Steven Yeun and Riz Ahmed on ‘Minari,’ ‘Sound of Metal’ and Wanting to Paint on ‘the Full Spectrum’

Steven Yeun (“Minari”) and Riz Ahmed (“Sound of Metal”) sat down for a virtual chat for Variety‘s Actors on Actors, presented by Amazon Studios. For more, click here.

In Lee Isaac Chung’s life-affirming “Minari,” Steven Yeun plays Jacob Yi, a Korean American dad who pursues his goal of financial success by moving his unenthusiastic family to a farm in 1980s Arkansas. There, the family members are strangers in a strange land — which has parallels with Darius Marder’s “Sound of Metal,” in which Riz Ah­­med’s character, Ruben, an intense heavy metal drummer, has to come to terms with living life as a newly deaf person. Whe­ther Ruben or Jacob can forge new lives for themselves, ones that give them peace and fulfillment, is the central question of both “Sound of Metal” and “Minari.”

Both Yeun and Ahmed are serious about acting, with successful runs on TV (for Yeun, “The Walking Dead,” and for Ahmed, an Emmy-
winning role in “The Night Of”). They spoke about how their personal experiences — especially as Asian performers in Hollywood and in Yeun’s case, as an immigrant to the United States — have informed their careers.

Steven Yeun: I saw you in “Nightcrawler,” and I remember auditioning for that role. When I saw you do it, I was like, “You did it so much better than I even could have thought to do it.” I was so jealous, man. But I was like, “Dude, he’s so legit.” It’s been so cool to watch you.

Riz Ahmed: Thank you — likewise. Do you feel like because of who you are, and how you may not fit a tradi­tional mold as a Hollywood actor, that you had to become more versatile in playing a wider range of different things? And how is “Minari” different for you, in terms of being able to bring more of yourself to this role?

Yeun: I’m excited to talk about all this. Yes — you’ve got to do a little bit more work to be seen, I think, if the system doesn’t really know what to do with you. And the toughest part for me has been breaking through the pattern for myself. Luckily, I think my one skill that I do have is, I don’t really look before I leap — I just jump in and then figure it out.

You’ve got to be versatile. I feel such a connection with you in that way. At least for me, the work feels a lot about servicing what’s in front of me. but ultimately, each time I take on a new role it ends up finding a truer version of myself — for myself. How about for you?

Ahmed: I love that. Maybe we’ll come back later to this idea of the internalized limitations — the limitations
we internalize in ourselves because that’s very real, but also I don’t want to get too bogged down in the obstacles. I want to celebrate the work you’ve been doing.

On “Sound of Metal,” I feel like it was such a mirror. Because I was given permission to bring more of myself, I learned so much about myself in this role. Like Ruben, I defined myself through my work, for better and worse. Do you give yourself permission to bring more of yourself to your roles?

Yeun: To watch the journey of Ruben try to control everything as his world as he knew it was shattering — you’re just still, and you’re just accepting your lot and your life. That was beautiful, because that’s a similar theme that I think my character Jacob goes through in “Minari.” Desperately trying to wrestle with God, just trying to control his narrative and try to grab it and just drive it.

Ahmed: Something that was really interesting in “Sound of Metal” — and I really want to talk to you about this for “Minari” as well — is language. Because for me, expressing myself in American Sign Language really opened me up in a different way. I had the most amazing ASL instructor, Jeremy Stone. He immersed me into his peer group and the deaf community: his wedding, slam poetry nights. And it was just to get to a point of fluency, because Darius wanted both the drumming and the ASL to be for real.

Something he taught me was that deaf people think of hearing people as emotionally repressed — the reason is because we hide behind words. When I became more fluent in ASL, I found myself getting physically emotional talking about things that I could just mention if I was speaking. I really feel like learning ASL allowed me to listen and communicate with my whole body, which is such a gift.

For you, acting in Korean, what did that open up for you?

Yeun: Korean was my first language, but I moved when I was 5, and I slowly lost it over time. It was maintained because my parents kept it up in the house, but what was even worse was not only was I severed from my language and culture, but I was severed from my parents over time. My parents wanted to live in the safety, after they immigrated, of their little bubble of Korean Americans — Korean people in their region. And I was still trying to venture off into America and be a person.

In doing so, I just slowly drifted further and further away from my parents. There was a lot of love there, but there was not a lot of human exchange between all of us. It was mostly a verbal connection or a silent connection that was never realized fully on the surface. When I got
to go to Korea and do “Okja,” do “Burning,” and then do “Minari” — what a trip.

That’s the greatest gift to me about acting: If you let it happen to yourself, the expansion that happens is massive. It feels like I can play anything and anyone. Perhaps I didn’t get to touch that when I was younger because I was busy mimicking.

Ahmed: Code switching.

Yeun: Yeah, just learning how to survive in an environment. I was locked in my own mind, the majority of my young life.

Ahmed: It’s really resonating with me, what you’re saying — this idea of you growing up code switching. As you said, it helps you to survive. I would go so far as to say it helped you become an actor.

I wanted to talk to you about “The Walking Dead.” Is that an example of where you have felt in a liminal space, in a no man’s land where maybe they didn’t know what to do with your story? I remember reading something like that.

Yeun: Being on a show for seven years, I was the guy who knew how to play plucky, nice and wanting to do the right thing. And I think that over the course of the journey, I tried to expand — and Glenn grew, to an extent, alongside me. But then there was a point in which I realized that he almost became a ceiling, because I became an idea over a human character.

When the time came for my character to die, there wasn’t really much of a fight on my end. I couldn’t be stuck serving just a genial-natured guy for the rest of my career. On the inside, I didn’t feel that way. On the inside, I can be angry, I can be vengeful. I can be all the other things, and I wanted to explore those things for myself.

Ahmed: You want to paint with all those colors.

Yeun: Yeah, I want to paint with the full spectrum.