In her first movie role in the new Reese Witherspoon picture, "A Good Lie," Augsburg graduate Kuoth Wiel is leaning on her own tragic past.
Born in an Ethiopian refugee camp to Sudanese parents, Wiel lost her father at just 3 years old after he was killed while working as a U.N. medic in the Sudanese Civil War, KARE 11 says. Her brothers were among the tens of thousands of displaced "Lost Boys of Sudan," who wandered northeast Africa searching for their families.
One, a child soldier, died there.
“I’m the only member of my family born in Ethiopia, so for me it’s an identity issue,” Wiel told Entertainment Weekly. “You’re born in another country because your country is at war.”
In the film, Wiel plays Abital, the 19-year-old sister of one of the Lost Boys, who Reese Witherspoon's character helps in their move to Kansas, according to the film's website. She hosted a screening of the movie at the Showplace ICON Theater in St. Louis Park Tuesday evening, three days ahead of the Friday opening.
"I hope people will see that it's not just a Sudanese story or an American story," Wiel told the Pioneer Press. "It's a story of humanity. It's about love and togetherness and faith that gives people resilience. The characters stuck together and that's how they survived."
Drawing from her past
For Wiel, now 25, working on "The Good Lie" was an emotional but rewarding experience.
"Doing this film was like a total blessing for me," she told Now Toronto. "I learned about my father’s side of my culture, and it brought me closer to my Sudanese family."
Two of Wiel's co-stars on the films had been Lost Boys in the 1990s, the magazine said, experiencing a more sharply painful reality than Wiel had.
Since the beginning of the Sudanese Civil War in 1983, more than 4 million people have been displaced and about 2 million killed, PBS reported. Around 20,000 children ages 7 to 17, known as the "Lost Boys of Sudan," were separated from their families and traveled hundreds or thousands of miles across Kenya, Uganda, Ethiopia and Sudan, according to a UNICEF report. Survivors have emigrated or settled in refugee camps.
Emmanuel Jal told IndieWire he was forced into labor as a child soldier.
"I escaped when I was 12. On that journey there were 400 young people, and only 16 survived," he said. "That was the lowest point I've ever been in: I was tempted to eat my friend when we ran out of food."
Later, on the set of "The Good Lie," Wiel discovered a brother of hers had fled the rebels with Jal.
“One of my brothers had died on the journey with him. He was Emmanuel’s good friend,” Wiel told Entertainment Weekly. “That was the strangest thing ever.”
From northeast Africa to Minnesota
When Wiel was 8, she moved with her mother and a brother to Minnesota, where she had a more peaceful childhood in Faribault, the Pioneer Press reports.
It was "a new world, you’re having fun, you’re learning to ride a bicycle," she told Now Toronto.
Wiel developed a passion for fashion and began modeling for Vision Model Management, the Star Tribune reports.
She eventually enrolled at Augsburg College in Minneapolis, but the violence on the periphery of her childhood was central in her mind.
When a friend sent her a Facebook message about movie producers looking to cast a Sudanese role in a movie about the country's Lost Boys, she jumped at the opportunity, despite a lack of acting experience, the Pioneer Press reports.
A video reel, a practice read, a chat with casting agents, a Skype session with the director – and she had her first-ever movie role, the Pioneer Press reports.
Wiel wrapped up filming this spring, the week after she graduated from Augsburg with a degree in psychology. She wants to continue acting, and she's currently working with the South Sudan Women United charity.
As for her first gig, Wiel called her co-star Witherspoon "a great mentor."
“She was always smiling and very funny, joking around and making us feel like a family,” she told the Star Tribune.
Variety.com says that while the movie is "overly earnest," it does the right thing by focusing on the Sudanese refugees rather than Witherspoon's character. And it doesn't make the "Blind Side"-style mistake, as Rolling Stone put it, of drawing "a halo over the head of a single determined white women for solving the thorny problems of global racism."
Two days ahead of its release, the film had garnered "generally favorable reviews" on scoring aggregate website Metacritic.
Wiel's quick rise from obscurity to mainstream Hollywood stardom recalls the casting of 28-year-old Barkhad Abdi in the Tom Hanks film "Captain Phillips." Abdi was nominated for an Oscar for his role in the movie about Somali pirates, but before he was cast, the aspiring actor worked as a limo driver and a mobile phone salesman at his brother's mall kiosk.