When Glenn Rhee, the scrappy pizza deliveryman turned warrior on The Walking Dead, became another casualty of that AMC series, Steven Yeun, the actor who played him, already felt he had outgrown his character. But like Donnie Yen, Joan Chen and other Asian-American performers before him, he had to look outside Hollywood to find three-dimensional roles that defied stereotypes and caricatures.
While The Walking Dead led to parts in provocative American indies like Sorry to Bother You and Mayhem, it was in South Korea that he got a chance to collaborate with world-class auteurs on serious Palme d’Or contenders. A case in point is Burning, the new film from Lee Chang-dong opening this week in the United States. The movie — and Yeun’s performance as Ben, the cosmopolitan rival of the country-bumpkin anti-hero — earned rave reviews at the Cannes Film Festival in May, and the experience of working overseas made Yeun realise that he didn’t feel exactly at ease in either the United States or South Korea.
“It really just makes you have to go inward and you can only be comfortable in your own skin,” he said in an interview this month when Burning played the New York Film Festival. Clad in a fitted black T-shirt, grey slacks and black boots, the 34-year-old Yeun was affable and engaging as he continued, “You try to find yourself amid all these labels that people are trying to place onto you. You’re just trying to find what it means to be you. And I think that’s kind of what has been my goal the last couple of years.”
Lee said Yeun perfectly understood the disaffection and hollowness he was seeking to convey in the film, an adaptation of a Haruki Murakami short story. “Steven said he sensed an emptiness deep down in the character. He said he knew it well because he felt it as well,” Lee, the respected filmmaker of Peppermint Candy, Secret Sunshine and other films, said through an interpreter. “He told me about the existential crisis he felt when he attained fortune and fame after a long and difficult time as an unknown Asian actor. I agreed that was at the core of Ben — the emptiness in the modern man who has materialistic abundance, who can accomplish anything he sets his mind to, yet emotionally he is unable to do anything.”
Yeun began traversing two different worlds early in life. When he was four, he and his family moved from South Korea, first to Canada and then to the United States. At school he kept to himself. But within the tight-knit Korean church community in Taylor, Michigan, he felt freer to be cavalier and rambunctious.
With a dearth of Asian-American representation in pop culture, Yeun and his friends gravitated to Will Smith for his outsider appeal. The success of comedians Steve Park and Margaret Cho was momentous to aspiring Asian-American performers.
“With Steve, I remember being shocked at In Living Color having an Asian person,” Yeun said. Park and Cho were among the pioneers “that you just got to respect, because they were doing it when nobody was doing it.”
While pursuing a psychology degree at Kalamazoo College, Yeun took an interest in theatre and improv.
“Comedy was, in some ways, a defence mechanism,” he said. “When you are a Korean kid living in Taylor, Michigan, surrounded by, you know, mostly non-Asian people, you just try to make yourself less threatening. So you just try to tell some jokes.”
To assuage his parents’ worries, he supplemented comedy gigs in Chicago with work as a sales rep. (He later channelled that experience into his role as a call centre worker in Sorry to Bother You.”) Half a year after he set foot in Los Angeles, he landed on “The Walking Dead.”
A frequent guest on “Conan,” Yeun memorably guided the host around South Korea in 2016. “Steven could add this amazing perspective,” Conan O’Brien said, explaining that they tried to find the comedy in being on opposite sides of the Demilitarised Zone. “We were basically in the same room; it’s just there’s a line down the middle. And I did the weather from my side, and he did the weather from his side.”
In fact, “we actually talked about the reality of where we were, and Steven was very connected to ‘These are my people on the North Korean side. This is how South Koreans feel. These are our people,’” O’Brien said, adding, “That was really powerful.”
Yeun wasn’t actively pursuing roles in South Korea, but he was a fan of that country’s vibrant film industry. A friend there arranged for Yeun to meet some of his favourite filmmakers: Kim Jee-woon (I Saw the Devil), Park Chan-wook (Oldboy) and Bong Joonho (The Host). He did not think Bong was serious about wanting to work together, and certainly didn’t expect that the director would eventually write a part for him in Okja (2017).
“When Steven first came over to work, he was also very sensitive about being perceived as an American actor or a Korean actor, how was everybody relating to him. But that evaporated very quickly,” Bong said through an interpreter.
Before The Walking Dead, Yeun was often asked to play variants of Long Duk Dong, Gedde Watanabe’s infamous nerd in Sixteen Candles, a toxic screen stereotype of Asian men. Now in the US, Yeun tends to get offered genial characters. In South Korea, where Bong said women regarded Yeun as a sex symbol, the actor said that typecasting based on his personality or his status as a foreigner or expat, might be inescapable.
“It’s just that when Korea approaches me about a project it’s usually missing a component of, like, ‘What does an Asian man do in this situation?’” he said.
“What was wonderful about working in South Korea is, you know, you kind of feel the fullness of yourself for a second,” he added. “You don’t have to be reminded of your otherness there, and that is a very freeing feeling. You don’t realise how oppressive that is until you experience not experiencing that.”
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