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Minnesota performer calls Sundance experience 'amazing'

Naomi Ko, third from right, in a scene from "Dear White People." Ko's on-screen debut is a principal role in "Dear White People." (Courtesy photo)1 / 2
Minnesota actress Naomi Ko, whose first film, "Dear White People," debuted at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, in January 2014. (Courtesy photo)2 / 2

ST. PAUL -- Twin Cities performer and writer Naomi Ko emerged from shooting "Dear White People" with a Screen Actors Guild card, a new career direction, a scar on her lip and an "amazing experience" this week at the Sundance Film Festival.

"Dear White People" was shot last summer in the Twin Cities, including locations on St. Paul's Summit Avenue and at the University of Minnesota. A satire about what it's like to be a person of color in a mostly white place, "Dear White People" is competing for prizes to be announced Sunday in Park City, Utah. Written and directed by Justin Simien, it features Ko in the supporting role of Sungmi.

"She is the racial ice-breaker," said Ko, speaking by phone from a Park City bus Monday. "She's comic relief in some of the serious parts of the film. She's an art major who hangs out with all the black students, and she reacts strongly to some things that happen, like a blackface party at the end of the film."

Unlike Sungmi, Ko does not have a lip ring; wearing Sungmi's during the shoot left her with a tiny scar on her lip. But Ko does have an art background in common with her character.

The 23-year-old graduate of Rosemount High School earned a degree in art history and English literature from the University of Minnesota in 2011. Since then, she has appeared on stage at Mu Performing Arts and, most recently, in "The Veterans Play Project" at Mixed Blood Theatre. Nothing, though, prepared her to rub shoulders with Katie Couric and Rachel McAdams, as she did this week at Sundance.

"The parties hosted by talent agencies have been the craziest, in terms of high-profile actors and filmmakers. Once you have a group of artists together, they tend to let loose," said Ko, who was encouraged to audition for the film by Mixed Blood producer Jamil Jude. "It's been busy. The weather is beautiful -- it's 40 degrees right now. And I've been able to meet many talented filmmakers and writers and actors and composers."

It was Ko's first time seeing "Dear White People," which received mostly favorable reviews but does not yet have a distributor or release date.

"One thing I was worried about was if people wouldn't think it was funny, but the audience was laughing and reacting and asking great questions afterwards," Ko said. "I've had people on the bus tell me they loved it."

Ko said the "Dear White People" set was an exciting place to be during the four-week shoot: "It's a young cast and crew, so it was very lively."

Ko said the film has already opened up opportunities for her in Minnesota, including a role in a corporate film for Target and a job rewriting a comedy pilot. She signed an agreement not to reveal much about the pilot but she can say her script is due Jan. 31.

While in Utah, where the Minnesota-shot "Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter" is also in competition, Ko ran into a bunch of former locals: "I'd chat with people and mention I'm from there and they'd say, 'Oh, yeah. I grew up in St. Louis Park or Rochester but I had to move to L.A.' "

Actually, "Dear White People" almost moved to Massachusetts. Ko noted that, if it had not been for the Minnesota Film and TV Board's Snowbate tax incentives, "Dear White People" would have been shot in Massachusetts and she would have missed her chance. That's why she plans to stay put for now.

"I am a Minnesotan and I really do love it," Ko said. "I am much more focused when I write there."

The Pioneer Press is a media partner with Forum News Service.