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]
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]
Impostor syndrome: Everybody feels it, even Hollywood’s most seasoned stars. In a conversation recorded last month, actors Delroy Lindo, Riz Ahmed, Steven Yeun, Gary Oldman and George Clooney copped to the pangs of self-doubt they’ve experienced in their careers and the “jet fuel” that’s helped them power through.
“This idea of the impostor syndrome, it’s real with every actor,” said Clooney, who directed himself as a lone astronomer left on a dying Earth in the sci-fi adaptation “The Midnight Sky.” “Because to be successful at any level in this industry means that you’re beating such huge odds.”
Seeing that a performance can make a lasting impact and even meaningful change is a persuasive counterweight, said Ahmed, who plays Ruben, a drummer losing his hearing in “Sound of Metal.” “It’s a tremendous jet fuel to know that your work might help stretch culture in some way.”
“I think it’s very healthy, this impostor syndrome,” added “Mank” star Oldman, who portrays “Citizen Kane” screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz in the period biopic. “If someone said to me, ‘What do you think is your best work?’ I’d like to say, ‘Next year. The best work is the next one.’”
Beaming in remotely for the annual Envelope Oscar Roundtable, held virtually this year due to the pandemic, the quintet vowed to raise a glass when it’s safe to do so. They shared stories and laughs, as well as the sentiment that’s been on their minds now more than ever — gratitude.
Yeun, who stars as a family man chasing his American dream in “Minari,” described the sensation of panic — then faith — that overcame him while in the shower two days before filming. “I was in my hotel room freaking out. I was like, ‘I’m going to do a terrible job. Every Korean American kid is going to hate me because I represented this poorly.’ I was in the shower and I just started sobbing. And the feelings that overwhelmed me were fear, awe, gratitude and submission. It all came together into this feeling of just faith,” he said.
Meanwhile, the devastating COVID-19 pandemic has touched everyone around the globe, including our panelists. Lindo revealed that he’d battled the virus back in March — only months before drawing acclaim from audiences and critics alike for his turn as the tormented Vietnam War veteran Paul in “Da 5 Bloods.”
“I was very sick,” he said. “But the fact that I recovered from that is a consistent wake-up call and a consistent reminder to be grateful. Because the alternative could have been very different for me.”
The five actors also took time to remember the late Chadwick Boseman, who died in August after starring with Lindo in “Da 5 Bloods” and filming his final performance in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.”
“It’s a crappy year, and we don’t get to be in the same room together,” Clooney said. “And if we were sitting in a room right now, all of us together, there’d be an empty chair for Chadwick Boseman.”
Their conversation here has been edited for length and clarity. [More at Source]
Steven Yeun’s journey from aspiring improv comedian to leading “Minari,” the toast of this film awards season, began in earnest after some words of encouragement from a mysterious audience member he’d never seen before and has never seen since.
“I was in college, doing acting for fun,” he remembers. “This woman, she came to a staged reading and pulled me aside afterward and was like, ‘I really enjoyed your performance. I think you should pursue this. We are gonna need people like you.’ And I understood what she meant.”
Yeun took those magic words as permission to envision a Hollywood that tells true-to-life Asian American stories that feature more than a handful of people who look like him. The path to success in such an inherently image-based industry, however, was and still is far less clear for anyone outside its cookie-cutter (white, American, mostly male) status quo. “At the time, there was only John Cho in the main mainstream,” he points out. “He was the only one really doing comedy—him and Steve Park.”
If you know the identity of this “ominous woman,” as Yeun jokingly calls the audience member who spoke to him, please drop him a line. “She said these nice words to me, and it just kind of lit a fire. I was like, maybe John is now clearing a path for someone like me to exist.” [More at Source]