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Steven Yeun talks candidly about race, casting, and a career that is heating up

The star of 'Burning' is making headlines with a powerful performance, and a voice that will not be silenced
October 25, 2018 at 12:30 PM EDT

The star of Burning is making headlines with a powerful performance, and a voice that will not be silenced.

Yes, Glenn is dead. Many folks are still upset about losing The Walking Dead fan-favorite to the end of a baseball bat two years ago, and for a time, the man who played him, Steven Yeun, was one of them. But moving on from the TV’s top-rated drama proved to be a blessing in disguise for Yeun, whose range and versatility has been on full display ever since — appearing in genre-bending films like Okja and Sorry to Bother You, and now starring in the South Korean thriller Burning.

More than a mere love triangle story, the gorgeously shot Burning from director Lee Chang-dong touches on issues of class and hierarchy while challenging viewers to put the pieces together and make sense of what they see. The film also represents something of a homecoming for Yeun — starring as the affluent and mysterious Ben, who comes between free spirit Hae-Mi (Jeon Jong-seo) and her new lover Jong-su (Yoo Ah-in).

Yeun, who will be 35 in December, was born in Seoul but grew up in Michigan. While he was excited to take part is his first fully Korean production (and even more excited to work with one of his most revered directors in Lee Chang-dong), he also knew he’d have to immerse himself in not just the project, but — as a Korean-American playing a Korean — the culture as well.

We spoke to Yeun about the film (which received rave reviews when it premiered at Cannes and will be released here in the U.S. on Friday) and his journey making it, but also about so much more. Yeun has always been extremely thoughtful when discussing not just his individual characters, but his career and experiences as an Asian-American actor as well. In this in-depth, wide-ranging conversation, Yeun chats about his latest triumph, the challenges in this country when it comes to casting and ethnicity, his misgivings about the way Glenn was originally portrayed, learning to not apologize for himself, becoming a father, and looking past color to find the human being in every part he plays.

John Phillips/Getty Images

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You were born in Seoul and grew up here in the U.S. Were you apprehensive at all about being a Korean-American playing a Korean?
STEVEN YEUN: Yeah, and I think maybe earlier on, I was thinking more of it from a technical standpoint and am I going to be able to capture the nuance of Korean speech better, because I know it pretty well, but it’s not within my bones, you know? But then as I experienced it more, I realized that I needed to know it way deeper than I actually ever thought I did. That me being an American, even though I was raised by very Korean parents and born in Korea, you’re still missing the coding of an entire nation, and a definite understanding that you can only really attain if you physically live there or are of that place.

And so, yeah, it opened my eyes to that. I think that’s a good question. It gave me a respect and a reverence for cultures in general. If you’re gonna play in this cosmopolitan space of trying to be an actor that gets to work in different places, you really have to do the work to know what is up.

You’ve been on tons of sets before. Okja was a co-production between Korea and the U.S., but this was a Korean production all the way. Were there any adjustments or differences in terms of the way the sets are run, just in terms of the culture of filmmaking, or was it pretty similar?
Well, there are physicalities that are different. But I’ll be honest with you: I don’t know if I had a very Korean experience. I had a Korean experience in so much as that the parameters are Korean. You’re speaking Korean, you’re eating Korean food. But filmmaking has become so understood across the world, that I think it’s pretty unilateral how they approach filmmaking. Where it was different was just that I approached director Lee in a way where I understood it to be a unique individual production that transcends specific cultural norms.

And so, because of that, I really didn’t feel like it was any different than an American set. It just felt like I was on that auteur’s set. It felt like that when I did stuff with [Boots Riley, who directed Sorry to Bother You]. The way that we shot was maybe a little bit different than I’m used to. Walking Dead was a whole different experience, and I’m just realizing that every single film experience is gonna be different, and just the goal is to find some rhythm and zen within that framework I guess.

Who is this character of Ben in Burning to you, because we don’t, as viewers, get a whole lot of answers. Or we are at least left with a lot of questions about him. So who is he to you and how did you approach him?
When I read the script, I really understood his detachment and understood his own lonely prison that he had been put into. I identified in that way. Also, I really identified with this overarching sense of loneliness that character really seems to inhabit. And it wasn’t in the script, but when you read just how this person breathes and what he says and how he speaks, you realize this person might in some ways be the most present person in every scenario.

But the sad part is that in his ability to be present, he’s actually completely alone in that place. God knows that it’s so hard to be present. We’re always floating off into our own little thoughts, or ideas, or even Twitter timelines, whatever it is. Ben just lives and breathes in each moment and observes. And while he’s doing that, he realizes nobody else is alone for the ride with him. And I think over time that can’t be very healthy.

Director Lee and I, we never really spoke explicitly about, like, this is exactly who this person is. We had to guess about what he might have done as a job, or where he’s visited and things like that. And I built that stuff for myself for fun, but I think what was really important was we spoke a lot of philosophy. I guess, like a general outlook, a base from which he’s always thinking from. Actually, a scene that got cut was one where Ben’s friends speak about him in the car and Jong-su’s in the back, and he’s just listening in on a conversation, and they just talk about how Ben identifies with the Ubermensch from Thus Spoke Zarathustra from Nietzsche. When you read that in the script, you read that book, and then you go, “Oh, I see where he’s coming from.” It was fun to build a character from that place.

How much can we believe what we hear in this film? Because whether it is the various stories Hae-mi or Ben tell, or the situation with the cat, we’re left to ponder what is and is not real.
And I think that’s exactly what director Lee was intending. I think if you look at his older filmography, he mostly makes social criticisms, and usually they’re stark mirrors to whoever watches them. And I think in this one, in speaking to him, he always mentioned that he wanted to make one for the kids in a way, for the youth. And not from a place where he was telling the youth what they are, but rather empathizing and giving a heart to the idea of what type of strange suffering that they must be going through in these times, which everyone just feels so lost and lonely and directionless.

The prior generation haven’t really set up for them a situation where they can thrive, rather they were imbibing in the spoils of life. So you have a lot of these kids who feel incredibly alone, almost as if no one’s there to help through or guide them through anything. And that’s where we start from, and then you realize that when this whole film gets completed and is finished and speaks to you, that it’s almost talked about everything.

People seem to call it ambiguous, and I don’t disagree. Life is ambiguous too. We think we know it, and then we don’t know. But when you get down to the nitty gritty, I feel like this film reflects back to you whatever it says. I remember watching it and just feeling this inexplicable sense of loneliness that made me feel okay. It made me feel calm, because I was like, “Oh, everybody’s lonely.” Then you can dig into class structure, then you can dig into feminism. You can dig into toxic masculinity. You can into so many layers of things that he’s talking about. I am in awe of this director. I had a pretty wonderful experience with him.

I saw where you talked about doing this film in Korea and how nice it was that your ethnicity was not an issue at all because you looked just like everybody else. Do you feel a lot of the roles you and other Asian-Americans are offered here in the States are based around your ethnicity?  Do you get the sense that when you’re going for stuff that you’re going for an Asian-American specific role, or a role that could be any race? What has that whole process been like?
I think where it starts from in our country is mostly from the fact that we speak of race, as any country would, if they were as eclectic and mixed and vibrant as ours. We speak about our differences a lot, and those differences are made real because systems have oppressed those that maybe looked different or are other from the majority. And so, you can’t help but talk about these differences.

But then sometimes the other side of the coin of talking about these differences is that it loses humanity. You lose a sense of humanity in the other. And so, as an Asian-American, I think we’ve taken a lot of strides. Earlier on, there were actors like Hayakawa, who had to constantly represent his culture. He had to be Japanese through and through all the time. He had to be the villain, he had to be the boyfriend that the girl starts with, but then they come to their senses and they end up with a white man.

They used that human being as theme or a larger idea, which was to represent something abstract, like race. Whereas when you go to your home country, when you go to a place where race is not a function like that, because everybody looks the same, then you’re talking about the humanness of that person. And so, I look at things like Glenn [from The Walking Dead], and I’m still grateful that I actually got a chance to make him human, because if we’re gonna be honest… In the beginning, the first couple episodes, Glenn was human, but he was also very expected. There’s a reason why the first costume designer had me wear Short Round clothes, you know? That’s not maybe on purpose because she was like, “I want you to be Short Round.” But she was relying on the systems that she knew, and the images and ideas that she knew of what Asian people are to her.

And so, she was like, “Here’s a thing that I picked out, and it looks just like Short Round. Here’s a Japanese flag that we want you to wear.” And in my head, I’m like, “Why would I choose that?” I could choose that, but why would I choose that? And it’s just that type of pervasive starting point. And so, even when you get to a place where you’re saying like, “Oh, yeah, we’re doing color-blind casting.” That’s well and good, but color-blind casting is still when you get to the human part of things, you go, “What type of person might be in this type of role?” Like, let’s say a supportive boyfriend, or let’s say like a really nice, genial guy, or someone that’s like helpful on the side.

He’s not the main guy, but he’s like really good dude. You go, “You know who’s dependable?” This type of person pops into your head, and then you go, “Let’s just get an Asian …” You’re not saying an Asian guy, but all of a sudden all the people that you’re reaching out to our Asian guys, because then we’re also talking fulfilling of diversity quotas sometimes, where you want to make things diverse. And that’s well and good, but sometimes that has a way of just being like, “What different color can we see in this scenario? And what color fits in what category?”

So you’re not asking an Asian man to play the lead of something, where we’re gonna follow you, we’re gonna humanize you, we’re gonna see all the depths and 3D of who you are. Instead, we’re gonna go, “You know what? You know who can play this guy? You know who can play this side character really well? I think an Asian dude could do that, and that’s where we can get diversity covered.” And so, that’s the place where we’re at right now. And I see things changing. I think I see things moving forward. You see a lot of black cinema right now flexing their power, and I think it’s incredible, where, yes, we’re talking about the race of these actors and characters, but also we’re getting to see them so human.

We’re getting to see them so much themselves. Michael B. Jordan is Michael B. Jordan. Donald Glover is Donald Glover, you know? But with Asian-Americans right now, we’re still a little bit behind in our journey, and that’s totally fair. So we have to take steps and we’re processing. We’re processing through this whole process, and you end up with things that are larger and great and move the conversation forward. But then sometimes you are afraid that, that’s gonna be the new hole they put us in, instead of saying like, “Oh, this is a thing, but also all these other things can be things too that Asian people could play.”  So for me, that’s where my head space is. I’m respecting the process of things. But in terms of me as an individual, I approach this to be seeking out anything that I can feel fully human while I do it.

AMC

Watching the changes that have taken place, I feel like, yes, progress is being made, and the people casting these movies and TV shows are thinking about inclusion more, but sometimes it does have that feeling of checking a box, like, “We gotta check this box. We gotta have our Asian-American. We gotta have our black person. We gotta have our LGBTQ character.” It’s obviously a good thing that they’re at least thinking about that now, but sometimes it can’t help but feel like they aren’t putting a lot of thought into it beyond checking those boxes.
Yeah, right. And that’s the thing. I get the idea of helping to afford diversity, but it has to come from a place of respecting that other as a human being. And I know that we do think of people as human beings, especially when we meet them at a singular level and just hanging out with them. You’re a human being. You don’t represent white. You’re just a human being. I’m a human being when you meet me. I don’t just represent Asian.

Those are those things that we place our people after we leave them, when we try to describe things. And that’s the thing that often times fails us, is that because we haven’t seen enough faces that are diverse and fully formed and human on our screens, you can’t help but describe these people in very crude ways. If someone were to try to describe me, you have to throw Asian in there. And that’s totally fine.

That is what it is, but that also is the pervading thought. And then that comes with all these different presuppositions or stereotypes that people have. We just gotta get past that, and that’s just progress and process. But I’m hopefully trying to do my part by trying to hop ahead if I can.

You’ve been in a lot of really interesting projects in the past two years with stuff like this and Okja and Sorry to Bother You. Sometimes I ask people if the roles they take are by design where they have this plan almost of what kind of parts and projects they will take, and in a nice way they kind of gently inform me, “Hey, this is not necessarily my master design. I’m just trying to be a working actor, and here’s what I was offered that seemed kinda cool, and I kinda got lucky.” What’s it like for you in that respect? You’re a guy whose craft I know is important to you, but you also may be a bit at the mercy of what comes in.
Absolutely, and that’s why I had to go to Korea. I think where I might be calculating if at all, is just when I say, no. That’s it. When I say, yes, there’s no calculation going on. I just go, “Oh, my God, I got one. I’ll do it.” I want to work. I’m waiting to work, but I want to connect with the piece. I want to connect with the story. I want to feel like I can really thrive in that arena. And some things that come across my desk … Like, all the respect to them, I’m honestly very fortunate to be in a position where I am getting offers, where people are calling me and asking me if you to do this. But usually most of the time those are being offered to me because I fill some parameter that I think I’d be perfect for, but they don’t know me.

They don’t know me. They just know what they’ve seen. And with that, you sometimes get things that are not that deep. I end up being offered things where the idea is larger than the human. And with that in mind, those are things that if I’m calculative at all, I just go, “You know what? I just can’t do that.” I know it would be so not fun for me, and there’s nothing worse than me trying to work and having a horrible time.

How much do you think about trying to create your own content?
I have created some things, and we have sold some things that are undercover at the moment. Those are strides that I’m making. But I will say that I also love collaboration. When I have an experience like I did with Boots Riley, or with director [Bong Joon-ho] or director Lee, you realize it’s really wonderful to be able to connect with another artist, and just be like, “Let’s make something. Let’s see something. Let’s try to create something meaningful to us.”

And when you have that, that’s when it feels magical. And that’s what I’m looking for too. I don’t want to just speak from my point of view. I want to grow as a human being, to experience many different things, many different points of views, many different voices. I certainly wouldn’t have been able to make Sorry To Bother You, but I’m so glad that I got to be a part of Sorry To Bother You. I certainly couldn’t have made Burning, but I’m grateful that I’m in Burning. Same with Okja.

And so, it is nice to have your own point of view and your own voice out there. That’s very important. But there’s also something to be said about what got me to be an actor in the first place, which is just curiosity to try other things.

Does the thought of long-term episodic television appeal to you at all anymore? Could you handle that again, because that’s quite a commitment?
Never say never. I will say right now, I have been having such a wonderful time exploring different people and one at a time. And I also look back and think about my experience on The Walking Dead and how enjoyable it was, but then also at the same time, how intensely involving it was. In hindsight now, I think about like, Wow, I really internalized Glen. I really lived in that skin for a long time, and I didn’t even know how much he had taken Steven.

And then you realize, “I’m also these other things.” And then you play something else, and you’re like, “Oh, I’m also this thing.” And you play another thing, and you’re like, “Oh, I can also be this thing.” And you realize like the goal as a new father at 34, I just want to be as wide and deep as possible. I want to experience so many different things and lives as possible. That can only make you hopefully more wise, or deeper, or understanding, empathetic. So yeah, it’s a privilege to be able to do this, but that seems to be my goal at the moment. But I also have kids, so I gotta work.

It’s now been a few years since you left The Walking Dead. How have you changed as an actor and as a person since that time?
I think I’ve stopped apologizing for myself, at least in my head. I don’t know if I did that actively outside, but there’s that. I think I became a little less fearful. I think the child was really important for me to kick me in the ass and say, “You’re in charge of your life. You determine what happens next. These are choices you make.” I’m not too different, I hope, but I’m definitely not just the thing that people had seen for a while.

I think that was what was really great was that after I left the show, I do remember feeling an overwhelming sense of loneliness, and it wasn’t because I was all of a sudden off the show. I thought it was, but it wasn’t that. It was just I had finally faced the truth, which is you are in charge of your own life. You have to make the decisions. These are choices. To be angry is a choice. To be sad is sometimes not a choice, but sometimes it is. And you can make choices for yourself, and when you have that type of power, it can be incredibly terrifying.

You can look at the world as the chaos that it is, and be like, “Holy smokes, how do I do this? Someone’s gonna depend on me? That’s insane. I don’t know anything.” And then you just gotta show up. So what do you do in the face of that? Do you cower and give up, or do you just go, “Well, f— it. Let’s go then”? And I think my time on that show helped me to get out and say, “F— it, let’s go.” So that’s been really valuable for me.

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