Wide Angle

Steven Yeun on Why He Had to Go to South Korea to Feel at Home as an Actor

The Burning actor on escaping the “American white gaze” and finding his greatest role yet.

Steven Yeun in Burning.
Steven Yeun in Burning. CGV Arthouse

Steven Yeun’s performance is an unsettling revelation in Burning, the exceptional art-house thriller that South Korea selected as its entry for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar this year. Best known as Glenn on TV’s The Walking Dead and seen earlier this summer wooing Tessa Thompson in Sorry to Bother You, Yeun plays in his latest film an elegant arsonist—and possible murderer—somewhere between Jude Law in The Talented Mr. Ripley and Christian Bale in American Psycho. But the movie, adapted from a short story by Haruki Murakami by Korean auteur Chang-dong Lee (Secret Sunshine, Poetry), also discomfits for a reason its director probably never intended: Ben is the kind of top-of-the-social-hierarchy character that the Korean American actor might never have gotten to play if he hadn’t returned to the country his parents left nearly three decades ago.

That irony wasn’t lost on Yeun. After the shoot wrapped in Seoul, where the film is set, he realized it was the first production that hadn’t made him feel “othered.” And while the ensemble is across-the-board terrific, Yeun’s performance is so spine-tinglingly good you also can’t help wondering how many other would-be star-making turns Hollywood is missing out on by undervaluing actors like him.

In person, Yeun is both puppy-dog earnest and relentlessly cagey—a manner he may have learned while gently guarding the twists on The Walking Dead. He met me in a café in Los Angeles’ Silver Lake neighborhood, and we had the kind of code-switching, culturally specific, thoroughly idiosyncratic conversation that I never could have imagined before #AsianAugust. It also felt like I’d caught Yeun at the end of a journey of self-discovery, from a Michigan childhood spent wishing he could be white to finding new ways that enable him to feel like a human being, rather than a prop for the “American white gaze.” Working with Lee, one of his artistic heroes, was part of that rehumanization process. So was not worrying too much if the roles he takes on are “good” for Asian American representation.

Inkoo Kang: What drew you to playing Ben, this cosmopolitan floater?

Steven Yeun: The initial draw was Chang-dong Lee. I would do anything that he asked me to do. He’s incredible. After reading the script, I was like, “Wow, I’m really going to get to play, to feel what it’s like to live in this person’s skin, be present in his present.” I realized in hindsight that nothing I had done prior gave me that feeling.

I wasn’t supposed to be in this role. If you’re packaging this in Korea, they’re not thinking about me. They already had someone lined up, and suddenly there was an open space, and [Lee] was like, “Here’s an American Korean person, and if I can help him get to a full Korean embodiment of his character, his inherent American-ness will create that dissonance that makes you feel like he’s ‘other’ [in Korean society].” He’s so Korean, but he’s not at all, you know what I mean?

People can draw their own conclusions about who Ben is. He’s meant to be enigmatic and ambiguous. But for me, the experience that I had there felt rich and full because there wasn’t an otherness that I felt.

Something great about your performance as Ben is that the entire time that he’s talking to Jong-su, his economically struggling romantic rival, Ben uses jondaetmal [polite speech], but there’s such a palpable condescension to everything that he says to Jong-su.

Oh, thanks! That was something that we were cognizant of: You need to notice when he speaks jondaetmal to him and when he speaks banmal [casual speech] to him. Those are important moments, you know? We crafted those choices, and that’s so fun working with [Lee] for that kind of stuff.

Are you disappointed that American or international audiences won’t get all of the nuances in the dialogue?

No, because we’re talking about one layer of this story, and really the human layer is the thing that binds it all together.

Do you mean the romantic triangle in the film?

I mean the feeling of unrequited loneliness. The feeling that we’re all alone. We can try to put labels on ourselves and try to separate each other, but really, we’re all fucking alone and that’s what it is. And it’s scary, and it sounds terrible, but really, it’s OK.

Yesterday, when you were introducing the movie [at a screening], you called Chang-dong Lee a “film genius.” What draws you to him?

He reached out to me through his films first, obviously. Peppermint Candy helped me understand why I have this han [an untranslatable strain of sorrow that makes up a pillar of Korean national identity] in my body that I can’t explain.

I couldn’t explain how me being a 5-year-old immigrant in America was filled with so much rage. It wasn’t just the fear of my environment, or being an Asian kid in America. That probably stoked it a little bit, but I didn’t experience war, I didn’t experience trauma. You don’t know where it comes from, but then you watch [the movie] and you go, “Oh my God, there’s a whole level of Korean experience that I’m missing out on.” There was this deeper level that I couldn’t access, and that film helped me get there.

Have you heard of the idea of inherited trauma?

Uh-huh.

I often wonder how much of that courses through all Korean people’s blood.

The idea is Christian, too: the sins of the father getting passed down. And now we have a way to tangibly, physically explain that: traumatic DNA passing down through our bodies.

I like to joke that Korean cinema, which is known in part for its intensity of emotion, is 5,000 years of suffering condensed into an art form.

Yeah, that’s real.

You’ve worked with heavyweights in the Korean film world: Joon-ho Bong on Okja and Chang-dong Lee on Burning. They’ve given you meaty roles, as well as the opportunity to work with art-house auteurs. What do you make of the fact that these opportunities seem to be primarily coming from the Korean side, rather than the American side? 

Sometimes it’s tough. I’ll come back from Burning, and I’ll be like, “Will I ever get this experience again? Will I ever feel this free in a character? Will I ever feel like they’re looking to get my best performance? Down to the lighting, the makeup, the boundarylessness that they project on me?” I feel like there’s a mold here in America, that even in my daily walking around I feel subjected to. Someone’s projecting, like, “This is how you’re supposed to fit in this world.” It’s this generic Asian man mold that pervades.

Going forward, how much does thinking about representing Asian America play a role in you weighing your projects?

I think representation is key and paramount. But it’s like all social mandates or ideas—they have to stem from an actual willingness and desire to do it. I want to be attracted to a project as a human being. Not someone telling me, “You have to do it.” And my face is my face. That will check the box of representation.

Now, if we want to get supercerebral and break it down, “Should I do this or not?” you get into arguments like, “Does this character put me in a space where I’m just doing a thing that the American white gaze is asking me to do?” Those are the things that I’m trying actively to avoid.

What do you feel like that gaze wants you to do?

I won’t speak for other Asian American actors, because I don’t know what they’re being offered. But for me, it’s like: nice guy, dependable, supportive, benign. Beige. And as a Korean man, I am not beige. And I felt that when I was over there [shooting Burning].

Did you feel beige when you were playing Glenn on The Walking Dead?

Yeah, I felt beige with Glenn. That was a little bit of the frustration that I could never explain to the wider society, to fans of the show.

Am I incredibly grateful, and did I have a wonderful time on that show? Yeah! I wouldn’t take that experience back at all. I made lifelong friendships. I got to learn so much. But I will say that I felt cramped. I felt like there wasn’t space for me to fully spread all of who I was, and that was partly due to me, too, because when I started, all I was trying to do was to work within the parameters that they were giving me. And then, over time, I just outgrew it.

That’s why it was beige. Because he was meant to be the heart of that show. When you look back, you go, “That’s great, everyone wants to be represented that way. Why wouldn’t you want to be a perfect being?” But I don’t wanna [play] perfect, because we’re not perfect. And that’s a thing that I wasn’t able to feel for a while, because I was holding up this ideal that was way bigger than me, way larger than any single human can possibly do. I became less and less interested in doing that.

Do you think of yourself as a heartthrob?

Ay-yi-yi. I’m at this interesting point of not rejecting it, because I want to be representative of the idea that anyone can be that and feel that. For that reason, I don’t want to reject it. But definitely I want to reject it.

Why?

Self-hatred. Maybe when I was young, I wanted that. I was like, “Why not me, why can’t an Asian man be this?” Then you try to find that through systems that aren’t native to you. You’re like, “I know what it means to be hot. It means you work out. It means you drink a ton of milk, so you get huge. It means you’re mean to people. Toxic masculinity.” Then you realize it’s so stupid. Just be comfortable with yourself.

Do you get mistaken for other Asian actors in the states?

No.

That’s amazing.

Yeah, but also sad.

Because there aren’t other Asian American actors to be confused with?

It’s a weird double edge. It’s like, cool, I’m not compared to anybody, but is it because there’s no other person that you’re fixating in your head about? John [Cho] is here. [Literally—Cho happened to be at the café where this interview took place.] Maybe I’ve been mistaken for him one time.

You know the actor Daniel Henney, right?

Yeah.

Like you, he’s from Michigan. It seems like he decided pretty early in his career to go to Korea because as a half-Korean guy, he’s going to have a lot less discrimination in Korea than in the U.S. as an actor and model. Did a similar journey ever occur to you?

No, I rejected that journey. Maybe it was prideful to be like, “I’m going to make it here, it’s all about here.” I remember saying that, when people were like, “Are you going to go to Korea?”

So people asked you if you were?

Yeah, they were like, “You should go to Korea.” I’m like, “No, I’m going to do it here.”

What was your reasoning?

[Koreans] think that the easiest avenue to succeed [for Korean Americans in show business] is going to be Korea. That’s not true. There are so many people trying to make it out there. Also, I’m an American person. I feel connected here. Am I Korean? Yes. Do I speak Korean? Yes. Is that my culture? Yes. But I am here. I want to identify as here.

As I was coming here, I had to explain to my mom what I was doing. She had no idea who you were. But when I explained that I was going to interview a Korean American actor, she went and got the car washed for me, even though you are not going to see this car.

That is awesome.

She wanted to see a photo of you, so I pulled it up on her phone. She was like, “Oh, tell him that he’s very handsome and he has a good insang [impression or demeanor].” I thought, “This is the most Korean-mom thing I’ve ever heard in my life.”

That’s so funny. Your mom is hilariously sweet. I hear my mom when you just said that.

How old were you when you moved to L.A.?

I was 25.

L.A. has this amazing Koreatown and the most Korean Americans anywhere in the states. At the same time, the industry that you wanted to break into when you arrived is extremely white. What were your impressions of L.A. when you first got here, and has your relationship to the city changed in any significant way?

Koreatown at first became a safe haven for me where you can go to not feel othered. I wasn’t cognizant of [being othered then]. I was aware of me being an Asian actor, but I was not thinking about anything but just working within the system, whatever that meant. I wouldn’t take roles that would be bad as an Asian person, but I was looking to just get work. So you do that on the daily and then you come back, and for some reason you always just keep gravitating toward K-Town. It’s comfortable.

Then you start to let it go for a bit. Because you go, “Oh, I don’t need the security blanket of this place.” And then you find it again, where now you’re approaching K-Town not from a place of fear. Rather, now you’re just going there to go eat some bomb food and celebrate your culture. That’s the confidence that you build over time, or you hope to.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.