She stole nearly every scene in the lauded indie drama as the improbable grandma Soonja; now the veteran actress is nominated for Best Supporting Actress at this month's Academy Awards.

By Leah Greenblatt
April 07, 2021 at 03:34 PM EDT

Minari (2020 Movie)

In South Korea she's a household name, a mainstay of film and television for nearly half a century. At last January's Sundance festival in Park City, Utah, Yuh-Jung Youn got to be something else: an American ingenue.

When the lights went up after the premiere of her English-language feature debut, Lee Isaac Chung's exquisite family drama Minari (out now), the actress, 73, recalls via phone from her home in Seoul, "I was actually shocked, because we didn't expect having applause from the audience…. All of [the cast] was crying. I'm the only one who didn't cry! My friend said to me, 'You are very strange,'" she admits, cackling. "But later when Isaac got the award and got a standing ovation, I cried."

That award would be the coveted Grand Jury Prize, the first in a shower of accolades that would culminate in six Oscar nominations — including a Best Supporting Actress nod for Youn's star turn as a less-than-typical grandma. Set at the dawn of the 1980s in rural Arkansas, Chung's loosely autobiographical script follows the immigrant Yi family as restless patriarch Jacob (Steven Yeun) attempts to make the dream of farming his own land come true.

But country life — or rather, the dingy mobile home they're confined to — is a lonely purgatory for his exasperated wife, Monica (Yeri Han), already struggling to raise two kids (Alan Kim and Noel Kate Cho) on what little they have. And so she brings over her mother, Soonja, played by Youn. Domesticity is not Soonja's strong suit; she doesn't cook or bake or read bedtime stories. But she does love American wrestling and Mountain Dew, and she would do anything for her grandchildren, maybe more than they know.

Credit: A24

Despite her homeland fame, Youn, whose Hollywood experience so far has largely been confined to a supporting role on the Netflix series Sense8 and aborted projects with Sandra Oh and Margaret Cho, still marvels that she ended up in the movie at all. When a chance meeting via a mutual friend led her to the script, though, it hooked her: "It was written in English, and as you know, my English is not perfect, very limited. So I was reading and I said, 'Is it a real story, is it his life or what is it? It's so real to me, the details.'"

In fact, it was for Chung, 42, who grew up watching his parents' VHS tapes of her work and was thrilled to have her portray a version of his real-life grandmother, if by no means a slavish imitation. "I avoided talking about my grandmother during preparation so that Ms. Youn could make this role her own, without any burden to honor my memories," the director tells EW. "[But] when I watched the film take shape in the edit, I realized that she had still managed to capture something deeply emotional or spiritual about her.... She has an unpredictable quality, an ability to surprise you without any effort. What she did was pivotal for the overall pathos of the film."

The indie budget, too, provided a sort of Method shortcut for the cast when it came to bonding on set: "To save money, we rented an Airbnb, a house for four of us," Youn remembers. "Steven was staying at a hotel and he tried to come use the washing machine, and then after washing he didn't go back to his hotel, he just stayed with us. So we got together every day more and more — Isaac came in, the dogs came in, we had a big feast every dinner and then we discussed about the movie and we changed the lines from English to Korean to try to make it better…. If there was big money involved we're not going to get together like that, you know? But we became a family."

Despite Minari's growing Oscar buzz — and its rare status as one of the few Asian-centered stories onscreen to reach such pinnacles — Youn is sanguine about whatever rewards may come, and the possibility that its success will lead to more projects Stateside. "With my English, I doubt it. But okay I will ask them, 'Do I have a chance to work with Isaac again?'" she teases, before unleashing one last hooting Soonja laugh. "This time though, more money please."

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Minari (2020 Movie)

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