Many actors dread comparisons to James Dean, the movie icon who helped define a new type of on-screen masculinity. But Steven Yeun, the 36-year-old who rose to global recognition on the TV megahit “The Walking Dead,” is comfortable with the juxtaposition to Hollywood’s most famous rebel.
When Yeun was talking to director Lee Isaac Chung about starring in “Minari,” the winner of this year’s grand jury and audience prizes at Sundance, Dean’s brooding persona served as a useful template.
The men discussed their immigrant fathers and the way they left their homes to travel across the world, lured by the promise of the United States and the potential for reinvention. In the mid-1960s, Chung’s dad was living in South Korea and working in a factory. After watching two iconic Dean films, “Giant” and “East of Eden,” Chung says his father’s fate was sealed, and that “seeing the landscape and possibility of America just struck him.”
More than 50 years later, “Minari” will tell a pioneer story of a Korean immigrant family who travels to Arkansas in search of a farming business and manifest destiny. Yeun is an executive producer and the ensemble’s lead, and Chung’s very own version of Dean.
“I wanted it to be a throwback to those old classic frontier films about the American expanse. Steven in a way is meant to be that classic Hollywood star who is going out there and trying something new to make a living for himself and his family,” says Chung.
Yeun, a quiet and thoughtful father of two, made his name fighting zombies on the aforementioned AMC franchise for six years. After leaving the show in 2016, he boldly strayed from commercial fare and anything featuring hordes of the undead in a concerted effort to avoid the industry’s knack for typecasting.
“After I left, the things Hollywood would give back to me were more of the same. That’s obvious and happens to everybody, but I wanted to reject that. I wanted to see the other side, to understand who I was and what I wanted to say,” Yeun says.
Drawing on Chung’s early childhood memories, “Minari” serves as a culmination of the many left turns Yeun took once he left TV stardom and the halls of San Diego Comic-Con. Among his stops on the road less traveled were Joe Lynch’s horror film “Mayhem,” Bong Joon Ho’s Cannes player “Okja,” Boots Riley’s “Sorry to Bother You” and Lee Chang Dong’s festival sensation “Burning,” a collection of bold performances that has turned Yeun into one of the most exciting and eclectic actors of his generation.
“Minari,” from A24 and Plan B, will firmly cement his leading-man status. The film seems to be positioned to be this year’s big indie hit thanks to its deft tugging of heartstrings and breakout performances. Yeun plays Jacob, a father and husband who risks his family’s security for a small piece of farmland, backed by his modest salary from a backbreaking gig in a chicken factory and hampered by a lack of resources to reach a scale that matches his ambition.
Jacob’s wife, Monica (Yeri Han), is the designated worrier in the family’s mobile home, whose cinder block foundation detracts from the beauty of the farm plot’s rich soil. Their reserved daughter, Anne (Noel Cho), and precocious son, David (breakout star Alan S. Kim), are forced to amuse themselves in a remote town where there are scarcely any other Korean people, and financial tensions escalate into marital strife.
To mollify his anxious wife, Jacob invites her mother, Soonja (Yuh-Jung Youn), to live with them. Her offbeat personality riles young David as the family tries to reconcile its place between two cultural poles. As a patriarch, Yeun’s Jacob serves up enough brooding strength and heartbreaking vulnerability to make any Dean fan blush — especially when puffing on a cigarette and pondering his burdens, as the late icon often did.
“There isn’t a ton of dialogue between him and the other characters, but there’s a lot that’s conveyed through his sheer presence. The way he slumps his shoulders, the way he stands. Watching it on the big screen and seeing this giant wrestling with his dreams and desires, he was phenomenal,” Chung says.
Yeun’s collaborators say his moment has been a long time coming.
“He’s an actor with incredible range,” says Oscar-winning director Bong. “Sometimes he feels like the guy next door while other times he carries this great sense of mystery and secrecy. In Lee Chang Dong’s ‘Burning,’ he really managed to capture the tension behind a mysterious and cynical character, and in ‘Minari,’ he provided a realistic portrait of a father bearing heavy burden on his shoulders. I think he’s a multifaceted actor with so many faces.”
Yeun was born in South Korea and emigrated to the U.S. with his family, where he spent his formative years in Troy, Mich., a suburb north of Detroit. Like his character in “Minari,” Yeun felt caught between two worlds — stuck juggling the everyday pangs of American youth and the immigrant experience he and his family carried with them.
“I was never really living a truthfulness to my life,” says Yeun. “I don’t think many kids are at that age, but for me it was like an extra layer. I couldn’t access the feeling of fullness that I was able to sometimes at my Korean church. I would say I was always kind of performing.”
The actor says his experience was one of many examples of “code switching,” where people in marginalized communities assimilated into white culture often pivot between personas in their public and private lives. That ingrained in him, however, a deep understanding of Midwestern values, which Yeun says fueled empathy and offered a deeper understanding of his “Minari” character.
“The humanity that I did feel there, I can’t ignore,” he says. “The Midwest is filled with decent people that really want the best for themselves and each other. They really look out for each other, but it’s a very misunderstood existence. I think in the middle of the country you’re attacked from both sides, so you get really resilient.”
He attended Kalamazoo College, a tiny liberal arts school in Michigan, where he says he began to explore improv as a way to reinvent himself. Comedy offered catharsis for young Steven, who says he did not have a mechanism to process his dramatic side at home. After a staged reading in his senior year, a random woman approached him backstage and told him he should pursue acting.
“She explicitly said, ‘We’re going to need more people like you,’” says Yeun. “I thought it was very kind of her to say, and very prescient. That pushed a button for me.”
From Kalamazoo he went to Chicago to pursue improv and sketch work with the legendary troupes of Second City, which launched stars like Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Stephen Colbert and Eugene Levy. Yeun nailed his audition with a sketch written by Steve Carell, and toured the country as an understudy alongside performers like “SNL” alum Vanessa Bayer.
“What I realize now about Steven is something they used to tell us in Chicago all the time, that the best sketch comics are often just amazing actors. Some of the stuff we were doing was extremely stupid, and he had such great comedic timing,” Bayer recalls.
Yeun hit a wall, however, when he discovered hard truths about the comedy star system in the late aughts and his specific potential to reach its upper echelons.
“I didn’t see a pathway through Second City to get to ‘SNL,’ probably because there was nobody in front of me to lead the way. I was also thinking, who could I even play in popular culture that wasn’t an accented foreigner?” Yeun says. “What’s been nice about recontextualizing that moment is to see what Bowen Yang is doing now on ‘SNL.’ He’s not playing a stereotype, he’s owning the multitudes of what Asian Americans can be or how Asian people are seen. I think that’s the thing that I wasn’t aware of or maybe brave enough to contend with at the time.”
So Yeun pushed the “nuclear button,” he says, and decided to pound Hollywood’s pavement. Bayer underscored how significant a move like Yeun’s was, leaving the womb of the Chicago scene “because it’s such a wonderful place, and it’s a great home of comedy and people are supportive.”
She hoped the industry would appreciate him.
“Two weeks later he was a huge star. He immediately got ‘The Walking Dead.’ I thought, ‘Oh! They get it!’ And rightfully so,” Bayer says.
Chung and Yeun are cousins by marriage, though the director says he was eager to avoid any nepotism to get ahead. They both recalled meeting at a family wedding but hadn’t had many personal conversations. In 2018, Chung signed with CAA agent Christina Chou after writing ‘Minari.” Months later, Chou signed Yeun.
“When she got the script, she saw it worked perfectly for Steven, and I was really stressed out by that,” Chung says. “I didn’t want to ruin any family dynamics. She said she would handle it and talk to him, and then we got on a Skype call while I was in Hong Kong. I was surprised and flattered at how enthusiastic he was.”
Yeun says the project was exactly what he was looking for, calling it “so honest. I wanted to touch upon something so delicate and sensitive as my culture, or even my own personal history, to some degree. I wanted to make sure that I was doing the honor of not romanticizing it and not infantilizing it.”
Authenticity was crucial to both men, especially when it came to depicting Jacob and Monica’s fraying marriage. The couple are often seen squabbling, tense or walking on eggshells as he plunges the family into uncertainty and Monica craves financial security and the familiarity of her community. Both Yeun and his director pointed to a late moment in the film as Jacob’s most significant — when a few of the movie’s most urgent problems seem to have been solved but the couple’s rift has grown too deep. Monica questions the viability of their relationship and tells Jacob she intends to leave Arkansas with or without him. The camera stays on Yeun for an agonizing half-minute, where he cycles through anger, disbelief and sorrow.
“Jacob is processing so much, feeling he’s not seen and not heard,” Yeun says. “He’s trying to tell his wife, ‘You are everything and all that I have.’ It’s a man contending with his existence, and at the same time, wanting to push his family away before they can leave him. When that actually happens, it destroys him, both as a man of that generation and as a human being.”
The honesty of the moment is uncommon for depictions of Korean families, Chung says.
“There are a lot of Korean films that will show marital strife, but I’m not sure I’ve seen so many that will show it in the interest of showing a real marriage — one that ultimately succeeds,” says Chung. “Presenting that strife as just part of a marriage that can be healthy. We also talked about the fact that we often don’t get to see stories of that generation in which you have an Asian man and woman who are letting it all out, going at each other, and not doing everything in a very subtle way. We really let them go at each other, which was striking to us. Steven felt it was liberating.”
The magic trick of “Minari” is that it weaves a broadly American tale of aspiration and entrepreneurship through the specific lens of the immigrant experience. It is an almost entirely Asian ensemble and heavily subtitled. Films like this, even with the indie prestige weight of A24
and the sterling reputation of Brad Pitt’s Plan B, are few and far between in Hollywood.
The numbers surrounding Asian representation in mainstream films are abysmal. A 2020 survey by the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative found that across 1,300 films with 1,447 directors, only 3.3% were of Asian heritage, the majority of them male. Just 7.2% of 3,891 speaking roles were played by Asian actors. Given the hefty awards buzz “Minari” sparked in Sundance, and now with release imminent, Yeun is approaching a history-making moment. He has a good chance of becoming the first Asian American to score a best actor Oscar nomination.
“It’s probably a bummer that that is the case. This is a hard one for me. As great as it would be to set a precedent or be part of a moment that breaks through a ceiling, I personally don’t want to be ensnared by that moment, either. The truth that I’m trying to understand for myself is who I am, individually,” Yeun says, getting choked up. “I’m happy to serve a larger moment for the community. And I’m happy to push narratives and show who we are because I am that, too. I am an Asian American and the pride I have for that is immense. But also, for me, it’s really about carrying my space and myself through this life and making sure that I tell it true from my perspective. But it would be awesome, and I hope that we can have many more of those and that it won’t be an issue moving forward.”
Bong, who knows a thing or two about making Academy Awards history — his “Parasite” is the first foreign-language film to win best picture — agrees Yeun should be front and center.
“Obviously, it would be meaningful for Steven to be the first Asian American to be nominated,” he says. “But before all of that, I would just like to congratulate him as an actor and an individual. The nomination would only prove his ability as an actor. If he’s to be nominated, I would congratulate Steven for his great performance in ‘Minari,’ and I think him being Asian American and the first to be nominated are secondary issues,” he says.
Yeun will next appear in the film adaptation of Stephen Karam’s Tony-winning play “The Humans,” co-starring Amy Schumer, Richard Jenkins and Beanie Feldstein. Though he’s flirting with a return to comedy, he has no immediate desire to turn his indie street cred into a golden ticket for Marvel and “Star Wars” gigs. Like many artists cooped up in coronavirus quarantine, he’s taking it a day at a time.
“One thing that I’m realizing for myself is that I didn’t even know what I could do until it was presented to me. I don’t want to lose that sense of wonder,” he says.
Chung suggests Yeun might be embarrassed by his referencing James Dean for the role of Jacob, in fear it might border on cliché. But Yeun makes no bones about it, though it wasn’t “Giant” or “East of Eden” he connected with most.
“Look at ‘Rebel Without a Cause.’ He’s just trapped in the middle, and he can see everything for what it is, but everyone keeps lying to him. I think that is Jacob’s mindset. What was really fun to explore was what compels a man to leave his system. Even when he gets to Arkansas, he wants to be free of anything that’s trying to capture him. He’s really trying to wrestle with God and find out who he is. The path is to submit yourself in your fullness to the whole thing,” Yeun says.
He pauses and considers his thoughts, staring out of his window.
“So all of that. And cigarettes,” he says.
Styling: Jayne Goheen/Brigade Talent; Grooming: Anna Bernabe/The Wall Group; Lead image, rooftop: Jacket, waistcoat, pants: Lemaire; Shirt: Vintage; Shoes: Marsèll; Cover, green backdrop: Sweater: Uniqlo U; Pants: Lemaire; Shoes: Marsèll; Beige backdrop: Coat and Pants: Gucci; Shirt: Lady White Co.; Shoes: Marsèll; Grey background: Coat: Lemaire; Sweater: Uniqlo U; Pants: West's; Shoes: Marsèll