Days before arriving in Cannes for the red-carpet premiere of what was being heralded as his first Korean movie star role, Steven Yeun was getting a tough lesson in being a Korean movie star. On May 11, just a few days before Lee Chang-dong’s Burning would become the most critically adored film in the competition, Yeun had liked an Instagram photo posted by his friend, filmmaker Joe Lynch, of Lynch as a child, striking a pose and dressed in a Rising Sun–emblazoned karate getup. The symbol of the Japanese Imperial Army may not mean much to the average American millennial, but it carries a huge weight in Korea and Asia as the emblem of the war crimes committed by Hirohito’s army. (Like the Confederate flag here in the States, it’s also become a go-to banner for the Japanese right wing.) It’s as close to an Asian equivalent to the Nazi swastika as exists, and it didn’t take long before Yeun’s idle double-tap was noted by celebrity-scrutinizing Korean netizens, quickly making him the subject of social-media outrage.
His first apology, posted to his account in both Korean and English, ended with an exhortation of sorts, the sentiment of which seems to be on Yeun’s mind a lot these days, Instagram scandals aside. “It does say something about our culture,” he wrote, “to know that we are all just a thumb swipe, misplaced like, or mindless internet scrolling away from the questioning of our character. Our world on the internet is so fragile at the moment that it makes me sad that we use this platform to represent us fully.”
Representation — in all its permutations in a rapidly changing entertainment industry — has become a complicated subject for Yeun. The Walking Dead alum, born in South Korea but raised in America, has been having a rebirth of sorts as a Korean actor — as he tells it, a bit of a mind-blowing process to go through after the garden-variety discrimination and stereotyping one goes through as an Asian actor in Hollywood. Though his American film career is steadily ascendant (he also stars in Sundance hit Sorry To Bother You, coming this summer), working in Korea, with Korean directors, has given him a rare through-the-looking-glass experience, an almost painfully hopeful glimpse of what could be. The issue of how you’re seen, by whom, and the borderline-absurd ability to shed certain preconceptions just by crossing an ocean, is something he’s still figuring out; he spoke about it in hushed, ruminative tones when I met him on a gorgeously sunny afternoon in Cannes.
Burning has been hailed as a major career moment for Yeun, but it has also been a paradigm shift for him personally. In Lee’s film, which transposes Haruki Murakami’s 1983 short story “Barn Burning” to present-day South Korea, status uncertainties and the mental limbo of a media-addled culture all loom ominously in the background of the film’s mysterious love triangle. In it, Yeun plays Ben, a charming, wealthy jet-setter who turns young penniless protagonist Jong-soo’s (Yoo Ah-in) world upside down when he seduces an old childhood classmate of his. It’s a subtle but deeply unnerving performance; Yeun plays Ben with equal parts malevolence and emptiness, a kind of roving void isolated by his own rarefied existence.
Playing him was even a bigger challenge than Yeun originally expected; a role he had originally thought of as a cosmopolitan Korean-American was in fact envisioned by Lee as “10 percent Korean.” “I was like, ‘Oh, shit,’” Yeun laughs. “When you read the script, in Korean, he speaks pretty high level. He uses complex words and metaphorical phrases to get to whatever he’s talking about.” But Yeun soon found he could access more of this highfalutin Seoul playboy than he thought. “In the end, what remained for me was that this is a tale of three lonely people,” he says. “That exploration was pretty exciting.”
Now that you have a bit of experience on both sides, what’s been the most eye-opening difference between working under the expectations of Korean viewers versus American viewers?
I think this experience, for me, was an incredible learning lesson. I think on the personal side, you get to feel what it’s like to not have your [ethnicity] be the first metric by which you’re measured. You go to Korea, and if you’re a Korean person, you just are who you are. Then they’ll judge you on your merits or your personality, and I can deal with that. But in America, if you’re perceived in every interaction as Korean or Asian first, then you lose a bit of yourself.
To be able to gain that type of understanding of the fullness of myself was really special. Then beyond that, I would think that the navigation between those cultures is really … I thought it was knowledge, but it’s so much more. It’s so much deeper. It’s a feeling. I’m still learning a lot.
It is interesting, you’ve mentioned that Ben, your character in Burning, was supposed to be this sort of cosmopolitan American Korean, which maybe would have been easier for you to access. But in asking more of you, both in the level of dialogue and in terms of who Ben is culturally — maybe a guy who doesn’t have as much experience being perceived as “Korean first” and thus has some things come more easily to him — was that even more of a challenge?
Actually, I felt like there was a natural connection through, I think, the inherent loneliness of both types of people. As an immigrant, or someone that’s not in the sense a traditional-looking American, you live in the middle of both places. You are on your own. It is the truth, really. It’s the truth to feel alone. That’s a real … I feel like that’s closer to reality than not. If anything, if we do feel together, it’s through that loneliness that we feel together. If you’re rich, you can feel alone. If things are meaningless to you, because you have everything, that’s super lonely. In that same way, I used how I felt, living in the middle, navigating in the middle.
I think that that was part of the casting for director Lee, as we talked about it. And I was genuinely preparing myself to say no to him. Which would have been insane, because he’s one of my heroes, but I didn’t want to be a blot on his filmography. I wanted to do it justice, whatever he wanted me to play. When we really got into what this character was, and when he told me he was fully Korean, it made a lot of sense. The parallels that we drew together, and the ones that I offered up to him, and he agreed with, were pretty similar in the way that we wanted to approach this character.
I ask because I kind of identify. I’m half-Japanese, so if I go to Japan, sometimes people don’t know quite what to make of me. They’re like, “Should I start speaking Japanese with you or are you just a weird American?”
Do you feel that isolation in that way?
Oh, yeah, for sure. If I’ve been there with Americans, and they’re like, “Oh, this is where you’re from.” It’s like, “Well, not really.” I would love to feel like that, but there’s a lot I don’t know.
How do you feel when you’re at home?
Well, I never grew up with very many other Asian people around, so thinking about my identity in that way has been much more of a development I’ve had to catch up to as an adult. Have you seen BlacKkKlansman here?
No, I haven’t seen it yet.
There’s this really interesting subplot with Adam Driver’s character. He’s Jewish but didn’t grow up around Jewish people, and he’s never really had to think a lot about his identity as a Jewish person until he gets involved in this whole case infiltrating the Klan. And they’re trying to find out if he’s Jewish or not, and he’s spouting all these anti-Semitic slurs trying to convince them he’s not, and just getting increasingly uncomfortable. And you can see this part of his consciousness opening up as the film goes on. That’s not something you see a lot in popular culture, that really subtle thing of having to reckon with your race or ethnicity after having had the privilege not to.
Absolutely, like sometimes it doesn’t become a factor until you enter into a job or a situation that tends to constantly remind you of it.
I think acting is one of those places. I would say even writing is probably one of those places. I’ve heard some horror stories of people turning stuff in and they go, “This seems inauthentic, because it’s not more Asian.” You’re like, “What the fuck does that mean?”
Yes. There are a lot of gatekeepers who are totally interested in Asian-American work, as long as it’s the right kind of Asian-American work.
That’s what I meant by feeling the fullness of self in going to Korea. Which is, no matter how progressive, or no matter how well-meaning the system can be for minorities, you can never fully capture the full space that you need to inhabit in order to feel free. That’s just how it is. When you look at casting, when you look at jobs that are available for Asian-Americans, or jobs that are available for Asian-American writers, they’re usually crammed within a space or a sphere that someone has determine to be appropriate. And that inherently doesn’t allow you to feel like a full-fledged character.
Personally, for me, for Lee to give me this type of role, where I am not even necessarily playing a full version of myself, I still felt fuller playing this character than any other character that I’ve ever played before in my life. Because there are no limitations. There’s no inherent visual limitation. It’s really just all inner workings of who I am. It’s a bummer, but it’s also what it is.
You also have Sorry to Bother You coming out this summer, which is obviously a different film in almost every way imaginable. But in a way, with that character also you kind of get to stretch outside the typical boundaries for Asian men onscreen, you be a little bit seductive and rebellious in a way that is still very rare in America.
I was, and the greatest thing about Boots [Riley, director of Sorry to Bother You] in that particular sense, that I love, is that he gave me the freedom to explore. It wasn’t his responsibility for him to look for a role for an Asian person to fulfill. That was really on me.
But I don’t know if I was fully aware of myself in that way at the time to push beyond the boundaries. Instead, I really had a great time being the conduit by which he needed me to behave or be in that movie. Squeeze kind of becomes … he’s subverting a stereotype, but then at the same time he’s kind of in the pocket of how we would accept an Asian person operating.
Interesting. How so?
Like quiet, demure, but under the surface … he’s pulling some strings. I don’t approach that as a knock. I approach that as the truth. That was what was what was so fulfilling for me about that experience. But when you take a step back you go, “Well, maybe we should tell not the story of what America wants us to be now, but what we actually are.” And that’s hours and hours worth of conversation.
This is your second year in a row at Cannes with a film [after 2017 with Bong Joon-ho’s Okja]. And after Burning and the immensely positive critical response it’s had, I think you see a lot of hunger, at least from English-language press, to crown you as the “chosen Asian leading man”…
Oh, no, that sounds like a terrible …
Well, I said that in that voice because it’s so ridiculous, the idea that there can only be one or two or three or whatever.
Do you think much about that potential role at all? Does it feel like a responsibility?
I think in the climate we are in now, and given how hungry people are to feel like they’re represented, it’s a totally fair thing to bring onto the table and a fair thing to acknowledge. But you can’t really compare Asian [representation] to black [representation.] For anyone to do that is incredibly foolish and downright kind of offensive.
But when you talk about the Asian experience, which is the only one I can really speak to, I feel like there’s an inherent trap when we approach representation as this need for one guy to pop off or one girl to pop off — to just get one or two representatives in the mainstream. Instead, there’s something specific to the Asian experience that requires that individuals to just go off on their own and do their own thing. Not separate from each other — we should all combine as a community and help each other as we can. But Asian artists need to realize their own truths, their own realities and experiences, so that you’re not leaning on something else that’s not truthful and honest to you, because you saw another [Asian artist] do it.
I’m sure that’s true for everybody, actually, but the Asian experience is, to me, very nuanced in that we have so much inherent privilege that we have to recognize. So then, the question becomes, what are we really fighting for? I suppose representation, feeling like we’re part of the country, feeling like the freedom to be ourselves. But I wonder if we’re almost at a point where that’s going to be an internal thing that we have to find for ourselves. Sure, I get it, maybe I’ll become [“the chosen Asian leading man”] … I hope I’m not … I can never shoulder that.
Yeah, nobody can. I don’t even deserve that type of accolade by any means, but it’s … I don’t know. This is like a long conversation that I haven’t even really fully worked through. Personally, I’ve been having a great time exploring what’s me. It seems to be working.
I mean, so much of what you’re talking about is just the right to be an emotional being.
Both onscreen or in the world, I feel like if there’s some kind specific plight behind the struggle for Asian representation in art and culture, at least, it’s that. It’s like the ability to be seen as a fully inhabited emotional being. It’s a little ironic, because if you want to use Cannes as a sample, I can’t help but notice that all the Asians films here are the ones that are the most emotionally expressive, they’re the ones that feel the most lush. And yet I still feel there’s a perception outside of those countries that Asian people are less emotionally “real.”
No, I totally know what you mean. I guess there has to be an acknowledgement of how our collectivist background informs how we view individualism in the United States, and that being the default way that people live. In the East, collectivism is so part of it that you realize that we’re … But I think the one thing that feels like the right direction to go in, is that I want to take the Asian-American aspect of everything and put it aside for now. Not meaning I want to forget it or suppress it, but take the weight out of it that’s put upon us by American society. Because that weight doesn’t exist if you’re in a majority Asian society.
That’s a freedom that I feel like we should all hope to attain. That way we can maybe feel free to emote, feel free to say what we want to say, feel free to act in a film or write a thing or shoot a … whatever it is. There are no rules.
The last film you had here at Cannes, Okja, was a Korean production, but also a truly bilingual, multicultural project. What did you learn that time around, as far as trying to identify this freedom you’re talking about?
I think Okja was around that formative age of getting into my 30s, my early 30s, which was my parents’ age when they emigrated out of the country. And I felt the weight of going back to Korea and being there working as an adult at that age. But I always had a stark tether to the States. It was more of a un-comfort. It was an un-comfort that really I felt most of all. I was just like, “Oh, I don’t fit here and I don’t fit there.” And I left it at that.
While you were in production?
Yeah, because I would be, like you were talking about, I became the go-to translator or navigator, but I was like, “I don’t know shit either.” You do that, and you feel like you’re some ambassador for this country, but then you’re really reminded that you actually know very little. That’s what I felt.
Whereas [with Burning], director Lee forced me, in this beautiful way, to feel a full immersion of what it’s like to be Korean, or at least attempt that, and that was a wildly different experience, in which you actually feel like the intensity of being alone, of being isolated, of not having a country. Because you can trick yourself into thinking that you are part of a country, as you’re acting a part. Then after you’re done, and you’re doing the press, you realize that you’re not as … you’re a little more ignorant than you thought. You run into cultural issues.
Are you talking about the Instagram thing?
I apologize, if that’s still a little messy to get into …
No, it’s me who should apologize, for just being ignorant. That’s the thing, my goal from the get-go should have been to be a global citizen if I want to participate globally.
Yeah, you really have to have this 360 vision on, and it can be a lot.
It really is my responsibility. That’s where I take full blame for that.
But we also have so little training for that kind of thing in the States, because we’re so used to there being only one angle that people are looking at.
But that’s the truth of what’s happening to the youth, right? That’s what director Lee is talking about in this film. The internet put a [new perspective] on everything. A law here doesn’t transform to a law there. All of a sudden, you find yourself asking, what rule is real? If no system is constant or consistent, then there are no rules. I’m sure a bunch of young people are confused. They’re angry. They want someone to tell them how to live. They want someone to tell them what the next step is. But there is nothing. Instead there’s just a vast open landscape, which is terrifying. But if you can overcome that, then it’s empowering.
I feel like that’s the next phase. When I think of director Lee — for someone to have a filmography as incredible as he does, and for someone to be at an age that he’s at, and to still be able to self-assess and grow and learn, that’s like turtle sage stuff. That’s the incredible luck that I’ve found myself in, to have gotten to make this film with him.
This interview has been edited and condensed.