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Steven Yeun on his new film Burning and his hopes for post-Crazy Rich Asians Hollywood

How the former Walking Dead star navigates his identity, religion, and personal history in his film career.

Steven Yeun in Burning.
Steven Yeun plays the mysterious, cosmopolitan Ben in Burning.
Well Go USA Entertainment

Steven Yeun appeared on most people’s radar thanks to his role as fan favorite Glenn Rhee on The Walking Dead, whom he played from the series’ earliest episodes until the character’s death in the season seven premiere. Since then, Yeun’s resumé has taken a turn toward the eclectic — featuring everything from animated series like Voltron and Stretch Armstrong & the Flex Fighters to prestige projects like Bong Joon-Ho’s Okja, which premiered at Cannes in 2017 before going to Netflix, and Boots Riley’s widely lauded Sundance breakout Sorry to Bother You.

Now he’s in Korean director Lee Chang-dong’s moving, mysterious noir film Burning, which premiered to acclaim at Cannes this spring and subsequently played at the Toronto International Film Festival and the New York Film Festival. Set in South Korea, it’s a story about Korean youth who are lonely and adrift, and Yeun plays Ben, a cosmopolitan aesthete who captures the heart of a young woman named Hae-mi (Jong-seo Jeon) — to the consternation of her more reserved schoolmate Jong-su (Ah-In Yoo) — right before she disappears. It doesn’t help when he casually tells Jong-su that he likes to burn down greenhouses.

Steven Yeun in Burning.
Steven Yeun in Burning.
Well Go USA Entertainment

Ben is described by another character in the film as a “Gatsby” type, and though he speaks Korean perfectly, there’s something slightly off about him — something that’s especially evident to audiences familiar with Korean culture.

Yeun was born in Seoul, but emigrated to Canada and then Michigan with his parents when he was a child, and identifies as Korean-American. Lee and Yeun perfected Yeun’s conversational Korean to play Ben, but decided to have him retain his more American mannerisms and movements, which lends an extra layer of mystery and even menace to the mysterious, seemingly unrooted, supremely confident character.

Yeun and I recently sat down in Manhattan, the day before Burning’s theatrical release, to talk about his career so far, how his religious upbringing intersects with both his career and his identity, and working in a post-Crazy Rich Asians Hollywood.

The following conversation has been lightly edited and condensed for style and clarity.

What it’s like to go from The Walking Dead to an art-house drama like Burning

Alissa Wilkinson

Burning is such a different role and different film than some of the others you’ve done.

Steven Yeun

Yeah. I guess it kind of all comes together at a specific time for me. I got to do seven years of [The Walking Dead] and really build more confidence and get the reps in, and after I left I was very fortunate to have each project stretch me just a little bit more and more and more. I feel like I hope it’s not culminating with Burning, but Burning was one of those experiences where I don’t think I’ll ever forget how that went down.

Alissa Wilkinson

You chased the director, Lee Chang-dong, because you wanted to work with him, right?

Steven Yeun

“Chase” is a strong word. I mean, I would gladly chase director Lee, but I just never thought that that would ever happen. It was less of a chase — more like I just [said in an interview that I’d like to work with him], to answer a question. It turns out when you say things out loud sometimes they come back to you. Gotta be careful about what you say out loud.

Alissa Wilkinson

How did this particular one come back to you?

Steven Yeun

I was in London. I was tossing and turning at 3 in the morning, jet-lagged, and I get a phone call from director Bong [Joon-ho, with whom Yeun worked on Okja], being like, “You need to call me back right away.” So I was like, “What?”

I called him back and he was like, “Director Lee wants to meet with you.”

And I was like, “Why?” He’s like, “There’s a project that he thinks you might be right for.” Director Lee had me read “Barn Burning,” the Haruki Murakami story.

Alissa Wilkinson

The mysterious, minimalist short story that Burning is based on. It’s a very short story, like five pages, right?

Steven Yeun

Yeah. Very short. I remember reading it and being like, “Do I need to be in something with this mood?” That made me so excited, because in some ways that’s kind of what I’ve always been looking for — something a little bit more grounded. Something about it really attracted me to it.

Then [Lee] was like, “I’d love to meet.” It was very fortuitous that literally two days later, I was going to Korea anyway. So I went to Korea, and director Lee talks about it. He’s like, “You know, if you didn’t come to Korea, we’d probably still wouldn’t have cast you, because a Skype conversation about this thing — you really can’t have that.”

We spent three days of us poring over the character, He sent me the script, and we read it, and I came at him with my ideas.

The third day he hugged me. And I was like, “Cool. This is going down.”

‘Burning (Beoning)’ Red Carpet Arrivals - The 71st Annual Cannes Film Festival
Yeun on the Cannes red carpet at Burning’s premiere in May.
Photo by John Phillips/Getty Images

Alissa Wilkinson

It’s got to be kind of interesting to be picked for a character like Ben, who is basically the villain of the story.

Steven Yeun

Yeah. You self-assess!

Alissa Wilkinson

He’s not really a character that you’ve played before.

Steven Yeun

Right.

Alissa Wilkinson

How do you think through that kind of character? He’s an enigma.

Steven Yeun

For me, it was kismet to have this role. Being 30-something, having a child, getting off of a long-standing show that consumed your identity — [all of those things can] leave you in a very strange place where you’re reassessing yourself. I found myself in that place. Then this thing came along. I felt like this inherent emptiness of this character as I read him off the page. I could tune into that in some respect.

How to play a Korean character when you’re Korean-American

Alissa Wilkinson

Obviously, you speak Korean. But this is a Korean film about Korean characters. You’re Korean-American, and that adds a different shading to your character and performance in the film. I’m a white American, and when I saw Burning at Cannes, I didn’t know that Ben’s mannerisms were noticeably different from what a Korean viewer might expect to see, and so I was interested to hear about it later, because I understand that your Americanness adds something to the character for people who can spot the difference.

Steven Yeun

I would love to ask you: Did you feel, when you saw me enter into that frame for the first time as Ben, that the character didn’t feel naturally Korean? Or natively Korean?

Alissa Wilkinson

What it felt like was I was watching a character who had been everywhere. He’s a man of the world.

Steven Yeun

That’s, I think, what it is.

Alissa Wilkinson

How so?

Steven Yeun in Burning
Yeun’s character, Ben, is suave, cool, and a little unsettling.
Well Go USA Entertainment

Steven Yeun

I think it might have more stark dissonance to a Korean viewer, but I don’t think it’s too different from what a Western viewer has, which is like, this person doesn’t seem to be tied down to the social structures of Korea. He looks it, he speaks it, he lives it, but there’s this carefree-ness about him that doesn’t seem to have to bend to the collectivist ideas of how you have to treat others, or how you have to be in relation to others.

In Korean society and Asian society, there’s just a lot of hierarchical respect that you have to manage. I don’t think Ben operates from that place.

Alissa Wilkinson

Really it’s a movie that has a lot to say about young people in Korea. It mentions the low employment among young people in the country, for example. And its other two main characters are from a rural area so close to the North Korean border that they can hear the broadcasts happening on the other side of the border. How much of the culture of the country were you ready for when you arrived on set?

Steven Yeun

I went to Korea with a task: to not just be a visitor, going with the flow of things, but to really examine the place that I’m in. There’s a really interesting juxtaposition of collectivism to individualism that happens when you’re a Westerner who comes to Korea. The ability to not have to bend to the will of the collective helps you see that other people have other responsibilities that you don’t have.

Alissa Wilkinson

Like what?

Steven Yeun

You can always lean on your American-ness to just be like, “Oh. I didn’t know that because you’re older, I have to speak with you with this type of deference.” Or, “If you’re younger, I speak different to you.” The Western view of the world is very much that everyone’s on an equal playing field — which of course isn’t that true.

But that’s another thing that’s interesting: I feel like Korea’s understanding of the system is very upfront — people are aware of the system that they’re living in.

Alissa Wilkinson

Of where they fall in the hierarchy.

Steven Yeun

Of where they fall. They’re constantly assessing themselves on where they land, which breeds its own negatives and positives. The Western ideal starts from a place of individuality. You’re free to be yourself, but then the negative is that you don’t have any real “group.” You don’t have this collective power. And also, by virtue of the fact that you’re living life that way, you trick yourself into thinking there isn’t a system, when there really very much is.

My wife — who is so much smarter than me — always talks about the “in between-ness” of everything. All the special, meaningful things in the film are in between spaces and identities.

Yeun with his costars Ah-In Yoo and Jong-seo Jeon in Burning.
Yeun with his costars Ah-In Yoo and Jong-seo Jeon in Burning.
Well Go USA Entertainment

How growing up in a conservative Christian community affects being a Hollywood actor

Alissa Wilkinson

I know you have a background in improv comedy, having trained at Second City for years, which probably isn’t what people expect! But I want to talk about another part of your background, which is growing up in church. I grew up in a large evangelical church, and I feel like one thing those churches provide to young people is an opportunity to try out performing, by singing in the choir or playing in a band or doing skits or whatever.

Was church was part of your formation as a performer?

Steven Yeun

For sure. My upbringing was very safe. I’m sure as I age, and maybe do a little bit more work on my mental health over time, maybe I’ll unpack some things that I have repressed. But, for the moment, I look back and realize my parents, as immigrants, really did a wonderful job of really giving us a safe childhood. That a built a lot of confidence for my brother and me, and going to church was part of that. Our schooling, and the places that we lived in suburbs of Michigan, were very a safe place to grow up.

The negative of that is that you sometimes don’t get to question your reality. I think where religion has helped me tremendously with my craft has been this ability to let go. I think I had that from the beginning. I reverse-engineered my understanding of acting; it’s become more cerebral over time. Earlier on, it was just me just projecting and emoting and doing whatever I could. I didn’t have a grasp of the cerebral — I was chasing images, or ideas of what a person does in various situations.

Now that I’ve studied a little bit and understand a little bit more to balance out how I approach acting, I start roles by looking at them very cerebrally, at first. But then there’s this great moment where you just build that feeling of faith — to just let go. You’ve done all the homework, and you just let go and do the performance.

I feel like religion in that way has really helped me tap into that — just this idea of feeling small, a blip in the larger scheme of things.

Alissa Wilkinson

This is partly me projecting from my own experience, but while I was born and raised in the US, I was raised in a religious community that often seemed like it wanted to remain separate from the outside world. I can imagine there’s a double experience of that if you are an immigrant who is also part of a religious community, since you’re maybe not part of the majority culture around you as well. I know you’ve been talking a lot lately in interviews about your experience as an Asian-American — does being raised religious have anything to do with that?

Steven Yeun

For sure. As Korean immigrants who were Christian, we not only had the Christian collective, we also had the Korean collective. I remember meeting white American Christians, and there was also that same dissonance, where I couldn’t connect. They had an ability to take or leave the religion whenever they wanted to. They didn’t have this overwhelming sense of doom and fear that [many Koreans had].

For me, as a Korean Christian, my white friends that were also Christian would be like, “Yeah. I go to church. Sometimes I don’t.” And I’m like, “Oh. I have to go.”

That’s not to say that white Americans, Christians, don’t also feel that in some degree, they have different sects, but I was always feeling like, “Oh, you guys have a different approach to this all together.” Now I realize that a lot of my conservative upbringing in that way was also based in my Korean-ness.

Identity-wise, I think the problem with collectivism is that it helps you feel this oneness and this sense of togetherness, the sense that you’re just a cog, a piece of the whole. But the danger is that sometimes it doesn’t allow you to be your true self in order to add to the whole — rather, it makes you mold yourself into whatever the whole says you are. So then you’re not really serving anything.

I said this in another interview recently, but that’s why my favorite verse is Romans 12:2: “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is — his good, pleasing and perfect will.”

You have your purpose on this planet, and in this universe, whatever it might be. It could be benign, it could be small, or it could be massive. But there’s no difference in importance. It’s just what you are placed here to do. That’s always been a favorite verse of mine.

56th New York Film Festival - ‘Burning’
Yeun at a screening of Burning in New York in October.
Photo by Dia Dipasupil/Getty Images

Alissa Wilkinson

I often have this perception that people with religious backgrounds — even if they’re not practicing when they get to Hollywood — are met with a lot of resistance to their beliefs from other people in the entertainment industry. Or they struggle to know whether to take a particular role because of their moral beliefs, when they start out in “secular” Hollywood.

Was that you at all? Was there any dissonance for you between your past and your career when you started being an actor?

Steven Yeun

As a Christian?

Alissa Wilkinson

Yeah.

Steven Yeun

Yeah. You have to mentally get over a lot of things that you might have to emulate on the screen that you wouldn’t do in your normal life. You go, like, “Is this a sin? Is this bad?” I know that feeling.

But, that’s when you start to pick back and peel back layers. If God made all of us, then He made all of us, the good and bad parts. If in our art we’re trying to understand big ideas, then why would we try to wash away that complexity? The beauty of us is that we have complexity.

That allows you to have this interesting balance: searching for expression in a human way, as opposed to following some other moralistic mandate.

Alissa Wilkinson

It’s interesting to see how often people assume Hollywood is this super anti-religion place, where I often find it’s not.

Steven Yeun

Sometimes it’s the most religious. Sometimes I feel the most spiritual people are in our line of work.

How to be a team player while also being an individual

Alissa Wilkinson

You’ve talked about the collective versus the individual a lot. Another film you were in this year was Sorry to Bother You, which is very much about collective action versus the individual. In the film, you even play a union organizer, named Squeeze. Did your thinking on these matters come into playing that role?

Steven Yeun

Yeah. What was great about playing Squeeze was the place that he operated from. He was seasoned. He had seen things before. He understood the world in that way, where he’s not too high, and he’s not too low — he is really truly trying to just be a part of a greater machine that can help overturn these terrible human atrocities.

And it was fun to play Squeeze because with the kind of cast in that film, you recognize how wonderful each actor is, and how beautiful and strong their personas are. I think if I was younger I might have thought to myself, Make sure you pop. Make sure you take some time for yourself. Make sure you show what you can do.

So I’m glad that that role came a little later for me, because I was able to just approach it and be like, the whole point of Squeeze is that you don’t know what he’s doing. He’s almost just in the back. A couple of times, I’d be talking to Boots [Riley, the director] and I’d be like, “Can I just slip out of the frame? I don’t think you wanna see me. Or can I just be in the back?”

That’s probably not the best way to approach your career, depending on what you want out of it, but it felt so honest to me in that moment.

But yeah, it’s that balance between recognizing that collective ideal, but also being strong in your individual nature and submitting yourself as an individual, comfortable enough to play into the larger idea that you have to serve. It was a really cool balance to find that.

Yeun with Jermaine Fowler and Lakeith Stanfield in Sorry to Bother You.
Yeun with Jermaine Fowler and Lakeith Stanfield in Sorry to Bother You.
Annapurna Pictures

Alissa Wilkinson

I interviewed Boots! He’s a character.

Steven Yeun

Boots is the shit.

Alissa Wilkinson

He’s great. And when I talked to Lakeith, he was like, “You wouldn’t believe [Boots] if someone described him to you.”

Steven Yeun

No way. I mean, his name is Boots! I love him.

I’ve been very fortunate in my career to work with really giving and wonderful people. I don’t know what it is, but I’ve just been able to work with a lot of egoless people. Well, not egoless. Nobody’s egoless. But they’re really there to just do the thing.

On working in Hollywood after an Asian-led film was a huge success

Alissa Wilkinson

So now we’re in a post-Crazy Rich Asians world. Has your approach to your career changed following some of the shifts in Hollywood over the last year or so, with some new focus on diversity in roles and characters?

Steven Yeun

To be quite honest with you, I don’t think how I view this career and how to approach it has actually changed. If anything, all of this stuff has made me realize that what I was doing actually makes more sense to me than I thought before. Before, it was kind of a gray area — “Do I do something for Asian-Americans, or do I do something that’s more me?” I was pulled and pushed and pulled,

But I always ended up realizing that my face will do the work, because I can’t change that I’m Asian. All I can do is just try to be as human as possible; my face will decide this other layer.

All of these big projects that have come out have changed the landscape of how Hollywood might react to an Asian face, but I don’t think that mission changes at all. I think, if anything, it just becomes more stark — let’s get to that human part of us. The inherent nature of my face will do a lot of the heavy lifting, because it’s not like I’m gonna approach a character and be not thinking what an Asian person would be going through in this scenario. Every part of me is Asian. For me to play truthfully is inherently just an Asian performance.

Alissa Wilkinson

Diversity initiatives and pushes are tricky — on my side of things, for instance, there’s been a lot of talk about increasing the number of women in film criticism. But some people are concerned that the motivation for that push isn’t to diversify criticism, but instead to make sure that there are more critics who feel obliged to support anything a woman makes. Is there a mirror to this concern from your side of the business?

Steven Yeun

Yeah, I would say definitely. You feel that pressure. I’m completely an Asian American, but it is also something that can take the central focus of who you are. That’s always been something that I’ve been wary of submitting to.

For me, as a human being, there’s so many layers to my identity that to only talk about one single aspect seems a little short-sighted. But I also recognize that there are a lot of people on this planet for whom their biggest hurdle is their ethnicity. I know a lot of Asian-Americans who really still feel shameful about being Asian-American. And I know that feeling, because when I was younger I felt that way too.

So I agree with you. There definitely is that fear of being like, “Do I have to support everything just because my face looks like this?” But there’s also things to be said — like when you’re talking about Crazy Rich Asians, that’s a whole anomaly in and of itself. It did a wonderful job of showing the marketplace that if you want to disparage us by questioning whether we can support a film like this monetarily, that excuse is now out the window. That’s done.

Warner Bros. Pictures’ ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ Premiere - Red Carpet
Yeun with Constance Wu at the premiere of Crazy Rich Asians in August.
Photo by Emma McIntyre/Getty Images

You also show this huge array of Asian-American actors who are ready to have their moment, or at least get their reps to build to their moments. You see wide-ranging talent. People can have different takes on whether they like the film or whether it’s a film for them or not; I think that’s a real place to address. If you’re not into mainstream rom-coms, you’re not into mainstream rom-coms.

What I hope is that this doesn’t then invert on itself and make us only have to make these particular movies again, but instead have the industry just go, “Hey, Asian people, they’re everybody. It’s fine. Let’s just make stuff without thinking so hard. Let’s just find humans. Let’s be humans.” It’s all part of the journey. All part of the process.

Burning opened in theaters on October 26.