Minnesota’s got talent: ‘Beef’, ‘Lisa Frankenstein’ and ‘True Detective’ all have roots in Minnesota

Three people pose next to each other
From left to right: Lee Sung Jin, Diablo Cody and Isabella Star LaBlanc.
Getty Images

Updated: 2:20 p.m.

When you think of Hollywood, many may not immediately think of Minnesota. But there are three people with Minnesota roots changing that.

Recently, MPR News’ Minnesota Now spoke with “Beef” writer Lee Sung Jin, “Lisa Frankenstein” writer Diablo Cody and “True Detective: Night Country” actress Isabella Star LaBlanc about how Minnesota played a role in their Hollywood careers today.  

‘We project so much onto others without knowing anything about them’: Lee Sung Jin, writer and director of ‘Beef’ 

Television writer Lee Sung Jin launched a streaming sensation in April 2023 by imagining a road rage incident amplified to the max. Lee created the popular A24 Netflix show, “Beef.” Now, he has won three Emmys and a Golden Globe for his writing and directing on the series. And while the series is based off of the experiences of Asian Americans in Southern California, Lee started to get a knack for writing while living in Minnesota as a child.

Lee was born in South Korea and moved around the United States and Korea during his youth, including time spent as an infant and teenager in downtown Minneapolis, Wayzata and Plymouth.

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Lee went by the name “Sonny Lee” for most of his professional life. He said he decided to stop using his given name as a middle schooler in Wayzata, where it helped him fit in as one of the few Korean students at his school. Later, he said it was useful in his professional career because it was easy for other Americans to write and remember. But once the popular Korean film “Parasite” came out, he considered reclaiming his given Korean name. 

BEEF
Lee Sung Jin is the creator of the hit Netflix A24 series "Beef."
Andrew Cooper | Netflix

“I was like, when I hear names like director Bong Joon-Ho or director Park Chan-wook, I feel proud. People don’t make fun of those names,” Lee told MPR News guest host Nina Moini. “So I just thought if more Korean names are associated with things that people love, maybe that’ll help change the stigma associated with it.”

But first, Lee said, he needed to come up with something that people would love and relate to. He came up with the concept of “Beef” from a road rage incident he experienced when he was driving in L.A. It got him thinking about people living in their own bubbles, not taking the time to try to understand others. Lee said that growing up as a Korean American in the Midwest gave him the mindset to tell that story in “Beef.”

Lee said moving around Minnesota ended up helping him in his career, “Writing is all observations, so that’s probably the biggest takeaway from moving around in Minnesota so much is how it developed that muscle in my mind.” 

‘It’s okay to feel things deeply’: Diablo Cody, writer of ‘Lisa Frankenstein’

It has been nearly 20 years since Diablo Cody sat down at a Crystal Target to work on the screenplay for the Oscar-winning film, “Juno.” Since then, she won a Tony for her Broadway adaptation of the Alanis Morisette album, “Jagged Little Pill” and wrote several films — including “Jennifer’s Body” and “Young Adult” which, like “Juno,” were set in Minnesota. Diablo Cody is the pen name of Brook Maurio, who spent significant years of her life in the Twin Cities area.

Her latest film is a return to the genre of “Jennifer’s Body” — a mix of horror and comedy she said feels “true to life.” Written by Cody and directed by Zelda Williams, “Lisa Frankenstein” is a love story about a grieving teenage girl and a corpse from her local cemetery who rises from the grave.    

Two people sit together on a couch.
Screenwriter Diablo Cody sits with director Zelda Williams on the set of their film "Lisa Frankenstein," out Friday.
Mason Novick | MPR News

The movie was filmed in New Orleans and set in the time and place where Cody grew up: 1980s Illinois. While she is originally from Chicago, Cody told MPR News host Nina Moini Minnesota was where she found community as an artist. 

“I don’t know what it is in the Twin Cities that really produces these great offbeat artists. I felt like I had found a place where I could spread my wings and where I belonged,” she said.

She drew inspiration for her new film not only from the original Frankenstein story, but also from its author, Mary Shelley, who wrote the 1818 novel at the age of 19. Cody said that if she could ask Shelley anything today, it would be the same question she’s been getting: Why do people keep recreating the Frankenstein story, generation after generation? 

“I keep saying that the idea of creating life is always going to be irresistible to people, the idea of playing God like that,” Cody said. “But I’d like to know what she would say.”

In the film, main character Lisa Swallows, played by Kathryn Newton, has lost her mother in a gruesome murder. Cody said her story is also about being able to process grief — in a time when people often struggle to find space and rituals to help them do so.  

Cody said she hopes viewers walk away reminded that “it’s okay to be emotional.”  

“It’s okay to miss people. It’s okay to feel things deeply and be goth, so to speak,” she said, “because that’s what we were made to do.” 

Lisa Frankenstein opens in theaters Friday. 

‘It’s just the tip of the iceberg’: Isabella Star LaBlanc, actress in ‘True Detective: Night Country’

Isabella Star LaBlanc was sitting at her Minneapolis home, auditioning on Zoom for a role for the newest season of “True Detective” on HBO, “and then before I knew it, I was on a plane to Iceland,” said LaBlanc. The 27-year-old plays the character Leah Danvers, the step-daughter of Jodie Foster’s character Police Chief Liz Danvers. 

Actress Isabella Star LaBlanc in a shot of True Detective
Isabella Star LaBlanc plays Leah Danvers, the step-daughter of Jodie Foster's character Chief Liz Danvers in the HBO series "True Detective: Night Country."
Courtesy Warner Bros. Discovery

“She’s also a young Native woman who’s coming of age and discovering her own world and how she wants to show up, and activism,” LaBlanc told MPR News Host Cathy Wurzer.

LaBlanc is a member of the Sisseton-Wahpeton Dakota tribal nation. Born in St. Paul she grew up acting at the Children’s Theater Company and later other local stages. LaBlanc said she didn’t see a lot of Indigenous representation growing up.

“It’s been a lot of years of a lot of artists working really hard and fighting to be seen. But I look back on even just five years ago, when I was doing my first round of auditions, and just the roles were entirely different,” said LaBlanc, “It feels like just the tip of the iceberg.” 

The newest season of True Detective takes place in a fictional town in remote northern Alaska, with a large Indigenous population. LaBlanc says the process included many Indigenous actors on set, a team of Native producers and an advisory council of Native people from Alaska.

Native representation still has a long way to go. The latest Hollywood Diversity Report from the University of California, Los Angeles found Native people made up just 1 percent of the share of roles in scripted shows in the 2021-22 season. That’s up from 0 percent six years prior.

But that 1 percent has made their mark. In 2021, “Reservation Dogs” became the first mainstream show where every writer, director and series regular performer was Native and was nominated for a Golden Globe. And Lily Gladstone has made history this year, becoming the first Native actor to be nominated for an Oscar for her role in “Killers of the Flower Moon.”

“I just remember being a kid and being like, I don’t know, is that allowed to happen for Native actors? And, yeah, she’s such a great example of, yes, it is possible,” said LaBlanc on Gladstone’s nomination, “I was like, I feel like I’m waking up in a different Hollywood today.”  

“True Detective: Night Country” airs Sundays on HBO.

Correction: (Feb. 9, 2024): This story has been updated with the correct location of the Target where Diablo Cody wrote “Juno.”