Steven Yeun has excellent taste. I can tell you this because the morning he came in for his photo shoot, he was wearing an indigo-dyed car coat that I had long coveted from Blue Blue Japan. He also told me what molding paste I should use for my hair, and gave me a recommendation for a Korean restaurant with some of the best galbi-jjim (braised ribs) in Los Angeles. But perhaps the best proof of Yeun’s taste came during this past TV pilot season, when he was offered a number of lead roles, from a CIA guy on the run to an ex-cop who lives in a postapocalyptic world to a “non-stereotypical genius.” He turned them all down.
“It was hard to say no to those things, because that meant precedents I couldn’t set,” Yeun told me over breakfast after a photo shoot at the New York offices. “But then I read more and asked, Does this speak to me, [to] who I am?” and I said, ‘No.’ So I didn’t do it.” He’s patient enough to wait for the right project — like his newest one, Bong Joon-ho’s Okja, which stars Yeun as K, a radical animal-rights activist who serves as the bridge between his English-speaking group and Mija, the Korean protagonist. Over the course of a few hours, Yeun talked to Vulture about how Bong Joon-ho wrote the Okja role for him, why he thought The Walking Dead’s Glenn didn’t get a fair shake, auditioning for a five-line part, and fighting low expectations.
Bong Joon-ho has always been really smart about casting, and watching Okja I was struck by the fact that only a Korean-American could have played your role. Did that appeal to you?
Absolutely. I’d met him two years prior to filming. We had coffee and he was super-relaxed and chill. Two years later, he just hit me up via email and was like, “I wrote a part for you.” First of all, to get an email from Director Bong, period, is awesome, and for him to say “I wrote something for you” is crazy! I was like, “Whatever it is, I’m in.” Then it came to a point where I almost couldn’t do it because Walking Dead was butting right up against the scheduling of the thing. But Director Bong was really great about advocating for me. I think they switched around weeks to accommodate me, which I am so thankful for. When they tell me, “You’re the only actor who could’ve played this,” I believe them. A Korean-American actor is very specific. I think if you got a native Korean who spoke English the comedy wouldn’t have worked. If you got a Korean-American who didn’t have a better understanding of Korean, it wouldn’t have worked. As an Asian-American person, K feels ostracized from the community on both sides and no one will really let him in, so he’s kind of at the mercy of what they decide. It makes him a little foolish; he just wants to be liked really bad, and he’ll do whatever it takes to get that. I think you see that with the ALF [Animal Liberation Front] where he’s just trying to be a part of the group, but something is off. And then [when he’s interacting with Koreans] he just overtalks because he assumes that this is how you’re supposed to do it. They’re like, “What the hell is he talking about?”
That whole trip was real gnarly for me. My kid was conceived there! [Laughs]
In Korea! You’re like, “What the fuck are you talking about? I asked you one question and now you’re pouring your heart out!” But like, crazy shit! I saw my grandma for the last time there. She recently passed and I saw her basically on her way out.
I keep saying that it hit me at the right time: being 30, working in Korea and identifying with it pretty strongly, but realizing when you get there that you put yourself in your father’s shoes in some weird, gnarly way. We left in ’88, so he left when he was 32, 33. I was subbing for my Dad in space-time in that place. And then we were shooting in Gwangju, which is five hours south [of Seoul]. While we were there, my scenes got cut to a different day, so I was like, “Cool, I’ll just roll back to Seoul as fast as I can,” since my wife had just flown into Seoul. I was three hours of the way there and they called like, “Shit, we fucked up. You’re supposed to shoot today.” I was like, “I’m already three hours on the way there,” so they said, “No problem, go ahead on home.” I saw her there that day and when you see your wife for the first time in a long time, you do it! My kid was conceived, and that wasn’t even planned! That’s the crazy kind of shit that happened there. That’s the stuff you can’t really ignore. You think, This is all meant to be, even down to being in this film.
I love that you get a lot of the jokes if you’re able to speak both Korean and English. It’s like it was made for us.
Yeah, dude! Are you kidding? It’s kind of made for us, that weird pocket, and it’s awesome. It’s the fucking best!
I was like, This is what white people must feel like all the time.
Exactly. Director Bong is a Korean native, and he’s gracious and intelligent enough to know there is a Korean-American struggle and put light to it. But the nuances are still specific to me and you in a way they’re not to him, and we got to explore it to his extent. I’d love to see something more, but it is interesting to have an experience as a Korean-American that nobody else is going to be able to do. That’s awesome.
He understands globalization in a way no one else does.
That’s what I’m saying. I signed on to do a Bong film because I want this modern-day master to use me as a color to paint his tableau. Like, there’s this weird thing I came across, and I might totally be pulling it out of my ass, but I had the honor to meet Murakami and go to his studio in Japan. To me, he’s an Asian Picasso — forget Asian, I just want to say Picasso. When I met him and I studied his features, his body, and who he is in his tone, I realized, That’s Director Bong. They’re almost the same type of human. They have the same feet, the same hands. It’s so bizarre. You look at Murakami and it’s bridging high art with accessible things for people. In that way, DB is also doing high-low by giving you this movie on a dish that says, “Hey, this is an accessible kid’s adventure film, a Miyazaki film in live-action,” but you watch it and go, “Holy shit, that was not the ride I thought I was going to go on.” If someone says you could be in that film, you’d be so dumb to turn that down.
Do you like going to Korea?
I love it. Korea is fun, but I’m also a straight male, so Korea’s like made for me, you know? [Laughs] I’m not going to speak on anybody else’s behalf. This past trip, the most comfortable I felt in Korea was this great transvestite bar in Itaewon. It was so chill. The noonas [older sisters] were really cool. It was the least judgey place in all of Korea, that one spot. You enter the doors and you just feel like you’re in a different place. Everybody’s chill in here, there’s nothing to conform to or [you] have to say, or do anything specific. You just do you here.
It’s been a while since The Walking Dead premiere, so maybe you have some distance from it, but there has been some pretty severe blowback to your character Glenn’s death that has lingered. Do you feel like it was too much?
I don’t feel like it was too much. I’ll be honest with you and put a full disclaimer here: I might not be objective, but I truly feel like people didn’t know what to do with Glenn. They liked him, they had no problems with him, and people enjoyed him. But they didn’t acknowledge the connection people had with the character until he was gone. I look at what happened and I think, That wasn’t any more gory than what we’ve done before, per se. No one got their face ripped in half! People got their guts smashed out and their heads caved in. But this one felt gratuitous because one, it kept going, and two, I think they took away someone that I didn’t realize I had made such a connection with until they took him away. I loved being on that show. Internally, it was incredible. Externally, it was tough sometimes because I never felt like he got his fair due. I never felt like he got it from an outward perception. I don’t say this as a knock on anything. He always had to be part of something else to legitimize himself. He was rarely alone. And when he was alone, it took several years to convince people to be on his own. I’m thankful to EW for that wonderful cover they ran at the end, but we’ve had many covers before then that he never got to do on his own. Not until the last year did they give him his own cover, and then give him the one as he died.
I didn’t think of it as racism, where it’s like, Oh, this is racist. I caught it in a way of Oh, this is how we’re viewed all the time – as part of some glob, some amorphous, non-individualistic collective. We’re like a Borg, and so because of that, they’re like, “Well, we don’t need to give the shine to that character. There’s all these other characters who are so cool!” I’d always hear people go, “I love Glenn, he’s my favorite character.” But the merchandise would go one way. That really might be the market, so I’m not going to sit here and be like, “Why didn’t they make Glenn merchandise?” But there was a disparity. They didn’t know what Glenn was, and only in his death did they realize, “Oh, that’s what he was. That’s the connection I had, and that’s why it hurts me so much to see him die.” A lot of the other characters are awesome characters, but they’re exactly that — they’re awesome and they’re to be in awe of: I wish I was that guy or that girl. With Glenn it was, I think I’m like that guy. You take that guy out of the equation and you do it in such a brutal fashion, there’s got to be some gut reaction to that.
Some Asian male friends of mine felt that if Glenn had been white, he never would have had violence inflicted upon him in such a way.
Huh. I could see how someone could get there, but even to me right now, thinking about it, it’s a stretch. I never, ever pinged on that. It’s interesting to think about it that way. [Laughs] I don’t think there was anymore violence inflicted on him because he was Asian. I think they would have done the same thing. Maybe it’s something to be said that you’ve never seen an Asian character die like that onscreen before — because we don’t have Asian people onscreen to die! Even when we do die, we die silently. People ask sometimes if I’m sad that I’m off the show, but man, I think the cruelest thing is that if Glenn had continued on, knowing how things usually shake out, I could totally foresee a situation where he just slowly, quietly disappears into the background and is kind of remembered but not really. But in this way, it was like holding up a battered skull to the world to be like, “Don’t forget, this Asian person existed in this medium and now he’s fucking dead.” Like, he is fucking dead. That’s super cool! I’m cool with that.
My understanding is that there was a boy-band song at your death dinner?
Oh, right! The girls [in the cast] are the greatest. They did some Backstreet Boys.
“I Want It That Way”?
Yeah! One time we were doing karaoke, and when you’re doing that, you have to sing that!
It’s a requirement!
Yeah! We all sang it and they were like, “Oh, that’s Steve’s favorite song!” and I was like, “No, it’s O-Town’s ‘All or Nothing.’” I slay that song in karaoke! I will fucking destroy you with that song.
You’re Korean. It’s in the blood!
Yeah, dude! You just get one other Korean person in there and they’re jumping in for harmony like it’s game time! No joke.
I was listening to Bobby Lee’s podcast — I’m sure you already know what I’m going to ask you — and he tells a story about yelling at you for auditioning for a five-line part, because he felt a white actor of your stature wouldn’t have had to read. What was the movie?
To be honest, I don’t even remember. I love Bobby and I get where he’s coming from. That is the proper diagnosis of that situation. I’m not saying this to be toeing the line politically, but I don’t think it’s the casting director’s fault because that’s too easy. It’s also easy to say it’s the system’s fault. I think what happened is that we witnessed a specific incident that hasn’t happened again, in which Bobby pinged on how ironic and obvious the situation looked from the point of view of an Asian-American actor, and he called it out, rightfully so. He was like, “What are you doing here?” I disagree that I’m above that, but he’s right — different non-Asian actors have gotten those straight offers. I could sit here and justify it as much as I want to say it’s not skewed against us, but I think it’s much more complex of an issue as to why it’s skewed against us.
I think a lot of the narrative these days has been about how much it’s skewed against us because the system and the people are biased against us, and that’s very true. But I think one narrative that’s always missing is, “Where have we contributed to that?” Where are we as Asian-Americans right now and how have we contributed either to that perception or the solution? I think we’re at a great, healthy place right now where people are calling out BS when they see it. We also have to be realistic about ourselves and say, are we, as an entire sub-section of America, representing ourselves in the best way we thought we were? Sometimes you can rely on the problem, as if to say, “This is why I’m not getting something,” and not look at the part that’s like, “Are you ready to get that thing? Are you prepared to get that? Have you been working hard to get that?” Because yes, do some white actors or other actors just show up without any prior experience and get the part? Yeah, it happens. Does it happen for us? No, very rarely, if at all. But we’re also sitting in a very specific place. We’ve been here for generations, but we’ve really only been here for two to three generations. We’re talking about the last wave of people. We can go into the history and talk about how many waves there’ve been, and there’ve been many. But you and I sit here as second-generation Koreans.
How many kids have parents who let them do what I got to do? How many kids come from a situation where they were able to shuck the expectations of who they were, not just by their parents, but by the society they grew up in, and the collectivist culture we all grew up in? Even I struggle with the fact that I’d been doing what America told me I am without even understanding I was doing it. I grew up in the suburbs of Michigan. Racism was not overt, it was super undercover, and while you’re there you don’t notice it. You think you’re fine, because 6 percent of your school is Asian, and that’s enough. You go about it and you think, “Everything’s fine. But why am I beta? Why do I only have these types of friends? Why am I not allowed in this subsection of groups? Why don’t girls think of you romantically, even if they say all these nice things about you? Why is there not that extra step to be like, ‘Oh, there’s an actual romantic interest here?’” I think it’s because when you’re in high school, you’re just a fucking kid! You listen to the rules sometimes, and as someone who grows up in a place that isn’t as eclectic as you think it was when you were growing up, you just want to fit in, and that also means sitting in the pocket you think you’re supposed to be in.
People who knew me growing up know that my most comfortable place is a very type-A personality. I can be aggressive and I can be very chatty, but also I can be very quiet. That quietness also is then misconstrued as, “Oh, you’re beta. You’re only supposed to be beta. You’re supposed to follow and do chores.” I remember in high school, that was the pocket I fell into and I could never rationalize this feeling of general anger, because I was never comfortable in my own skin. I was like, “I don’t feel like I’m supposed to be here, but I am here.” Then you grow up, you go to a place that’s more diverse, you talk to other people, and you go, “Holy shit. I became exactly what everybody told me I was instead of being who I actually am.” That’s where I feel like a lot of Asian kids are. I have hope for this next generation because they’re growing up in a different time and have different struggles. I would say that with our generation, you talk to a dude and sometimes they do the version of the Asian that they think America is telling them they’re supposed to be, and they don’t even know it. That’s where we have to be realistic: At what point are you circulating and fulfilling the cycle of our underrepresentation? Because what I will say is that they’re waiting for us. They’re super fucking waiting for us.
Look at casting directors, projects, and how things are. They are literally waiting for Asian people, and they want to cast them. I think we’re at that precipice where they’re catching up on how to do it in the right way, but I see it happening. Look at the new kids on the new sitcoms. They’re Asian kids! They’re awesome! They’re not doing it as a handout, they’re doing it as a business. They’re saying, “This makes money for us, so we need Asian people in here.” That’s how the world works. Let’s enter this arena — and when we do, let’s kick its fucking ass! They’re not wrong to complain, I think they’re right, but we’ve got to meet that in the middle so we can break the cycle, because other people aren’t going to break it for us.
I love Asians from weird places because I feel like they’ve had a really tough time.
Yeah! Even now, talking about this new wave of Asian-Americans who are advocating for our fair shake is a beautiful thing, I think, but a lot of them are from the coasts! They’re getting, like, angry about new racism and it’s like, “Dude, I was formed by that racism.” I’m not saying their struggles are any less than mine, but mine is very different. You look at someone who comes from where we come from and they go, “Oh, you’re the dude who got whitewashed.” No dude, I had to survive, so I conformed, and now I’m finally fucking out of that matrix. I did it! So I have a very unique perspective that I can offer, and that’s a great, great tool.
So did you get the part you and Bobby auditioned for?
No. [Laughs] I wasn’t right for it, man! I walked into it and went, “This is not mine.”
What was it for?
It was to be a high-school principal, and I can’t be a high-school principal. I still look like a kid! Maybe a Teach for America principal or something. I could do that!
Bobby also talks with Margaret Cho about her email conversation with Tilda Swinton. Did you talk to Tilda about Doctor Strange when you were doing Okja?
I actually have not. I mean, my interactions with her have been pretty awesome. She’s great. She’s a one-of-a-kind person, so on that end, you understand where she’s coming from in her one-of-a-kind-ness. But does she have privilege? Sure. That’s what that is. I didn’t jump into it with her. It never became a topic to discuss.
Do you have an opinion on what happened?
I look at it in this way: There’s a lot of mishandling of things on both sides. [Sighs] That’s the problem with this problem. It’s so nuanced, and it’s so specific, and it’s so subtle that you can’t talk about it in such broad strokes. Even what’s being publicized is just broad strokes anyway. That’s how this stuff works. You’ve got to get it in with the broader stroke first and then you can talk about specifics, but people are going to read what they’re going to read. I think in that situation, probably both parties wanted the best out of it, wanted the best intentions from it, but headlines took it for its ride and it became what it became.
We are talking in broad strokes, so let’s get specific: Do you think that Tilda Swinton should have taken the part in Doctor Strange?
I’m not in her head, so I don’t know to what end that was able to be understood from her POV. I would say that from her perspective, she got offered a role that she doesn’t get offered, and she’s one-of-a-kind, so she took it and she did a fine job doing it. The other end of the argument, do I think they could’ve accomplished the same goal and just had [the Asian characters] speak without the accent? Fuck, yeah, of course. That’s the subtle, nuanced position that you find yourself in: Who’s wrong? Nobody, kind of, but at the same time, kind of all of it.
What has post–Walking Dead audition life been like for you?
Interesting. Last pilot season was really cool. I got offered a lot of lead roles and that’s something that I never thought would happen in my life.
You turned them down?
They weren’t for me, and I stress me. A greater part of the argument is that we have to find this balance of the beauty of the collective of our Asian-American-ness, and wanting to show that in its best light, but also, not painting yourself without the broader stroke of who you are. We’re both Korean-American, but I’m so different from you, and you’re so different from me. I offer a unique perspective of me, and those shows didn’t do that. They did offer cool perspectives that we would never have seen, and it was hard to say no because that meant precedents I couldn’t set. But I made the conscious decision to say that the precedent will make itself, because I see it happening. There’s a lot of things going on out there for Asian-Americans. People are getting roles, people are getting the opportunity to get these jobs; they’re making these roles for them. What’s cool about these offers is that they were all not “Asian” roles, they were leads in shows. I inherently understood that if I took part, I’d make the optics of it better. But then I read more and asked, Does this speak to me, [to] who I am? and I said “No.” So I didn’t do it. It’s a funky line to ride, but I think that if you err on connecting to who you are, and your individualism in that way, you can never really go wrong, because life as an artist isn’t about being a martyr; it’s about doing you really well.
How did your parents react when they heard you wanted to be an actor?
They’d seen me do plays in college and shrugged it off as being fun. They obviously had worries, so they gave me parameters by which to pursue it. They said, “You got two years and you’d better have a job alongside it.” But then, I think they only said that because they needed to have some semblance of control over the situation because they’re watching their firstborn son do something that they never even thought was a thing you could do.
What’s really cool about it is the fact that my Dad and my Mom are me. They were brave enough to bounce on Korea to come to America in ’88 when they were chilling. My Dad was an architect and he and my Mom had a house in Seoul. But my Dad had this dream to come out to America and make more. We’re fed this narrative – which isn’t wrong – that our parents “sacrificed” for us to be here, and they did, because that’s eventually what happened. But they didn’t come out here to sacrifice their lives for us! They came out here to succeed. It didn’t happen in the way they thought it would, because the parameters of American life don’t gel with them, but they’re surviving. That’s the bravest thing. They’re on an even further-off island, you know? Like, the Korea they left isn’t what they remember, and the America they’re in won’t let them in, and that’s fucking sad. But they make do. In that way, you look at them and you go, the best thing I can do for you as a parent who sacrificed that much for me, is to do what you came here to do, which is take a risk. In that way, as a second-generation Asian, I took the risk to go from Michigan to Chicago to LA and pursue something I had no business pursuing, and it worked out. That’s why I feel like my parents never really said “No” to me, because it was an extension of them. They were like, “I can’t say no to him because I did the same thing.” It’s not like we were running from anything. We’re not refugees. It was just sheer will to succeed in something that they never thought they could. So in that way, I have pride in the sense that, I did my Dad. I did my Mom. And it worked.
Would you return to comedy? I know that improv was a big part of your life in Chicago.
Yeah, I loved it! You know what’s weird, this is a subtle thing I started to think about too: What is comedy for us? I don’t always mean to bring an Asian bent to it, but that’s where I’m at, is understanding what I’ve got to shed for myself. I realize that a lot of Asian-Americans, when they start off in acting, do comedy first. I think the reason why is that we have to apologize for ourselves, and we’ve got to make fun of ourselves to enter the game. At this point, the society we live in now sees comedy as being for everybody, and it’s cool. Asian-Americans should do comedy because it’s a beautiful art form. But we also have to be cognizant of, are you doing it for you, or are you doing it for them? I refuse to do comedy that isn’t born of me. Do I want to return to it? Hell yeah. It’s wonderful. But I’ll do it how I want to do it.
Did you ever turn down a role because you felt it was racist?
Yup, the first one. It was for a thing called Awesome 80s Prom, like Tony and Tina’s Wedding, where you physically go to a play but you’re in the play as a patron and they act around you and improvise. There was one Awesome 80s Prom in Chicago, and they go, “Bring an ‘80s monologue from a movie,” so I did Ferris Bueller’s opening monologue, and they’re like, “Can you do it in an accent?” I was like, “It’s Ferris Bueller, what do you mean do it in an accent?” And I realized they wanted me to do Long Duk Dong, so I left. I got reamed out by my brand new agent, but I was like, “Fuck that! I’m not doing that shit!”
Did you change your agent?
I didn’t have the luxury to do so at the time. And also, that was a very different time. It was 12 years ago. It was sheer shock that I didn’t take it. There weren’t these conversations then.
I feel we’re still struggling to get to a place where you feel like an Asian American character can be fully heroic, fully evil, everything.
I think that’s because we’re still in a place of weird shame for ourselves. When my Mom comes to visit, if we go to eat Korean food and we’re about to meet non-Koreans, she gets really self-conscious about her breath. It’s fucking crazy, you know? I’m not saying that our generation is still caught up in that, but if my Mom’s thinking that, there’s still some people of our generation caught up in that.
It trickles down.
Yeah. Don’t apologize for your kimchi breath! That’s what the fuck you ate for lunch, you know? People don’t apologize for their halitosis, or for eating a burger. That shit smells too! Brush your teeth if you want, but you don’t have to apologize for your culture. I think we’re finally getting there, but it took time, because at a certain point, we had to apologize to survive. You look back at that lens and go, “That’s so fucked up, what they did in the past!” and it really was a different time.
Was there a time in your life when you finally made that realization?
I feel like it’s always been in stages, you know? I remember growing up and always wanting to be white super bad. I told this story at a Story Slam thing in L.A. about how I wanted storage. I wanted our family to be so white, so American, that I wanted storage because my white friend had it. When I’d go to my friend Tony Hartman’s house, rattail and all, I’d be like, “Let’s play Gameboy or Nintendo,” and he’d go, “I can’t, it’s in storage.” “What the fuck is storage?” “Oh, we put it away, it’s in another place because we don’t have space for it here.” “What do you mean? Why wouldn’t you have things readily accessible to you at all times?” And instead of looking at that and thinking, That’s strange, I said, “I want that.” And then you say, “I want to go on vacation to Turks and Caicos, because that’s where these people are going!” We don’t go to T and C, we go up north and pick acorns off the highway! That’s the shit we do! [Laughs] My parents can’t leave the store! If we do, we go to Washington, D.C., for the 50th time, or see Niagara Falls for the 50th time. They don’t know how to book a trip to T and C, nor can they really afford to do that.
It was all about hiding the shame I had for myself for what I looked like, and I needed to reconcile that because I also had immense pride for it, too, for what I was and what I looked like, yet I was always trying to apologize for it. I didn’t know how to make sense of it until maybe when I got to college. College was potentially oppressive, but I had good friends, and we were all living in it too. All my friends were white, and they were all good people, but we all played along. There was surprise when I caught the ball, you know? Surprise that I could run as fast as I could, surprise that I shot lights-out in a two-on-two basketball game. I didn’t know that, I didn’t expect that. “Oh, wow, you’re so funny. Oh, wow, you play guitar. That’s so cool.” Just surprise after surprise, instead of “That’s what you do.” That was where I found my own unique voice through the arts. There, I was making people entertained and finding success, and a freedom to assert myself and be myself in it. People gravitated toward that: “Oh, look how sure of himself he is onstage.” But they still wouldn’t give it to me offstage. They wouldn’t give me the leverage or the freedom I felt onstage when I was offstage, because offstage, I’m not performing, so I’m still the Steven they think they know and that I’m supposed to be. And as I got deeper and deeper into acting, I found more and more of myself. As I got deeper into empathy, I got more and more into myself.
This interview has been edited and condensed.