Steven Yeun is quickly becoming one of the most interesting actors working today. After wrapping up a seven-year run as Glenn on AMC’s The Walking Dead in 2016, Yeun celebrated his newfound creative freedom with an eccentric pair of movie roles: a corporate lawyer who must fight his way out of an office building full of rage-crazed desk jockeys in Joe Lynch’s wild survival thriller Mayhem, and an animal-rights activist in Bong Joon-ho’s monster movie/corporate satire Okja.
This year has been similarly compelling for Yeun, who appeared in Boots Riley’s wildly inventive Sorry To Bother You this summer. His new film is Burning, from South Korean master Lee Chang-dong; Yeun co-stars in this haunting, slow-burn detective story as Ben, the wealthy, charismatic romantic rival of our hero, everyday guy Jong-su (Yoo Ah-in). Yeun brings an intriguingly slippery quality to the character of Ben, allowing the audience to project their own assumptions and insecurities onto him while occasionally allowing just a brief glimmer of danger to shine through his cheerful, frozen smile.
We talked to Yeun at this year’s Fantastic Fest about his approach to creating this fascinating character, as well as his own experience moving between different mediums, cultures, and languages as an actor and Korean-American. Note that mild spoilers for the movie Burning follow.
The A.V. Club: You had a bilingual role in Okja, which came from a Korean director [Bong Joon-ho]. But Burning is your first major role in Korean. What was that transition like for you, and was working in South Korea something you deliberately set out to do?
Steven Yeun: I don’t think I had any particular goal, like, “I’ve got to work in Korea.” But I don’t think I would’ve been able to play these roles [in America]. I wouldn’t have been given them. That’s not to say that it’s not possible, that’s just what it was at the time. It was also a chance to explore parts of me that I’ve never explored. And some of them were more meta than I had ever experienced [before].
Okja was such a meta experience for me. To play a Korean-American that has to speak both Korean and English, while I’m physically also doing that for the cast, in a country where I have to do that? It was just layer on top of layer on top of layer. And so I was like, “Okay, this is pretty meta.”
But then to go into Burning, it was so fully immersive that I didn’t really have any strange culture shock. Instead, I had culture shock after I left. I felt so Korean during my time there, and then as I left I was reminded that I’m not, you know? If I’m going to be honest, it was sad, scary, and beautiful at the same time. You’re made aware of your aloneness. And that can be sad. But then it’s also true.
AVC: That’s your life. That’s your lived experience.
SY: Yeah. And you’re like, “Okay, that’s fine.” So it was a very interesting two years, with that film and this film. It was very bizarre.
AVC: So you lived in South Korea while you were shooting those films?
SY: For Okja, I was in Korea for, like, two months. And then for Burning, I was there for five months.
The A.V. Club: I read that you had mentioned in a press conference that you wanted to work with Director Lee [Chang-dong].
SY: Yeah, that’s how he found me. It got back to him. So, I was on a Korean variety show where they ask questions [of] people in different countries who live in [South] Korea. I was a guest, and they were like, “Are there any directors you’d like to work with?” And I was like, “Director Lee!” [I was] literally just saying directors I like. That’s all I was doing.
AVC: You weren’t showing up at his office with your résumé.
SY: Not at all! And then I got a call in the middle of the night from Director Bong, being like, “Director Lee wants to work with you, get to Korea.” And I also happened to be already going to Korea the next day. This whole movie feels like that, where you’re like, “I’m just going where this thing told me to go.”
AVC: Burning is very much told from Jong-su’s perspective. And your character, Ben, to a certain extent, seems to exist within that other character’s perception of him. How do you play that as an actor?
SY: I think that the key is to be free in that particular character. Maybe it’s true that he is what Jong-su is saying he is. We don’t know. So the key is to play him independent of that idea. But the narrative will build that illusion, if that’s true. That’s where Director Lee’s genius comes in. Every single one of his choices is very purposeful.
That was one of the approaches Director Lee and I talked about a lot. We very rarely talked about who this person is. He left that more to me. Even down to the last scene, he was like, “You’re the only person that knows whether Jong-su is right or not.”
SY: Yeah. “You’re the only one that knows.” And I will continue to be the only one that knows, which is very fun for me as an actor because it gives me power to be my own character. And so, with that in mind, Director Lee and I talked about when we want to show what side of him and how. He’d be like, “Let’s keep Ben a little bit more pleasant here,” or “maybe fuck with him a little bit.”
AVC: One of the interesting things about the character is you don’t know how authentic he’s being at any particular moment. When you’re doing a character like this that’s really complex, and there are things you’re keeping to yourself, do you sit and think about who this person is, or write a biography for them?
SY: I just read a lot. I was reading a lot of plays, reading a lot of specific authors’ works. What I attempted to do was, as lame is this sounds, just think like him. But that was it, you know? A lot of parameters helped me get into that character’s mode. It was intense, I will say, to have the loudest part of your reality be inside your brain.
AVC: Especially when you’re in a new experience as a person, and then the role is something new as well.
SY: That’s what I mean. It was one of those experiences where I was like, “Take me. Where are we going?” It was great. “Wherever you want to go. Let’s do it.” That was really enjoyable for me.
AVC: Another thing that’s interesting about the film is the way that it plays with film noir. Did that influence factor in?
SY: I don’t think so. We weren’t too cognizant of that. It’s one thing when you have an incredible [director of photography], like Hong Kyung-pyo, who was amazing. It’s another thing to have a director like Director Lee, who says, “I’ve taken care of everything else. So just worry about existing.”And it’s liberating because you’re just meant to be there, then, and do the work. And with that type of experience, you’ll go back and watch your frame and you’ll just be like, “Man.”
I remember Director Lee saying, “I want this film to be beautiful.” Because his other films, they’re beautiful, but they’re beautiful in substance, and not necessarily in all these beautiful flourishing camera movements. And what’s great is that even though he made that choice to capture that beauty, it didn’t change the core fundamental feeling of what his films actually are. Even down to his two shots in the restaurants, where you’re watching the people in the background, it’s just—they’re fucking alive. And the two [actors] in the front are in this very mundane two shot, but it’s just vibrating with energy. He’s this master of simplicity, of just enough.
Watching him, all three [lead] actors, we would just constantly just be like…
AVC: “How are we here?”
SY: Yeah! We were mostly in character during that whole time, so we didn’t talk too much about that. But sometimes we’d break and [ask each other], “Do you want to direct, too?” And I was like, “I do, but, like, I don’t know if I can now. I’ve seen him do it, how can I do it?” But on the other end, I’ve seen him do it and now I’ve learned a ton of shit. It was a gangbusters experience.
AVC: I was going to ask: Hearing you talk about [your experience on Burning], it sounds like you really get into the nuts and bolts of the filmmaking. Is the idea of directing something you’re into?
SY: I would love to. And I’m not even trying to sound right about it, but I feel like I’ve got to earn it, and I’m not there yet. But you see a lot of young actors doing it and it’s cool. I feel like that’s the natural place that we’re hopefully all getting to, being our own storytellers.
AVC: What kind of stories and filmmakers do you gravitate to generally?
SY: When I was younger, I was looking at things more in terms of images, being like, “That would be a cool image to be a part of.” These days… I’ve been lucky enough to know what it feels like to be part of something that’s more experiential. And through my limited experience, where that tends to come from is when you come upon a filmmaker that is really, really sure of what they’re trying to say and what they’re intending to put out there. Having a very clear sense of themselves, but also a very clear sense of what they’re trying to accomplish. I’ve just been really lucky, to be afforded the ability to work with people like that. Like Boots [Riley]. Boots is the shit.
AVC: Talk about somebody with a vision.
SY: Right? And that’s what I’m attracted to. I haven’t seen Paul Dano’s Wildlife [yet], but Paul, he’s someone that I look at and go, “That guy’s got ambition.” So just, yeah, go with the people that have a clear-cut thing.
AVC: Well, you worked in TV for a long time, and that’s got to be a different experience, working with a different director every week.
SY: That’s a different machine. That’s a writer’s medium, which is cool. You’re serving the writer [with TV]. The timelines for that make it harder to experience something [like I did with Burning], but it’s not impossible. Walking Dead was such a whirlwind experience for me that even looking back at it, I don’t think I’ve properly processed what all of it was.
The lasting things I remember are that I got to work with some of the best people, and just kind of experience what it’s like to have a joyful time making something with people. It was cool. I’ve learned a lot in a short amount of time [since then], it’s been crazy.
AVC: I mean, you’ve gone from Comic-Con to Cannes.
SY: I’m just holding on, trying not to fly off. I’m not sure where this is going. We’ll see.
AVC: If TV is a writer’s medium, and film is a director’s medium, what’s an actor’s medium?
SY: Hm. You brought up a cool question. [Pauses] Both.
SY: If you want it to be, sure.
AVC: It sounds like you’re very much just along for the ride.
SY: [Laughs.] I kind of am! People ask me, “What do you want? What’s your agenda?” I’m like, “I wish I had one, then this wouldn’t be so scary.” Right now it’s terrifying, but very fun.
AVC: You’ve been outspoken about Asian representation in Hollywood. This year, Crazy Rich Asians and Searching came out and did well, and everyone was calling it Asian August. Do you have any feelings about that? Do you feel like that’s going to stick?
SY: I think it’s a multifaceted situation. There are a lot of things happening at the same time. I think the best thing that’s happening is that a film came out, it got to hire a lot of Asian talent, and they’re being seen now. And the way that our industry works, unfortunately sometimes it’s just metrics. And we’ve shown that [Asian-led films] can deliver.
And it opens doors for different works, and more specific works, and things that incorporate other nuances in. It’s all moved in the right direction for me. It’s been really cool. I’m excited to see what comes from this. If there is any warning, it’s just to say: Let’s keep going. Let’s break down even more walls.
AV: There’s such a broad diversity of experiences under that banner. “Asian” encompasses billions of people, you know?
SY: And that’s the thing, right? How do you not let the machine take it and replicate the thing that we don’t want it to be, and instead let it be the thing it’s intended to be, which is a door opener. [Pauses.] I believe in it. The thing that I loved is that you’re reminded that there’s a lot of talent out there.
I feel so fortunate, because I got seven years on [The Walking Dead] to make mistakes, to learn and get better, find out about things, download information from all these awesome other actors that can teach you things. So I feel very fortunate that way. And I just hope that more kids—and just more people that don’t normally get a shot—get a shot at learning. That’s where it all comes from.
Burning is in select theaters now.