In 2018, Steven Yeun premiered his breakout film Burning at the Cannes Film Festival. But his newest project, Minari, is releasing in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic. According to the actor, the rollout experiences of the two films have been like night and day—but the stories they tell, and the way they spotlight Korean narratives not often placed center stage, are the same. For W's annual Best Performances issue, the former The Walking Dead star touches on gleaning inspiration from his 8-year-old costar Alan Kim and his own family.
Your character is an expert at chicken sexing—separating baby chicks by gender.
Yes. Minari is essentially the story of my wife’s family. My wife is Korean but grew up in Arkansas, and her family first made their money by chicken sexing. They gave me some tips on how to work with the chicks. The difficulty was that the chicks are so cute, and you want to be gentle with them. But my character, Jacob, says, “These male chicks have no purpose.” To go to that mentality while trying to be light with these adorable little animals was an interesting, tense experience.
Was it difficult for you to go back and forth between English and Korean in Minari? Because in Burning, you were pretty much just speaking in Korean.
Going between languages is always scary for me, especially as someone who’s re-tapping into the Korean language portion of myself. But in Burning, the benefit was that I was in Korea, so I was speaking Korean all the time. The difficulty for this one was that tension of living in Oklahoma, speaking English most of your day, and then while you're on set, just speaking in Korean. So I had a lot of help from wonderful people.
The woman who plays your wife is native Korean.
So is Yuh-jung Youn, who plays the grandmother. This touches on the idea of how much this whole experience was a communal one. I don't think you can remove a piece and get the same product. Every single person did their thing. And I get to sit here and talk about it, but it really was so many people.
The beauty of the film, too, is when [director] Lee Isaac Chung and I spoke about it, we really tried not to create any barriers to entry. We just examined the humanity of these characters. The culture was just embedded into the movie, and the rest of the things that we talked about or acted in, or showed with the camera from Isaac's point of view, was like, these human beings trying to live a life. And I think a lot of people can relate to that experience.
On a larger note, I hope we can understand how many things and how many different people and different experiences uphold the world we live in. And certainly, I learned that even on a smaller scale of playing Jacob, you kind of trudge through life, trying to control everything and say that you're owning it, but you forget to look back, and you realize the real people upholding all of it with you are your entire family, everyone around you. And so I hope that feeling resonates.
Had you known about minari itself, the actual weed?
I do know about minari. We ate it growing up. There's this great voiceover that Isaac added about a month or two before we started that he ended up cutting, which said, "Minari comes in the pockets of immigrants, dies in the first year, thrives in the second, purifies the water, purifies the soil." There's just something very beautiful about that analogy and the metaphor of starting anew, starting from the ashes of anything. When you're burning it all down, you have to start again and build it brand new.
Did you audition with Alan Kim, who plays your son?
Yeah. When we auditioned him, he gave a great read, but where it really took off was when Isaac and I were like, "Let's just improvise some stuff." I left the room and I came back as Jacob, just holding that presence and intention. As soon as I slipped into character, I could see him just go there with me. And I was talking to him kind of stern, a little stoic, and he was right there with me in this audition room. I looked at Isaac and I was like, "Whoa, this dude's legit."
Then we got worried—we were afraid that we might be manipulating him or scaring him. We were like, "Hey, Alan, we were just pretending; this is make-believe." And he was like, "Yeah, I know." Plus, he's learning on the fly. When we started shooting the film, he didn't know what was happening, but he was still so pure and engaged and present. And then, by the end of the shoot, he was like, "Camera this way, prop this way."
Minari won the U.S. Dramatic Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival right before the world went into lockdown.
The virus had already hit South Korea by late January, so some of our family knew about it. Our director’s father is an herbalist—a natural healer—and he said, “This one feels bad.” By the time we won the prize at Sundance, we had all gone home. We celebrated in isolation, but it was still really magical.
Did you develop any quarantine hobbies?
Well, we had a baby right before. I wasn't working; I just jumped into family. I learned how to submit to my family and be there. Realistically, I didn't pick up any quarantine hobbies. I just learned how to be tired all the time.
Do you have a go-to karaoke song?
Yes—it’s embarrassing. Or maybe liberating: O-Town’s “All or Nothing.” It’s just so singable.
Did you want to be in a boy band?
I think I'm too moody for a boy band in my real life. I don't think I could handle the stress of a life like that.