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]
posted by mouza on February 26 2021
Feature: Steven Yeun for GQ Magazine
Feature: Steven Yeun for GQ Magazine