When Ron Howard set out to tell the story of the dramatic 2018 rescue of a young football team from a flooded cave in northern Thailand, he knew he would have to struggle with underwater photography, hordes of extras and a handful of surly protagonists in the form of the British divers who managed to rescue the boys through extraordinary methods. But he also knew that as an American director tackling a uniquely Thai story, authenticity would be crucial – and that any deviation from verisimilitude would be at his peril.
So for the new film, “Thirteen Lives,” which debuts Friday on Prime Video, Howard and his producing partner, Brian Grazer, have hired Thai cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom (“Call Me by Your Name”) , employed producers Raymond Phathanavirangoon and Vorakorn Ruetaivanichkul, and relied on local actors to serve as his guides.
One such actor Howard trusted was Pattrakorn Tungsupakul, 33, a short-lived TV star from northern Thailand who plays Buahom, a single mother forced to wait helplessly at the entrance to the cave for 17 excruciating days. Shy and afraid for her son, Tungsupakul’s character is the emotional center of the film.
The whole experience has been refreshing — and strange — for an actress who has spent nearly a decade working in Thai television, an environment that Tungsupakul says hasn’t always been very collaborative or supportive.
“Ron, he always asked me, ‘What do you want to do?’ ‘What do you mean?’ And he listened,” she said in an interview in Los Angeles, where she was accompanied by her older sister, Rugeradh Tungsupakul, a lawyer who acted as her interpreter. “Because he trusted me so much, I had to prepare and work harder. I had to bring my experience to this project.
She could also be the film’s secret weapon.
“He’s the closest person to the movie,” said Howard, who compared the Tungsupakul character’s seemingly endless wait outside the cave to being stuck in the waiting room while your child is in surgery – if the procedure lasted 17 days. “Dramatically, she’s the most heartbreaking.”
Tungsupakul hails from Chiang Mai, a town not far from the Tham Luang cave where the boys were trapped. Howard was initially drawn to Tungsupakul for her visceral connection to the character, but when he found out she was also from the area and wouldn’t have to learn the very specific dialect, he knew that she was the right woman for the job.
Tungsupakul, nicknamed Ploy, became an integral part of the production team. She improvised lines, researched specific cultures and traditions from her hometown, selected her own wardrobe, and even suggested plot points that made it into the film.
Getting the right details was particularly complicated as Covid restrictions prevented Howard from entering Thailand at all. Instead, “Thirteen Lives” was filmed in Queensland, Australia, and Howard remotely supervised an on-location film crew in Thailand.
“It was a challenge,” Howard said in an interview. “And there is certainly the risk of underperforming that way.”
Since the producers had no right to life over the boys or their families, Tungsupakul was unable to meet with any of the survivors or their parents. Instead, she studied news footage of the rescue, particularly parents’ reactions when reporters bombarded them with questions every day. “The journalists kept asking ‘How are you feeling?’ ‘How do you feel?’ “You must be sad,” she said. “It was terrible. But for me it was good because I have to do research and I want to see the real reactions.
Tungsupakul’s character is a poor working mother who carries tremendous guilt for not being home enough for her son. She is also stateless, a recent immigrant from Myanmar who is unsure whether her child will be saved with the others because she does not have the appropriate nationality.
Her character’s arc is about finding her voice in quiet moments: she directly challenges the Governor (“How can you understand? Is your own son going to die?”) – a highly unusual moment for a culture based on politeness and respect. In one scene, she asks a famous local monk to bless a handful of traditional bracelets from northern Thailand. She then gives the bracelets to the divers (played by Colin Farrell and Viggo Mortensen, among others) before they dive back into the depths.
Tungsupakul brought the idea of wristbands to production as another example of paying attention to local customs. “I asked my friend who studies Nordic culture at Chiang Mai University, and he said it was a must-have item,” she said. “It’s a sign of good luck to a person, giving him the blessing that if you go on a dangerous mission, you will be safe.”
Tungsupakul is also one of the few female characters in a male-dominated cast – a factor which, according to Ruetaivanichkul, one of the producers, was crucial in creating balance within the production, which is part of a series of screen projects, including the 2021 documentary “The Rescue,” about the colossal effort to rescue the stranded football team and its coach. (Producer PJ van Sandwijk worked on both “Thirteen Lives” and “The Rescue.”)
“She introduces femininity and the soft side of energy,” Ruetaivanichkul said. “She shows empathy within the group. That’s what Ron pointed out from the start, because otherwise it won’t be any different from the story of documentaries that focus on lifeguards. We are trying to build the world of Thai culture.
Tungsupakul and her sister were raised by parents who ran a small building materials trading business. She graduated from law school, but instead decided to move to Bangkok to pursue an acting career. The early success of a 2013 series in which she played a rural girl forced to move to Bangkok after her father’s murder made her a star in Thailand. When asked if she was famous, Tungsupakul hesitated with a quiet “Yeah” before adding, “But if I say ‘yes’ then maybe ‘Oh, I’m too much’.”
“Thirteen Lives” is her first international production, a production she found difficult when it came to modulating her emotions. She remembers Howard telling her at one point, “‘Ploy, in this scene, please don’t cry. No more tears,” she said with a laugh. The tears came so easily because the world the production team recreated in Australia felt so close to home. Tungsupakul was in Bangkok when the rescue was underway, but she remembers being glued to the TV, watching the story unfold, convinced no child was going to survive.
“I told Ron there was just no hope,” she said. “It’s sorry. They have no light. It’s humid. Scientists say people can starve to death in three days. There are just several ways to die.
At the time of the interview in July, Tungsupakul had yet to watch the film with a Thai audience, although she had seen the link sent to her seven times. His sister, for her part, is a fan. “I’m proud,” said Rugeradh Tungsupakul, who passes by Waen. “I know how difficult it was for her to get to where she is today.”
Tungsupakul’s biggest regret is that his father is not alive to witness his success. He died before his first TV show aired and was not happy when she gave up the right for the unpredictable life of an actress.
“If there’s a wish I could make,” she said, “I want Prime Video to be available where it is now so he can watch me in ‘Thirteen Lives,’ too.”