Steven Yeun's Best Performances : Pop Culture Happy Hour Steven Yeun's filmography reveals a remarkably varied career. From his breakout role as Glenn Rhee in The Walking Dead to his work with directors like Bong Joon-ho and Boots Riley, Yeun can easily jump between playing enigmatic cosmopolitan characters and endearing supportive boyfriend characters. As awards season kicks off, Pop Culture Happy Hour revisits great performers and a few of their essential performances. Today, we're spotlighting Yeun, whose role in Minari makes him the first Asian-American nominee for a lead actor Oscar.
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Steven Yeun's Essential Performances

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Steven Yeun's Essential Performances

Steven Yeun's Essential Performances

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(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

AISHA HARRIS, HOST:

Until recently, Steven Yeun was best known for playing Glenn Rhee on "The Walking Dead." Now his starring role as an enterprising immigrant father in the lovely film "Minari" has brought him a new level of fame and critical attention, including an Oscar nomination for actor in a leading role. Yeun's filmography reveals a remarkably varied career. He's worked with directors like Bong Joon-ho and Boots Riley, and he can easily jump between playing a enigmatic cosmopolitan characters and endearing, supportive boyfriend characters. To put it simply, he's got the range.

I'm Aisha Harris. And today we're talking about some of Steven Yeun's essential performances on POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR. So don't go away.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

HARRIS: Welcome back. Joining us for the first time is Inkoo Kang. She's a TV critic at The Hollywood Reporter. And it's great to have you with us. Welcome.

INKOO KANG, BYLINE: Hi. Long-time listener, first-time Steven Yeun admirer.

HARRIS: (Laughter).

KANG: Just kidding. I've been admiring this guy for such a long time.

HARRIS: (Laughter) I'm so happy to hear you say that - obviously, because we're recording this conversation, but obviously because...

(LAUGHTER)

HARRIS: ...I know you have also had the pleasure of meeting the man himself and doing an interview with him for Slate a few years ago, so I will definitely ask you about that in a little bit.

But first, a bit of background on Steven Yeun. He was born in Seoul, South Korea, but spent most of his formative years here in the States. He got his start doing comedy in Chicago with the Asian theater group Stir Friday Night - a name that I love - and Second City Improv, before heading out West to pursue an onscreen career. His big break came when he was cast as Glenn Rhee, a resourceful pizza delivery guy on "The Walking Dead."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE WALKING DEAD")

STEVEN YEUN: (As Glenn Rhee) They say it'll be the fall that kills us. I'm a glass-half-full kind of guy.

ANDREW LINCOLN: (As Rick Grimes) You the one barricaded the alley?

YEUN: (As Glenn) Somebody did. I guess when the city got overrun, whoever did it was thinking not many geeks get through.

LINCOLN: (As Rick) Back at the tent, why'd you stick your neck out for me?

YEUN: (As Glenn) A foolish, naive hope that if I'm ever that far up [expletive] creek, somebody might do the same for me. I guess I'm an even bigger dumbass than you.

HARRIS: Recently, there was a profile of Yeun in GQ, where he expressed disappointment with how Glenn was written. The character was a huge fan favorite during the show's first six seasons. Spoiler - several years later, he was killed off in the Season 7 premiere. But Yeun says that he wishes Glenn had been more conflicted and multidimensional. He told GQ, I felt like I was servicing a concept of goodness, as opposed to engaging with Glenn's humanity.

So what's impressive about Yeun's relatively short career so far is that he really seems to have been able to break away out of the shadow of Glenn and dig into more challenging roles that demonstrate the breadth of his talents. He's done Korean-language films and English-language films and some films like "Minari," which we recently discussed on another episode of PCHH, that are both. He's done comedies, dramas, fantasies. He's played love interests, schemers, outspoken activists. So in this conversation, we're going to discuss a few of those notable roles and try to unpack what makes him such an outstanding performer.

Inkoo, as I mentioned earlier, you did an interview with him around the time of the movie "Burning," and I'm curious to hear if there are any major takeaways from that conversation or anything that surprised you after you interviewed him.

KANG: It's not really surprising, but I think the overwhelming feeling I got talking to him was just how thoughtful he was about his career. I think he was someone who was deeply aware of the ways that he could be pigeonholed, and he is someone who I think has figured out in many ways how to get out of that pigeonholing, which is why I think his career is such a fascinating case - not just for him as an actor, but also as a way of, like, navigating racial dynamics in Hollywood.

HARRIS: Yeah, I think one of the really interesting things about that interview you did with him is how he talked about a lot of people assuming that he would go to Korea to try to pursue an acting career because somehow that might be easier. But he's resisted that in some ways, even though he has worked with people like Bong Joon-ho. He definitely wanted to succeed here, and I applaud him for being able to do that and navigate that world in the way that you mentioned.

KANG: Well, I asked him that question, about whether he had ever thought about going to Korea, because that was something that had come out of sort of my personal experience. My dad has a lot of friends who are musicians, and when those musicians had their own children, they had Korean American children who were also interested in pursuing a musical career in genres like pop. There's this idea that they would never be accepted here, and therefore, they might as well go where they might be slightly more accepted, even if their language skills, for example, aren't completely up to par. But I think that path is something that the older generation at least saw as much more viable than the kind of thing that most Korean American or Asian American actors are pursuing.

And they think what's great about Steven Yeun is that when he's going down to Korea to make films with Bong Joon-ho or with Lee Chang-dong, he's not doing it in the sort of, like, commercial way. And I think that he recognizes that there is sort of, like, a love-hate relationship toward the Korean diaspora within Korea or at least a sort of, like, fascination and distance. And so that's something he's also been able to tap into while pursuing these roles. But I'm also getting a little bit ahead of myself.

HARRIS: (Laughter) No, no, I think that's a great way to kick off the first performance that we're planning to talk about, which is a movie called "Mayhem." I think it's probably one of those films that if you're into this sort of genre, you've probably seen it, but if not, you probably haven't or probably haven't even heard of it. It kind of flew under the radar. But it came out in 2017. It's directed by Joe Lynch. And it definitely has some, like, "Walking Dead" vibes to it. It came out, like, just a couple years after he had left "Walking Dead." And very apt for our current times, it's about a virus that lowers its victims' inhibitions and causes them to murder other people and wreak havoc.

And so Yeun plays Derek Cho, who's a lawyer at a law firm. He's just been let go from his job. And this movie, I think, is really, really smart about class, about what it means to sell your soul out. And in this scene, his law firm has been quarantined. So he's talking to his ex-boss, trying to get some answers.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MAYHEM")

YEUN: (As Derek Cho) But I would like to know where I could find the firm because I would love to kick the firm's ass.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) You can't kick a firm's ass. That's the point.

YEUN: (As Derek) Oh, well, then that brings us back to you.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) I was just doing my job.

YEUN: (As Derek) No one raindrop thinks it caused the flood. I get what that means.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) You know what will happen to me if I give you this key card?

YEUN: (As Derek) I'm going to have to file it under N for not my [expletive] problem.

HARRIS: I just love this because he gets to be kind of a tool, and he has all of these great one-liners. He also gets to, you know, kill zombies and gets a romance with Samara Weaving, who plays a client who has been wronged by the firm and now finds herself also trapped inside this giant building while everyone's under quarantine. It is so rare to see - even to this day, to see people who look like him get to be so multifaceted in sort of this genre movie. Inkoo, what did you think of "Mayhem"?

KANG: This is a movie I had never heard of until you guys had mentioned it, and I was so glad to have watched it. I think Steven Yeun has really amazing chemistry, actually, with Weaving, really amazing sexual chemistry, even though they drag it out for quite a while. And it definitely shows off his range in that you see him both as sort of the downtrodden everyman - or, I guess, every lawyer - and also as this, like, hyper intense guy who is completely ready to launch at anything and anybody.

And of course, part of the movie is that he has all of these urges, but he is trying to channel all of his anger and all of his horniness and all of this violence toward productive ways, even though the virus sort of makes you a human id. And I think he is able to really do all of the things that the movie wants him to do and also give his character human dimensions that, like, an action anti-hero doesn't always have.

HARRIS: Yeah. So in between "Mayhem" and the second movie we're going to focus on, he also did a couple of other sort of idiosyncratic film roles. He was in Bong Joon-ho's "Okja," where he played a animal rights activist. And he was also in Boots Riley's "Sorry To Bother You," and that one, he was also sort of playing an activist in a way; he was playing a union leader.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SORRY TO BOTHER YOU")

YEUN: (As Squeeze) RegalView management, you are hereby warned - we will not be overlooked. Phones down.

HARRIS: He has these kind of smaller roles. These are big ensemble pieces, and he's sort of the sidekick role. But you can also see him just getting a chance to work with some really interesting directors. And that brings us to "Burning," which is a movie I know you are really excited to talk about. And it was one of my favorite movies of 2018. Inkoo, can you set it up a little bit, what it's about and how Yeun is really burning in this movie? I know that's corny. Sorry. But...

(LAUGHTER)

KANG: So this is another sort of social commentary film, I guess, mostly about the anger of the have-nots against the haves. It takes place in South Korea and is a South Korean film directed by Lee Chang-dong, who is just sort of, like, a mega-name in Korean cinema. So basically, the main character is this delivery guy, and he runs into this girl he had gone to high school with. He's really excited to see her. But lo and behold, she is interested in a different guy that she happened to meet on this, like, random trip to Africa.

And for her, she had, like, saved up all of her money at, like, some menial job in order to have this a once-in-a-lifetime trip. And for Steven Yeun's character, whose name is Ben - even though, again, this movie takes place in Korea - you sort of get the sense that, like, he went to Africa because he was bored. Basically, Ben is a superrich guy. The protagonist looks at Ben and sees everything that he doesn't have, but he also suspects that Ben might be a killer. And it's always unclear whether Ben actually is some sort of detached psychopath or whether the protagonist is projecting onto Ben all of these different qualities because of his jealousy.

I think what makes the character really astounding - he does not come off as, like, a typical Korean guy. He has all of, like, the manners that you would expect from a typical Korean person, but he also does them with this sort of sense of irony, like he knows he's better than sort of, like, the typical human relations that you're supposed to undergo. And I think the thing that the movie does really well is to just shoot Steven Yeun as a Korean American guy who is, like, talking and living and moving amongst Koreans.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BURNING")

YEUN: (As Ben, speaking Korean).

KANG: And you can just sort of see the way that he carries himself, the way that he walks, the way that he talks to other people is just different. I don't know how much of that came across to maybe non-Korean audiences, but I suspect quite a bit.

HARRIS: This is a movie that is just so much about - there are a lot of still moments. There's a lot of, like, moments where characters are just looking at each other, and so much is being communicated in that way. And I think that Yeun's face is - he's, like, really good at being able to communicate that through just his eyes in a way that makes you sort of question, who is this person? We don't really know. But I think that even if we don't know specifics, we know enough about, like, who he is and why we shouldn't really trust him, you know? And I think that's part of why that performance works so well.

KANG: I think the other thing is that he has amazing timing in this movie because it's, in many ways, a very still performance. He's an observer of the world. And a lot of the ways that he unnerves you is through, like you said, like a glint in this eye or sort of, like, a polite yawn. And I think a lot of that sense of timing really comes from that comic training that he got from improv, where he knows exactly when to sort of, like, look away, or he knows exactly when to sort of, like, move like a little, tiny movement in his mouth so that you can feel the contempt, but also you know that he's just sort of, like, putting on the barest act of politesse so that no one is calling him out. I think as an actor, he's someone who's been able to channel duality.

So I think in "Burning," he obviously has to play two different versions of a character at once, right? In "Sorry To Bother You," he is also playing both, like, a union organizer and someone who is obviously pretending that he's not. I think in "Okja," which is a really wonderful comic performance, he plays, very crucially, a Korean American animal rights activist in Korea, and so a lot of the joke is basically on the fact that he can't actually speak Korean or understand Koreans as well as he thinks he should or as well as he needs to in order to be effective.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "OKJA")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character, speaking Korean).

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character, speaking Korean).

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character, speaking Korean). Just cooperate, mate.

KANG: So he's really interested in these characters that are, like, between two worlds. And it's great to see an Asian American actor be able to occupy those roles of duality without sort of resorting to the old tropes of, like, inscrutability or suspiciousness.

HARRIS: Or beige-ness, as he...

KANG: (Laughter).

HARRIS: To quote him. In between all of these really interesting characters and filmmakers that he's worked with, he's also done a ton of voiceover work - "Trollhunters: Tales Of Arcadia," "Voltron Legendary Defender." He's done multiple story arcs on those shows. But the last thing we're going to talk about is one that you also chose, Inkoo, and this was a really beloved show of mine. It had one season, was canceled and now apparently has gotten picked up again, but that is "Tuca & Bertie."

So "Tuca & Bertie" was created by Lisa Hanawalt. It was an animated sitcom on Netflix, and it started Tiffany Haddish and Ali Wong as two birds who are best friends and dealing with all the things that women and-or animals in their 30s deal with (laughter). And Steven Yeun played Speckle, who was also a bird, and he was the boyfriend of Ali Wong's character, Bertie. Inkoo, what did you love about this show and, specifically, Steven Yeun?

KANG: (Laughter) I love - this sounds really weird, but I love how dark it got. I think the show tackles on sexual trauma and the workplace harassment and just all of these, like - and sobriety and just all of these, like, very heavy but fitting topics for 30-something bird women. And Speckle is really great because he is just sort of, like, a stand-up dude who is trying to figure out how to react to his girlfriend, who is played by Ali Wong.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "TUCA AND BERTIE")

YEUN: (As Speckle) I want to fix this house up, and I want you to live in it with me. But I'm not chasing after you anymore. You have to choose me. Look; I stayed here to make sure you're OK. But you need to be honest with me about what's been going on with you. I'm going back to work on the house.

ALI WONG: (As Bertie) It's midnight.

YEUN: (As Speckle) I have a cot there. It's very uncomfortable, but I can't return it.

KANG: It's a very, like, small journey within the context of "Tuca & Bertie," but it was really great seeing Steven Yeun play this very, like, romantic role and, at the same time, play, again, a multidimensional romantic role.

HARRIS: He's just, like, really sweet, and it's nice to see his journey. And I'm really excited that it's coming back for a second season because - and I hope he's in it because it would be great to see more of that journey.

KANG: Yeah. This is one of those things where it sounds so obvious, but he is a really good-looking person, and...

HARRIS: Oh, I hadn't noticed.

(LAUGHTER)

KANG: I think there's this sort of phenomenon among, quote-unquote, "serious" male actors where they really resent being basically, like, a sex object or someone who is lusted after. And I really appreciate that Steven Yeun is willing to go out there and take ownership of his hotness because, you know, I mean, it's a different - it hits a different register when it's coming from an Asian American man, given the history of emasculation of Asian men and Asian American men in this country. And if he wants to go be in, like, a bunch of, like, perfume commercials, like, I would not oppose it, and honestly, I think it would be kind of good for the culture.

HARRIS: (Laughter) Hear, hear. And maybe we will see that someday.

(LAUGHTER)

KANG: Get on it, Stetson.

HARRIS: Yes. Well, we want to know what your favorite Steven Yeun performances are. Find us at facebook.com/pchh and on Twitter at @pchh.

And that brings us to the end of our show. Thank you so much, Inkoo, for being here.

KANG: Thanks for letting me talk about my favorite sort of subject (ph).

HARRIS: (Laughter) It was a pleasure. And before we go, we wanted to share some good news. For the first time in POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR history, the podcast is getting a new logo. If you want a sneak peek of the new logo, it'll be in this week's newsletter. And you can subscribe to the newsletter at npr.org/popculturenewsletter. Again, subscribe to the newsletter at npr.org/popculturenewsletter. And of course, thank you for listening to POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR. We'll see you all tomorrow.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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