Steven Yeun Knows What To Do With How He Looks
1:59 PM EDT on April 28, 2023
Steven Yeun’s face is perfect. It has the kind of symmetry that stops just short of uncanny. The whole thing, but particularly the brow to the lips, almost forms a little circle: eyebrows curved down, cheekbones curved up, lips somewhere in between, both eyes and nose falling in line perfectly, all of it sitting within the larger harmony of his head. Looking at him is like looking at a painting. One where the artist refuses to introduce any imperfection. Everything is as it should be, circle within circle, no errant hairs besides that gorgeous sometimes-mop of his (when it’s shorter, it makes more sense, like the luxury of all that floppy hair adds too much superfluity to that human sphere). His is a look, a face, a head, with no waste. It is perfect. Period.
Because of this, any slight disruption to Yeun’s face is almost cataclysmic. When you have something perfect like that, anything that causes unrest, even for a split second, even only a minor budge, is eminently perceptible. As an actor, Yeun likely knows this. He is great at what he does, and not in an entirely instinctual way. There is no doubt his gut is at work, but there’s also intellect. And part of that is knowing what you have to work with. Knowing your face, your body, your voice—your composition. And Yeun deploys all of it like a conductor deploys his orchestra.
Yeun recently sat for an interview with Marc Maron, in which Maron suggested that Yeun, now starring in the Netflix series Beef, might be “the greatest actor of his generation” (I might agree with Maron there, though Yeun certainly has work to do elsewhere). It wasn’t always clear that Yeun would end up here, but even 10 years back, when he was rising to prominence as the pizza delivery kid in The Walking Dead, there was clearly something there, something that set him apart: a lightness, an easy buoyancy. Even the first time we see him, fleeing a crowd of zombies, there’s an offhandedness with which he delivers his lines. (“Nice move there, Clint Eastwood,” he tells the hero in a higher-than-expected voice.) It’s like this fleet-footed kid is on some different wavelength to everyone else who is taking this genre shit so seriously. Every scene he is in is like a tall glass of ice-cold lemonade. There is death all around, but he’s a reminder that there is life, too. And it’s teeming. No doubt this is why his disgusting, eye-popping, and weirdly arbitrary murder via wire-covered baseball bat in Season 7 was met with such disdain. It felt like an insult to life itself.
But it was Burning that made Yeun a thing, or more like THE thing. South Korean filmmaker Lee Chang-dong’s 2018 thriller is about a young writer (Yoo Ah-in) who falls for his tether-less childhood friend, Hae-mi (Jeon Jong-seo), who befriends a mysterious man named Ben (Yeun) while traveling. It is unclear whether Ben, who has never cried, who seems barely capable of feeling anything beyond mild amusement, is a psychopath. He is a wealthy Gatsby-esque enigma—that not-quite-right name, that not-quite-right accent—and it’s impossible to tell whether he is ever telling the truth. When Hae-mi goes missing, it’s unclear whether he had anything to do with it. In the end, the way Yeun plays it, Ben is almost God-like. “I play,” he tells the writer, which is to say, he plays with people. He sits back, his arms crossed, as Hae-mi makes a fool of herself in front of his rich friends, as though he created her specifically for them. For an actor as loose as Yeun, Ben is an amazing feat of acrobatics: an act within an act. Yeun tunes all of Ben’s expressions JUST enough to make them not quite exaggerated but somehow artificial. He is masterful at playing a man who is playing at being a man. Who knew the pizza delivery kid could do this?
Chang-dong was introduced to Yeun through fellow South Korean filmmaker Bong Joon-ho, having had an affinity for Yeun on screen as the loose cannon animal rights activist in Joon-ho’s Okja. Chang-dong hadn’t seen The Walking Dead, but Yeun told him he had an existential crisis after the extreme success of that series. And while he hadn’t yet read the script for Burning (there was no English version and he had to brush up on his Korean for filming), he had read the original source material, a Haruki Murakami story called “Barn Burning” (from The Elephant Vanishes). “He told me he thought that at the center of the character of Ben is emptiness—and that he had experienced this sense of emptiness himself, so he clearly felt where this character was coming from,” Chang-dong told The Hollywood Reporter. “I could tell that Steven not only understood this character in an abstract, logical sense, but he actually understood Ben through his body. In a flash, I started to feel as if the character of Ben, who even I didn’t fully understand, was sitting right in front of me.”
It’s a testament to his chameleonic powers that Yeun could go from an empty man in Burning to a man full of hope in Minari. Though it should perhaps have been the former, it was the latter film for which he became the first Asian American to earn an Oscar nomination for best actor in 2021. Minari is loosely based on director Lee Isaac Chung’s upbringing and casts Yeun as a character inspired by Chung's father, a South Korean immigrant who relocates his family to Arkansas and stubbornly keeps trying to make their homegrown farm a success despite its constant woes. “I see so much in Steven that reminds me of the character that I ended up writing—someone who is really dissatisfied with being labeled or categorized in any way, and wants to really find and express who he is,” Chung told Little White Lies. In one of the very first scenes, in the face of his doubting wife, Yeun somehow emanates both anticipation and guilt at the same time. His expression says come on and sorry all at once. Whatever happens, that hope, and that apology are always side by side within him. So much so that he only allows himself a small smile of victory even when his relentlessly sick child starts to improve. And at the end, when his wife finally says, “I’ve lost my faith in you,” Yeun barely bats an eyelash, which says everything—that without his family, it was all for nothing.
Beef isn’t far afield of Minari. In his first major television role since The Walking Dead, Yeun has been gathering accolades for playing a struggling contractor who lives in a dive with his useless brother and is trying to bring his parents over from Korea and into their fairytale home—he is the immigrant dream always in the midst of never quite becoming reality. The plot is spurred on by a road rage incident triggered by Ali Wong’s character, a wealthy interior designer (or something, there are a lot of plants in her store) whose anger never quite lands, considering the suchness of her surroundings. Throughout the series, Yeun seethes with resentment just like her, but it surfaces less obviously. His anger flows in an underground stream beneath all his other emotions, powering his entire existence. “I’m so sick of smiling, dude,” he says to his brother, a gambler with whom he has the kind of rote relationship that suggests he has been telling him to pick up the slack for years. His detached pseudo-blasé approach to his parents is equally telling—this is a kid who wants them not to worry despite not being quite able to sell it to them. So he grits his teeth as his employers insult him and saves his explosion for the road-rager who has nothing over him. And then he binges fast food like it’s his job, because being destroyed, bit by bit, basically is.
A package deal that sold quickly following Yeun’s Oscar nod, Beef is not quite up to his level, which is, ironically, what makes it something of a perfect showcase for him. The thin premise of two people from opposing economic classes clashing over an obnoxious honk becomes more threadbare the longer the show goes on. And yet, for every shortcoming of the series—for every word missing in the script, every image overlooked, every nostalgic song taking the place of actual depth—Yeun fills in the blanks with his face, with his body, with his voice. Carrying the weight of the unsuccessful oldest immigrant child, Yeun grounds the rest of the show, the complexity of repulsion and attraction pulsing through every scene in which he appears with Wong—he hates her but more than anything, he wants to be her. The whole time I was watching Yeun, I was thinking: You are single-handedly saving this entire thing. I would say it’s a shame to waste him on a Marvel movie (he’s set to appear in Thunderbolts next year, co-written by the same guy who made Beef) but, knowing Yeun, he’ll probably go and save that too, with or without the mask.
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