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MOVIES

Steven Yeun is ‘drawn to ... the idea of real people’

Actor has gone from ‘The Walking Dead’ to starring in one of the year’s most acclaimed films, ‘Minari’

Steven Yeun in "Minari."
Steven Yeun in "Minari."David Bornfriend/A24 via AP

Steven Yeun can make just about anything look easy. Four years ago, the now-37-year-old actor transitioned from his career-launching stint as Glenn Rhee on the popular AMC series “The Walking Dead” to major roles in films by masters of the craft, including Bong Joon-ho and Lee Chang-dong. He’s also a trained comedian, and with his wit and charm and sharp cheekbones, has become one of the Internet’s favorite crushes.

But with “Minari,” Yeun dives into emotional territory that he had yet to explore in his career — territory that’s very close to home.

Yeun plays Jacob Yi, the patriarch of a Korean-American family relocating from California to rural Arkansas to start a farm in the early 1980s. The family drama is semi-autobiographical for writer-director Lee Isaac Chung, but details resonate with Yeun’s own experience emigrating as a child from Seoul, first to Saskatchewan and later Michigan. Yeun appreciates that the film, which is available in select theaters and the A24 screening room Feb. 12 and on-demand nationwide Feb. 26, centers on the Yi family’s specific struggles as American workers, Korean immigrants, and individuals, and resists painting a broad portrait of the immigrant experience.

Earlier this month, Yeun became the first Asian-American actor nominated by the Screen Actors Guild for outstanding performance by a male actor in a leading role, which he earned alongside an ensemble nomination for the cast and a supporting actress nomination for his costar Youn Yuh-jung. Reached recently by Zoom, Yeun discussed healing generational divides, crying on the job, and understanding the personal politics of his films.

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Steven Yeun and Lauren Cohan in "The Walking Dead."
Steven Yeun and Lauren Cohan in "The Walking Dead." Tina Rowden/AMC

Q. It’s been a year since “Minari” premiered at Sundance. How has your relationship to the film developed after the journey that was 2020?

A. My relationship to the movie hasn’t really changed, but it’s gotten deeper. Last year at Sundance was a really wild experience. With hindsight, to know that we got to share this film [in a theater] initially is such a beautiful memory. But Kobe Bryant had just died on the day we premiered, and there were slight rumblings of COVID, so there was this unfortunate feeling of mortality permeating the air. I don’t know, it felt very prescient. And then to live a whole year beyond that [laughs], I’ve learned a lot. I think that’s been the beauty of this film. It still teaches me new things.

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Q. This is your first role where you play a father, and I know you have two young children yourself. Did fatherhood inform your approach to the role? Or were you holding your own father in mind?

A. It was a confluence of those things. Perhaps I would have been able to perform something like this without firsthand knowledge of being a father, but I’m so grateful I do have this experience. I think fatherhood, and the shifting of my priorities and understanding what’s important in my personal life, has only served to calm me down and deepen me in a way — and maybe that’s the intangible nature of playing a patriarch or anyone of authority. I wasn’t trying to emulate [my father] or play him specifically, nor was this character anything like my father, but it was about understanding the intentions of that generation, and seeing that generation from a place of humanity. That was really the most difficult work — the emotional work of stripping away the image I had created of that generation. And shedding that was really profound for me, and a way for me to [see myself] in my father. That was a very beautiful reconnection for me, too.

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 Lee Isaac Chung, left, and Steven Yeun at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival.
Lee Isaac Chung, left, and Steven Yeun at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. Taylor Jewell/Invision/AP

Q. Lee Isaac Chung has discussed wanting to write and direct from a point of view that’s very present tense, showing these adults as who they are, not constructions from a nostalgic memory of childhood. I’m curious to know how you approached that as an actor.

A. There’s so much I can say about this. I think this [generational divide] is not unique to only the Korean-American or the immigrant experience — generations misunderstand each other constantly. But [growing up], I was kind of untethered and disconnected from [my parents] by the language barrier and the cultural barrier. I immigrated when I was 4 years old, so I had an understanding of what life connected to them felt like, but I was placed in this situation that pulled me away from them over time. You get to a certain age and realize that you don’t know your parents at all, that you’ve never talked about real stuff.

So my approach to [the role] was unlocking the painful nature of that personal space. The reconnection that happened from that was really wonderful. Being able to humanize my own father’s generation, seeing them not through the lens of lionization or infantilization but rather for the people that they are, [that] unlocked and threw away a lot of the trauma from the disconnection. It was healing, and in some ways has allowed me to see myself clearer. I think a lot of my upbringing was burdened and shrouded with a lot of anger and shame and bitterness towards the fact that perhaps I wasn’t able to fit freely into this system alongside my parents. They couldn’t just come along with me and navigate school and all these spaces, and instead they asked me to be their American proxy. So [the process was about] unpacking that, dealing with that, reconnecting to that, healing the divide — I’m very thankful and grateful for this project.

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Q. It must be somewhat exhausting revisiting that emotional process over and over.

A. I’m happy to talk about this one personally. I also feel like [these themes] resonate with . . .the disconnection and the isolation that we’re all collectively feeling in this experience with COVID. It’s so many things on top of each other. I’ve been crying this whole press tour.

Yeri Han and Steven Yeun in "Minari."
Yeri Han and Steven Yeun in "Minari."Josh Ethan Johnson/A24 via AP

Q. The tense marriage between Jacob and Monica (Yeri Han) feels very lived-in. Did you struggle to find that dynamic together in any scenes?

A. There weren’t roadblocks, but that’s not to say it was easy. It’s more that the inherent tension of the way that Yeri and I would talk about a situation, and the ways we might see it differently, were also indicative of how Jacob and Monica misunderstand each other. The [climax of the film] really stood out to me. I remember as an actor being like, “Jacob is going to lose it here, he’s going to wail,” and I tried to build up this emotion and I couldn’t do it on the first or second take. On the third take I said, “Why don’t I just let go and see what happens?” So I just stared catatonically, and I was like, “Oh yeah, this feels more correct, this is where Jacob would be.” And I looked over at Yeri; and for the third take in a row, she’s just straight sobbing. I realized how much weight she as an actress was carrying through the entire experience, and then how much a mother carries and how much a wife carries — how much of the emotional burden [people in these roles] carry. And part of me already knew these things, but to experience it like that was intense. And as a character, I think that’s the moment Jacob sees his wife clearly, for everything she’s done. And he’s changed from that moment.

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Steven Yeun in "Burning."
Steven Yeun in "Burning."Courtesy of Well Go USA

Q. There’s a trend in your recent films, including “Sorry to Bother You” (2018) and “Burning” (2018), toward themes of economic struggle and disparity under capitalism. Do you find yourself drawn to these political works?

A. There’s not a lack of awareness, but it doesn’t necessarily factor into what I’m looking for. I think perhaps what I’m drawn to is the idea of real people. Not to suggest that rich people aren’t real, but there’s something about those who are unseen, and living in the gaps — I feel a deep connection to people living in the seams of society that perhaps aren’t seen in their fullness. I think an immigrant family fits that narrative, and the story in “Burning” is something attractive to me. Maybe what I’m really exploring is just an existential idea in isolation that I’m attracted to and I don’t really know why yet [laughs].

Interview was edited and condensed. Cassidy Olsen can be reached at me@cassidyolsen.com.