expletive] pathetic.

(SOUNDBITE OF SLAPPING)

STEWART: (As Chris) You said you'd never become your mother, but that's just another lie.

I mean, like, there were moments where it was like this [expletive]. Like, OK. (Laughter) I want to slap you. I'm not going to slap you. But I want to slap you (laughter).

NADWORNY: We want to know what is next for both of you.

OH: "Turning Red," the Pixar film, which is the Pixar version of separating from your mom. I'm resting a little bit, but I'm going to shoot a sister comedy with Awkwafina soon.

STEWART: I have a show coming out on Apple TV in April. Hopefully I'll be able to talk about it more. I'm not sure. But it's called "Roar." It's produced by Nicole Kidman, and it's just - it's an anthology, and it's going to be really beautiful. And I'm in - I'm filming another Netflix show called "Graymail" right now.

OH: You so busy.

NADWORNY: Wow. That's awesome. Sandra Oh, Fivel Stewart - they star in the film "Umma," which came out Friday. Thank you both.

STEWART: Thank you.

OH: Thank you.

Copyright © 2022 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.