“Maybe I’m just talking about childhood,” he says, “but there’s something beautiful about that time.”
Yeun reminisces over Zoom in the midst of discussing his latest project, “Minari,” an independent film about a Korean American family that settles in rural Arkansas. The question of belonging is central to the immigrant experience; the children of immigrants often refer to feeling caught between two worlds, a phrase rooted in truth but ubiquitous enough to American media for it to have become a trope. There is an inherent loneliness to such an existence, even with its burgeoning population. Yeun, whose family left Seoul in 1988, refers to the community as “gap people.”
The gap is where Yeun spent his formative years as a Korean American kid in Troy, Mich. It’s where he currently resides as one of the most recognizable Asian faces in a White-dominated industry, thanks to an eclectic film career and years spent fighting zombies on “The Walking Dead.”
But “Minari,” out Friday, frames that existence differently: What if it isn’t about feeling torn between two disparate lives, but about bringing them together to forge a new, fulfilling one?
Based on director Lee Isaac Chung’s childhood, the film picks up with the family’s Reagan-era move from California to a plot of land in Arkansas, where patriarch Jacob (Yeun) hopes to start a farming business. His ambition drives the story, overlapping with his efforts to quell concerns his wife, Monica (Yeri Han), has about finding a sense of community in their isolated town.
There’s a novelty to “Minari” in how gently it incorporates cultural differences that could so easily have played out melodramatically. Chung highlights the ties Jacob and Monica’s children, Anne (Noel Cho) and David (Alan Kim), maintain to their heritage in small, charming ways; David sips the herbal remedy Monica’s mother (Yuh-Jung Youn) gives him to improve his health, and she, in turn, drinks the Mountain Dew that Anne earnestly describes as “water from the mountains.”
The loneliness that accompanies displacement still plays a role here, adding a layer of desperation to Jacob’s farming efforts. But the character’s emotional journey hits universal notes, a dynamic Yeun says he and Chung sustained by ensuring the character felt “honest and truthful.”
“We weren’t seeking to define this family’s existence through their oppression by the majority, but rather the confidence to speak from their own point of view, intrinsically,” Yeun says. “Their existence is valid, and they can just be. In some ways, what that is, is just an exercise in humanity.”
After emigrating from Seoul to Regina, Saskatchewan, the Yeun family moved to Taylor, Mich., a working-class suburb southwest of Detroit. By the time Steven was in high school, they had moved to a townhouse in Troy, on the more affluent side of town.
The American heartland continues to be underrepresented in most forms of media, a reality on full display in the months surrounding each presidential election. Yeun, who brought his Midwestern sensibility to the role, notes the false impressions outsiders often have of non-coastal regions: "Public discourse has been flattened these days. It’s so politicized.”
“I think the larger world misunderstands places like that and doesn’t give them the credit they’re due for how they uphold certain beautiful dynamics in this country, and just as people and humans,” Yeun says. “There’s just something there, and I’ve been finding myself nostalgic for that, but also carrying both [feelings] … You can be hurt and love a place at the same time.”
Hurt is almost inevitable for a person of color growing up in a majority-White area, whether inflicted with or without intention. The family in “Minari” similarly sticks out when they visit a church in town, where Anne is asked about the Korean language by a White child relying on stereotypical garble. The film acknowledges this wrong, but never antagonizes the child. David later on befriends another young boy who, at first meeting, stares at him for looking different.
The film is honest, Yeun says. These were the realities of that era. It further upends expectations with Paul (Will Patton), a Christian fundamentalist who works with Jacob on the farm. He speaks in tongues and carries a giant cross to town each Sunday, leading a vastly different lifestyle than Jacob would choose for his family. But the two men form a bond. As a storyteller, Yeun says he is drawn to those who are “unseen,” and extends the notion of life in the gap to include the character.
For all the value of that gap framing, there is weight to the alternative: Sometimes it isn’t a chasm, but a cultural intersection. Immigration is inherently traumatic, Yeun says, recalling the shock of being dropped off at kindergarten in a brand-new country when he couldn’t yet speak the language. But over time, he managed to find compatibilities between his two cultures.
There is something distinctly Korean about understanding yourself in concordance with one another, he continues, speaking to his experience: “And I feel like that is something the Midwest grapples with, too, this collectiveness that inhabits our being. We don’t really try to stick out too hard in the Midwest, either. It’s a very collective, working-class, union-type of life.
“It’s fascinating to be molded by two separate cultures that kind of feel the same way.”
In “Minari,” Jacob’s unlikely friendship with Paul hints at a broader, neighborly sense of community. But the collectivist sentiment plays out on a familial scale. In response to Monica’s growing disillusionment with their new life, Jacob asks her in Korean, “Remember what we said when we got married? That we’d move to America and save each other?”
“There’s such a unique perspective of immigrants from the Midwest,” Yeun adds of his inspiration for the character. “I think [the film] speaks to the truth of the American experience in a way that people haven’t perhaps seen as much. And on top of that, it also speaks to this regional truth that a lot of times people don’t see as much. And so I was happy to service both.”
While drawn to the honesty of “Minari,” Yeun hesitated to play a Korean father. Barely older than a toddler when his family left Seoul, the actor worried about his ability to do Jacob justice. Would he get the language right? His inflection? His mannerisms?
“All that was work to realize that I was seeing my own parents through a prism of my own gaze that wasn’t truthful to their own humanity,” he says. “While I didn’t project my own father onto the character of Jacob, what was really scary and painful but also so beautiful was in some ways realizing that I am my father, and I am an extension of him and his will and his desires. His spirit. I didn’t need to perform a caricature.”
Yeun has worked to avoid the stereotypical “White gaze” roles that so often serve as a launchpad for Asian American actors facing a dearth of opportunity. After graduating from Kalamazoo College, he cut his teeth at Second City in Chicago and eventually moved to Los Angeles.
Within six months, he booked “The Walking Dead.”
It can seem like things fell into place for Yeun, who says he would’ve accepted almost any role at the time. He just happened to hitch his wagon to a soon-to-be-hit AMC series. But as the actor later told Vulture, it seemed “people didn’t know what to do with Glenn,” whose controversial, brutal death kicked off the seventh season in 2016: “I didn’t think of it as racism, where it’s like, ‘Oh, this is racist,'” Yeun continued in the magazine interview. “I caught it in a way of, ‘Oh, this is how we’re viewed all the time’ — as part of some glob, some amorphous, nonindividualistic collective.”
Bong wrote the character K specifically for Yeun, knowing his specific Korean American upbringing would help him breathe life into a man expected to serve as a bridge between the Americans in the Animal Liberation Front and the Koreans surrounding their efforts in Seoul. Yeun notes that K fails in his efforts to service both groups, a harsh truth the actor “needed to expose for myself to say, hey, you know that feeling of not fitting in anywhere? I want you to live it up.”
He later returned to Korea to shoot Lee Chang-dong’s 2018 psychological thriller “Burning,” in which he plays a Korean national who is “so beyond the limits of society that he just gets to be free.” Ben is a charming enigma, oozing confidence. Given the complexity of his personal relationship to Korea, Yeun says he found it liberating to “be outside of the American gaze of what an Asian person is, and to be serviced in a role that was at the top of its own power.”
“Minari” returns to that American gaze, but challenges its rigid views. Yeun was drawn to how the film didn’t seek to define itself as any one thing, and lacked a barrier to entry.
“Stories from communities that are usually underserviced, you want to hold them tight so nobody takes them from you,” Yeun says. “There was something really cool about letting it go and opening it up and not saying, ‘This is only accessible by us,' but rather it’s open to everyone because this is about people. This is about humans living a life. It actually ended up making me see myself a little bit clearer and fuller.”
Clarification: An earlier version of this article included ambiguous geographic references to Arkansas and the Midwest. The references have been altered to better underscore that Steven Yeun, who grew up in Michigan, drew inspiration from his personal roots for the role of a Korean immigrant in Arkansas.