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From Sundance to Theaters, Simone Baker Makes Powerful Debut in 'Gook'

Simone Baker stars in Justin Chon's "Gook" as Kamilla, a young girl who befriends two Korean-American brothers set against the backdrop of the 1992 LA riots.
Image: Simone Baker stars in \"Gook\" as Kamilla
Simone Baker stars in "Gook" as Kamilla, a young girl who befriends two Korean-American brothers during the 1992 Los Angeles riots.Birthday Soup Films, LLC

LOS ANGELES — Against the backdrop of a burning building, a small silhouetted figure is dancing. The young girl's movements are chaotic and her gestures, grand. The music is slow.

It's an unexpected opening to "Gook," a 2017 Sundance award-winning film about the 1992 Los Angeles riots, but the minute-long sequence becomes clear by the film's end. The dancer isn't just an anonymous symbol of hope through chaos: she, Kamilla, is the film's heart.

"Gook" is 12-year-old Simone Baker's big screen debut, and Kamilla is a heavy role for audiences to meet the young actress in. But, Baker told NBC News, it was an important character for her to play.

"I thought it was good for me to learn about it because I need to learn the history of that," Baker said, adding that her mother and the film's producers explained the context and the events of the riots to help her understand her role.

Born in Chicago, Baker and her mother moved to Los Angeles when Baker was 4 years old, and two years later, an agent noticed her at a copy center and gave her card to Baker's mother.

"I had no idea what was going on," Baker said. "I thought she was just some random lady giving my mom her card."

Baker's credits have included small roles on television and in commercials, but her big break came when "Gook" director and star Justin Chon and his team approached the Fernando Pullum Community Art Center in South Central Los Angeles to help with the casting process for the role of Kamilla.

"Fernando [Pullum] opened his center to us and just gave us resources and allowed for us to use his space to cast from there, and that's how we found Simone," Chon told NBC News earlier this year. "I had held auditions and a lot of the kids who were from the industry were very rehearsed and polished, and that's great and there's a place for that. But for this particular film, I felt that I needed something more raw and just real."

Baker, who sang for her audition, was cast in "Gook" on the same day she met with the film team — which also happened to be her birthday.

Set against the backdrop of the riots, "Gook" focuses on the friendship between Kamilla (Baker) and two Korean-American brothers (played Chon and David So) who own a shoe store — an element loosely inspired by Chon's father, who owned a shoe store in during the riots.

RELATED: Justin Chon Explores ‘Untold Aspect’ of LA Riots in Film Called ‘Gook’

Stepping into a lead role took a lot of focus for Baker, who said she worked hard to understand her character's environment and also when to step away from the intensity of the set. But one of the bigger challenges, she added, came with some of the dialogue.

"I don't normally cuss, but in the movie I had to," Baker said with a nervous smile, adding that she managed the script and the dramatic scenes with help from her mother and with the support of Chon and the film's producers on set.

The dramatic tone of the film is one that she said she hopes to continue acting in as she progresses into high school — though with a small warning from her mother. "I told my mom when I get into high school I want all the drama in the world, but she said, 'No, you can watch the drama, but you don't have to be a part of it!'"

"Gook" premiered at Sundance in January and took home the festival's NEXT Audience Award. Since then, it's screened at film festivals across the country (Baker won Best Actress in the North American Narrative Feature category at the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival in April), and is scheduled to be released in theaters on August 18, beginning in Los Angeles.