TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Actor Steven Yeun's big break was landing a role on the hugely popular zombie apocalypse show "The Walking Dead." Yeun played Glenn, a fan favorite. "The Walking Dead" is known for killing off its main characters. But Glenn did pretty well, lasting a full six seasons until his death, one of the show's more gruesome, in the premiere of Season 7.
Now Steven Yeun stars in the film "Burning," by Korean director Lee Chang-dong. Yeun plays Ben, a mysterious, upper-class playboy in South Korea's capital, Seoul. He may or may not be murdering his girlfriends. "Burning" is based on a short story by Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami.
Our film critic Justin Chang called the new movie the most absorbing movie he's seen this year. Yeun has also had roles in the films "Okja" and "Sorry To Bother You." He spoke with FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger.
SAM BRIGER, BYLINE: Steven Yeun, welcome to FRESH AIR. So your character Ben in the movie "Burning," he's very mysterious. And, you know, he's open to the interpretation of the audience in a lot of ways. You can either read Ben as this kind of bored, rich guy who kind of uses people, or you can read him as a potentially murderous psychopath.
STEVEN YEUN: (Laughter).
BRIGER: And the film never explicitly says which one he is. How do you approach playing someone like that?
YEUN: I think the real key was that director Lee gave me a lot of my own freedom in approaching this character. But it really came down to - director Lee said to me one day, maybe halfway through production, because we kept talking about the last scene - and he was saying, you know, you have to make that choice as an actor. And you...
BRIGER: About which kind of person he is.
YEUN: Yeah, which kind of person he is.
YEUN: And you will make that choice. And when we were done filming, he was like, what choice did you make? And I told him that I wasn't going to tell him.
YEUN: And so even to this day, I am the only one that knows who Ben really is.
BRIGER: So Lee Chang-dong said that you're Americanness was an asset to this role even though your character is Korean. So what did he mean by that? And how do you understand that?
YEUN: Yeah. You know, when I first approached him, I was like, is Ben Korean-American? And he was like, no, he is a fully Korean person that lives in Korea. He might have traveled. He might know the Western world. He knows knowledge of the greater world, but he's not a Korean-American. And I was like, OK. So then I realized that I had a lot of work to do to...
YEUN: ...You know, really get and understand the encoding of the body of being a native currently-living-there Korean person. And for me as an immigrant, I know of Korea in kind of maybe images or eras. You know, my parents taught me Korea from the '80s to the '90s. That's their understanding of Korea. And that's how I grew up.
But Korea's changed and evolved just like any other nation. And you're not updated on, you know, colloquialisms and vernacular and people's way of, like, just being with each other. And so I really thought that I had to do a lot of work with that. But he then said, let's not mess with your Americana that's kind of embedded into your body. The food that you've eaten, the choices that you've made, the way that you think - don't alter those things. Instead, just - let's work on the language so that you can be unequivocally Korean. But let's leave these mysterious Western encodings in your body alone. And I think that created its inherent kind of, like, dissonance with that character where you don't know who or what and where he's from.
BRIGER: The movie is in Korean. What challenges did that present to you?
YEUN: Well, fortunately, my parents sacrificed their understanding of the English language by speaking only Korean at home so that I could maintain my Korean pronunciation. And so my pronunciation has always been pretty good. I wouldn't say great, but I would say it's good. I could probably pass for a native in Korea if I'm just talking to a cab driver. They wouldn't necessarily know from my voice. But it's missing the nuance and just the way that the specificities of how Korean natives speak. And so those were the things that I had to really get into. And also, my reading comprehension and my vocabulary is not very great. And so I had a lot of work to do just, like, really getting into the script, especially Ben. He speaks so, I guess, highbrow - very literarily.
BRIGER: When did you discover that you wanted to act?
YEUN: Oh, I don't know if there was, like, a specific moment, but I think it came in college when I had seen our school's improv group, called Monkapult, for our freshman orientation. And all I remember thinking was - I was like, that looks so fun. How do I do that? And I wish I could say that I made a conscious choice to pursue acting. But you know, in the rearview, it really just seemed like I was just going, like, I like this, so I'm going to do it. And then I kept liking and enjoying and growing. And I was like, I want to keep doing this. And then by the time I was done, I was all of a sudden moving to Chicago to try to get into Second City.
BRIGER: Which you did. So how old were you when you moved to LA?
YEUN: I was - 2009, I was 25.
BRIGER: So you started trying out for stuff. And I saw an early commercial of yours.
BRIGER: It's this Milky Way commercial...
YEUN: Oh, boy.
BRIGER: ...Where you're, like, a swimmer, and you're about to dive backwards into the pool. And then you dive in, and you hear this squishy sound. And you've actually dove into a giant pool of caramel.
BRIGER: And you're sort of - you look like a cockroach on your back, like, stuck in this...
BRIGER: ...Caramel, like, squirming around. So first of all, that was all green screen, I'm assuming. Right? You didn't actually jump into caramel.
YEUN: We jumped in a actual pool, and then they actually put us in a outdoor pool filled with caramel-like substance.
BRIGER: Some gooey stuff.
YEUN: It was disgusting.
YEUN: It was my welcome-to-Hollywood moment where it was like, this is going to pay for your bills. And this is going to pay for your life while you're trying to make ends meet and hopefully get a job. But while you're doing this, like, we're going to put you in this vat. And then afterwards, we're going to hose you down with a high-pressure hose in your Speedos in front of everybody. It was the most, like, self-ego check.
BRIGER: You look so uncomfortable.
YEUN: Oh, my God, yeah. The whole experience was uncomfortable. But when you're there and you're barely scrounging enough money to, like, live for the next day, you're like, spray me. Like, where do you need me to jump in?
BRIGER: Were there any auditions where the role you were trying out for was clearly a stereotype?
YEUN: I only did it one time, which was in Chicago. There was this thing called "Awesome 80s Prom." And I remember, going in, they asked people to prepare an '80s monologue. And so I prepared Ferris Bueller's opening monologue, and I did it. And then after I finished, they were like, can you do that with an Asian accent? And I, you know, was so nervous that I was just, like - I, like, half-assed a performance of speaking in broken English, and then I just walked out. And I remember...
BRIGER: Just kind of - you were in shock, kind of.
YEUN: Yeah. Well, you're also like - you know, back then, you know, nobody was really speaking up about this stuff. And so you're more like, is my agent going to be mad at me? Are these people never going to hire me? I don't even know what's possible for me, but I'm already going into a place where it's like, I have to be so brave. And I don't even have any credits to my actual name. I remember calling my agent back and just being like, listen, I don't - they actually wanted to hire me. And I was like, I don't want to do this. Like, I...
BRIGER: Did the agent know that that's what they wanted?
YEUN: Yes. Of course.
BRIGER: And hadn't told you.
YEUN: And hadn't told me.
YEUN: And I was like, I'm not doing it. And I remember the agent being really angry at me - being like, you know, this person is pissed off that you came in and wasted their time and did this audition when you aren't even going to do it. And I'm like, I - you know, that was just different times.
BRIGER: Well, your big breakthrough, obviously, was getting the role of Glenn on "The Walking Dead," the hugely popular zombie apocalypse TV show. You were on the show for seven years. Recently, you said that while you were, you know, super grateful to have that role, that as the years went on, you felt a bit cramped by Glenn as a character. And you described him as beige, like, kind of a...
BRIGER: ...Bland person. Can you explain that?
YEUN: Yeah. I wish I could always, you know, use better choice of words...
YEUN: ...When describing things. And I - you know, I hope people that might've heard that didn't think I was hating or didn't like - but I think it was just, you know, a lot of factors. I think it was - you start at 25, 26. And then you grow to, you know, 32, 31. And you're not the same person that you were. When you embody a character for as long as you do, you tend to outgrow them, unless they're able to grow with you.
You know, the concept of even an Asian-American person and a man has morphed and changed even in the last decade by a lot. You know, there's moments where people were super psyched that an Asian man was in a relationship with a white woman. And that was, like, a big point of victory for a moment.
And then you evolve from there, and you go, oh. Like, that's also its own trap where you're not looking at these people like humans. You're instead justifying these identifiers, these ethnicity things that really shouldn't necessarily be celebrated in that way.
And so as you kind of process those ideas and grow as an individual, playing a character that seems like it's written in a specific way seems a little bit, you know, claustrophobic sometimes. So, you know, I think it was just a natural growing process of being the age that I was and the character and the show and a lot of things kind of coming together at the same time.
BRIGER: Well, I can't imagine that this is a spoiler at this point, but your character, Glenn, dies. It's a very gruesome death.
BRIGER: As most people know, the show is adapted from a comic book. And although the show didn't - doesn't exactly follow the comic, you know, there's a lot of similarities. There's some major plot points that come from the comic. And in the comic, your character, Glenn, was beaten to death by a baseball bat covered in barbed wire. And it's really horrifically depicted in the comic.
And so as you were playing Glenn, did you have in the back of your mind that this fate was some - at some point coming to you? Like, did they tell you early on that that was going to be your end or did you get a script one day that was like, this is your last script?
YEUN: I remember Scott Gimple, who's an incredible human...
BRIGER: Who's the showrunner.
YEUN: ...Showrunner at the time. He was gracious enough to sit me down, even a couple of years prior to - and, you know, we're friends. So we would just be like - I - you know, I'd just be like, Scott, you know, this death is going to come at some point. And, you know, I think it has to be me. It has to happen. And he's like, yeah. You know, you never know when it's going to happen. You never know if it'll happen or you never know who it's going to happen - I can't promise you that.
But then as we kept coming closer and closer, I kind of advocated it - advocated for it in that way, not because, you know, I wanted to be off the show but because it was the end. It's written. And so that's kind of how I approached it. And Scott was really gracious to give me that headway and that lead time. And yeah, it was not a shock. It was kind of just easing into that moment.
GROSS: We're listening to the interview our producer Sam Briger recorded with Steven Yeun, who played Glenn on "The Walking Dead" and stars in the new film "Burning." We'll hear more of the interview after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to the interview our producer Sam Briger recorded with Steven Yeun, who played Glenn in "The Walking Dead" and stars in the new film "Burning." He was born in South Korea and moved with his family to the U.S. when he was 4.
BRIGER: You told your parents that you wanted to try to pursue an acting career. And they sounded like they were disappointed, but they were supportive and gave you, like, two years at it. Is that...
YEUN: Yeah. I think they knew who their son was. I mean, obviously, they do, which is like a hot-headed, like, really stubborn person. And so they knew that, you know, I was just going to do it whether they liked it or not. And so, you know, they reluctantly gave me their blessing (laughter) but not without, like, goading my...
BRIGER: An ultimatum.
YEUN: Yeah. They gave me two years. And they were like, you know, you got two years to try and do this. And then they made me get a job, which I miserably failed at while I was over there.
BRIGER: What was that?
YEUN: It was inside sales at a IT consulting firm.
BRIGER: That's good...
YEUN: That was horrible.
BRIGER: That's good experience...
YEUN: It was horrible.
BRIGER: ...For your role in "Sorry To Bother You."
YEUN: Yeah. Actually, yeah, very much so - again, my parents just doing a solid for me every time.
YEUN: I really am going to owe them my entire career...
YEUN: ...Which I do.
BRIGER: So was there a point when they were like, OK, you're an actor now?
YEUN: I think it really happened when I got "Walking Dead." Before then, they were happy to see me doing "Second City" and things like that. But they were always in the rearview like, you know, go to LA. Hurry up so you can just get this out of your system and come back and be a doctor. And I went to LA, and I booked this show. And, you know, my dad cried on the phone when I got it. You know, he was just, like, so relieved. Never did we know that it would turn into what it's turned into.
BRIGER: Did they watch "The Walking Dead?"
YEUN: Oh, yeah, they did.
BRIGER: Was it really horrifying for them to watch your death?
YEUN: I don't think my mom's watched my death, actually. My mom has still yet to watch my death. And then my dad, you know, he just thinks it's funny.
YEUN: He's just like...
BRIGER: There's nothing funny about that scene.
YEUN: Yeah. He's just like, what did you do?
YEUN: He's like, what did you make?
YEUN: He's like, what a wild show.
BRIGER: Well, there's something really interesting that you said about this - is that your parents took this huge risk to move to the United States. And so they're risk-takers, and so they sort of let you continue taking risks by accepting that you wanted to act. Can you talk about that a little bit?
YEUN: Yeah. You know, I met with K.W. Lee one time, who is the first Asian-American journalist to write for a major publication. I think when I met him, he was in his mid-90s - incredible human being, mouth of a sailor, hilarious. He told me, never forget; second generation sacrifices, too. And I was just, like, blown away because I was resting all my - of myself on my parents' sacrifice, to be like, oh, you guys did it; you guys were the risk-takers so that you could get me this chance to be here.
And when he said that, it made me really realize, like - and I was having my kid, and it was just like, OK, like, I have to risk, too. I have to put my neck out on the line. I have to sacrifice in that way, too, to give more semblance of freedom for my child. And so yeah, I think that extension of that, like, crazy decision to deconstruct a life that was fine - you know, we're not refugees. We're not forced out of our country. My dad just made a decision to leave because he took a business trip one time to Minnesota in the early '80s and thought that it was so great.
BRIGER: Must not have been in the wintertime.
YEUN: Yeah (laughter), right, exactly. I think he just saw land, and he was like, you can own land like this? And so he was like, I want to try it. And you know, I know the story that we get told oftentimes, which is true in the end - but what we get told is that it was all done as a sacrifice to us. But really, you know, it's just a human's way of, like, taking that risk to try to make something greater for themselves.
And my dad came over on his own ambitions with my mother and brought his kids, and then eventually it did become a sacrifice because, you know, the parameters by which he was able to succeed were all so limited because he's an immigrant. And so he succeeded as best as he could. And it would've been, I think, foolish and kind of wasteful of me to take that boldness and just bury it and say, I'm just going to be safe because you guys took the risk. And instead, I said, let me do what you did.
BRIGER: Well, Steven Yeun, thanks so much for coming on FRESH AIR.
YEUN: Thank you for having me.
GROSS: Steven Yeun stars in the new film "Burning." He spoke with FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger. After we take a short break, linguist Geoff Nunberg will tell us why he chose the word nationalism as his word of the year. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MICHAEL BISIO QUARTET AND RON SODERSTROM'S "A.M.") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.