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‘Burning’ Star Steven Yeun Gets Role He’s ‘Been Waiting For’

“Walking Dead,” “Okja” thesp talks diversity, working with “hero” Lee Chang-dong

A breakthrough role on “The Walking Dead” proved Steven Yeun was ready for the spotlight, but the Korean-American star is taking on his meatiest role to date with the Cannes premiere of South Korean auteur Lee Chang-dong’s “Burning.” “I’ve been waiting for this,” says Yeun.

A loose adaptation of a short story by Haruki Murakami that first appeared in The New Yorker, “Burning” features the “Okja” star alongside Yoo Ah-in (“Veteran”) and newcomer Jun Jong-seo. It’s director Lee’s fourth trip to Cannes, and his third movie to appear in competition.

The film tells the story of three young lives that are mysteriously entangled after a chance encounter between a part-time deliveryman (Yoo) and a young woman he once knew (Jun). Yeun plays an enigmatic stranger with a luxurious lifestyle who throws Yoo’s life into disarray.

After his turn as a radical animal-rights activist in “Okja” and an outbreak survivor on “The Walking Dead,” Yeun says the mystery man at the center of “Burning” marks a departure from parts he’s played in the past, calling the role “a wonderful challenge.”

A year ago, the 34-year-old thesp couldn’t have imagined he’d be starring in the latest film of a director he describes as “one of my heroes.” While visiting South Korea on a press tour for “Okja,” he told a reporter he dreamed of working with the helmer of “Peppermint Candy,” “Oasis,” and “Poetry.” “I mentioned his name never thinking that I would ever get to be on any of his sets,” he says.

Five months later, he got a 3am phone call from “Okja” director Bong Joon-ho, saying Lee had a role for him. After reading Murakami’s short story he flew to South Korea, where he met with the helmer and fell in love with the script. Still, Yeun was prepared to turn down the role. “I didn’t want to try to tackle something that I had no business tackling,” he says. “This character is not a Korean-American. I knew that [playing a Korean] would take a lot of work.”

Laughing, he adds, “I also didn’t want to be the stain on [Lee’s] filmography.”

Yeun studied Korean intensively during the four-month shoot. As an immigrant who was born in Seoul but raised in the Midwest, he says the experience of filming in South Korea awakened the feeling of “what it feels like when your race doesn’t become the first metric of how people look at you.”

“You have the feeling as an immigrant where you don’t really feel connected to a singular place,” he says. “It makes you realize the in-betweenness of where you are. You’re kind of stuck in the middle on your own island. You’re a man with no country.”

He adds, “That was the wonderful experience of going to Korea. My face is my face. My Asian look doesn’t matter over there. I’m just Steven.”

Yeun has been outspoken about the limitations facing Asian-Americans in Hollywood. In an interview with Vanity Fair last year, he noted that it wasn’t until after his popular “Walking Dead” character, Glenn, had been killed off that he finally appeared on the cover of Entertainment Weekly, long after co-stars Norman Reedus, Andrew Lincoln, and Danai Gurira.

His experiences have helped him appreciate the trailblazers who came before him. “You look at those pioneers and you really respect them, and you understand what they had to go through,” he says. While the opportunities for Asian-Americana actors today aren’t “necessarily abundant,” he adds, “it’s still much better than before.”

“Burning” has been a hot ticket this week in Cannes. Ahead of Wednesday’s world premiere, Lee’s Pinehouse production company said the movie had sold in the Cannes Film Market to distributors in eight territories. Finecut is handling overseas sales.

Wednesday’s world premiere marks Yeun’s second red carpet on the Croisette in as many years. Reflecting on the premiere of Netflix’s “Okja” in 2017, Yeun says he’s grateful it screened before a rule change banning any films without theatrical distribution in France from playing in competition. The decision prompted the streaming service to pull out of this year’s festival.

“I’m glad people got to see ‘Okja’ on that screen,” he says. “That movie really deserves its time in the theaters. I’m glad Cannes got to see it.”

Looking at the impact of streaming services and the speed of change in the film industry, Yeun says he hopes to continue to evolve as an actor and “go with the projects that mean the most to me.”

“I’m choosing to just go with the flow,” he says. “I got to come to Korea, and play a full Korean in a Lee Chang-dong film. And that’s bonkers.”

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