Steven Yeun appeared on best people’s alarm acknowledgment to his role as fan admired Glenn Rhee on The Walking Dead, whom he played from the series’ ancient episodes until the character’s afterlife in the division seven premiere. Aback then, Yeun’s resumé has taken a about-face against the all-embracing — featuring aggregate from activated alternation like Voltron and Amplitude Armstrong & the Flex Fighters to authority projects like Bong Joon-Ho’s Okja, which premiered at Cannes in 2017 afore activity to Netflix, and Boots Riley’s broadly acclaimed Sundance blemish Sorry to Bother You.
Now he’s in Korean administrator Lee Chang-dong’s moving, abstruse noir blur Burning, which premiered to acclamation at Cannes this bounce and afterwards played at the Toronto International Blur Festival and the New York Blur Festival. Set in South Korea, it’s a adventure about Korean adolescence who are abandoned and adrift, and Yeun plays Ben, a catholic adept who captures the affection of a adolescent woman alleged Hae-mi (Jong-seo Jeon) — to the alarm of her added aloof acquaintance Jong-su (Ah-In Yoo) — appropriate afore she disappears. It doesn’t advice aback he accidentally tells Jong-su that he brand to bake bottomward greenhouses.
Ben is declared by addition appearance in the blur as a “Gatsby” type, and admitting he speaks Korean perfectly, there’s article hardly off about him — article that’s abnormally axiomatic to audiences accustomed with Korean culture.
Yeun was built-in in Seoul, but emigrated to Canada and afresh Michigan with his parents aback he was a child, and identifies as Korean-American. Lee and Yeun able Yeun’s communicative Korean to ball Ben, but absitively to accept him absorb his added American mannerisms and movements, which lends an added bandage of abstruseness and alike annoyance to the mysterious, acutely unrooted, chiefly assured character.
Yeun and I afresh sat bottomward in Manhattan, the day afore Burning’s affected release, to allocution about his career so far, how his religious accomplishments intersects with both his career and his identity, and alive in a post-Crazy Rich Asians Hollywood.
The afterward chat has been agilely edited and abridged for appearance and clarity.
Burning is such a altered role and altered blur than some of the others you’ve done.
Yeah. I assumption it affectionate of all comes calm at a specific time for me. I got to do seven years of [The Walking Dead] and absolutely body added aplomb and get the reps in, and afterwards I larboard I was actual advantageous to accept anniversary activity amplitude me aloof a little bit added and added and more. I feel like I achievement it’s not culminating with Burning, but Burning was one of those adventures breadth I don’t anticipate I’ll anytime balloon how that went down.
You chased the director, Lee Chang-dong, because you capital to assignment with him, right?
“Chase” is a able word. I mean, I would acquiescently hunt administrator Lee, but I aloof never anticipation that that would anytime happen. It was beneath of a hunt — added like I aloof [said in an account that I’d like to assignment with him], to acknowledgment a question. It turns out aback you say things out loud sometimes they appear aback to you. Gotta be accurate about what you say out loud.
How did this accurate one appear aback to you?
I was in London. I was casting and axis at 3 in the morning, jet-lagged, and I get a buzz alarm from administrator Bong [Joon-ho, with whom Yeun formed on Okja], actuality like, “You charge to alarm me aback appropriate away.” So I was like, “What?”
I alleged him aback and he was like, “Director Lee wants to accommodated with you.”
And I was like, “Why?” He’s like, “There’s a activity that he thinks you adeptness be appropriate for.” Administrator Lee had me apprehend “Barn Burning,” the Haruki Murakami story.
The mysterious, minimalist abbreviate adventure that Burning is based on. It’s a actual abbreviate story, like bristles pages, right?
Yeah. Actual short. I bethink account it and actuality like, “Do I charge to be in article with this mood?” That fabricated me so excited, because in some means that’s affectionate of what I’ve consistently been attractive for — article a little bit added grounded. Article about it absolutely admiring me to it.
Then [Lee] was like, “I’d adulation to meet.” It was actual accidental that absolutely two canicule later, I was activity to Korea anyway. So I went to Korea, and administrator Lee talks about it. He’s like, “You know, if you didn’t appear to Korea, we’d apparently still wouldn’t accept casting you, because a Skype chat about this affair — you absolutely can’t accept that.”
We spent three canicule of us poring over the character, He beatific me the script, and we apprehend it, and I came at him with my ideas.
The third day he hugged me. And I was like, “Cool. This is activity down.”
It’s got to be affectionate of absorbing to be best for a appearance like Ben, who is basically the villain of the story.
Yeah. You self-assess!
He’s not absolutely a appearance that you’ve played before.
How do you anticipate through that affectionate of character? He’s an enigma.
For me, it was accident to accept this role. Actuality 30-something, accepting a child, accepting off of a abiding appearance that captivated your appearance — [all of those things can] leave you in a actual aberrant abode breadth you’re reassessing yourself. I begin myself in that place. Afresh this affair came along. I acquainted like this inherent blank of this appearance as I apprehend him off the page. I could tune into that in some respect.
Obviously, you allege Korean. But this is a Korean blur about Korean characters. You’re Korean-American, and that adds a altered concealment to your appearance and achievement in the film. I’m a white American, and aback I saw Burning at Cannes, I didn’t apperceive that Ben’s mannerisms were acutely altered from what a Korean eyewitness adeptness apprehend to see, and so I was absorbed to apprehend about it later, because I accept that your Americanness adds article to the appearance for bodies who can atom the difference.
I would adulation to ask you: Did you feel, aback you saw me access into that anatomy for the aboriginal time as Ben, that the appearance didn’t feel artlessly Korean? Or natively Korean?
What it acquainted like was I was watching a appearance who had been everywhere. He’s a man of the world.
That’s, I think, what it is.
I anticipate it adeptness accept added abrupt antagonism to a Korean viewer, but I don’t anticipate it’s too altered from what a Western eyewitness has, which is like, this actuality doesn’t accept to be angry bottomward to the amusing structures of Korea. He looks it, he speaks it, he lives it, but there’s this carefree-ness about him that doesn’t accept to accept to angle to the collectivist account of how you accept to amusement others, or how you accept to be in affiliation to others.
In Korean association and Asian society, there’s aloof a lot of hierarchical account that you accept to manage. I don’t anticipate Ben operates from that place.
Really it’s a cine that has a lot to say about adolescent bodies in Korea. It mentions the low application amid adolescent bodies in the country, for example. And its added two capital characters are from a rural breadth so aing to the North Korean bound that they can apprehend the broadcasts accident on the added ancillary of the border. How abundant of the adeptness of the country were you accessible for aback you accustomed on set?
I went to Korea with a task: to not aloof be a visitor, activity with the breeze of things, but to absolutely appraise the abode that I’m in. There’s a absolutely absorbing bond of collectivism to appearance that happens aback you’re a Westerner who comes to Korea. The adeptness to not accept to angle to the will of the aggregate helps you see that added bodies accept added responsibilities that you don’t have.
You can consistently angular on your American-ness to aloof be like, “Oh. I didn’t apperceive that because you’re older, I accept to allege with you with this blazon of deference.” Or, “If you’re younger, I allege altered to you.” The Western appearance of the apple is actual abundant that everyone’s on an according arena acreage — which of advance isn’t that true.
But that’s addition affair that’s interesting: I feel like Korea’s compassionate of the arrangement is actual upfront — bodies are acquainted of the arrangement that they’re active in.
Of breadth they abatement in the hierarchy.
Of breadth they fall. They’re consistently assessing themselves on breadth they land, which breeds its own negatives and positives. The Western ideal starts from a abode of individuality. You’re chargeless to be yourself, but afresh the abrogating is that you don’t accept any absolute “group.” You don’t accept this aggregate power. And also, by advantage of the actuality that you’re active activity that way, you ambush yourself into cerebration there isn’t a system, aback there absolutely actual abundant is.
My wife — who is so abundant smarter than me — consistently talks about the “in between-ness” of everything. All the special, allusive things in the blur are in amid spaces and identities.
I apperceive you accept a accomplishments in ad-lib comedy, accepting accomplished at Second City for years, which apparently isn’t what bodies expect! But I appetite to allocution about addition allotment of your background, which is growing up in church. I grew up in a ample evangelical church, and I feel like one affair those churches accommodate to adolescent bodies is an befalling to try out performing, by singing in the choir or arena in a bandage or accomplishing skits or whatever.
Was abbey was allotment of your accumulation as a performer?
For sure. My accomplishments was actual safe. I’m abiding as I age, and maybe do a little bit added assignment on my brainy bloom over time, maybe I’ll ameliorate some things that I accept repressed. But, for the moment, I attending aback and apprehend my parents, as immigrants, absolutely did a admirable job of absolutely giving us a safe childhood. That a congenital a lot of aplomb for my brother and me, and activity to abbey was allotment of that. Our schooling, and the places that we lived in suburbs of Michigan, were actual a safe abode to abound up.
The abrogating of that is that you sometimes don’t get to catechism your reality. I anticipate breadth adoration has helped me abundantly with my adeptness has been this adeptness to let go. I anticipate I had that from the beginning. I reverse-engineered my compassionate of acting; it’s become added bookish over time. Earlier on, it was aloof me aloof bulging and emoting and accomplishing whatever I could. I didn’t accept a of the bookish — I was block images, or account of what a actuality does in assorted situations.
Now that I’ve advised a little bit and accept a little bit added to antithesis out how I access acting, I alpha roles by attractive at them actual cerebrally, at first. But afresh there’s this abundant moment breadth you aloof body that activity of acceptance — to aloof let go. You’ve done all the homework, and you aloof let go and do the performance.
I feel like adoration in that way has absolutely helped me tap into that — aloof this abstraction of activity small, a bleep in the beyond arrangement of things.
This is partly me bulging from my own experience, but while I was built-in and aloft in the US, I was aloft in a religious association that generally seemed like it capital to abide abstracted from the alfresco world. I can brainstorm there’s a bifold acquaintance of that if you are an immigrant who is additionally allotment of a religious community, aback you’re maybe not allotment of the majority adeptness about you as well. I apperceive you’ve been talking a lot afresh in interviews about your acquaintance as an Asian-American — does actuality aloft religious accept annihilation to do with that?
For sure. As Korean immigrants who were Christian, we not alone had the Christian collective, we additionally had the Korean collective. I bethink affair white American Christians, and there was additionally that aforementioned dissonance, breadth I couldn’t connect. They had an adeptness to booty or leave the adoration whenever they capital to. They didn’t accept this cutting faculty of doom and abhorrence that [many Koreans had].
For me, as a Korean Christian, my white accompany that were additionally Christian would be like, “Yeah. I go to church. Sometimes I don’t.” And I’m like, “Oh. I accept to go.”
That’s not to say that white Americans, Christians, don’t additionally feel that in some degree, they accept altered sects, but I was consistently activity like, “Oh, you guys accept a altered access to this all together.” Now I apprehend that a lot of my bourgeois accomplishments in that way was additionally based in my Korean-ness.
Identity-wise, I anticipate the botheration with collectivism is that it helps you feel this absoluteness and this faculty of togetherness, the faculty that you’re aloof a cog, a allotment of the whole. But the crisis is that sometimes it doesn’t acquiesce you to be your accurate cocky in adjustment to add to the accomplished — rather, it makes you casting yourself into whatever the accomplished says you are. So afresh you’re not absolutely confined anything.
I said this in addition account recently, but that’s why my admired ballad is Romans 12:2: “Do not accommodate to the arrangement of this world, but be adapted by the renewing of your mind. Afresh you will be able to analysis and accept what God’s will is — his good, adorable and absolute will.”
You accept your purpose on this planet, and in this universe, whatever it adeptness be. It could be benign, it could be small, or it could be massive. But there’s no aberration in importance. It’s aloof what you are placed actuality to do. That’s consistently been a admired ballad of mine.
I generally accept this acumen that bodies with religious backgrounds — alike if they’re not practicing aback they get to Hollywood — are met with a lot of attrition to their behavior from added bodies in the ball industry. Or they attempt to apperceive whether to booty a accurate role because of their moral beliefs, aback they alpha out in “secular” Hollywood.
Was that you at all? Was there any antagonism for you amid your accomplished and your career aback you started actuality an actor?
As a Christian?
Yeah. You accept to mentally get over a lot of things that you adeptness accept to challenge on the awning that you wouldn’t do in your accustomed life. You go, like, “Is this a sin? Is this bad?” I apperceive that feeling.
But, that’s aback you alpha to aces aback and bark aback layers. If God fabricated all of us, afresh He fabricated all of us, the acceptable and bad parts. If in our art we’re aggravating to accept big ideas, afresh why would we try to ablution abroad that complexity? The adorableness of us is that we accept complexity.
That allows you to accept this absorbing balance: analytic for announcement in a animal way, as against to afterward some added moralistic mandate.
It’s absorbing to see how generally bodies accept Hollywood is this air-conditioned anti-religion place, breadth I generally acquisition it’s not.
Sometimes it’s the best religious. Sometimes I feel the best airy bodies are in our band of work.
You’ve talked about the aggregate against the alone a lot. Addition blur you were in this year was Sorry to Bother You, which is actual abundant about aggregate activity against the individual. In the film, you alike ball a abutment organizer, alleged Squeeze. Did your cerebration on these affairs appear into arena that role?
Yeah. What was abundant about arena Squeeze was the abode that he operated from. He was seasoned. He had apparent things before. He accepted the apple in that way, breadth he’s not too high, and he’s not too low — he is absolutely absolutely aggravating to aloof be a allotment of a greater apparatus that can advice annul these abhorrent animal atrocities.
And it was fun to ball Squeeze because with the affectionate of casting in that film, you admit how admirable anniversary amateur is, and how admirable and able their personas are. I anticipate if I was adolescent I adeptness accept anticipation to myself, Accomplish abiding you pop. Accomplish abiding you booty some time for yourself. Accomplish abiding you appearance what you can do.
So I’m animated that that role came a little afterwards for me, because I was able to aloof access it and be like, the accomplished point of Squeeze is that you don’t apperceive what he’s doing. He’s about aloof in the back. A brace of times, I’d be talking to Boots [Riley, the director] and I’d be like, “Can I aloof blooper out of the frame? I don’t anticipate you wanna see me. Or can I aloof be in the back?”
That’s apparently not the best way to access your career, depending on what you appetite out of it, but it acquainted so honest to me in that moment.
But yeah, it’s that antithesis amid acquainted that aggregate ideal, but additionally actuality able in your alone attributes and appointment yourself as an individual, adequate abundant to ball into the beyond abstraction that you accept to serve. It was a absolutely air-conditioned antithesis to acquisition that.
I interviewed Boots! He’s a character.
Boots is the shit.
He’s great. And aback I talked to Lakeith, he was like, “You wouldn’t accept [Boots] if addition declared him to you.”
No way. I mean, his name is Boots! I adulation him.
I’ve been actual advantageous in my career to assignment with absolutely giving and admirable people. I don’t apperceive what it is, but I’ve aloof been able to assignment with a lot of egoless people. Well, not egoless. Nobody’s egoless. But they’re absolutely there to aloof do the thing.
So now we’re in a post-Crazy Rich Asians world. Has your access to your career afflicted afterward some of the accouterment in Hollywood over the aftermost year or so, with some new focus on assortment in roles and characters?
To be absolutely honest with you, I don’t anticipate how I appearance this career and how to access it has absolutely changed. If anything, all of this actuality has fabricated me apprehend that what I was accomplishing absolutely makes added faculty to me than I anticipation before. Before, it was affectionate of a gray breadth — “Do I do article for Asian-Americans, or do I do article that’s added me?” I was pulled and pushed and pulled,
But I consistently concluded up acumen that my face will do the work, because I can’t change that I’m Asian. All I can do is aloof try to be as animal as possible; my face will adjudge this added layer.
All of these big projects that accept appear out accept afflicted the mural of how Hollywood adeptness acknowledge to an Asian face, but I don’t anticipate that mission changes at all. I think, if anything, it aloof becomes added abrupt — let’s get to that animal allotment of us. The inherent attributes of my face will do a lot of the abundant lifting, because it’s not like I’m gonna access a appearance and be not cerebration what an Asian actuality would be activity through in this scenario. Every allotment of me is Asian. For me to ball candidly is inherently aloof an Asian performance.
Diversity initiatives and pushes are catchy — on my ancillary of things, for instance, there’s been a lot of allocution about accretion the cardinal of women in blur criticism. But some bodies are anxious that the action for that advance isn’t to alter criticism, but instead to accomplish abiding that there are added critics who feel answerable to abutment annihilation a woman makes. Is there a mirror to this affair from your ancillary of the business?
Yeah, I would say definitely. You feel that pressure. I’m absolutely an Asian American, but it is additionally article that can booty the axial focus of who you are. That’s consistently been article that I’ve been alert of appointment to.
For me, as a animal being, there’s so abounding layers to my appearance that to alone allocution about one distinct aspect seems a little short-sighted. But I additionally admit that there are a lot of bodies on this planet for whom their better hurdle is their ethnicity. I apperceive a lot of Asian-Americans who absolutely still feel base about actuality Asian-American. And I apperceive that feeling, because aback I was adolescent I acquainted that way too.
So I accede with you. There absolutely is that abhorrence of actuality like, “Do I accept to abutment aggregate aloof because my face looks like this?” But there’s additionally things to be said — like aback you’re talking about Crazy Rich Asians, that’s a accomplished aberration in and of itself. It did a admirable job of assuming the exchange that if you appetite to abuse us by analytic whether we can abutment a blur like this monetarily, that alibi is now out the window. That’s done.
You additionally appearance this huge arrangement of Asian-American actors who are accessible to accept their moment, or at atomic get their reps to body to their moments. You see absolute talent. Bodies can accept altered takes on whether they like the blur or whether it’s a blur for them or not; I anticipate that’s a absolute abode to address. If you’re not into boilerplate rom-coms, you’re not into boilerplate rom-coms.
What I achievement is that this doesn’t afresh alter on itself and accomplish us alone accept to accomplish these accurate movies again, but instead accept the industry aloof go, “Hey, Asian people, they’re everybody. It’s fine. Let’s aloof accomplish actuality after cerebration so hard. Let’s aloof acquisition humans. Let’s be humans.” It’s all allotment of the journey. All allotment of the process.
Burning opened in theaters on October 26.
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