Steven Yeun sees a void in cinemas and it’s what is defined as “American” or “Asian,” leaving this space he hopes to occupy. “We wanted to profess that this is an Asian American story,” says Yeun about his new film “Minari.” “It is American but we don’t have that space of understanding carved out in society yet on what an Asian American story feels and sounds like.”
In this week’s Awards Circuit Podcast, Yeun talks about getting involved with Lee Isaac Chung’s moving portrait of a family living in Arkansas, working with his dynamic cast and what he hopes it does for representation. The best actor hopeful discusses the lens of American cinema and how its perceived through the Asian experience, as well as starting out in the industry and watching artists like John Cho come up in the space. He even discusses one of his earliest auditions in which someone asked him to read in an Asian accent. Listen below!
How did you get involved with “Minari?”
Yeun: I was given a script in October of 2018. I read it, and I was so blown away by the honesty, the truthfulness of the point of view. I can only speak from the Asian American immigrant perspective, but usually, when I read scripts, they’re oftentimes caught in the grasp of a gaze from either side, whether it’s the American majority-white gaze of needing to explain itself and its culture to two people. On the opposite end, perform a deep Americana for a kind of “motherland” in some way. It always seems to be that this identity here is lost in the shuffle of two opposing sides. And what was really great was to read a script that was so unequivocally specifically the immigrant Korean American experience of, you know, a life that is part of both but is really its own unique thing. When I read that, it was really something that I wanted to do, and it went fast. After I said I would be into doing it. It went from that point to we were started filming within like, five, six months.
How did it feel working with Yuh-Jung Youn and the rest of the cast, including Yeri Han and Alan S. Kim?
Yeun: She reminds me of my mom, which is cool in a different way. That’s the genius of Isaac and his direction, his writing, and his casting. He assembled a family. The energy from each of the actors, the perspective from each of the actors, communicating their point of view was really important because I think the family as the whole ends up being the protagonist of the film. Speaking to the Korean American experience, that immigrant experience, starting from David up until up to Yuh-Jung, is such a spectrum of what it means to be caught between those two worlds. I think he found such a good concoction of that. To have Jacob, someone that deeply wants to break free from what he knew prior. Then Monica, who might want to hold on to something of the past. And then, on the other end of the spectrum, is David and Noel, who are so rooted in America. I think that picture of the spectrum – of those characters, is really what makes this family so distinctly Asian American-Korean American. This is its own point of view and its own journey.
You were born in South Korea. How old were you when you moved here, and have you often returned throughout your life?
Yeun: I was five. I went back to work there a couple of times more recently. When we first immigrated here, I would go back regularly until about eighth grade, and then I stopped going. It was so expensive to go back that my parents and I couldn’t go as often. My Dad had to go back for funerals and things like that and family things. And then, there was a big gap where I didn’t go back to Korea for a while. I went back finally, my sophomore year of college, which was the first time since eighth grade. And that, from that point on, I went more regular. It’s been a very interesting journey, reconnecting with the place that I was born from.
Can you remember leaving Korea at such a young age and what that felt like?
Yeun: I have my own son, and I’m looking at my son, and he’s only three and a half. There will be memories. I’m sure that I lost in the shuffle or recontextualized for myself over time with stories. But when I look at my son, I’m just like- he knows. And if we were to uproot and move to a completely different place, he would know. He would feel it. Recently, because of this film, I think because of 2020, I’m at this age where so many things in my life have reflected me to my childhood, and revisiting that. That has brought…all the feelings, I’m connecting to some of the things that make me…me. I have a photo of myself in my kindergarten classroom during the first couple of months when we got here. And I look terrified.
The story that my parents told me was they would drag me, kicking and screaming, into class. Every day for the first couple of weeks until normalized to it. They just sat me down with Play-Doh and put me in a corner to calm down, but I didn’t know how to speak English. My first English words I asked about was to my Dad, in Korean, what does “don’t cry mean?” It’s like isolation, that feeling of just like being a fish-out-of-water. And then I look back at other photos from when I was still in Korea, going to preschool, and I’m so joyful. I have no understanding of what’s about to happen.
In a traditional sense, I think the security of family was not taken away but was shifted and altered. I don’t know if it’s all immigrants, but partly, the immigrant experience requires the sacrifice, in some ways, of being severed from your parents a little bit. They had to grind, and they had to make it, and you had to fend for yourself, at the same level at an early age. I think that’s a commonality.
From a cultural perspective, and the importance of preserving language is evident, especially in “Minari,” do you feel that in the film and in how you raise your children?
Yeun: It’s interesting. I think my wife and I are battling that now. We want to keep the tradition of Korea alive in our family and Jude [Yeun’s son], but at the same time, we recognize that the world is not gonna look anything close to the world we grew up in. The preservation of culture is very important, but where will our kids feel rooted? Are they going to be straddling the line between Korea and America? Or is their reality going to be something completely different? I have no clue. So we’re just taking it, piece by piece, and give him all of it. And just seeing what he chooses and gravitates towards, making sure that he has an understanding of what’s happening.
His grandparents speak Korean to him, which is such a beauty of that gap of generations coming together. I think that’s personified in “Minari” – that understanding between those disparate generations. I think our family was different because my parents actually didn’t try extra hard to learn English. They learned “survival English.” I remember my Dad studying English when he first got here, with textbooks and all that stuff. But then, after a while, you’re just living, and you’re just surviving. My parents owned a small business, a beauty supply in downtown Detroit, and they still do, and he was able to communicate with his local community. Then he could drop back into his Korean church, where he felt more secure and able to be himself and speak freely.
The roles of Asian American Asians in Hollywood are not plentiful, and you could be the first Asian American nominated for best actor in 93 years. Can you talk about the grind of getting into this space as an actor?
Yeun: It really does start from basic, simple representation. Just clear out representation is the initial basis of just being able to see a vision of yourself., I think that opens the door and qualifies it for the system. It qualifies it for your parents. It qualifies it for yourself. When I was in college, I didn’t think I would pursue acting; I took the LSAT, MCAT, Teach for America. I just pushed all the buttons because I didn’t know what to do. But I was always drawn to acting and performance.
I’d seen John Cho start popping off, and it was really cool to watch him. He hadn’t gotten the shine that he deserved at the time, and it took a little bit for him over time. I watched him, and I was like, “Wow!” Here’s a Korean American actor that I’ve never seen before, and he’s on the screen, and it’s pretty incredible. He was the first one not to be objectified or fetishized. He was a new version of what an Asian man is seen as. He was something new and fresh and gave me a roadmap to emulate. I thought it was possible for me.
The first audition I had in Chicago was called “Awesome 80s Prom,” which was an immersive improvised show, where you have this John Hughes spectrum of characters like Ferris Bueller. Then you have your “Long Duk Dongs,” and I auditioned with Ferris Bueller’s opening monologue. And they said, “that was good. Can you do that all again in an Asian accent?” And I’ll be honest with you. I knew that I didn’t want to do that. The system had no clue that’s not what I wanted. We were just in a different time. And so I remember I did a shitty accent and phoned it, and they still wanted me anyway because that’s how far and few between Asian actors were. So they call, and they said, “We’d like to hire you.” And I said, “No.” And they got really mad. And I was like, “Oh, that’s not a good first step in this business. I pissed somebody off.”
What’s your favorite comedy of all-time?
Yeun: I could watch “Office Space” over and over. I wouldn’t call this a comedy, but “The Sandlot” is one of the greatest movies. It hit me at that magic window.
What’s your favorite horror film of all-time?
Yeun: You know, I don’t like horror movies.
Really? Not even your big death on “The Walking Dead” or was that too much?
Yeun: That was a different type of horror. That was the end of financial security [laughs]. I would say my favorite horror movie is, and it’s not because I like it. It’s because it’s a piece that’s embedded into my code now. I had recurring nightmares about “A Nightmare on Elm Street.” That messed me up pretty bad. And I’ve met Robert Englund, and he is incredibly kind, gracious and such a cinephile.
Who is the director you are dying to work with?
Yeun: Christopher Nolan is incredible. Denis Villeneuve is incredible. I’ve been thinking about this question because this is a question we get asked a lot. All the people that I want to work with are the people that have a space for me,
With more Asians than normal in the awards space this year, are you excited for the future of Asian cinema, and can you tell the world what is so great about it?
Yeun: Well, I think this is a multifaceted answer to this question because on a surface level, what’s great about a wide net of Asian representation, especially coming from Asia, is harnessing the power of Asia through masterworks like “Parasite.” You see masterful directors from all over that are auteurs who transcend even the boundaries of their own nations. That is great. Representation at its base is very important. It expands in society, with one another, what someone can look like, and what they can do. We can all look like anything and do anything. We’re coming to understand that.
What becomes difficult is the immigrant life is the focus for us. It really is its own intrinsic, nuanced experience. It’s caught between two worlds, and it’s because those two worlds are the only ways in which we know how to speak about it. It’s either Asian or American. The real key aspect is, we tried to tell the honesty and truth of the point of view. Just that culture of being Asian American, just being of one culture, but completely raised in another. It’s what allows a lot of access for the viewer for our film. We got so granular and honest to our singular experience of being caught in between these two worlds. It allowed humanity to breakthrough. We weren’t burdened by the idea that we needed to make something super authentic to the culture.
I think a Korean audience from Korea will watch “Minari” and say, “that is the story of an American family.” And I think an American audience will watch “Minari” and say, “that’s the story of a Korean family.” And that’s the void that we’re caught in. We wanted to profess that this is an Asian American story, where it is American. But we don’t have that space of understanding carved out in society yet of what an Asian American story feels and sounds like. This representation at large of Asian faces and our humanity is great. I think that’s what “Parasite” and Chloe Zhao can capture, in speaking from her experience as a native of her home country, in a free human way. The American race dynamics do not burden them. When director Bong Joon-ho wakes up in Korea, he’s not saying, “I’m Korean,” he’s thinking, “I’m just a human being, and I’m going to go eat something now.” But here, I wake up, and I say, “I’m a human being, and I’m going to go eat something now.”
But then when I step outside my door, sometimes I’m reminded that I’m also a delineated version of an American, which is, I’m a Korean American or Asian American. And sometimes, you are constantly living in that place that doesn’t allow you to see yourself whole and true. Sometimes you’re busy just straddling the line or jumping to each side at any given point to feel comfortable. But I really want, and Isaac wants to be a part of carving out space in a uniquely ours narrative that is uniquely Asian American, that is uniquely, and specifically Korean American. And in doing so, I think it opens the door for people to see themselves in us, in our characters. This is a father. This is a mother. This is a family, and they’re just trying hard, and you can relate to that. There’s a little bit of difference between it and how it manifests, but it’s all the same.
Also in this episode, Phillipa Soo and Cathy Ang discuss their voice work in Netflix’s “Over the Moon.” The Tony-nominated actress Soo discusses her career, especially with having four films released in the same year including the Disney Plus hit “Hamilton.” For newcomer Ang, she discusses this as a possible dream come true and how she brought Fei Fei to life. The Awards Circuit panel discusses all the changes within the Golden Globes and what we all watched over the holiday break.
The Variety Awards Circuit podcast, hosted by Clayton Davis, Jenelle Riley, Jazz Tangcay and Michael Schneider (who produces), is your one-stop listen for lively conversations about the best in film and television. Each week “Awards Circuit” features interviews with top film and TV talent and creatives; discussions and debates about awards races and industry headlines; and much, much more. Subscribe via Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, Spotify or anywhere you download podcasts. New episodes post every Thursday.