Miya Cech on ‘Marvelous’ breakout, directing and diversity

After landing her first TV role on “Hawaii Five-O” and a string of roles in other scripted shows, Miya Cech makes her first feature film star turn in “Marvelous and the Black Hole.”

(Jennelle Fong / For The Times)

It didn’t take long for Miya Cech to fall in love with acting.

Sitting in the shade outside an Italian cafe in the San Fernando Valley, her eyes light up as she remembers her first audition. It was her 8th birthday, and she was reading for a small role on “Hawaii Five-O.” Landing the part, playing series star Grace Park’s younger self and filming for two weeks in Hawaii, was a life-changing experience.

“Getting to walk in someone else’s shoes for a day is super fun, and I just fell in love with that,” said Cech, 15. “That was when I knew that this is where I wanted to be.”

Now having acted for nearly half her life — making impressions in the young adult adaptation “The Darkest Minds,” Netflix’s “Rim of the World” and on Nickelodeon’s revival series “Are You Afraid of the Dark” — the Davis, Calif. native has hit a new milestone with filmmaker Kate Tsang’s Sundance-launched indie dramedy “Marvelous and the Black Hole” (in select theaters and video on demand), her first film lead role.

Cech was just 12 when she landed the role of Sammy, an acerbic and angst-ridden 13-year-old girl who finds a friend and mentor in a professional magician named Margo (Rhea Perlman) in Tsang’s intergenerational coming-of-age film.

Tsang had partly based on the personal tale on her own formative childhood relationship with her grandfather, who introduced her to Cantonese wuxia films that sparked her own interest in storytelling. Growing up, she’d gravitated toward weird, angry teenage heroines such as Lydia Deetz from “Beetlejuice.” But those roles were never — and still aren’t — given to Asian American actors who looked like her.

“I wanted something that my younger 13-year-old self could see and be seen by,” said Tsang. Only later did she realize the challenge she faced in centering her debut film around an Asian American heroine, as young Asian American talent is rarely cultivated in Hollywood. “The producer Carolyn [Mao] and I knew we we’re going to have to find a needle in a haystack — a really special girl.”

Miya Cech, left, and Rhea Perlman in “Marvelous and the Black Hole.”

Delinquent teen Sammy Ko (Miya Cech) forms an unlikely friendship with party magician “Marvelous” Margot (Rhea Perlman) in indie coming-of-age drama “Marvelous and the Black Hole.”

(Nanu Segal)

They looked at more than 100 young actors to play Sammy before Cech arrived, the last of their in-person audits. Tsang sat down to talk with Cech before she read and noted her intelligence and thoughtfulness. “She would take time to think about her answers,” said Tsang, an Emmy-nominated writer of “Steven Universe” and “Adventure Time: Distant Lands.” “If she talked about something she liked, she’d light up. She has a spark about her that was really exciting.”

Reading scenes as the tough and self-destructive Sammy, who learns to channel her grief and anger over her mother’s death into creativity through sleight-of-hand magic, Cech slipped effortlessly into the character. The filmmakers instantly knew their search was over. “As soon as she left, we turned to each other and said, ‘Oh, my God — we found her,”’ said Tsang.

Cech recalls her own nerves over being able to portray a character even one year older than she was at the time. “When you’re 12, being anywhere near a teenager seems such a big difference,” she said with preternatural wisdom.

But Cech, an avid reader of books who writes in her spare time and already has interest in moving behind the camera, loved the story and character. And meeting Tsang set her sights even more on following her passions.

“I want to be a director when I grow up, [but] I was unsure about it,” said Cech, whose role models include “Always Be My Maybe” director Nahnatchka Khan, showrunner May Chan of Cech’s upcoming Apple+ YA series “Surfside Girls” and “Darkest Minds” director Jennifer Yuh Nelson, who allowed her to watch the monitors during production when she wasn’t filming.

“I was like, how did they get there? Where do I start? And then I met Kate, and it gave me hope that there were directors making small but wonderful films out there who look like me, with stories [about people] like me,” Cech said.

Miya Cech poses up against a wall in Little Tokyo.

Cech, who wants to become a writer and director, has “pages and pages” of her own creative writing and keeps all of her scripts.

(Jennelle Fong / For The Times)

Born in Tokyo and adopted as a baby, Cech is the third of four children in her family. Her two elder siblings are also adopted, from Kazahkstan and Japan, as is one of her closest friends, “Darkest Minds” co-star Lidya Jewitt.

“When I was younger, being adopted seemed normal to me,” she said. “Half of my family’s Japanese on my mom’s side, so we celebrate Japanese holidays. And we celebrate each other’s cultures.” Thinking back on her childhood, she glances across the table at her mother, Erin, and smiles. “I think I just thought everybody [was adopted]. But I feel like that’s really wonderful because that gives me a unique story — a story that I have, a story that is mine.”

In 2019, the year she filmed “Marvelous” in Los Angeles, Cech had the biggest run of her career. She starred as the resourceful Zhen Zhen in adventure film “Rim of the World” for director McG and as the younger version of Ali Wong’s character in rom-com hit “Always Be My Maybe.” On television, she helped revive a ’90s kids classic playing adolescent horror auteur Akiko Yamato on “Are You Afraid of the Dark?”

The following year she starred in a lead role for executive producers Ron Howard and Brian Grazer on Nickelodeon’s tween adventure drama “The Astronauts,” about a group of kids accidentally launched on a space mission.

As bigger opportunities came along, so did big decisions. Cech had first taken to the camera modeling at 4 and loved it, leading to print ads and commercials that necessitated the hour-and-a-half drive from Davis to San Francisco. Cech remembers being the one to ask her parents if she could give acting a shot: “They were like, ‘Okay, we guess we’ll try it!”

Within a few years, those drives got longer as Cech and her mother started making the trek to Los Angeles, eventually keeping an apartment in the area and enrolling her in independent online studies, while dad stayed up north with her sports-minded siblings. (Only younger sister Kai, 11, has followed Miya into acting.)

The more she’s built her film and TV resume, the more Cech has appreciated being a young actor in an era of much greater inclusion. She names “Goonies” as her favorite movie and devours the shows of her parents’ youth, such as “Saved By the Bell” and “Full House.” But it’s not hard for the Gen Z-er to notice the glaring lack of nonwhite stars in the stories of yesteryear.

Miya Cech in

“One thing that drew me to Sammy was that she was different,” said Miya Cech of her “Marvelous” role. “She was so raw and upfront.”

(Nanu Segal)

“It puts things into perspective for me,” she said. “I want it to get to a place where there are [characters] of all ethnicities and identities and people with disabilities. That was one of the things that was really wonderful about ‘Marvelous.’ It was diverse in terms of it was centered around an Asian American family, but that wasn’t really a point that was made.”

Portraying a father going through his own emotional journey was an extraordinary draw for co-star Leonardo Nam (“Westworld”), who signed on with just 24-hours notice to play Sammy’s widower dad, Angus.

“Especially as a male Asian actor in Hollywood, you’re looking for roles that have meat as opposed to just a background or one-dimensional character,” said Nam. After making his own breakthrough feature in 2004’s “The Perfect Score,” the Argentine-Australian actor of Korean descent had seen his white counterparts go on to bigger opportunities in Hollywood while he carved his own path.

“Marvelous” centers its characters with inclusivity toward their Chinese American heritage without hinging the story around culture. Instead, it’s the shared grief and misunderstanding between Sammy, her dad and her older sister Patricia (Kannon Omachi) — who seeks her own escape in a fantasy RPG world — that drives the divide at the heart of the film.

Bringing that fraught relationship to the screen with his young co-star, who during a 19-day shoot could work only 5 hours a day due to her age, might have been a bigger challenge with another actor, said Nam.

At times, Cech was “12 going on 40,” he said, and she boasted an impressive ability to tap into and out of her character’s emotions. “She’s so present and she had done so much work,” said Nam, who also fondly described Cech teaching him BTS dance choreography between takes. “As an actor, it’s such a gift to have someone that is so open, so prepared and so willing to go there.”

Although it’s now been three years since she filmed “Marvelous,” which premiered at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival, souvenirs from the film, like all her projects, stay with her.

Miya Cech lays on the grass holding a small yellow flower.

“Art is one of my biggest outlets,” said Miya Cech. “It gives me the ability to do what Margot teaches Sammy, to take that negative energy and put it into a format that is emotionally healing.”

(Jennelle Fong / For The Times)

There’s the playlist Tsang gave her to help her through Sammy’s journey from darkness to light — filled with tracks from Talking Heads, Arcade Fire, Joy Division, Karen O., Brian Eno and John Cale — and the affinity for magic tricks she keeps up her sleeve.

Her affection for “legend” Perlman, whom she’d been nervous to work with before the two bonded over magic lessons and shows at the Magic Castle. “As soon as I met her, that all melted away because she is the kindest, she’s extremely humble, she has a true warm and welcoming energy to her,” said Cech.

And the script she loved — she keeps them all, even from her episode of “Hawaii Five-O” — which might come in handy as she continues her own creative writing. (Cech and her friends are currently 14 chapters into writing a fantasy novel.)

One day, she hopes to tell the story of her grandmother’s childhood in World War II incarceration, “because it can be told from the perspective of a documentary,” she said, “but I have yet to see it in the perspective of, ‘ I was there. This is what I felt. This is how it was for us. This was our experience.””

All that said, a few big acting roles she can’t yet reveal are on the horizon, and Cech isn’t in a hurry to realize her directing dreams before she has found a story that she is ready to tell.

“I want to make a film like Kate [Tsang]’s, that is meaningful to me but relatable to all,” she said, again sounding wise beyond her years. “I’m trying not to rush having that big experience — I know that I have so much left to learn. In my lifetime, I have so many more experiences ahead of me.”

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