Our Annual Report continues today with the announcement of Steven Yeun as our Performance of the Year. Stay tuned for more awards, lists, and articles in the days and weeks to come about the best music, film, and TV of the year. If you’ve missed any part of our Annual Report, you can check out all the coverage here.
Two things you need to know about Steven Yeun: He calls comparisons “comps”, and he has a better understanding of who he is as an actor and cultural figure than many other stars his age. Of course, it helps that he’s taken the long road to stardom, breaking out in a big way as zombie apocalypse survivor Glenn for six years on The Walking Dead, before moving on to roles in films by some of our most idiosyncratic, interesting filmmakers working today: Bong Joon-ho (Okja), Boots Riley (Sorry to Bother You), and Lee Chang-dong (Burning), to name a few.
His latest, A24’s soul-stirring family drama Minari, feels like a turning point of sorts, both in the gripping complexity of his performance and the film culture that’s finally taken due notice of him. In Lee Isaac Chung’s thoughtful melodrama, set in rural Arkansas in the 1980s, Yeun plays Jacob Yi, the ambitious patriarch to a young family who’s emigrated to the United States to build a better life. They’re farmers and chicken sexers, moving from place to place to chase the American Dream.
David’s latest endeavor brings him to a ramshackle elevated trailer in the middle of a barren field, which he’s convinced will be the site of a new farm for Korean vegetables he can use to build a life for himself and his family. But for the rest of the family, it could be the thing that tears them all apart.
It’s a beautiful turn, Yeun layering Jacob’s quixotic journey with introspection, wounded masculinity, and that lingering tension between being a family man and finding one’s purpose. It’s also a performance that’s leading to a lot of Oscar buzz surrounding Yeun, which (if it came true) would make him the first Asian-American actor nominated for Best Actor. But his journey with Minari is also colored by an intense clarity about the unique space he occupies in both American and Korean film culture. It’s clear he desires, above all else, to explore his capabilities and potential as an actor, and to chase the opportunities that gave him that chance.
Yeun sat down with Consequence of Sound to talk about not just Minari and how he came to be involved, but the film’s place in his already multi-faceted career. Together, we discuss the ways Jacob feels like James Dean and Willy Loman, how the death and disease of 2020 has altered his relationship to the film, and how he feels about the labels — sex symbol, potential Oscar nominee — people place on him.
On Planting the Seeds of Minari
What’s the story of you coming to Minari – not just starring in it, but also executive producing it?
My agent, Christina Chao, came up to me one day and was like, “Hey, we represent your cousin.” I was like, “What? Who’s my cousin?” She said, “Isaac Chung.” I had no idea who she was talking about. And then it hit me: My wife’s cousin Isaac Chung.
I’d only met Isaac a handful of times prior, maybe at family weddings. The first time I knew of him was when my wife and I first started dating in Chicago, and she took me to Piper’s Alley to watch his first film, Munyurangabo, and it was so wonderful. But we never really connected or talked about working together or anything like that.
But Christina asked me to take a look at the script, and I was so blown away by its honesty and its unwavering point of view. It wasn’t trying to explain itself; it was just true to the experience. Whenever it’s something like that, I get excited. I said to myself, “This is incredible, I’ve gotta do it.”
I had a lot of hesitations because I knew I was perhaps touching something personal and dear to a lot of people. I was wriggling and writhing a bit. But speaking to Isaac really made me feel at ease that we were approaching something really wonderful.
I understand that it’s semi-autobiographical for Chung; what kind of responsibility did you feel, especially in conversations with him, essentially playing a sort of avatar for his own father.
What was really great was that he never placed that burden on me. He never said that this was to specifically represent his father or anything. I think the beauty of the script and his approach was that I was just supposed to service this character of Jacob. He also opened him up, knowing that I also had similar experiences, that I could also resonate with the themes and ideas. Just a Korean man of that era, looking at my own father, and the immigrant narrative.
Isaac and I connected in a lot of places — I think we really see a lot of things the same.
What resonated with you about Jacob as a man? Obviously, there’s a lot about the American immigrant experience in there, but there’s something of Willy Loman in him too. There’s that sense of idealism against all odds, to the point of delusion, that his plan for his family will work.
That’s a great comp — he’s caught in the process of society, I guess, of what a family must do and what each person must service and what role they must play in order for a quote-unquote family to work in this life.
Another comp I was holding dear in trying to understand Jacob was James Dean, you know? From an ideological standpoint, he was someone that I felt was trapped in the gap of things. He was able to see a lot of things for what they were but was unable to communicate them because the larger world outside didn’t understand what he was talking about. That frustration, that desire to be seen and to make himself was something that I think Jacob definitely carries.
When building Jacob’s story, what I deeply resonated with, and I think a lot of immigrant men (and specifically Korean men at the time) connected with was trying to get free of the system that you’re from. Korean culture, and Eastern culture as a whole, has within it a collective structure that sometimes determines who you are and what you can be. That exists everywhere, but maybe in Korean society that’s a bit more on the surface.
So it was fun to build the idea that Jacob, much like our fathers were people trying to break free of it and realize a dream for themselves. Then, as they come to do that, they find other things that are trying to ensnare them more and trap them in their own system.
Jacob’s a pretty crazy character, if you think about it; for him to leave his home country and then land in California, and then still feel the cage of the Korean system still upon him. So he moves deeper into a place where no one can really be with him. He’s a man trying to find himself, I think, and on a larger front, like Jacob in the Bible, wrestling with God. Try to deeply control life.
There’s that responsibility to create that sense of purpose, as well. I remember a scene early in the film where he explains to young David about chicken sexing, and about how disposable male chicks are burned because they have no purpose. So he needs to become useful.
Yes, and I think that’s kind of an indoctrination in terms of his understanding of his worth and existence. That it needs to be predicated on a function, which is something that we all hold. But perhaps the journey that Jacob goes on is more about understanding that he’s more than his role and that his family is also more than their intrinsic roles. They’re deeply connected together.
Speaking of the family, I’d love to hear more about how you engaged with all the wonderful cast members around you — Alan Kim, Han Ye-ri, Youn Yuh-jung. Was there a sense of building a family while you were filming?
We didn’t actually have much time to shoot this. We had less than a month. And people are coming in from Korea, from all over the US, just to meet in Tulsa on a tiny little set. What was really wonderful is Isaac’s incredibly wise, talented direction — he cast a wonderful family, he cast amazing actors all around that were willing to really submit to this story and come together as a unit.
Isaac says that he sees the protagonist of the film as the entire family. With that in mind, he cast actors who were not just so talented in their own right, but are also deeply humble human beings who came in service of the story. So when we did come together, it felt really natural.
Ye-ri and I spoke a little bit about our dynamic, and we expressed to each other our viewpoints about what we thought our relationship was. Even working through that conversation, you realize that we don’t totally see eye to eye, which is so perfect for this relationship. We all just leaned into it. Everyone was allowed to hold their own space, their own place in the narrative.
And the kids, you know? Kids keep you honest, I think. Alan and Noel are so pure that, when you’re acting alongside them, and if you’re false they’ll become false as well because they’re reacting to you. Or actually, come to think of it, they’ll become just as true. They’ll tell you that you’re being false.
Read ahead to hear his thoughts on current Oscars buzz…
On Immigrant Stories and Our Need for Resilience
In cinema, we tend to see immigrant stories as urban stories, where people come to America and settle on the coasts. But the fact that Minari takes place in a rural setting is remarkable, especially given that it doesn’t place a huge emphasis on overt acts of racism from their white neighbors. There are these little moments of bigotry, but Chung paints them with a kind of innocence, where they’re born of sheer childlike ignorance. Was it purposeful to steer away from that?
I think on a larger front, it’s true that real racism does and can exist in these situations. But what’s also true is that a lot of daily interactions might be more benign, or banal, or might just be misunderstandings. But the film isn’t trying to cast a picture of what is and isn’t, but rather comes from the framing of this family’s point of view.
If there was a traumatic racist incident, obviously the narrative would have taken a central focus on it. But the truth is, we were just trying to talk about this family from their point of view. They don’t carry with them what happens on the outside in that same way — for them, they’re just coming home and living their life.
They know that they’re there, they know that they’re not of this place. To interact with racism in any level, whether it’s benign or super terrible, it’s just work. The family is not defined by its environment; the family is defined by itself, and what it intrinsically thinks on its own.
I think that’s the truest way of telling this family’s story without, maybe, the American white gaze: we’re not bringing that home. We’re not considering that. When we live, we wake up, and we consider ourselves and say who we are. As opposed to, “I am a person that is racialized by America at every turn.”
Yeah, I almost wonder if when a white audience member watches it and wonders, Where’s all the racism? That’s something that they need to investigate about themselves as well.
Right, which like, does the narrative always need to be juxtaposed with whiteness? Or can it just what it is? And, in some ways, does not juxtaposing it to whiteness actually allow for all viewers to access this on a more meaningful level — this deep humanity that we all share?
And it’s all centered around that central metaphor of minari, a plant that can grow anywhere and echoes the resilience of this family. This year, in particular, that feels especially aspirational. Have you thought about that in the context of 2020?
Oh, definitely. When we were making it, there was something very special and kismet about how it all came together. It felt like we were touching something delicate and true to our experience, which was pretty internally profound.
But then we got to Sundance, and the day of our first screening was the day Kobe [Bryant] died. That was a somber day. To have a figure that looms over life as large as him at the time to just die out of the blue in such a tragic and horrific way, alongside his daughter, cast a mortality onto the film at the time. It heightened the stakes; it felt like the people on screen, these characters, could die at any moment, as well. It felt very loaded.
And then, there were rumblings of COVID at the time, and fear percolating about what it could be. And when you saw the cascading effects of that after you came back, it was profound at that point. Collectively, all of our farms have burned: so many of our institutions, our understandings about life and reality, burn down because we were made to see them for what they were.
I feel like all of us are Jacob going through this — understanding that you can’t control this thing. You can’t hold it by its horns and steer it wherever you want to. Sometimes it’ll just tell you what it’s going to do. It’s a gift, in some ways, because you can see a little bit more clearly who got you here and how you are here. That everybody’s doing the working, and we’re deeply connected to each other.
On Steven Yeun, the Actor
You really got started in Chicago, you did improv at Second City before The Walking Dead. Are there times where you feel like a comedian who transitioned to drama, or is that just another facet of your persona? I just envision a Sliding Doors scenario where you came to fame in comedic vehicles, and then started to have your Jim Carrey moment.
That’s a great question; I mean, I don’t know if I can ever say I ever got a full, firm footing in comedy to claim that, per se. But I will say that it says something about what it might take for what comedians are touching when they’re touching comedy. Some of the greatest comedians are the greatest dramatic actors. That makes a lot of sense to me; you’re able to see the world for what it is, as opposed to how it’s presented. When you have that kind of realization, that can inform your dramatic work as well.
But for me, there’s maybe a mixture of that, but also I realized early on that comedy was a bit out of my control. It’s more reactionary than an active muscle. I learned how to do comedy from more of a reactionary place of being an immigrant kid from the middle of the United States. I was just trying to fit in and survive, make people relax. When I got into comedy, it became this thing to follow for as long as it would allow me to play with it.
When I did a lot of comedic stuff, especially when I came out to LA, there was only a specific type of role that was available for someone like me — nerdy guys and these types of things. I think I wanted to reject that outright. But when I got to Walking Dead, I realized that this feels truer to me of the things that I want to do for myself.
It feels like, at least within mainstream American culture, it’s taking a while for the general populace to warm up to the idea of Asian-Americans, especially Asian-American men, as sex symbols. That’s a status I think you’ve earned in the last few years. Have you thought about that change in the wind?
That’s certainly true on a larger scale. I think it’s so multifaceted because you’re dealing with, like, “What is sexy to society?” What is understood to be intrinsically sexy to people. And on top of that, what are the surface level versions of that?
I go back and forth. There’s also the worry that you’re being fetishized in some way; because the thing is breaking new ground, the framework by which they understand ‘what is sexy’ is also only what they’ve seen so far. So that needs to be expanded.
It’s not that I reject that claim, or I’m shy to it, I guess? It’s more to say that the work, for me, has always been to push who I feel like I am. To be as true to me as possible, not for the sake of self-service, but that if I play my part, it’ll do the rest of the work for itself.
If people think that being true to yourself is sexy, and I hope that they do, that’s great.
I also find it interesting that you’ve gotten the chance lately (with Minari and Burning) to play more natively Korean roles, and to speak Korean more often on screen. What’s that transition been like? Has it felt more freeing, or more of a challenge?
Initially, for me, it was incredibly freeing, because it allowed me to see what I wasn’t able to access for myself here. Things I didn’t even know I could access. It just really split open the other side for me. But on the other end of the spectrum, I am becoming aware of the fact that there’s a gaze by which Korea sees me as well.
So it’s about furthering and gaining a better understanding of who and what I might be, which is mostly kind of a third culture. I don’t exist between two worlds, per se, but I exist in my own unique world, much like a lot of other immigrants.
With that in mind, it’s allowed me to explore deeper dimensions of myself — tell myself the truth so that I may do that outwardly in whatever role’s given to me.
I don’t know if I’m looking to do more Korean-language roles. I think that’s just the place I find myself in now, where I can access more interesting roles that I want to tackle. I mean, I’m open to anything, I kinda want to do all of it! I just want to profess my humanity, really.
Is there a space, whether in film or on TV, you haven’t explored yet that you really want to dig into?
There are so many. I don’t know if there’s a specific thing. I’ve been very fortunate to collaborate and work with really incredible artists in their own right. And the feeling that comes from that has been really rewarding, just trading perspectives and working towards a similar goal with somebody. That’s more of my focus at this point.
The story is incredibly important, and that needs to resonate with me, but I don’t know if I have a genre or desire for a specific thing that I’m looking for. I’ll kinda know it when I see it, and hopefully, I’m blessed enough to continue to have moments to see it.
There’s a great deal of Oscar buzz around you for Minari, potentially making you the first Asian-American actor to be nominated for Best Actor. How does that possibility hit you?
It feels exciting; everyone would dream of being put in a position like this. So if it were to happen, how great would that be? I’d be thrilled.
But at the same time, I know that it’s perhaps breaking precedent, and it’s being framed in a way where that’s something new. And we can all comment on that in a multitude of ways — “it’s crazy that it hasn’t happened before and great that it’s happening now,” if it does.
But like I was saying, I’m deeply proud of who I am and the things that make me. Part of that is my Asian-American-ness, and my Korean-ness, and my American-ness. So I’m proud to help break a precedent if that happens, but ultimately I can only do me.
I’d also hate to be swallowed up by a moment as well. So, for me, it’s really about focusing on my own humanity and my own perspective, and being able to continue to do that type of work. That’s a really convoluted answer, but basically, I just want to keep playing my part.