July 28, 2021

DCTRS

Damascus Center for Theoretical and Civil Rights Studies

‘Minari’ star Steven Yeun talks about immigrating as a kid

Steven Yeun recently scored a SAG Award nomination for his moving turn as the patriarch of a Korean American family navigating life in 1980s Arkansas in the immigrant drama “Minari.”

Appearing on Monday night’s episode of “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert,” Yeun recounted his own immigration story, moving from South Korea to North America as a young child. The “Walking Dead” alumnus told Colbert that he was likely acting as early as then, to conceal his conflicted emotions while transitioning to an unfamiliar language and environment.

“That image is of me landing in Regina, Saskatchewan, in my first year of school in America,” Yeun told Colbert, who produced a photo from the actor’s kindergarten days in Canada. “And I probably went inward from that point on. Not to be sad about it, but yeah — that was mask work, starting there.”

When asked whether he knew English at that age, Yeun said: “No.” According to his parents, the first words he learned in English were, “Don’t cry,” because that’s what others would often tell him when he was upset. In Korean, the phrase translates to “Uljima,” Yeun told Colbert.

“I need to hear that right now, just thinking of this child being told not to cry,” Colbert said.

It wasn’t until much later that Yeun got his official start in acting as part of an improv comedy troupe at Kalamazoo College in Michigan, where he “gravitated toward … the freedom” of performing and realized “you can be anything you want to be up there at any given time, and people will laugh if you’re funny.”

Though his career has taken a more scripted, dramatic turn in recent years — with roles in Bong Joon Ho’s “Okja,” Lee Chang-dong’s “Burning” and Lee Isaac Chung’s “Minari” — Yeun credited his improv roots with teaching him the tenets of “staying present, listening, being spontaneous.”

“Those were all really great first tools to kind of lay the groundwork for me,” Yeun said. “It’s not that different than dramatic acting … [as] a dramatic actor, you just don’t have to be witty and funny the whole time. … And they tell you what to say, so that’s also easier.”

Yeun said his parents were skeptical at first of his acting dreams but are now fully supportive. And attending the premiere of “Minari” at last year’s Sundance Film Festival was a bonding moment for him and his father, whom he was proud to honor with his latest performance.

“It was really surreal,” Yeun said. “As a second-generation kid, all you really want to do is tell your parents that you understand them and tell them the story that perhaps they can’t tell themselves. …

“To read that script and read something that you’ve wanted to say your whole life and then to be able to make it and then to be able to take it to Sundance and then have your dad sit right next to you while you’re watching it — that’s like, who gets to do that? It’s incredible.”

“Minari” debuts in theaters Feb. 12 and on VOD Feb. 26.