The Walking Dead's Steve Yeun on Asian Identity and 'Burning' : It's Been a Minute with Sam Sanders It's Tuesday. Elise Hu steps in the hosting chair for Sam and gets deep with Yeun on why he's sick of talking about Asian identity, his time as Glenn Rhee on The Walking Dead, and his new South Korean thriller. Send thoughts about the episode to Elise at ehu@npr.org or tweet her @elisewho.
NPR logo

Steven Yeun, A Star On Both Sides Of The Pacific, Talks Toggling Between East & West

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/666741152/667182255" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Steven Yeun, A Star On Both Sides Of The Pacific, Talks Toggling Between East & West

Steven Yeun, A Star On Both Sides Of The Pacific, Talks Toggling Between East & West

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/666741152/667182255" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

ELISE HU, HOST:

Hey, y'all. From NPR, IT'S BEEN A MINUTE. I'm Elise Hu filling in for Sam this week. It's Tuesday. And just because Sam's gone doesn't mean we're taking a break. Today I'm talking with Stephen Young. If the name isn't immediately ringing a bell, let me help jog your memory. He was the breakout star on AMCs "The Walking Dead," the most-watched show on cable TV, until he died a violent death, as characters do on that show. People are still pretty broken up about it, though.

Lately, he's been popping up all over the place. This year, he was in the acclaimed film "Sorry To Bother You." He also jumps across the ocean to do Korean language work from well-known Korean directors. Right now, he's playing an inscrutable Gatsby-like character in the thriller "Burning." It's South Korea's submission to next year's Academy Awards. I talked to him about toggling between East and West, his identity journey from his childhood going from not seeing anyone who looked like him in kindergarten to learning to be a lot more comfortable in his own skin at this big moment for Asian representation in Hollywood.

Steven and I also got to chat about our shared experience of living in Seoul for long stretches. He works there a lot now, and I just moved back from three years in Seoul as NPR's bureau chief in South Korea. So here it is, y'all, Steven Yeun with me at NPR West in Culver City. I so enjoyed our conversation, and I hope you do, too.

(SOUNDBITE OF FLEVANS' "FLICKER")

HU: (Speaking Korean).

STEVEN YEUN: (Speaking Korean).

HU: (Speaking Korean).

YEUN: (Speaking Korean).

HU: My Korean is so bad.

HU: (Laughter).

YEUN: It's OK.

HU: I just moved back from Seoul.

YEUN: You did?

HU: Yeah. I'm Chinese-American, and I opened the first Seoul bureau...

YEUN: Whoa.

HU: ...For NPR.

YEUN: Cool. That's amazing.

HU: Yeah.

YEUN: Where were you living?

HU: Yongsan.

YEUN: Nice.

HU: Yeah. Near the...

YEUN: Right. Itaewon?

HU: Yeah. And near the base.

YEUN: OK. Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. Well, I mean, you know, now it's like, - that's, like, the poppin' area.

HU: Did you ever go to Just BLT?

YEUN: No.

HU: They make...

YEUN: Just BLTs?

HU: Just BLTs.

YEUN: Yeah. I figured.

(LAUGHTER)

HU: Thanks for being here, and we're really excited you're here. And it comes at the end of this big year for Asian representation. Asian August. You know, our civilizations have only been around for, like, 5,000 years. So every once in a while, there's an August where there's Asians on the cover of magazines (laughter). What do you make of all of this? What do you make of that moment? And do you feel sort of annoyingly obligated to talk about identity a lot more?

YEUN: Yeah. (Laughter). I'm going to be honest. Like, yeah. And I don't necessarily see it as necessarily annoying, but it is something that, you know, if you've mentally gone through a journey for yourself to maybe find some self-identity or self-confidence independent of all these parameters that they put us in, to re-examine those things are fine and probably beneficial and good to put that out there. So I don't shy away from it, but at the same time, it's like, man, I want to, like - I wish we could all move forward at the same pace. But I also understand, like, to talk about it in this larger sense is probably really important.

HU: Yeah. But you're already so far along on your journey, is what you're saying, right? It's kind of like, we're kind of going back to basics in this representation conversation? You wish it was further?

YEUN: I think it'd be foolish for me to say, like, I'm so far along in my journey. You know, people grow in certain areas, and then they don't grow in other areas. So, you know, I'm pretty sure there'll be many more realizations that I'll make for myself about my own personal identity, but I will say, like, you know, the fact that we're still talking about, like, these really basic ideas of what it's like to be an Asian person that I felt like we visited during the era when Margaret Cho was trying to do it, we keep coming back to the same basics.

It's as if we haven't moved forward in the discussion of, like, what are the nuances of why being an Asian person might be different or interesting? Rather, it becomes more about, like, hey, sometimes, like, we take our shoes off in the house. Or, like, we use chopsticks. And thankfully, we're not at that type of basic now that people know and people have smartly caught on to you should just take your shoes off, independent of whether you're an Asian person or not...

HU: (Laughter) Right.

YEUN: ...I think. It's just healthy.

HU: 'Cause it's sort of savage to walk around with shoes inside your house.

YEUN: It's insane.

HU: And where's your floor heating?

YEUN: (Laughter). Yeah. Yeah.

HU: Where's the ondol? Yeah.

YEUN: Where's the radiant heat?

HU: Well, you've been toggling between the two industries now and the two cultures now in recent years. So a lot of the listeners will know you from "The Walking Dead," but now starring in South Korea's submission for the Oscars, speaking in Korean the entire time. And it's a Korean film. You're the only Korean-American in "Burning."

YEUN: Yes.

HU: Is that right? I'm wondering if the roles you've taken on in your career have helped you in this identity journey.

YEUN: Yeah. I will say for myself to have become someone that people recognize, for me to have gained whatever notoriety, for me to have gained whatever job or wealth over time, the privilege that I've acquired over time has only allowed me to be more comfortable in my skin or examine myself in a place that a lot of people don't get the opportunity to do so. And so I'm definitely lucky in that regard.

And starting with Glenn Rhee from "Walking Dead," you know, you're - I was just a kid that was just shocked that someone let me onto television. And then I was like, OK. And so you see, I grew as an actor, and I grew as a person. And then as I grew, you know, I subsequently outgrew the parameters of that role because there is also this massive weight that's kind of oddly put on your shoulders as one of the few Asian-Americans that are on TV at the time where it's like, you're representing, like, for all of us.

And then so you're kind of doing this work of, like, what does it mean to be an Asian person? And then I got to do other things, like "Okja," where I got to really examine what it means to be a Korean-American, where I tread the lines between America and Korea within the context of the film and within the context of literal filming. And then you get to do something like "Sorry To Bother You" or "Mayhem," where, like, your ethnicity really doesn't take a central focus. And then you get to "Burning," where your ethnicity really doesn't take a central focus.

However, the way that I have to talk about it here, the entry point is always kind of like, South Korea's submission with a Korean-American actor. And while those are all true and very poignant and correct, it is this American lens by which we view these things as, as opposed to if that was made, you know, in America with an all-white cast, they would just be like, what a cool thriller.

HU: Since you're on the topic of "Burning" - and for those of you who haven't seen it, it is a thriller. It's based - do you want to say a little bit about it? What's the quick pitch for "Burning"?

YEUN: It's hard to pitch. It's a thriller mystery about three young people in Seoul as their lives intertwine.

HU: It's a creepy love triangle.

YEUN: (Laughter). Sure. You could talk about it that way.

HU: (Laughter). Lots of themes of alienation and repression - and based on a short story, a Murakami short story - right? - called "Barn Burning." There's also a lot of specific representation of what it's like in modern South Korea right now. What do you think, especially now that it's representing South Korea as a country, what do you think it says about society there in this moment?

YEUN: I think it says that everyone feels alone. I think it says that people are very lonely, whether they're up on top of this totem pole or whether they're down below. Whether they're a woman who's trapped by society to not feel free in her own skin, or they're a rich Gatsby that has lost touch with the world and feels isolated in his own way, or just a general everyman that feels like he can't get his fair do or he's imprisoned by the social system. But when you look at that, like, how is it any different than America?

HU: (Laughter). That becomes universal.

YEUN: Yeah.

HU: Time for a break. When we come back, Steven talks about this Conan O'Brien skit that made him famous in South Korea.

(SOUNDBITE OF FLEVANS' "FLICKER")

HU: So there's a lot of talk in South Korea about you've kind of made a name for yourself independent of any of your work in the U.S. And when I was over there, one of the reasons you were becoming really a big name was not actually because of the work you've spent a whole lot of time doing but actually as playing a straight man to Conan O'Brien.

YEUN: Interesting.

HU: (Laughter).

YEUN: Yeah.

HU: Yeah. No. Y'all first went to a Jimjilbang...

YEUN: Right, right, right.

HU: ...A Korean spa, right, in Los Angeles. And then he also went over to Korea, right, a number of times, in Seoul? Let's listen to a clip of you and Conan eating a Korean meal.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "CONAN")

CONAN O'BRIEN: Like, what's that, for example?

YEUN: I mean, I've seen it. That's a - that's...

O'BRIEN: Seriously? You don't know what it is?

YEUN: So it looks like rice.

O'BRIEN: Yeah?

(LAUGHTER)

O'BRIEN: You're my cultural ambassador.

YEUN: I...

O'BRIEN: What are you doing? What is...

YEUN: I just eat it.

O'BRIEN: Listen. I'm Irish.

YEUN: That's potato salad. That's potato salad.

O'BRIEN: Yes. I know potato salad.

(LAUGHTER)

YEUN: That's good.

O'BRIEN: This was a Jewish delicatessen about 15 minutes ago.

(LAUGHTER)

O'BRIEN: Those look like pancakes of some kind.

YEUN: Yes. Korean pancakes.

HU: (Laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "CONAN")

YEUN: Pajeon.

O'BRIEN: Pajeon?

YEUN: Yup. Has whatever my mom puts in it. I don't know. Just eat it.

(LAUGHTER)

HU: (Laughter). So what is it like for you kind of having to be an ambassador, too, to your culture?

YEUN: I think that kind of speaks to my point, which is - and this is no fault of Conan's by any means. It's not a fault at all. It's just funny to kind of expose that aspect of it of what I kind of was saying earlier, which is I'm a human being, and I don't know the inner workings of the entire country of Korea.

HU: (Laughter).

YEUN: It was cool to be an ambassador because I feel like I offered a very neutral, kind of this middle-ground point of view for it all. But as I unpack it and as we talk about it in this context...

HU: Yeah.

YEUN: ...It is funny to kind of see that. It's like - oh, yeah. I'm being asked to, like, speak for a culture that - how would I know what's made?

HU: (Laughter) Right.

YEUN: I don't even know what would be so specifically Korean that I would even know.

HU: Though you and your brother do have a bun shop here in LA.

YEUN: Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah - yeah.

HU: You do have a restaurant (laughter).

YEUN: Yeah. But I mean, sure. Like, that's like - I know what's in the buns.

HU: Right, right.

YEUN: You know? But yeah, that begs an interesting question of like, how, in some ways, we're forced to represent the entirety of our culture when people don't know that in and of themselves.

HU: You have - we did do some Steven Yeun reading.

YEUN: (Laughter).

HU: And you have talked about being born in South Korea then coming over to the U.S. - well, at first Canada - right? - and then the U.S. - when you were 5 and being filled with a sort of rage but one that you couldn't really define, especially not as a kindergartener.

YEUN: Yeah.

HU: What can you understand about that now that maybe you couldn't have understood growing, up?

YEUN: Well, I think "Peppermint Candy" from director Lee really helped me to understand that - just what type of trauma Korean people have gone through or do go through through the system of the way that they live. You know, we have so much - there's han.

HU: Han, right.

YEUN: You know? There's so much inherited trauma to that idea.

HU: And can you kind of talk a little bit about what han is...

YEUN: Sure, yeah.

HU: ...Because this is very difficult to define for a lot of Koreans, yeah.

YEUN: Yeah. Han is just, like, this feeling of repression and angst and anger and heat that kind of stems from this expression of trauma that the country has lived through - being occupied multiple times by...

HU: Invaded by the Japanese...

YEUN: Invaded...

HU: ...Multiple times.

YEUN: ...Yeah, yeah - Chinese, having the Korean War, not feeling fully comfortable in their own skin, if you want to kind of anthropomorphize an entire country. Like, it's a country that has been told who they are and never felt the reality of who they are. And so you have this collectivist cultural way of being and expressing themselves that always has this kind of deep-seated anger connected to it. And I think over time, you know, you go back to Korea these days, and you see the younger generation. And it's starting to dissipate because I think, you know, Korea's a richer nation now. And they have the capacity now to, like, take care of their brain, their minds and their bodies and have the freedom and the spaciousness to, like, explore what this trauma might have done to them and, like, how to, like, deal with it.

HU: Take us back to you being 5. Right?

YEUN: Sure.

HU: Is the rage you feel like - you felt about your experience back then, did that have to do with, you know, collectivist Korean han? Or was it more specific to being an immigrant child in America? Was there a specific memory that you recall?

YEUN: I think it was all those things. You know, when you're the first-born son or daughter - when you're the first-born child, you're the guinea pig of that family. And if you're in a really safe environment because let's say your family has safety, whether they have wealth or whether they have some semblance of being able to provide for you a very safe environment, you can build confidence that way.

But you know, my upbringing was - 4 1/2 being moved to a complete different country where nobody looked the way that I look. And I didn't speak any of the language. And I remember in Canada, in Regina, Saskatchewan, I was taken to kindergarten class. And I went every single day, kicking and screaming and, like, wailing crying down the hall until they just put me in the room. And they just sat me in the corner and put a bunch of Play-Doh in front of me to, like, just help me deal.

I remember asking my dad. The first English words that I learned was - I said, Appa, what does don't cry mean?

HU: Oh.

YEUN: And like (laughter) - and so, you know, like, you're just scared. And then that, probably combined with just this inherited trauma that I felt passed down from my own family, contributed and then just being the first-born kid that has to, like, navigate, like, new terrain is, like, constantly like you're being shocked. And so now you're, like, careful and easy. And when you don't feel free in your own skin, you feel very angry.

HU: And your response, though, as an actor at first was comedy. Right? Like, did you - was that a deliberate choice, do you think?

YEUN: I think I figured that comedy was going to be my entryway. And I was good at it naturally because I just built it up over time to deflect, to learn how to guard myself, to learn how to get people to like me, to be charming. And so those are skills that I never want to take back. Those are great things that I've learned, and I'm happy to - I love comedy. But I had to reassess what it was for me that got me there. And I think, you know, now the approach necessarily doesn't change to how I do comedy, but I'm conscious of the fact that I chose it for defense first, which is, I think, a lot of comedians' upbringing, too. But mine was kind of added with this thing where I was like, you know, there's inherent comedy in being an Asian person, too - at that time.

HU: Right.

YEUN: The images of what Asian people were during that era, which was Short Round or Long Duk Dong or some Mickey Rooney...

HU: Oh, my gosh.

YEUN: ...Terrible yellowface, like we were just meant to be inherently funny.

HU: Cartoonish.

YEUN: Yeah, like our presence was funny. And so, you know, you lean into that.

HU: A final break here - in a minute, Steven goes deep about his character Glenn from "The Walking Dead." We'll be right back.

(SOUNDBITE OF FLEVANS' "FLICKER")

HU: As I listen to you, you seem so self-possessed and self-aware. Do you feel like that has - your understanding of yourself as you've grown up and grown older and continue to work in different ways, has that affected your choices? How do you decide sort of what you do next when Asians are having such a moment and you could be the next Aquaman if you wanted, I guess?

YEUN: Oh, I don't know.

HU: (Laughter).

YEUN: I mean, who knows if they'll ever offer that? I don't know. I think the best way that I've found for myself - and this is very unique to me - is just really try to get down to being comfortable in my own skin and then operate from that baseline. I felt like I was doing a lot of mask work and acting in my entire life. Outside, I was, like, model citizen - you know? - always, you know, people liked me. And like, I put on this show that, over time, I didn't even know it was a show; I just thought it was me. And then you get to, like, a comfort as you age of, like, removing a mask or removing a layer or, like, taking off some armor to be, like, oh, I don't need this anymore because I feel fortified in my own skin. And so that's the journey that I've personally gone on. And how that kind of reflects the choices that I make is what's unique to me as an individual, not what choices should I make as an Asian person.

HU: But is this why you have kind of a complex relationship with your time on "The Walking Dead"? I've read, for instance, that you've called that experience beige, which is usually not a compliment, I think.

YEUN: Sure.

HU: Beige isn't, you know (laughter).

YEUN: Sure. You know, I don't walk that back. But I say it maybe in a better context of just acknowledging the fact that nobody was putting me anywhere. People were just writing the ideas that they had that made sense to them. And what makes sense to people is, like, the understanding of systems and identities and ethnicities as society knows them on a larger scale. But I also put myself in those situations where, you know, it was my first role. And so someone hands me a Short Round costume and says, this is Glenn. And it is off the pages of the comic book, but I didn't have the balls to be like, I don't want to wear this.

HU: But...

YEUN: I didn't have that. And then after that, you're like, you get given these lines, which are very much, like, sometimes helpless. And instead of being able to turn those same lines and imbue some semblance of power within them - because you can say a line many different ways and you can make it powerful - instead of that, I was like, I think they want me to play it like this. And you lean in to the way that they want you to be. Even if they're not asking you to do that, you perpetuate this thing because it's cyclical. And so in order to feel safe, you play within the parameters that you are given. And...

HU: But you're also projecting what you expect people want of you.

YEUN: Right, right. And so then, that's why it was beige - was because I felt not fully realized. Even though Glenn became more and more over time, he still had to feed a narrative of this almost too-perfect being that was so altruistic, always wanted to do the right thing, had humanity and heart. And that's really wonderful, and I hope I meet that person in real life someday. But - and nothing wrong with that because those characters are to be aspirational. So I don't look back at that time and say, I hated that experience. I just look back at that time and say, I did not feel comfortable in my own skin. And that was a lot to do with me and a lot to do with how we understand what being an Asian person is in this country.

HU: I'm so struck by you talking about your time in kindergarten, the way you grew up and just being the only Asian-American face in the Midwest. I grew up in Chesterfield, Mo., a suburb of St. Louis - same thing, you know. And you learn these constructs - like that you should be ashamed of who you are. And it's hard to sort of toss that off, right? But, you know, you and I are both parents. I saw on your Instagram you have a toddler - I think born around the same time as my toddler.

YEUN: Oh, cool.

HU: Spring - right? - 2017.

YEUN: Congratulations, yeah.

HU: Same to you. And I'm struck, like, sitting here in multicultural, pluralistic LA being so diverse, how different they're going to grow up than how we grew up as children. And so when you think about that, when you think about the next generation, does that give you more hope for what's to come?

YEUN: Yeah, I do. I think - honestly, correct me if I'm wrong. I'm kind of just like putting this out there.

HU: Put it out there. That's what we like to do here on IT'S BEEN A MINUTE.

YEUN: (Laughter) And I'm sure there's - and it's going to be great when I find out that like someone's already thought of this and put this in like a wonderful essay that I never read. Someone told me that "To All The Boys I Loved Before" was one of the biggest, most watched movies in the history of Netflix. And that's amazing. And it's geared towards the YA generation.

HU: And it stars an Asian-American actress...

YEUN: It stars an Asian-American actress...

HU: And an Asian-American family.

YEUN: ...And a very multicultural whole reality within that context. And the fact that that performed as well as it did kind of suggested to me that the young adults - the people that were - that this was catering to never had this as an issue - that their reality is like, yeah, so what? Like, OK, my friends are - I have a bunch of different eclectic friends. Like, what's the big deal? Here's a perfect example. Like, I had a friend who was running a business, and he had to get a bunch of young employees for his for his business. And there were an eclectic mix of everyone - ethnicities, sexualities, like identity, all these different things.

And my friend was like - he called like a meeting together with all his employees. All right, guys, just so you know, there's a eclectic group of people here. We have to be respectful to each other. You know, please don't use words that are hurtful towards the LGBTQ community. And like he would say that, and then kids were like, yeah, why would I say that? And my friend was like, oh, I'm old - because it's his trauma. It's his shame, of probably saying that when he was a kid, to be like don't say that. That's messed up. But the kids are like, yeah, we don't say that because that's messed up.

HU: Right (laughter).

YEUN: We already know that.

HU: You don't have to tell us that.

YEUN: Yeah, you don't tell us that. And look. Are there areas of the country that need this? Yeah, for sure. But it's just funny to look at it that way.

HU: What about your short-term future? What do you want to do next, unshackled by all these questions of identity?

YEUN: (Laughter) I just want to express myself. I don't know. Like, that sounds so privileged - to be like, I just...

HU: I just want to be me.

YEUN: Yeah, I just want to be me.

HU: Yeah, me too.

YEUN: Yeah, you know. I don't know what I want to do. It might ebb and flow with - you know, maybe I'll continue to act. Maybe I won't. Maybe I'll try a hand at directing. Maybe I'll do something else. Right now, I'm having a good time acquiring experiences and knowledge and trying to do the best job that I can for the very lucky work that I get to do.

HU: And I got to ask you because South Korean skin care is so hot right now. Do you do a 12-step routine? What's your routine?

YEUN: I got really lucky. My mom got good skin.

HU: Oh, this is what Koreans always say. They're like, I just drink a lot of water.

YEUN: I don't drink enough water. OK, you know what? If this gets me - them to send me free stuff, like that's cool - but Burt's Bees.

HU: Burt's Bees.

YEUN: I use Burt's Bees.

HU: A non-Korean product.

YEUN: Yeah. But also I just - I don't know I'm very lucky. If people like what my skin looks like, that's really cool.

HU: They do.

YEUN: I'm sorry that I don't take care of it as well as I should. I'll probably pay for it later. But I thank my mom.

HU: All right, thank you, Mama Yeun. Yes, yes. Thank you. And thank you, Stephen Yeun. His new film "Burning" is out in theaters nationwide.

YEUN: Thank you so much for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF FLEVANS' "FLICKER")

HU: Thanks again to actor Steven Yeun. This interview made me feel so hopeful about the next generation not having to worry about the things that we talked about today. But we always want to hear from you, our listeners, so send me your feedback and your stories via email at ehu@npr.org or Twitter at @elisehu. I am back in your feeds on Friday. Sam will be back next week. Until then, as we say in Korean, go in peace or (speaking Korean).

(SOUNDBITE OF FLEVANS' "FLICKER")

Copyright © 2018 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.