posted by mouza on May 03 2021

Feature: Steven Yeun for Sharp Magazine

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]

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