The cast of young actors in The Good Lie are so endearing that it’s almost impossible not to like this film.
Starring Reese Witherspoon, Corey Stoll and Sudanese actors Arnold Oceng, Ger Duany, Emmanuel Jal and newcomer Kuoth Weil, the film is about a group of young refugees orphaned by the Civil War in Sudan. After walking over a 1,000 miles to safety, they land in a refugee camp where fifteen years later, they are given the chance to resettle in America’s Kansas. Once they arrive, they meet with their employment agency counselor (Witherspoon) and try to ingratiate themselves into the community while trying to find their own American dream.
Directed by Philippe Falardeau and written by Margaret Nagle, the film is both shocking and sad, mostly because the situations surrounding the film are based on fact. But, the way Nagle and Farlardeau have crafted the story, it shows you the resilience and spirit these people have. And the group of young actors are so good, I found myself tearing up on several occasions.
Arnold Oceng, Kuoth Wiel and Margaret Nagle were in town for the San Diego Film Festival where I got a chance to sit down and chat with them about the film. Both Oceng and Wiel are Sudanese refugees, so talking to them about their experiences on the film, working with Witherspoon and their auditions was a real treat. Plus, they are super cool. Nagle, a former actress, talked about the casting process and how she transitioned from actress to an Emmy Award winning writer.
Kuoth, you got the role while you were still in college?
Kuoth Wiel: Yes.
How did you find out about the audition and what was your audition like?
Kuoth Wiel: Well I was, at that time, I was at Augsburg College, it was my last semester, and so I got it through social media. A friend of mine who was auditioning, he’s like, “Hey, I think this would be good for you.” I remember seeing the poster, it had Sudanese faces, and I was just like, “Is this a documentary?” I didn’t know what the production behind it was. And so I just sent in my info and they sent me the lines or the sides to do it, and so I did in the library…
Margaret Nagle: On her phone. She auditioned in the library on her phone.
Kuoth Wiel: Yes. And so I sent it back and they had me do it again and then I Skyped with Philippe and they didn’t contact me for one month. So I was just went back to my life, studying of course, and a month later Mindy Marin calls me she’s like, “You’re one of the four people that we like and just wanna let you know if we chose you for the movie you’re gonna have to give up your life and leave school,” because I was asking, “Am I gonna be able to come back?” She’s like, “No.”
I remember when I was flying to Atlanta, I sent my teachers, all four of them, an email saying, “Oh, I’m leaving because I have to do this and this movie,” and they were just like, “What? Wait. Slow down. What?” And so eventually they had me… they let me submit my work online and so I guess I did my homework while I was on set filming.
Arnold, you’ve been acting forever.
Arnold Oceng: Yeah, I guess. I guess so, yeah. Yeah, no. Yeah, I’ve been an actor for a very long time. I started off very young. Had a child agent from when I was 6. Because I went to a Roman Catholic private school in London and when it comes towards Christmas, you’re asked to act out the nativity scene. How Jesus was born. And I was asked to play King Herod. And then one of the kids in my class, his mom was a child agent, so she came to watch her son in the play and in doing so she saw me in the play and in the end approached my mom and gave my mom her card and said, “Your son has got talent.”
So then, yeah, I started really small just doing health commercial adverts, Pringle adverts, being the kid in the background in music videos. And then when I reached the age of 11…
The ripe old age of 11.
Arnold Oceng: Right, 11. I managed to get the lead role in a popular BBC children’s series called Grange Hill, which is about schools and drugs, sex, that kind of stuff. It was a massive show. I got that and then that basically taught me my craft because I was in that for 6 years.
Arnold Oceng: Yeah. I played a guy called Calvin Braithwaite and I did that for 6 years. So when I actually started that, I was in real life… you guys call it?
Margaret Nagle: Primary school.
Arnold Oceng: Secondary school. So my first year of high school was my first year in the TV show. So every year paralleled my real life. So I learned basically my acting real life with different producers, different directors directing. So I did that for 6 years and then after that I just jumped from different TV show to different TV show, channel 4, BBC. Different British shows.
And then my next break into the film world was when I was maybe 18 or maybe 21 when I got a film called Adulthood, which was a… it was a big success in the UK.
But, anyway, I’ve been acting for a very long time. This is literally all I know. I haven’t had a job growing up, like a normal job. I’ve never had that. So this is all I know. So for me, to be in this film apart from my personal connection with the film, it’s, honestly, like a dream come true. You know? Every actor wants to get to Hollywood, especially if you’re doing it your whole life. But you never know how… there’s no direct… you know, you get an agent, you do this, you get to be in Hollywood. There’s no direct route, you know?
There’s been many years I’ve missed pilot season, I don’t come out for pilot season, everyone’s like, “Oh, God.” And I’m like, no, I want a role that takes me there and then my career happens. So this, honestly without being corny, it was a godsend for me to be part of this role.
And also with how personal it is with me as well, with my father being from south Sudan. I didn’t know anything about south Sudan or lost boys when I first started this journey. Honestly. And I always say I’m ashamed of that, but it’s because of my upbringing. I grew up as a British Ugandan. You know? My dad was from south Sudan but he passed away when I was 2, so I didn’t know anything about south Sudan. It could be ignorance or arrogance that I didn’t even take it upon myself to learn anything, but that was a chapter in my life that was closed, so I didn’t feel the need to open it up. You know? With African families you don’t even, you know, if one family member is passed away you don’t really go and talk to your mom about. Because I know it’s gonna affect her.
Arnold Oceng: So I don’t even talk about it. More time I maybe talk to my sister, but she’s a diplomat. She lives in Vietnam. So that’s a bit difficult. So, but, yeah, with this film personally with my dad being from south Sudan and my mom being from Ghana and me being from a family of refugees, it added another layer when it came to filming. I had to open up certain emotions that haven’t been opened up before. Finding about what my people went through I wasn’t even expecting that.
When I first got the script I was so happy about how much my character is involved in that, the magnitude of my character. But when I read the whole script I was so sad of what my ignorance of what I didn’t know about Lost Boys and what I didn’t know about my people and my country. And that made me wanna do more research and learn, and that’s how I basically through Mamere to life, through wanting to know about my people and from being around Kouth, Emmanuel and Ger. I feel like a robot when I keep saying it, but it is literally the truth. That’s how I learned about my people, my country. Because my character, he has such an emotional arc of the pain that he goes through and these guys opened up and told me what they experienced and what they went through.
It’s only up till now and maybe 2 interviews ago that it meant… I managed to say my fully involvement with war. But for me it’s like it’s a forgotten memory.
Margaret Nagle: It’s also your family’s rush to escape and your mom wanting to move on with your life. It’s so often the child of war refugees in a new country, you don’t talk about what you left because it’s like you’ve got to leave it behind. He told me yesterday, his first words were basically “bang bang.” It was the sound for gunfire.
Arnold Oceng: Yeah.
Margaret Nagle: Or the time you were kidnapped by a, you know, a soldier, a rebel soldier as a baby, a little toddler who wandered away from the other kids and a rebel soldier took him and he just casually says this. Carry him off and your auntie came out and went after the guy. He’s got a lot of stuff that’s down there.
Arnold Oceng: More interviews and the more we dig deeper, the stuff will come out. That’s how it is.
Kuoth Wiel: This is not something easy that you can talk about. You know? These things that was had held onto us for so long and then we try to at least get rid of them so that you can move on emotionally in a sense and it’s not easy to bring them back.
For me, I’m looking at it as a sort of therapeutic thing because obviously I have a background in psychology and that talking about your experiences allows you to move on from it, but it’s also hard because you have to dig into a place that you had buried before. You don’t want to go back to. And each and every single day it’s like you open that up again and again and again and again. And sometimes you feel like you don’t want to go to the point where it just becomes lay conversation. Because I feel like when I do that sometimes I’m kind of undermining how heavy it is, in a sense.
Are you gonna go back to Minnesota?
Kuoth Wiel: I live in Los Angeles now. Between Los Angeles and New York. But I’m gonna go back for the screening on the 14th, yeah.
How do you like living in LA?
Kuoth Wiel: It’s beautiful. Totally different from Minnesota.
Kuoth Wiel: Yeah, it’s nice. I like it.
Arnold, and are you gonna stay in London?
Arnold Oceng: I’m in London at the moment, but I think…
Kuoth Wiel: He’s gonna come to LA.
Arnold Oceng: Yeah. Career wise, my agents are there now. It just makes sense. And like I told you, I’ve always dreamt of the role that would bring me out here. So it’s like natural progression. I’m not gonna straight away next month come out here, but naturally I will be out here.
You’re pretty much the main guy in this film, the lead. Is this the first time you’ve headlined? Been the main guy?
Arnold Oceng: No, it’s not the first time I’ve headlined a film, but it’s my first headline in America. My first Hollywood debut. So, yeah.
Did you feel any sort of pressure?
Arnold Oceng: Yeah. Yeah. 100%. And because this film is so what it is, what it entails, with who is involved and you’ve got a nation on your shoulders, you’ve got to tell the history, you’ve got to do it justice. Man, I was going through a lot of emotions when I was filming it. It was difficult, but I like those challenges. These are the type of roles that don’t come around regularly or if ever in people’s lifetimes, so I was happy that I got it, this agent, I got it with the right people around me as well.
Now, Margaret, when you’re writing, do you envision characters in your head? How perfectly did they bring these guys to life?
Margaret Nagle: I started this in 2003, so it took 11 years to get it made. It’s very hard to get Hollywood or people to make a movie like this, it just is. I had financing fall out many times.
Because nobody’s an alien in the film.
Margaret Nagle: Yeah, nobody’s from a comic book.
I started in 2003 and I did picture Reese Witherspoon in the role of Carrie when I wrote it because there’s a toughness to her like in Election. There’s a strength and an intelligence to her and I wanted to see her kind of messed up a little bit. And I wanted to see her play a character that was really unapologetic for who she is. This movie passes the Bechdel test, which she doesn’t sit there and talk about her boyfriends with other women, her conversation with Pamela Lowie is could I take in a refugee, do you like tequila, let’s clean the house, am I up for this.
And then it was interesting when I had this picture of Mamere in my head as I wrote it, not a particular actor but I had a very clear picture of who he was. How his voice sounded, because that character, I’ve been writing it for 11 years and I’ve done 40 drafts of this script because every time a different financier would come along and they’d go, “Well, I really think you have to take this out. It’s really disgusting or it freaks me out. Or you have to do this or do that.” So when I saw his audition, there’s this site called Cast It and they put up the auditions and you can watch them and I saw the link for him and he started talking and I just went “Pause.” I went… you type in your… that’s Mamere, that’s him, that’s the guy in my head, he’s right there, he’s in front of me. He’s talking to me right now. That’s him. And they were like, “Ok, Margaret. Ok.” Well, it turned out that Reese Witherspoon had looked at the auditions, she had the exact same response. So she was like, “That’s the guy I picture when I read the script and I think of who I’m acting with.” So we sent that into the director and he was like, “Wow. I’m casting the film. It’s up to me.” And we were like, “I know, but that’s him.”
And then with Kuoth was like, I went she is Audrey Hepburn. That girl is Audrey Hepburn. She’s Sudanese, this girl lights up the whatever she does. She’s so beautiful. And there were a lot of really good Abital’s too, I have to tell you, but she was absolutely.
And then Ger Duany, who plays Jeremiah, in 2003 we, with my original producers, we had met Gary, he was the first actor we met for the film. And so then he came…
Arnold Oceng: So you two actually knew each other since 2003.
Margaret Nagle: Well, I just met him once in the office and then he came back and the script had a new title. So when he came back 10 years later he went… he came in and he read it and he went, “Oh, I know this script. I… they saw me for this. This is… wow. I always wondered what happened to this.” So… and then Paul, who plays Emanuel, Paul needed to be a wild card. So I love Emanuel.
And then Cory Stoll, I’ve been trying to cast Cory Stoll since before his career took off.
Margaret Nagle: He’s terrific. He tested for a TV series I had a couple of years ago and I couldn’t get him approved. He auditioned for something else that I did and I couldn’t get… and I’ve been like, “Cory Stoll. Cory Stoll. He’s gonna be a big star, he’s gonna be a big…” so when there was the possibility of getting him for this, I was just over the moon. I was like, “No.” And he’s so good as Jack. He’s perfect.
So I was… I was pretty happy with the casting.
Arnold Oceng: I did get turned down though.
Margaret Nagle: He got turned down at first.
Arnold Oceng: Yeah, they said I was too short.
Margaret Nagle: Not me. The Dinka’s and Nuer tribe’s who are sort of the focus, they’re the tallest people in Africa. They’re like 6’5” when they come out of the womb. And they’re really dark. And so he didn’t look classically Dinka or Nuer but it was interesting as… there are a lot of Lost Boys that don’t look classically that, and so they sort of… it was like some stupid height thing at the beginning when people doing that didn’t know anything. And then they realized, a month later they called and said, “We need to see him.”
Arnold Oceng: Worked out for me.
Margaret Nagle: Timing is everything when you come in and audition, too.
Kuoth, since this was your first acting deal, your first couple of days on set were you nervous?
Kuoth Wiel: Of course I was nervous. The first day on set I actually had a scene with Reese and I remember telling her, “Oh my God, I’m so nervous.” She was like, “It’s ok.” She acts like… she was telling me what to do and what steps I should be taking. And I think as we shot… I think it was 5 times we shot this scene, it was when she was showing me my bedroom.
Margaret Nagle: Oh, the scene’s not there! It got cut!
Kuoth Wiel: And I kept doing it over, and through time everything just relaxed and then after that it was just going through it and just getting the emotions right and stuff like that. But I was, yeah, I was nervous at first.
Arnold Oceng: It’s crazy how you forget that’s Reese Witherspoon you’re working with, because when you first start I was nervous, we were all nervous, she speaks to you like she’s just a normal person. Like it’s cool, don’t worry. But then you’re like, “But, come on. You’re Reese, though.”
The more you film with her, the more we actually went through the process, like 12 days in we were filming in some mall and there was security and there’s loads of people like, “Reese.” But now I’m starting to think, “Why are they taking pictures of her? That’s only Reese.” You know? So I’m used to it now, but it was crazy. It was a surreal experience.
Kuoth Wiel: She’s very loving.
Arnold Oceng: She’s a really cool person.
Margaret, but you started out as an actress?
Arnold Oceng: Yes, she did.
Margaret Nagle: I did, I did. I was an actress in New York. I was a stage actress in New York and then I supported my acting in theatre by doing commercials. I did a lot of commercials and I can’t find any of them on YouTube, so I’m very happy. And then I came to LA and I did TV and I did some movies.
And I realized that all the training I had in theatre with all the plays and working with the works of other writers was all training for writing. And I was working on a show, My So Called Life, and the woman who created it, Winnie Holzman, she goes, “I need to speak with you,” and I was like, “Oh my God. I’m fired.” And she was like, “No, I have really bad news for you.” And I was like, “What?” And she was like, “You’re a writer.” She goes, “It’s a really hard life, but you’re a writer and you’re a closeted writer. You’re so hiding from the fact…”
Arnold Oceng: How did you take that? If someone said that to me I don’t know how I’d take it.
Margaret Nagle: It was like, “What?” I said, “Am I bad on the show?” She said, “No, you’re fine but you’re wasting your talent.”
And then what happened is Cameron Crowe was having auditions for Jerry Maguire and he loved My So Called Life. And so he brought in all of us and he read me for every part in that movie and he just kept bringing me in. And he would say, “Go improvise. Improvise this. Improvise that.” And so I’d start improvising. And he was like, “You know? You’re a writer.”
I had 3 different scripts for Jerry Maguire from him and I took them home and I wrote a spec script called Warm Springs using the template. I didn’t even know how to type. I didn’t know how to write stage directions, I didn’t know the format, and I just used these… and I literally keep them… I still have them. They’re by my desk. And so I wrote Warm Springs and then I ended up getting it made and it won the Emmy for best TV movie and it started my… HBO made it 7 years ago? And that started my career as a writer.
So I’m grateful to Winnie and to Cameron Crowe, because I really was off my path. But I didn’t see women screenwriters, I didn’t see a lot of women TV writers. I went to Northwestern, I was trained as an actress, they have a playwriting program, they only had guys do it.
But all that acting training and working with other writers rhythms and the way they expressed drama and comedy taught me to write. Because you guys, you’re having to live my writing and embody my words. It’s a very intimate relationship with actor and writer.