(Photo by Josh Ethan Johnson / © A24 / Courtesy Everett Collection)
Many who saw Steven Yeun as the suave, stylish playboy Ben in Lee Chang-dong’s Burning were shocked not to see him among the Academy Award nominees for Best Supporting Actor in 2019. The Korean-born American actor, just a few years out from leaving his star-making turn as Glenn on The Walking Dead – the episode still crushes us to this day – had delivered the kind of charismatic, sinister, and layered performance that, had it not been in a foreign film, would have all but assured him a solid awards-season run. Yet, despite some serious campaigning from writers and industry folks who heralded his turn as the almost Ripley-esque figure, it was not to be.
Burning was just one within a streak of exciting post-Walking Dead projects that have marked Yeun as one of the most interesting and unpredictable actors of his generation – and one of the Freshest. Since leaving the AMC series in 2016, he has popped up in Bong Joon-ho’s Okja and Boots Riley’s Sorry To Bother You, and he’s played the lead in the ultra-violent action/horror/comedy Mayhem, all Certified Fresh; add to that some great TV voice work in acclaimed animated series Tuca & Bertie and Wizards. And then there’s this year’s Minari, in which he plays an immigrant father chasing the American dream in the rural South – and dragging an unwitting family along with him – and which won top honors at last year’s Sundance Film Festival.
Minari arrives in theaters with three Screen Actors Guild Nominations, including for two for Yeun for Lead Actor and as part of the ensemble, and a controversial Golden Globe nomination for Best Foreign Language Film, despite being a decidedly American production and story. (Pundits predict the Academy won’t be making another Burning-level oversight of his performance when Oscar nominations are eventually announced, either.) Yeun, of course, isn’t focused on the hype, but on the work, and what Minari’s success could mean for American audiences and American stories moving forward.
Ahead of the movie’s release, Yeun sat for an extended chat with Rotten Tomatoes to talk about how he has charted his unique career path, playing Minari’s single-minded Jacob, and why he seeks collaborators who are like nobody else.
Jacqueline Coley for Rotten Tomatoes: I really wanted first of all to congratulate you on the SAG nominations, both your individual one and the ensemble one, and again, the film’s just getting so much great praise. I checked this morning – I didn’t know until today – but you’re on a five-film Certified Fresh hot streak.
Steven Yeun: Really?
Yeah. There must have been a lot of offers after The Walking Dead and you could have gone a lot of different directions, but looking at the films you did – everything from Okja and Mayhem to Sorry To Bother You and now Minari – those are specific choices. How did you decide to do those films, and why did you want to work with those filmmakers?
Yeun: It’s strange, because you’re asking me now from a kind of a retrospective lens, and maybe I’ve by this point kind of compiled a story to tell about what happened and how I made these choices, but in those moments, I don’t know if I had agency like that. I probably did. I certainly said no to things that I felt were just other versions of things that I’ve tried before.
But I think a lot of it is, for me, I was really trying to find myself. I was really trying to find out who I was and kind of get to play in roles that allowed me the space to express the fullness of, not me per se, but of a character. As an Asian-American actor, prior to Walking Dead, if I had any opportunities at all, it was really mostly to service larger narratives or kind of be a plot point by which to weave the main character around. So I wanted to be the main character that gets to have the plot points to weave around. With Mayhem, I’m so thankful to them for giving me my first chance at a leading role. It wasn’t a big budget and we shot it in Serbia, but we had some really wonderful people with us. Samara’s [Weaving, his co-star] incredible, Joe [Lynch, the director] is great. To flex that muscle was attractive to me.
And, then Okja… who wouldn’t work for director Bong? I’m a huge fan. And so, him reaching out and giving that part to me was extraordinary – and painful, because K was very much something that I was at the time, just somebody straddling two worlds and being unable to service either one. And I think going through that experience – I wasn’t necessarily super conscious of what I was participating in – but I realized halfway through, I was like, “Oh man, this is kind of how I feel.” And it is a painful realization.
And then, Sorry To Bother You was really wonderful, just speaking from an Asian-American’s perspective, even though it wasn’t explicitly, but just in a different way…
You were “Mr. Steal Your Girl” in that movie. That’s what I loved! Squeeze was the guy who was coming to slide into the DMs to check on it. I thought that was so brilliant.
Yeun: That’s Boots [Riley, writer and director of Sorry To Bother You]! And I guess, on a larger note, what I feel like is happening, when you think about Lee Chang-dong [director of Burning] and Isaac [Chung, director of Minari], I’m just really attracted to people that are singular people. There is no other Boots Riley, there is no other Lee Chang-dong, or Bong Joon-ho, or Isaac Chung. It’s really just these people that I gravitate towards that we can share an experience in a story that they’ve crafted. That feels so unique. I remember reading Sorry to Bother You, and certain people reading would be like, “What is this?” And then me reading it and I’d be like, “I’ve got to do this. Like, I have to. Who can write like this? Who has a mind like this?” When I see that, I’m in. So, that’s kind of where I’m at with that.
(Photo by Melissa Lukenbaugh / © A24 / Courtesy Everett Collection)
Getting ready for this chat, I read the New York Times Magazine profile where you talked about your roles and identity and the choices that you made, and I found it interesting because the character that you play in Minari is just not multifaceted at all. He is like a man on a mission: One focus, one goal, not listening to really any of the noise on the outside. And I think that’s way more difficult than trying to play a multifaceted character, in some ways, to add that humanity. Talk about that balancing act.
Yeun: Jacob was an interesting person to kind of climb into the mind of, not because I didn’t understand him at all, but because I think you’re kind of exploring the pain of being alone, the pain of isolation in him – at least for me. And I think that’s where I found a lot of his humanity, that he means well and he wants things and he loves his family and he desperately wants to provide for them, but he doesn’t know how to separate his role and his duty and his function from the love that he can also show his family. Oftentimes, that function and duty takes the role of love that he shows for his family, and his family doesn’t know how to deal with that or accept that, because maybe it’s not really the best way to convey love, to just play your part.
In that way, I think Jacob – from the outside looking in – might look and feel like a patriarch who’s dragging his family through his own ego, and ultimately it is [that], to some degree. But from his perspective, he’s also just trying his best to provide for his family. He’s doing it in the only way he’s ever known how, and that’s to give his body and mind up to that struggle. So I think in some ways, he feels deeply alone and isolated from his own family because they can’t see what he’s providing for them, or that’s what he feels like they can’t see.
(Photo by David Bornfriend / © A24 / Courtesy Everett Collection)
It’s interesting, too, because this is semi-autobiographical, and I think even Isaac would be able to say that some of the stuff that he experienced and put on screen was stranger than fiction. But in the end, you’re playing his dad and that’s another delicate dance. Did you guys have any conversations about that? I’m sure he had to give you a little bit of freedom with it, but also he wanted to make sure that it was true to the man.
Yeun: Well, to be quite honest, he actually left a lot of space. He had no specifics on how his dad needed to be. In fact, he never brought that up as something that needed to be checked off. He wrote something so true in my opinion, that was so human, that I think it created space for a lot of people to have come in and taken that role and imbued it with the things that they knew. It just happened to be that Isaac and I share a lot of our experiences together – of an immigrant life, of isolation, and of also understanding what it means to be a father.
I think that really speaks to, on a larger note, the graciousness of someone like Isaac. As I get to know him more and as I get to see how he thinks and how he’s constructed this film and written this film, I peel back all those layers and I realize what’s at the beating heart of it all is just someone that deeply, deeply cares about others and about humanity in that way. And he cares not only about the characters that he’s created, and every single one of them, but also he cares deeply about the audience, about making sure that there is no barrier to accessing these people in this story. And it’s really about connection.
(Photo by Josh Ethan Johnson / © A24 / Courtesy Everett Collection)
Your scene with Yeri Han, who plays Jacob’s wife Monica, towards the end is probably one of the most climactic things in the film. Without spoiling it, just talk about her as a scene partner and how you guys were able to work that out, because in a lot of ways, the movie lives or dies by that scene.
Yeun: Thanks. I’m so glad you enjoyed that. I can’t say enough good things about Yeri. She’s incredible. You know, we never really over-talked much [in preparing]. We maybe talked about that particular scene a lot in terms of shaping what I wanted to say in that moment and maybe what she wanted to say in that moment. And we got to some place that felt right for the two of us.
But beyond that, there were many times where her and I really just had single takes. We really lived in the experience, and the ways in which she was honest about her approach to Monica, the ways that I would talk about my approach to Jacob and kind of the truthfulness that we shared between each other – and even in the disagreements of how we saw situations were part of it. It was part of making the tension of those characters. So yeah, I mean, I knew I could just trust her intrinsically to be honest and truthful all the time. And, you know, if you have a scene partner like that, you’re chilling.
I mean, it didn’t look like y’all were chilling; it looked pretty powerful. But I get what you’re saying, as far as the work on the other side. This next question’s a little bit light, but I’m just going to put it out there: Your character, Jacob, is like the Michael Jordan of chicken sexing. And trust me when I say this was a very big editorial conversation at Rotten Tomatoes, so please take this seriously. We want to know: did you get good at telling the difference between male and female chickens as Jacob does in the movie?
Yeun: I got pretty decent, but actually who probably got better is Yeri. I’m probably like the Scottie Pippen – no, maybe I’ll get all the credit because some dumb weirdness, but she’s the real MVP. She really knew how to do that. I think for us, it was the practice of practicing that with our animal wrangler, and also, my wife, her parents also chicken sex, just like Isaac’s parents. And they taught us tips and tricks, and we all grew out our thumbnails so that we could like open their vents. It was a fascinating time.
(Photo by Melissa Lukenbaugh / © A24 / Courtesy Everett Collection)
Oh my gosh, I really did not expect that to be such a thing. And one last question. Just to follow up on Parasite, which won Best Picture, and now you guys entering in this conversation as a logical Best Picture nominee – folks in my seat who do this for a living are already talking about that. When we get back into theaters, do you think this trend is just going to push even further? And if so, what kinds of stuff would you like American audiences to see?
Yeun: Parasite opened many doors and broke down a lot of barriers on a larger humanity level of just understanding each other between cultures. But the humanity that they’re expressing is unencumbered by the American gaze, because they’re Korean people and they’re making it from Korea, so they’re not considering us. Whereas our film does have to navigate the constant consideration of who we are in the midst of a primarily white-majority American audience. A lot of the time, the ways that that would express is that we end up explaining ourselves or we end up telling the audience how we are oppressed by the majority or how the majority factors into our story.
But the truth is we weren’t even considering them because that’s our story. Our story doesn’t bring home a consideration of the majority American whiteness at a constant level. It’s just like: I’m me and I exist.
I think it is really cool to be at a time where an American company in Plan B and A24 can finance and produce and make a non-English language American film. I mean, what a new foundation, what a new frontier. And I hope that if anything comes about, it’s that we get to really understand what makes America more. All the things that have always been here, which is just all of us. There are so many different things that make America. And I’m interested in that as the next step for us on an American side. Beyond that, the world is just getting more and more global anyhow. And so hopefully we get to be human together at some point.
Minari is in theaters February 12, 2021.