Steven Yeun's Most Exciting Role Yet Helped Him Conquer His Post-'Walking Dead' Crisis
After Steven Yeun's Glenn had been killed off on The Walking Dead, the actor was feeling an intense loneliness. It was the first time in his career that he wasn't part of a group and there were no obvious next steps. But that unknown was also exhilarating, and Yeun made the most of it.
In the last two years, he has appeared in thrilling films like Netflix's super pig fantasy from Bong Joon-Ho Okja and Boots Riley's anti-capitalist satire Sorry to Bother You. But he has his best role to date in the Korean film Burning, out in select locations now. Burning -- directed by Lee Chang-Dong, and one of the best films of the year -- is an enigmatic piece of work adapted from the Haruki Murakami short story, "Barn Burning." It begins when two acquaintances -- aimless writer Jong-su (Ah-In Yoo) and amateur mime/model Hae-mi (Jong-seo Jeon) -- reconnect and start something resembling a romance. But then Hae-mi leaves on an impulsive trip to Africa, and Jong-su is left caring for her cat named Boil. When she returns, Yeun's Ben comes in tow.
Ben is wealthy, but the means by which he acquires his fortune are unclear. When asked what he does, he says, "I play." He's described as a Jay Gatsby type and seems to use Hae-mi as entertainment for his other rich friends, yawning when he gets bored with her antics. Yeun's performance is endlessly appealing but deeply unsettling. Near the end of the film, Ben explains to Jong-su how he likes to burn greenhouses, and is planning to ignite one near Jong-su's home near the North Korean border. Jong-su can't find the decimated greenhouse, but then Hae-mi vanishes. And you're left to draw your own conclusions.
We sat down with Yeun when he was in town for Burning's New York Film Festival premiere in October to talk about acting in Korean and the circular nature of life. You know, casual stuff.
Thrillist: How did Burning come about?
Steven Yeun: This was after Okja. I had done press for Okja. They were like, "Who is one of the Korean directors you would like to work with?" I just kind of said Director Lee because I was a fan, not really taking that into any serious thing. A couple months later, I was in London and I was heading to Korea the next day and I got a call in the middle of the night from Director Bong saying Director Lee wants to meet you. And I was like, "Why? How?" They sent me this project and I met with him for the next three days.
Yeun: We just ate dinner every day. We just talked about this project. The last day we hugged and he was like, "I'd like you to play this part," and I said, "Okay. I would love to play the part." Then I went home. I practiced Korean like crazy. Then I came back and I did it.
Did he give you the Murakami story?
Yeun: Before we met, I read the short story. The first day we met, he didn't give me the script, by then we were just talking about the story and we were on the same wavelength about it. He handed me the script and I was like, yes. We've gotta do this. After that we just kind of riffed on it.
The story and the film are elusive, but Director Lee expanded the purview and made it about Korea. The story takes place in Japan, but doesn't feel as much about the place. What were those wavelengths you were teasing out?
Yeun: I think with someone like Director Lee, and maybe it happens with all Korean directors. You know, it's funny: We're speaking of it from an American lens, which is always going to be about trying to understand that. I think when you're a Korean director working in Korea and you're Korean, you're just thinking about what it means to be human. The Korean aspect of things are the things you have to comment on because that's your world. We talked more wavelength-wise about the human component of these things. So, why? How? It wasn't even factual information that we were trying to dig out, it was more philosophical ideals -- to get into that part makes it kind of complicated.
I would say we talked about how many times we've been around the circle -- if that makes sense. Polar thoughts and how you can kind of weave over and over in your thought process. This is so vague, what I'm saying. When you take into account a character like Ben, the theme I think that Director Lee was trying to explore was the frustration that the younger generation feels right now, us being a part of that generation. And also in that frustration, where you end up on the philosophical struggle of that.
There's a very nihilistic way to look at life these days. Things look very gamey. And I think that's what we wanted to explore. We wanted to explore why the youth are so confused and scared and in the situation that they are in now. That manifests in very different ways. We explored being lonely and a desire for things. These are such vague things because we kind of talked about it all. It wasn't like: Ben does this and these things. It was, what is life? And why? And then we kind of extrapolated from there.
You mentioned earlier you were practicing your Korean. Were you hoping in the long term to do a film entirely in Korean?
Yeun: I thought if I ever worked in Korea, it would be as an expat. That's what I figured. If I did do that, I was waiting for a good script where I could explore that, and I got to explore that a little bit with Okja. But in this particular case, Director Lee was like, you are a full Korean person so just bring it.
What was the practicing like?
Yeun: My Korean is actually okay. My pronunciation is pretty okay. Where I had to practice a lot was my reading is not great. My reading is very slow. So I needed to get someone to record the lines so that I could hear them so that I could read it faster. And then I'd have to connect the words to the English words, but make sure they are connected correctly and get it to a place where I'm not just saying Korean words, but rather I'm saying the meaning of the word. So, it was a lot of just getting into it. Just immersion. We picked apart words. I would say: "What is the origin of this word?" Luckily, Director Lee is also a language professor, so he was helping me the whole way. He was like, "This word originates from here and it means this and this." I would go, "Okay this makes more sense to me." It was fun.
It sounds almost like the way actors approach Shakespeare.
Yeun: Yes, 100 percent.
Were there steps you needed to take from there just to get comfortable acting?
Yeun: That came from the parameters which director Lee kind of set up for me. But also, every project that I'm a part of -- maybe this is for every actor -- my reality starts to turn into the reality of the film in some way. Some connections happen. I remember being very lonely in Korea for a while when we were shooting. For, like, the first three months I felt extremely alone. Because, one, I was physically alone. After we would shoot, I would just go back to my hotel. People kind of knew me over there so I didn't walk around too much. Because I was trying to play full immersive Korean, I didn't go to the places I was used to as an expat going in Korea. I stopped going to those places.
Because they would be speaking English?
Yeun: Yeah. It was funny, whenever I would run into a friend and we'd sit down and talk, I didn't realize how much I wanted to speak English. I was like, "Oh my god, it's so comfortable to talk to you right now." I also knew the feelings I was feeling were very important to what was happening in the film. So I just went with it. That, mixed with the things I was reading, mixed with the philosophical struggles that I personally was going through. It all kind of tied in and was part of this experience.
People who know you from The Walking Dead might go out and see this film. How do you feel about the place you occupy, not just as an American, but as someone with a level of celebrity your co-stars don't necessarily have here in America?
Yeun: It's a weird thing. It feels new. It feels almost unprecedented in that way, even in the way we've been approaching these press tours. We're navigating new territory. The American lens wants to look at this from how this represents Asian Americans. But this movie is not that. It's human because it's made from a place where it doesn't have that filter attached to it, but we can't not look at it through that filter. It's this weird place that I find myself in where a lot of the questions that I will get on this press tour are about my Asianness and how that feels to me in this instance, whereas when I was doing the film, it was just about the film.
If there weren't an American actor in the film, people wouldn't necessarily be looking at the film that way. Do you not want people to take into account your Americanness while watching?
Yeun: I guess it's cognizant of both and it's accepting both in knowing there is a natural draw to a film that normally wouldn't have one through some entry point such as the Americanness of me. But then I hope once they get in then the film just takes over and does the work. I think what's cool is people can walk away from this film and really see a mirror held up to Korea. But the lasting feeling that I think most audiences that are not Korean leave with is, yes, it's talking about Korea, but it's really just talking about all of us, just the human condition in general. That's the thing that I'm really happy to help ease in. My Americanness helps to connect this weird cultural void that we keep putting in between ourselves where we speak of other cultures like: Oh, they do this over there and they're like this. But if someone were to just go over there, they would be like, oh, yeah, they do the same thing I do.
Was there anything about that mirror you were surprised about?
Yeun: I think what surprised me is just how similar it was. What let me have deeper understanding of things from a Korean perspective was just how much trauma and oppression can be passed down through generations and how much I really didn't fully understand that concept. Also, just being 30-something and having a child of your own, you start to understand your parents, you realize how much you didn't understand your parents, and how heartbreaking that is. That particular scene where you're watching this failure of Jong-su's father as he keeps sabotaging himself. You as an American viewer might say, "What's wrong with this guy? There must be something wrong with him." Then you look at the location in which he lives. It's right by the border. A person from that generation is -- as Jong-su's father is, who is my father's age -- if he lived on that border, not only does that mean he has to hear all that everyday, that means he lived through actual trauma because war touched that area. He's seen atrocities. That type of oppression and trauma passes through generations.
How were you thinking about where you wanted to go after The Walking Dead, and how has that panned out?
Yeun: I always had a desire to just deeper, bigger, wider. Just grow. I felt like my time on that show was done, and that was what was so nice about the timing of it all. It wasn't that I wanted to leave and it wasn't that they wanted me to leave. We all were just like, it's done! This is great! It was such a nice easy collective decision. And then after leaving I got some offers and they weren't bad or insulting offers, they were just kind of these things that if I take them, it will keep me working. But that's not what life is about right now. That's what I accepted for myself with the beautiful help from my wife. I remember sitting in my house with my wife. She was pregnant and we were in our new home. I was like, "I don't know what is going on, but I feel so incredibly lonely." Instead of being offended by that -- which she very well could have -- she understood what I was saying and she was like, "Have you considered that this is the first time that you're not part of a collective?" And I was like, "Holy shit. This is the first time that I've not been told what's next." A lot of people I've talked to about this react to that in fear, and for me, I was excited. I was like, "Hell, yeah. You mean, what I do next is what I want to do next?" That's kind of the mental place that I was at. So, it was easy to say no to these things because for some reason I knew that something like this might come. And it did.
Do you ever miss the camaraderie of a TV show?
Yeun: And that's kind of that vague notion of the circle. I felt the love and beauty of a collective. And then I got to feel what it's like to be alone, and then you desire the collective again. It's just kind of this cycle, and that circle doesn't only speak on that. It's about everything. We just kind of fluctuate through life.
So you mean how we return to the same things?
Yeun: The ebb and flow of life. That nothing is really permanent. We have epiphanies now, but those things change. Life changes and life is change. I mean, things that we thought were okay 10 years ago are drastically not now. It all comes back to, be present. Just go with the flow.
Did you and Director Lee talk about what happens to Hae-mi? I came away with it thinking that Ben is pretty damn suspicious, but you don't really know.
Yeun: I'm the only one that knows. And that was a discussion that Director Lee and I had. He was like, "You will be the only person that knows. So you can decide." That's it.
And that informed your performance?
Yeun: I'll be honest, I fluctuated throughout the filming. We didn't film that last scene until the last day, so I wavered. Sometimes I'd be like, maybe I'm like this? Or maybe he's this way. I landed on a thing, and that's where I'm at. What I love about it is the theme that the world and life is a mystery to me is echoed in a very straightforward way in that sense. Narratively, you're meant to believe and you're led to believe that Ben might be not so great, but you don't know. In that last moment, the thing that we really wanted to cultivate was [that] you get to see some semblance of humanity in Ben. So that you know that you're watching a person die and not some evil being.
You said you wanted to work with Director Lee. Is there any other experience you would like to have?
Yeun: I could sit here and name so many great directors, and if you want me to, I will.
You don't have to unless you want to put it out there.
Yeun: I guess it's more along the lines of I want to challenge myself. I want to stretch myself, and also I want to hopefully have the privilege to be able to keep the freedom of feeling chaotic in that way. I go wherever I'm supposed to go, whatever happens. Because that's how these films came: Okja, Sorry to Bother You, Burning all just happened. There wasn't any this is what we're doing next strategy. That just speaks to how fortunate I've been. So if I can keep that going that would be great, but who knows?