In Lee Chang-dong's Burning, Steven Yeun plays Ben, a mysterious man of leisure whose fixed, sphinxlike smile belies an unsettling nature. It's the first fully Korean-language role for the Walking Dead alum, 34, who emigrated from Seoul to North America as a child and returned to South Korea for more than four months to film the tensely quiet thriller, which won the critics' prize at Cannes and has a strong shot at scoring its country's first foreign-language film Oscar nom. Based on a 1983 short story by Haruki Murakami, it follows frustrated novelist Jongsu (Yoo Ah-in), who becomes obsessed with both a childhood friend (Jeon Jong-seo) and Ben. Burning is a meditation on loneliness and longing among youth in a stratified modern society, and Yeun explains how he exploited his own Asian-American essence and isolated filming experience to craft a character that he calls the most freeing performance of his career.
With an enigmatic character like Ben, how much do you decide about his backstory, even if it's never revealed in the film?
Ambiguity is only really poignant and potent when there's something behind it. In building Ben, it was [about] building a person with a more isolated worldview. I personally was in a space kind of like that. Being a foreigner everywhere helps you connect to that lonely feeling, and the purposeful isolation of living in Korea during shooting was beneficial.
What do you mean by "purposeful isolation"?
I was in Itaewon, which is more of a Westernized area of Seoul, staying at this hotel at the top of a hill. I didn't really step out too often — I was made to feel othered by a multitude of reasons, whether it be celebrity or the job or the location or just my Americanness.
Everything about Ben is ambiguous, down to his background. He's not supposed to be American, but Jongsu can sense that he's a different creature.
It's about carefully crafting little details. Even the way that my hair is done is probably not traditionally very Korean. I also think part of why director Lee wanted me to be part of the film is this inherent Americanness that is encoded into my body, in the way that I move, maybe even the way my face looks now, because we have American milk and American food. We just leaned into it.
Burning is adapted from a Japanese short story written 35 years ago, but what does the film say about Korean culture today?
Korea has climbed out of being the Second, Third World country it was in the '50s to what it is now, and you've got some growing pains. The country's just starting to get comfortable with the money that they have. Korea lives in this middle ground between rich and poor.
Is Ben's Korean better than Steven's?
Oh, yeah. I'm fluent insomuch as I have a working and speaking knowledge of Korean. My parents maintained that by speaking Korean at home. But my understanding of vocabulary, reading and writing were pretty elementary. There's just a little bit of nuance that's missing.
Was it a different experience acting in a different language?
No, actually. The way that we emote is relatively similar. In some ways I felt freer than on productions I've done in the States, because sometimes in the States you're asked to fulfill a trope or an idea that's a little larger than you, whereas this one was just, "Be this person, and whatever this person does is what you do." It was very liberating.
Was it your plan to take a role in a Korean project after establishing yourself here in Hollywood?
No, I'm open to do things anywhere as long as I can fulfill what it's asking of me. I have certain skill sets that allow me to explore certain things, and it's wonderful that I get to do these things in Asia. Part of the reason Bong Joon-ho asked me to do Okja is because I inhabit the body of a Korean-American that he needed. Burning was even more of an anomaly: a director who needed an actor to play an ambiguous Korean person who can use his Americanness to make him more mysterious. It's an example of where we're all headed: more universal and cosmopolitan. Hollywood is such a strong hub, but there are so many countries coming up with their own film forums and industries that are getting really good, so I wouldn't be surprised if we see more and more mixed-culture films.
This story first appeared in a November stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.