Steven Yeun: “I want to play a humanity that we can all access”
The much-requested Korean-American actor looks back on his role in Stephen Karam’s intimate drama The Humans.
STeven Yeun continues his Oscar-nominated performance in Minari with an equally complex role in The Humans, Stephen Karam’s adaptation of his play. With insight and sensitivity, Yeun plays the strange man in his girlfriend’s family’s Thanksgiving Day, caught in the tide of Catholic repression and long-simmering resentments.
LWLies: You lived in Korea and then in Canada before coming to the United States. How did your first Thanksgiving go?
Yeun: I just remember my aunt’s house in Grosse Isle. They were the most well-off in our family by leaps and bounds back then, and they had become that central hub for many family members to walk through. There we were, my cousins, my other cousins, my grandmother were coming, and I remember their dining room filled with both American Thanksgiving food and Korean food. I think a lot of Korean-American families have a Korean Thanksgiving like this. And it was delicious, so that’s mostly what I remember. Gluttony, watching friends and getting beaten up by my cousins. Normal shit.
You grew up in a Christian family. What do you think of the religious aspect of this film?
The title says it all: it’s about being human. These are the constructions we hold onto so as not to feel like we are floating in chaos. It’s about isolation and connection, wanting to be loved but not knowing how to do it or how to receive it. These are the realities of separate people clashing with each other. These are expectations for projections. It’s the full Thanksgiving dinner, coming home with your own inner life and then being forced back into a function and role in that other life, and the frustrations that come with that.
You made your stage debut doing comedy sketches. Did you want to adapt this piece to bring you back there?
It really was. Because not only was the process really theater-based, with seven or eight days of rehearsals and deconstruction together, but the way the set was set up really felt like a theater stage. It was an apartment built into a soundstage in Brooklyn, with movable walls that would give you escapes and ways to leave that weren’t quite traditional outings. You’re in a play, so you have to cheat around the camera to be where you need to be to deliver your next line. The blocking was complex, but it was not fixed. We were supposed to float in space and just experience it, because the camera wasn’t on a fixed point either. Sometimes you have to slide around this giant machine awkwardly. But the immersion could be really trippy. It still looked like a play.
In the original production, your role was played by Arian Moayed. How did you interpret the importance of your character being the only non-white person at this dinner?
What’s cool about this role is that [Stephen Karam] does not flatten this role to be an extension of the family. He has his own life. Whoever plays this role has to bring his own truth to it. The original actor who was chosen, he represented – maybe on purpose, maybe not – the tensions of 9/11. What’s been cool is hearing about this, especially from Jayne Houdyshell’s point of view, having been with it the entire time from scene to film, she said receiving the story by people had mutated over time. At first it was about 9/11, then about Trump, now it may seem like a pandemic – or East meets West with my presence in the cast. We can play in this level what it is, but it depends on the humanity of the people.
How did you and Beanie Feldstein define the relationship between your characters and determine what kind of life you would have together?
We talked about physical commonalities. Everyone tries to look for a specific type of life, they are all adults, they try to feel older than them. And Richard is older, but why? Why is he with a younger woman, and what does it do to him? Is it because she feels more cultured and mature, like someone who has always been the baby of the family? I thought my character could also be the youngest in the family or maybe an only child, and he likes to feel like an adult, so he’s with someone younger. We kept some of those things to ourselves as well. it was very real.
When you were younger, what was the worst apartment you’ve had?
Oh, that was pretty bad. I lived in a shed at the back as my first apartment, so there was hardly any light. I lived in an upstairs crevice that had been split into two bedrooms, so I had one bedroom and my friend had one bedroom. But the ceiling was vaulted, so if you went to one side of the room you couldn’t stand. Fortunately, the Midwest is not as expensive as New York.
“I would love to work with Park Chan-wook, I never got that call.”
With your character at an uncomfortable dinner party, reluctantly accepting a gift, there is a similarity to your sketch of I Think You Should Go.
The receipt! I have heard this several times. This skit really had a life of its own. I love Tim Robinson, I knew him from Second City. Tim and Sam Richardson are my heroes. But I wonder, what does this skit attract people to?
There are these tiny social codes that we’re meant to follow, and this sketch imagines what it would be like if we didn’t have to.
Like on Curb Your Enthusiasm! He gets to complain about all the shit we want. But I love the new season of I Think You Should Leave, I love the guy in the rubber suit. ‘I do not to feel Well! There is too much shit on me! ‘ Tim is a genius, man.
Over the past five years, you have worked with Bong Joon-ho and Lee Chang-dong; as titans of korean cinema, have you ever met Park Chan-wook?
I have, yeah! I would love to work with him, I never got that call. I met him the same year I met director Bong, which was very lucky; a friend knew us all while I was still on The Walking Dead. I remember walking the streets with him, Park walking with his hands clasped behind his back. I do it myself now. He took me to eat Pyongyang noodles – Naengmyeon, that really delicious dish – and that was the last time I saw him before The Handmaiden’s premiere in Korea, which was a great experience. Watching something so intense with him and his wife sitting behind me, it was really wild.
When you create a cohesive, cohesive piece like this, is there a tragic meaning in how you form an intimate family while working only to keep them apart?
I don’t know how to articulate it because it might not be what people expect, but I find solace in leaving everything on the pitch. Everyone involved here and in other projects that I have done, there is always an awareness that you might not see someone for a while, but you will know them forever. I haven’t seen many of my Walking Dead friends in a minute, but I know we still have it. Acting is a strange business. It is a strange task. It can cost you a lot of money, but it doesn’t have to be. There is a method to protect yourself from this cost.
The Korean film industry is more present in America than ever; did you find this to be a “rising tide lifts all boats” situation? Are there more opportunities and interest in Korean-American stories?
There is a lot going on at the same time. One of the dangers of this is that Korean-American stories, or the third culture in general, are largely gentrified due to the power of the nation-state itself. When America ingests Korean cinema and applies that to things that exist in America, it flattens them. The conundrum is that many Asian Americans are placed in this strange binary where to access and make their stories, they must co-opt the power of the industry. You are gentrifying, to a certain extent. There is a push and pull on this. I tried to float in this space not to necessarily identify with the eastern, the western, the east-west Korea-America. I’m trying to achieve – what I see as truly global – is humanity.
As obvious and literal as it is, this is what attracted me to this project, the desire to play a humanity that we can all access. Culture and borders, regions and ethnicities, it’s beautiful but they are also constructions. There has been an expression that has been circulating in Hollywood for a while, that “specificity is universality”. And it’s true, I understand what you are saying, but I didn’t like that saying. I always wanted to say: “Who asks for more precision? The people who ask are usually powerful executives representing the majority, asking a minority person to give them something more understandable and easier to understand. Specificity should not be universality, but humanity should be universality. Personality. Can we take all of these structures out and get to the thing, and then maybe start to put them back in place? It is a difficult needle to thread.
The Humans hits theaters on December 31. Read the LWLies review recommends.
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