Steven Yeun wants to create his own reality. The Korean–American actor, star of The Walking Dead, Burning, and now Minari, is feeling a bit exhausted, torn between the expectations placed on Korean actors working in Hollywood and Hollywood actors working in Korea. He’s tired of feeling like he can only be placed on either side. And even more tired of being placed in the middle, astride increasingly unstable concepts of East and West.
“There’s Korea. And then there’s the West,” Yeun says, Zooming from the driver’s seat of a parked car, somewhere in Los Angeles. “And which one are you? Are you both? Or are you between them? I’m just my own thing. I’m my own third culture.” Certainly, Yeun’s career feels singular — totally its own thing.
Born in Seoul in 1983, Yeun immigrated with his family to Regina, Saskatchewan, when he was just five. “I don’t remember Canada all that well,” he confesses. “For me, what Canada represents was a traumatic change in reality.” Being transplanted from the curvy backstreets of Seoul to the Canadian prairies was, for Yeun, a bit disorienting. A class photo from the period appears in a recent New York Times Magazine spread, with little Yeun in the bottom right corner, the only Asian kid in a lineup of prairie whiteness, looking physically out of place and a little bit scared. On a whim, his family veered south, to Troy, Michigan, a Detroit suburb where they ran a beauty supply company. At church, the young Yeun commingled with other Korean kids and cultivated a newfound confidence among these peers. After graduating from nearby Kalamazoo College, Yeun announced his ambition to become an actor. His parents were thinking of a stabler move, like a law degree or medical school (he had, after all, studied neuroscience in college). But they offered their blessing. After a few years studying and teaching improv in Chicago, Yeun moved to Los Angeles to pursue a career in Hollywood.
Forgoing the months and years of struggle and failure that shape so many would-be Hollywood upstarts, Yeun landed a major role relatively quickly. (If his time in the audition circuit was brief, it was also gruelling in a different way: in his first-ever try-out, a casting director asked him to re-take a comedic monologue “in an Asian accent.”) Yeun was cast as the pizza deliveryman–turned–survivalist Glenn Rhee on AMC’s wildly popular zombie thriller The Walking Dead. It’s the sort of gig actors dream of: lucrative and offering a measure of stability, which isn’t easy to come by in a series where main characters are routinely beaten to death or devoured whole by teeming undead hordes. But Yeun’s major breakout role came a bit later, in the 2018 Korean thriller Burning. A festival and arthouse hit helmed by legendary Korean director Lee Chang-dong, Burning cast Yeun as Ben, a chilly playboy who wheedles his way into the life of the film’s troubled protagonist, Jong-su, played by Yoo Ah-in. (When I saw Burning the first time, I recall quite literally tilting my whole body toward the screen, physically drawn in by Yeun’s commanding performance.)
It was the sort of role that rarely comes along in Hollywood. And Yeun knew it. “As a Korean–American, I never got a role that allowed me to play with such status and power,” he says. “If there was, it would be written in a way where it’s a status and power that still needs validation. Whereas the character Ben in Burning is like, ‘I don’t need status and power from anybody.’ The potential of someone like myself, an Asian–American, what we can play, is limited in Hollywood.” [More at Source]
The Oscar-nominated film navigates the immigrant American journey, but writer-director Lee Isaac Chung, producer Christina Oh and Steven Yeun emphasize its themes are broader than the Asian American experience: “We were just trying to tell something honest.”
It was a church scene that first caught producer Christina Oh’s attention when she was introduced to the Minari script in February 2019 by the film’s future star, Steven Yeun. In the handful of pages that he showed her, a white girl of primary-school age approaches Anne (Noel Kate Cho), the young daughter of a Korean American family that has just moved from California to rural Arkansas to chase a homesteading dream. It’s the Yi family’s first Sunday at a white church, and everyone means well, even if they don’t know how to show it. “Can you stop me if I say something in your language?” the white girl asks Anne by the post-service buffet. Out comes a stream of gibberish — “chinga-chinga-chon, chama-chama-choo” — that Anne politely endures, then indulges. It’s a kind of racism that’s still underdiscussed — accidental, almost benign, yet pervasive and unmistakable — and writer-director Lee Isaac Chung’s acuity and generosity struck Oh as something different. “It was a new depiction of our existence among white people,” she recalls thinking. “It was done in a way that didn’t villainize anyone.”
Within a couple of days, Chung’s full screenplay — in which Jacob (Yeun), his wife, Monica (Yeri Han), and their children are joined on their nascent farm by the latter’s sprightly, coarse-tongued grandmother (played by revered Korean actress Yuh-Jung Youn) — landed on Oh’s desk. “I read it, and I was so crazy moved by it,” the Plan B producer says of the loosely autobiographical drama. “It had so many beats of my life and in a way that I didn’t ever think anyone else understood, like your grandma coming [from Korea] and bringing bags of myulchi [dried anchovies] and gochugaru [red chili pepper flakes].” The scene with the two girls that had captivated Oh had been pulled from real life, too — it happened to Chung’s sister Leisle at one of the two churches the siblings had attended as children.
At the same time, Yeun, Chung and Oh take care to note in conversations with THR that their film — which has garnered six Oscar nominations (including for best picture), SAG and BAFTA victories for scene-stealing supporting actress Youn and a controversial Golden Globe win for best foreign-language film — deserves to be considered as more than an Asian American movie. They seemed caught in an age-old Hollywood trap that’s persisted during the current “diversity boom,” one that filmmakers of color who have mined their personal histories and proudly showcased cultural authenticity are penned into when their work finds success in the mainstream: how to speak to the specificity of their experience while not having their movies reduced solely to it. Minari tried to see the humanity in everyone. Could the world see the humanity in Minari?
So far, the answer seems to be yes. Since its debut at Sundance 2020, where it quickly became a word-of-mouth sensation, the 1980s-set family portrait has only gained steam as an awards contender. Yeun, 37, who rose to prominence as fan favorite Glenn Rhee on The Walking Dead and earned critical accolades for his supporting turn in Lee Chang-dong’s class-resentment drama Burning, became the first-ever Asian American nominated for a best actor Oscar for his restrained but passionate performance. Notably, with Chadwick Boseman’s death, Yeun is the only living American actor (all of the other nominees are British) competing in his category. [more at source]
Some of Yeun’s friends had told me, specifically, to ask the actor about his fondness for something called primal astrology. Primal astrology is a quasi-evolved version of its more popular zodiac cousin, with a little more spiritual razzle-dazzle—the main difference being that, instead of, say, Scorpios or Sagittarii, the birth signs are meerkats or bees. According to Primalastrology.com, the system is designed to help people “discover far, far more about your path in life than was previously possible” by combining their Eastern and Western zodiac signs along with “past lives” and “karmic balancing.” (According to a female colleague, “It sounds like astrology, but for dudes.”) Steven Yeun’s spirit animal is a camel—an assessment he agrees with.
steven yeun on gq’s april 2021 cover
Steven Yeun covers the April 2021 issue of GQ. To get a copy, subscribe to GQ. Vintage vest and vintage ring (on right hand) from Melet Mercantile. Vintage shirt from Stock Vintage. Vintage jeans by Levi’s from What Goes Around Comes Around. Belt, $985, by Artemas Quibble. Necklace and ring (on left hand), his own. Bracelet, $1,395, by Saint Laurent by Anthony Vaccarello.
Per the site, a camel is always “up for an adventure. Like their animal namesake, Camels will not only trek through harsh conditions for you, they will carry you on their back while they do it.… They are highly self-reliant and very lucky, which is why they don’t always look before they leap.”
So it’s a little bit of a Rorschach test in that the heart sees what it wants to see. Whether it’s useful or not, primal astrology is the exact kind of silly distraction that registers in Yeun’s bones—that opens his mind to new modes of thinking. Growing up in suburban Michigan, Yeun spent his time absorbed in X-Men trading cards, which spelled out a character’s traits, like STRENGTH, ENERGY PROJECTION, FIGHTING ABILITY, and whether this guy’s adamantium claws could cut through so-and-so’s gamma-irradiated skin. “I wonder if that’s an Asian thing?” Yeun said. “We love pattern recognition and stats and knowing what someone’s makeup is. You know what I mean?” His favorite thing about primal astrology, though, is “the merging of East and West”—the convergence of worlds. He’s deeply focused on those ambiguous, in-between spaces. “That, to me, is maybe the future—if you can balance the ideologies of both sides. That’s a good balance.” [More at Source]
In 2018, Steven Yeun premiered his breakout film Burning at the Cannes Film Festival. But his newest project, Minari, is releasing in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic. According to the actor, the rollout experiences of the two films have been like night and day—but the stories they tell, and the way they spotlight Korean narratives not often placed center stage, are the same. For W’s annual Best Performances issue, the former The Walking Dead star touches on gleaning inspiration from his 8-year-old costar Alan Kim and his own family.
Your character is an expert at chicken sexing—separating baby chicks by gender.
Yes. Minari is essentially the story of my wife’s family. My wife is Korean but grew up in Arkansas, and her family first made their money by chicken sexing. They gave me some tips on how to work with the chicks. The difficulty was that the chicks are so cute, and you want to be gentle with them. But my character, Jacob, says, “These male chicks have no purpose.” To go to that mentality while trying to be light with these adorable little animals was an interesting, tense experience.
Was it difficult for you to go back and forth between English and Korean in Minari? Because in Burning, you were pretty much just speaking in Korean.
Going between languages is always scary for me, especially as someone who’s re-tapping into the Korean language portion of myself. But in Burning, the benefit was that I was in Korea, so I was speaking Korean all the time. The difficulty for this one was that tension of living in Oklahoma, speaking English most of your day, and then while you’re on set, just speaking in Korean. So I had a lot of help from wonderful people.
The woman who plays your wife is native Korean.
So is Yuh-jung Youn, who plays the grandmother. This touches on the idea of how much this whole experience was a communal one. I don’t think you can remove a piece and get the same product. Every single person did their thing. And I get to sit here and talk about it, but it really was so many people.
The beauty of the film, too, is when [director] Lee Isaac Chung and I spoke about it, we really tried not to create any barriers to entry. We just examined the humanity of these characters. The culture was just embedded into the movie, and the rest of the things that we talked about or acted in, or showed with the camera from Isaac’s point of view, was like, these human beings trying to live a life. And I think a lot of people can relate to that experience.
On a larger note, I hope we can understand how many things and how many different people and different experiences uphold the world we live in. And certainly, I learned that even on a smaller scale of playing Jacob, you kind of trudge through life, trying to control everything and say that you’re owning it, but you forget to look back, and you realize the real people upholding all of it with you are your entire family, everyone around you. And so I hope that feeling resonates.
Had you known about minari itself, the actual weed?
I do know about minari. We ate it growing up. There’s this great voiceover that Isaac added about a month or two before we started that he ended up cutting, which said, “Minari comes in the pockets of immigrants, dies in the first year, thrives in the second, purifies the water, purifies the soil.” There’s just something very beautiful about that analogy and the metaphor of starting anew, starting from the ashes of anything. When you’re burning it all down, you have to start again and build it brand new. [More at Source]
Actor Steven Yeun had spent a lifetime working toward the moment when he looked over at his father, seated next to him at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival premiere of “Minari” and saw him crying. Yeun’s father caught him glancing his way and put his hand on his son’s shoulder. Yeun returned the gesture. And then they both began sobbing. Literally. Torrents of tears. No words were exchanged — then or later. There was just this deep feeling of each man feeling finally, properly understood.
That moment didn’t surprise Lee Isaac Chung, the writer and director of “Minari.” When it comes to many Korean American households, he says, there’s not only a cultural gap between immigrant parents and children born in America, there’s also a language barrier that often prevents meaningful communication. That barrier was the starting point for “Minari,” a story, loosely based on his own life, about a Korean American family moving to a farm in the heartland to put down roots and stake a claim for a more meaningful life.
“I showed it to them the day after Thanksgiving, which meant that the day before, during Thanksgiving dinner, I was a nervous wreck,” Chung says with a laugh. “When it came time to finally show them, I was thinking, ‘Do I serve wine at this thing? Will wine make them more upset, or will it help ease the mood?’ I was more nervous about this than Sundance, to be completely honest.”
For the record, Chung did serve wine, and at some point he stopped worrying about whether he had honored his parents or portrayed their struggle accurately and just enjoyed the fact that they were together in his South Pasadena home, everyone appreciating that they had endured and were still together.
Chung wrote “Minari” in July 2018 as he was preparing to move to South Korea with his wife and daughter to teach film classes at the University of Utah’s Asia campus. Chung had made four movies, including his 2007 debut feature, “Munyurangabo,” a thoughtful drama set in the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide, shot entirely in Rwanda with local actors. “Munyurangabo” premiered at Cannes, earning a prestigious spot in the festival’s Un Certain Regard section. But a decade later, Chung felt his career was stuck in neutral and began contemplating going into teaching full time.
“Basically, I was the teacher in ‘Soul,’” Chung says, laughing, referring to the latest Pixar Animation feature in which the lead character wrestles with a midlife career commitment. [More at Source]
When I was growing up in the ’90s, the only Asian-American writer I knew was Amy Tan. Her thick paperbacks, “The Joy Luck Club” and “The Kitchen God’s Wife,” were on everyone’s bookshelves. I, of course, hated Amy Tan because I considered myself a hard-edged thinker. Her books, which were mostly about industrious, dignified immigrants, embodied a type of minstrelsy in which the Asian-American writer gives the white audience bits of tossed-off Oriental wisdom — “Isn’t hate merely the result of wounded love?” — or a few parables about gold and black tigers or what have you. If I had been asked back then what I planned to write about, I might have gestured toward the Beatniks or cutting down trees in the woods or heroin or jazz, but the only concrete pledge I could have given you was, “I will not write ‘The Joy Luck Club.’”
In graduate school, while in an M.F.A. program, I would walk to the bookstore and wander among the fiction shelves, wondering where my novel would fit. This was embarrassing and vain, and although I was certainly both those things, I stage-managed my reverie with some measure of self-aware detachment, performing at being a broke, unpublished author fantasizing about his bright future. In a similar spirit, I would look around for Asian authors who were not Amy Tan. There were also Maxine Hong Kingston and Chang-Rae Lee, but I saw few others. I knew I was supposed to have some feelings about the dearth of published Asian authors, but nothing really came to me. Maybe there just weren’t many Asian people trying to write novels, or maybe they were bad at it. The tug-of-war between my intellect, which was telling me that I might be in for some rough times in publishing, and my American ambition, which was feeding me some version of a sneaker ad — Just Do It — was never much of a contest. The world would yield to me.
I was 23 and typing out a novel about a young Korean man who had a brother with Down syndrome whom he cast in various public-service announcements about tolerance. There were parts that were supposed to be a direct parody of “Life Goes On,” the ABC drama that starred Chris Burke as Corky Thatcher. I thought this was very edgy and funny, but I also mixed in occasional ruminations about Koreanness and the burdens of an immigrant childhood. My workshop professor at the time was known as a leader in the field of experimental fiction. One day, he said something about my work that has stuck with me. “This novel will almost certainly be published because it’s about a life we don’t hear about too often,” I recall him saying. “But what we need to do is figure out a way to elevate it so that it’s not just a telling of the way things are for a certain type of person.”
Declarations like these were quite common in the workshop. Delivered with great gravity, they drew a line between those of us who had serious literary ambitions and those who just wanted to tell our life stories to the world for a six-figure advance and readings at the 92nd Street Y. [More at Source]
Steven Yeun remembers exactly where he was on the night of June 15, 2004, after his beloved Detroit Pistons embarrassed the Los Angeles Lakers to win their first NBA title in 14 years:
“I was in college. It was my senior year, and we lit a couch on fire.”
This was at Kalamazoo College in his home state of Michigan, where he lived in a house with five guys on the basketball team. “That victory was strange because we won that shit in the third quarter,” explains Yeun. “And so then you’re just like celebrating but not, because it’s not done yet.” In his telling, when the final buzzer bzzzt’d and confetti ribbons squiggled down from the rafters, using a communal piece of furniture to start a bonfire seemed like a perfectly natural way to celebrate.
Now a decade and a half later, Yeun has an arson-adjacent film coming out this month called Burning, where he plays, for the first time in his career, a villain—a cultivated libertine named Ben who drives a Porsche and listens to jazz and cops to a secret love of setting old greenhouses ablaze. Directed by Lee Chang-dong, the film is in Korean and is loosely based on a short story by Japanese author Haruki Murakami. The film received a standing ovation at Cannes and similarly dazzled along the festival circuit—which is why we’re here, eating lunch at Scarr’s Pizza, a throwback slice joint hidden away on a sleepy block in Chinatown. (My first two restaurant suggestions—a nearby Taiwanese noodle spot and a Malaysian cafe—were both politely rejected via his reps, but more on that in a bit.)
In conversation Yeun is present and thoughtful, his face framed by devastatingly perfect cheekbones that could start their own contouring show on YouTube. Before we eat, though, he hovers over his pizza—a square, Detroit-style corner slice with pepperoni—and takes a quick photo. [Source]