Steven Yeun is a One-Man Third Culture
Steven Yeun wants to create his own reality. The Korean–American actor, star of The Walking Dead, Burning, and now Minari, is feeling a bit exhausted, torn between the expectations placed on Korean actors working in Hollywood and Hollywood actors working in Korea. He’s tired of feeling like he can only be placed on either side. And even more tired of being placed in the middle, astride increasingly unstable concepts of East and West.
“There’s Korea. And then there’s the West,” Yeun says, Zooming from the driver’s seat of a parked car, somewhere in Los Angeles. “And which one are you? Are you both? Or are you between them? I’m just my own thing. I’m my own third culture.” Certainly, Yeun’s career feels singular — totally its own thing.
Born in Seoul in 1983, Yeun immigrated with his family to Regina, Saskatchewan, when he was just five. “I don’t remember Canada all that well,” he confesses. “For me, what Canada represents was a traumatic change in reality.” Being transplanted from the curvy backstreets of Seoul to the Canadian prairies was, for Yeun, a bit disorienting. A class photo from the period appears in a recent New York Times Magazine spread, with little Yeun in the bottom right corner, the only Asian kid in a lineup of prairie whiteness, looking physically out of place and a little bit scared. On a whim, his family veered south, to Troy, Michigan, a Detroit suburb where they ran a beauty supply company. At church, the young Yeun commingled with other Korean kids and cultivated a newfound confidence among these peers. After graduating from nearby Kalamazoo College, Yeun announced his ambition to become an actor. His parents were thinking of a stabler move, like a law degree or medical school (he had, after all, studied neuroscience in college). But they offered their blessing. After a few years studying and teaching improv in Chicago, Yeun moved to Los Angeles to pursue a career in Hollywood.
Forgoing the months and years of struggle and failure that shape so many would-be Hollywood upstarts, Yeun landed a major role relatively quickly. (If his time in the audition circuit was brief, it was also gruelling in a different way: in his first-ever try-out, a casting director asked him to re-take a comedic monologue “in an Asian accent.”) Yeun was cast as the pizza deliveryman–turned–survivalist Glenn Rhee on AMC’s wildly popular zombie thriller The Walking Dead. It’s the sort of gig actors dream of: lucrative and offering a measure of stability, which isn’t easy to come by in a series where main characters are routinely beaten to death or devoured whole by teeming undead hordes. But Yeun’s major breakout role came a bit later, in the 2018 Korean thriller Burning. A festival and arthouse hit helmed by legendary Korean director Lee Chang-dong, Burning cast Yeun as Ben, a chilly playboy who wheedles his way into the life of the film’s troubled protagonist, Jong-su, played by Yoo Ah-in. (When I saw Burning the first time, I recall quite literally tilting my whole body toward the screen, physically drawn in by Yeun’s commanding performance.)
It was the sort of role that rarely comes along in Hollywood. And Yeun knew it. “As a Korean–American, I never got a role that allowed me to play with such status and power,” he says. “If there was, it would be written in a way where it’s a status and power that still needs validation. Whereas the character Ben in Burning is like, ‘I don’t need status and power from anybody.’ The potential of someone like myself, an Asian–American, what we can play, is limited in Hollywood.”
Part of Burning’s genius is the way it suspends viewers between possibilities. It’s ostensibly a mystery about a missing woman, who Yeun’s Ben may or may not have murdered. But the film captures something of the unknowability of contemporary life. With his breezy nihilism and magnanimous charm, Ben is not only at the centre of the film’s ambiguity, but a symbol of it. Looked at one way, he’s an effortlessly charming rich guy with a welcoming smile and easygoing attitude. Squint, and he’s a sociopathic murderer preying on young women whose disinhibitions and unchecked joie de vivre offend his own icy misery. “Ben has the freedom and the privilege to look at things as truly meaningless,” Yeun explains. “And he has a system that echoes that back to him, as a rich, straight male. It’s spiritually and mentally meaningless.”
For Yeun, making a film in Korea felt liberating — and a bit intimidating. Because he wasn’t so acutely aware of his difference on set, he found himself more able to focus on his performance. “They’re not looking at me like an Asian person,” he explains. “It’s just a person. So I was just dialed in.” At the same time, he worried about his ability, as an expatriate speaker, to speak Korean to a level demanded by the role. And of course, there’s the pressure he feels to always represent whole demographics, both at home and abroad. “The fear was less with the Korean audience and more with the Korean–American audience,” he says. “There’s such a lack of being seen, in general, and especially in that way; the only films and television shows we see that have Korean language are from Korea. The war for me was inadvertently representing Korean America, or Korea.”
Yeun is understandably sensitive to these questions of his Koreanness, or his Korean–Americanness. And he’s deeply thoughtful when considering the role he plays as one Hollywood’s most prominent Asian–American actors. These pressures are compounded somewhat by Korean culture and its creators enjoying, in the language of trendspotting headlines, “a moment,” with Hollywood gatekeepers welcoming movies, music, and TV shows imported from the peninsula. Just look to the success of Bong Joon-ho’s Oscar-winning thriller Parasite or the cultural crossover of boy bands like BTS, and Korean pop music more generally. “Parasite or BTS represents me to a degree,” he admits. “But it doesn’t really represent me. That’s Korea itself. That’s cool. That’s a stretching of culture on a global scale. But I really want to focus on making sure I’ve carved out a foundation for the nominal existence that I live in. If I don’t, I worry I’ll get swallowed up by the global conversation.”
Minari, Yeun’s latest performance, for which he’s nabbed a best actor Oscar nomination, feels like a much more intimate conversation. It’s the story of a Korean–American family decamping from California to rural Arkansas. Living out of a trailer on an empty patch of earth, patriarch Jacob (Yeun) sets to work pursuing his dream of living off the land, growing traditional Korean produce for immigrant communities in the area. His plot is beset by issues — a well dries up, orders are cancelled — resulting in a near-maniacal doubling down. Jacob obsesses over the land’s fertility, ignoring the strain it puts on his family.
Written and directed by Lee Isaac Chung, Minari plays like a tribute to the second-generation immigrant experience. It’s an attempt by Korean–Americans like Chung and Yeun to relate to their parents’ generation, whose identities felt more meaningfully cleaved between two worlds. “Immigration slowly separates generations,” Yeun says. “You start forming more into the Western world while they keep tethering themselves to what they left.” Minari offers a complicated look at the immigrant dream of America. It’s a film in which a man realizes that there’s no great promise buried somewhere in the soil of a new world, and that, cheesy as it sounds, the real journey is not about the assimilation of an immigrant to a new land or its dreams, but what Yeun sees as “the assimilation of the family to itself, and to each other.”
Minari premiered at Sundance Film Festival early in 2020, one of the last big cultural to-dos before the coronavirus pandemic gripped the planet. The film took home the prestigious U.S. Dramatic Grand Jury Prize and the U.S. Dramatic Audience Award. But for Yeun, the film offered a more profound reward. He watched it at Sundance with his own father. And he felt those barriers between generations begin to yield a bit.
“What I realized making this film, which I think a lot of people realize, is that you’re so similar to your parents,” he says. “There’s this deep connection running through the two generations. Some people are able to access it a little easier. Myself? I never had those conversations. It was always, ‘my Korean parents.’ Being able to play this role allowed me to contextualize them, and realize that I am an extension of my parents; I am my parents. Now I can have a real conversation with him, instead of talking to him in ways that seem detached and performative. Like you’re role-playing. Now, we’re connecting and meeting as human beings. It’s been a trip.”
Much of this trip has, of course, been figurative. The pandemic has hampered Minari’s route through the global festival circuit and traditional theatrical distribution. And while Yeun doesn’t mind skipping out on the red carpets and relentless press junkets and festival Q&As that see participants framing long-winded observations as questions, he does lament that the film, by and large, is missing a big-screen run. Still, as he acknowledges, Minari is a film about family, and it’s bound to hit even harder reaching people in their homes. “In some ways,” Yeun says, “I feel like the power of this film is amplified by this moment…Aren’t we all living a bit of an immigrant existence in this pandemic? The feelings of isolation. The feelings of exile from each other. The feelings of being lonely. To be quite honest with you, that’s shit I’ve been feeling my whole life.”
Yeun may seem like some convenient, cross-cultural figure — whether as the worldly socialite Ben, the American assimilationist hopeful Jacob, or the Korean-to-English translator in Bong Joon-ho’s 2017 Okja. But the actor seems determined to collapse such distinctions. He’s right that pegging people as clear links between cultures and continents can constitute its own kind of stock, clichéd thinking. “I can’t change the way that my ethnicity explains itself,” Yeun says, unafraid to get personal and philosophical. “I think everybody wants to be represented for themselves. We’re in a journey in this conversation. We have to have so many people representing Asian–America that this monolithic feeling can go away. And we can just stick to the humanity and the individual.”
Lead Image: Shirt, pants, and watch (all price upon request) by Louis Vuitton Men’s.
Photography: Elizabeth Weinberg (Anderson Hopkins)
Photo Assistant: Yasara Gunawardena
Styling: Jeanne Wang (The Wall Group)
Style Assistant: Chloe Takayanagi
Grooming: Anna Bernabe