"He's the Great Gatsby," Jong-soo (Yoo Ah-in) observes about Steven Yeun's Ben in Burning, the Korean film based on Haruki Murakami's Barn Burning. But the observation is not quite accurate, as Lee Chang-Dong's thriller quickly establishes: he's far more sinister, and far more dangerous. Yeun maintains a steady distance, just a few hairs shy of sociopathic, Patrick Bateman with an ego left on simmer, not full boil. He is also a far cry from Glenn Rhee, the hero Yeun played on The Walking Dead until zombies finally intervened. Yet, as the actor explains in W's annual Best Performances issue, the two characters actually have something in common: he looked forward to filming their final scenes. Here, Yeun also opens up about the insurance commercial that served as his first acting role, his secret skill, and why his only Halloween costume ever was also his favorite.
How did Burning come to you?
This project came to me really beautifully randomly. I was in London, I got a phone call at like three in the morning from director Bong Joon-ho, and he was like, “Director Lee Chang-dong wants to talk to you.” And I was confused as to why. And when I finally talked to him, he was like, "Have you read this short story by Murakami?" I quickly read it, and luckily I was already headed to Korea two days later. So sat down and met with him for three days, and we hugged each other at the end because I think we both understood the character.
Had he seen you on The Walking Dead or in anything in particular?
Director Lee hadn't seen The Walking Dead. He had seen Okja, and I think that was it. It's funny because he was like, "I don't think he's able to play Ben.” And then when I met him he was like, "Oh, I think he can play Ben."
Is that because you seem like too nice a guy in your other parts?
Maybe, maybe. That could be it.
So were you devious in the meeting?
I think I was just there and present. He's a hero of mine. So to be able to sit down and have a meal with him was kind of incredible. I was just locked in. Also the script that he and the writer both wrote is a beautiful script. So it was easy to talk to him about it.
In the movie, you speak Korean. Was there anything difficult about that?
It wasn't difficult to speak Korean, but it was difficult to get to those specific nuances of feeling comfortable speaking Korean, and then also that kind of the highbrow nature of the way that the character talks. I don't have that type of Korean vocabulary, so it took some work.
You are a very smooth customer in that movie. You're extremely seductive and terrifying at the same time.
That's what I was going for.
What was the very first thing you auditioned for professionally and got?
The first thing I ever got that I booked was a Blue Cross Blue Shield commercial, where I am like, a floating head talking about my policy. And it was shot by this wonderful director who directed Junebug. So it was really cool to meet him, but then after that, it did not carry over to a steady stream of commercial work. It was more just a student, a lot of theater in Chicago.
I'm guessing, and I might be wrong, that it was probably hard to tell your parents you wanted to be an actor.
It wasn't hard, necessarily. They were actually surprisingly supportive, and I think it's because I kind of broke them down from an early age of never doing what they asked me to do. And so that just carried over. They gave me worry and doubt and a slight ultimatum. But they let me go to Chicago, and the rest is this journey that I'm on.
__I'm a child of immigrants. They're not keen on things that are not safe… __
Well, I've been thinking about this too, we oftentimes think about the sacrifice of a first generation parent. And that should provide a safety and calm for the second generation. But I was talking to this gentleman who is an Asian American historian. He was saying the second generation has to sacrifice too, and that meant a lot. Your parents risked everything, so why wouldn't you risk everything?
When did you move to L.A.?
I moved to L.A. in 2009.
And did you immediately start having a different experience when you moved out here or was it the same? Was it frustrating?
I had a completely different experience because I booked The Walking Dead maybe five months after I moved.
That was fast.
Yeah. Sorry. I'm not sure who do I apologize or say thank you to, to thank to the universe for blessing me. But yeah, it's been kind of crazy ever since.
And what is your feeling on zombies, having spent a lot of time with them?
My feeling on zombies is that the actors behind the makeup are brave souls that weather a lot of heat and gross makeup. And then my overall feeling for zombies in general is like, what a cool, random, deep metaphor for our lives.
They freaked me out, personally.
Yeah. They freak all of us out. I hope.
Did you see a lot of Walking Dead Halloween people when you were doing the show?
I would see a lot of people wearing Walking Dead costumes on the Internet. What a bizarre thing to pull something out of someone's brain and then have people like it enough to wear the costume of it. That's not the question you asked, but that's where I went to.
What was your best Halloween costume?
My best Halloween costume was the only real Halloween costume I've ever had in my life, which was when I was 8 and my mom made a dragon costume. Instead of putting dragon makeup, she put really scary clown makeup on us. So it was like a clown-face dragon. God bless my mom, who doesn't know that dragons don't look like clowns.
__Did you have a sense of when your Walking Dead character was going to be, shall we say no longer… __
Destroyed. What's that day like for an actor?
Well, I had known for some time about that death and I also in some ways kind of advocated for it because it was written in the original source. If I'm going to be honest with you, I was really excited for that day, not to leave, but I was excited to get my skull bashed in.
And you had something bad happened to you in Burning, too.
People don't like me. I could make a career out of it, that's OK. That scene was actually really fun to film, too. I like filming deaths. It's fun. Everybody fantasize about like what it would be like to die. Cool. This goes to show who I am right now.
The movie haunted me for days. Did you find it haunting you doing it?
Yeah. I think that film was really like a wonderful kismet, magical experience that I got to share with some really wonderful artists and we still connect and talk about it.
What was Cannes like?
It was cool. I was there for Okja the year before, which was cool because you're there with Tilda, Paul, director Bong, all these wonderful people and it becomes more of a spectacle that first time. And then this one was just three of the cast and our wonderful director, and it was just a very different experience. It was cool. It was pretty freaking cool.
What was your favorite birthday?
I think my favorite birthday was maybe like, 10. I think I went to Chuck E. Cheese's, and just gorged myself on pizza. Like, brand new, five years in immigrant kid getting Chuck E. Cheese's. It was pretty good. I was just with my other friends from Downriver, Michigan with rat tails and mullets, it was a whole ‘90s party.
You had a mullet?
I didn't, I couldn't. My mom wouldn't. I think she didn't know how to do one, too. So we had bowl cuts, but my friends all had mullets and rat tails.
What is your secret skill?
I'm really good at getting parking spots. Like, really good. It's almost like I just project this very intense… What would be the word? I just am so confident that it's going to be there, that it's always there. It's kind of fucked up.
Have you found if you have a different size car you can still find like a bigger parking spot?
Yeah. I was driving around in a Ford F-150 for like, three years and I would just pull up to parking spots. No problem. Right in the front.