She’s the Secret Weapon in a Film About the Thai Cave Rescue

When Ron Howard set out to retell the story of the dramatic 2018 rescue of a young soccer team from a flooded cave in northern Thailand, he knew he would have to grapple with underwater photography, hordes of extras and a handful of surly protagonists in the form of the British divers who successfully saved the boys through extraordinary methods. But he also knew that, as an American director tackling a specifically Thai story, authenticity would be crucial — and that any deviation from verisimilitude would come at his peril.

So for the new film, “Thirteen Lives,” which debuts Friday on Prime Video, Howard and his producing partner, Brian Grazer, hired the Thai cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom (“Call Me by Your Name”), employed the producers Raymond Phathanavirangoon and Vorakorn Ruetaivanichkul, and relied on actors from the region to serve as his guides.

One such actor Howard came to trust was the 33-year-old Pattrakorn Tungsupakul, a petite television star from northern Thailand who plays Buahom, a single mother forced to wait helplessly at the entrance to the cave for an excruciating 17 days. Timid and afraid for her son, Tungsupakul’s character serves as the film’s emotional center.

The whole experience was refreshing — and strange — for an actress who has spent close to a decade working in Thai television, an environment that Tungsupakul says has not always been very collaborative or encouraging.

In the film, Tungsupakul plays the mother of one of the soccer players stranded in a flooded cave.Credit…Vince Valitutti/MGM, via Associated Press

“Ron, he always asked me, ‘What do you want to do?’ ‘What do you want to say?’ And he listened,” she said in an interview in Los Angeles, where she was accompanied by her older sister, Rugeradh Tungsupakul, a lawyer who served as her interpreter. “Because he trusted me so much, I had to prepare myself and work harder. I had to bring my experience to this project.”

She may also be the film’s secret weapon.

“She’s the most broadly relatable person in the film,” said Howard, who compared Tungsupakul’s 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 city not far from the Tham Luang Cave where the boys were trapped. Howard was initially attracted to Tungsupakul for her visceral connection to the character, but when he discovered she was also from the area and wouldn’t have to learn the very specific dialect, he knew she was the right woman for the job.

Tungsupakul, who goes by the nickname Ploy, became an integral part of the production team. She improvised lines, researched specific cultures and traditions of her hometown, selected her own wardrobe and even suggested plot points that made it into the film.

Getting details right was especially complicated because Covid restrictions prevented Howard from entering Thailand at all. Instead “Thirteen Lives” was shot in Queensland, Australia, and Howard remotely oversaw a film crew shooting exteriors in Thailand.

“That was a challenge,” Howard said in an interview. “And there’s certainly the risk of underachieving in that way.”

Since the producers didn’t have life rights to the boys or their families, Tungsupakul wasn’t able to meet with any of the survivors or their parents. Instead, she studied news footage of the rescue, particularly the reactions of the parents when journalists peppered them with questions each day. “The reporters kept asking ‘How do you feel?’ ‘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 isn’t certain her child will be rescued along with the others because she doesn’t have the proper citizenship.

Her character’s arc involves finding her voice in the quiet moments: She challenges the governor directly (“How can you understand? Is your own son going to die?”) — a moment very uncharacteristic for a culture predicated on politeness and respect. In one scene, she asks a famous local monk to bless a handful of traditional northern Thai bracelets. She then gives the bracelets to the divers (played by Colin Farrell and Viggo Mortensen, among others) before they plunge back into the depths.

After graduating from law school, Tungsupakul chose instead to pursue an acting career.Credit…Jennelle Fong for The New York Times

Tungsupakul brought the idea of the bracelets to the production as another example of paying attention to the local customs. “I asked my friend who studies northern culture at Chiang Mai University, and he said this is a must-have item,” she said. “It’s a signature of passing good luck to a person, giving him a blessing that if you’re going on a dangerous mission, you will be safe.”

Tungsupakul is also one of a handful of female characters in a male-dominated cast — a factor that Ruetaivanichkul, one of the producers, said was crucial to creating balance within the production, which is one of a spate of screen projects, including the 2021 documentary “The Rescue,” about the mammoth effort to save the stranded soccer team and its coach. (The producer P.J. van Sandwijk worked on both “Thirteen Lives” and “The Rescue.”)

“She introduces femininity and the soft side of energy,” Ruetaivanichkul said. “She shows the empathy within the group. That is what Ron emphasized from the very beginning, because otherwise it’s not going to be different from the story in the documentaries that focus on the rescuers. We are trying to do the world-building of Thai culture.”

Tungsupakul and her sister were raised by parents who ran a small business trading construction materials. She graduated from law school, but instead decided to move to Bangkok to pursue a career in acting. Early success on a 2013 series in which she played a rural girl forced to move to Bangkok after her father is murdered made her a star in Thailand. When asked if she was famous, Tungsupakul demurred 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, one she found challenging 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 had recreated in Australia felt so close to home. Tungsupakul was in Bangkok when the rescue was underway, but she remembers being glued to the television, watching the story unfold, positive that no child was going to survive.

“I told Ron, there was just no hope,” she said. “It’s desolate. They have no light. It’s wet. Scientists say people can starve within three days. There are just many ways to die.”

At the time of the interview in July, Tungsupakul had yet to watch the movie with a Thai audience, though she had viewed the link she was sent seven times. Her sister, for one, is a fan. “I feel proud,” said Rugeradh Tungsupakul, who goes by Waen. “I know how hard it’s been for her to get where she is today.”

Tungsupakul’s biggest regret is that her father isn’t alive to witness her success. He died before her first television show ran and had not been happy when she abandoned law for the unpredictable life of an actress.

“If there is any wish that I could make,” she said, “I want Prime Video to be available where he is now so that he can watch me in ‘Thirteen Lives,’ too.”

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