Cannes: Steven Yeun Talks Immigrant Experience in U.S., Working on a "Fully Korean" Film

Fabrizio Maltese

"As an immigrant in America you realize very quickly that you are off on your own island," said the 'Burning' star.

Lee Chang-dong's drama Burning is generating heat in Cannes as a critical favorite. Adapted from the Haruki Murakami’s short story “Barn Burning,” the South Korean film is a musing on modern class issues, love and loss, while touching on the ironic isolation that is taking place in an increasingly connected modern world. It also marks former The Walking Dead star Steven Yeun’s second trip to Cannes after last year’s Okja, and his first all Korean-language role.

How did you come to work on this project?

I didn’t ever imagine I’d be in a full Korean production. I did Okja a couple years back and that was half and half, my character was a Korean-American like me. This time around I somehow got lucky enough to be able to work with director Lee to jump into a full Korean production where I had to speak full Korean and dive in as a Korean person. The way that I came up on this whole thing is that he saw an interview I did in Korea while we were on the Okja press tour where I mentioned his name as someone I would love to work with, never thinking it would actually happen.

Were there differences working on a Korean production vs. an American production?

You have to acknowledge the nuances that each culture has. The emotions and the subtext that you convey are universal, but you do have to play within the framework of the language and the culture, so those were the things that we really worked on, because I’m an American person. So that was a challenge but a really welcome challenge. But beyond that I think I got really spoiled. He gave me a lot of freedom and I felt that, and it made me focus less on the things that could have scared me, which was language and those types of cultural things. As an immigrant in America you realize very quickly that you are off on your own island. There is no full feeling of America sometimes. You’re sometimes reminded that you’re "not American" – whatever that means – and on the other hand you are not fully Korean either. So you kind of just feel the world as a global citizen and that was part of I think why director Lee asked me to be a part of his film. And just getting to tap into both sides is really, really wonderful.

Do you feel like exploring this “fully Korean” part of yourself changed you in some way?

When I was there he really welcomed me, and the crew and the cast really welcomed me. I felt very much a part of the film, which was fully Korean, and it was an incredible experience to feel that. Then you come home and realize there are differences. I think the condition of an immigrant is that feeling you get of loneliness, where you kind of feel very much "a man without a country." It’s a true feeling and when you feel it first it’s stark, and then you settle into it and go with it. I also had a kid around the time when it was shooting. So a lot of stuff went down emotionally during the filming, so have I changed, yes. But it could also just be life.

How do you balance being a working dad?

My family came to visit the last month. It was rough. It was a new country and new things for the baby, but it was all kind of part of it. The whole production kind of took on this kind of meta feel, the way I think this movie kind of intends to do. But now I’m on family time. Being a dad is awesome. That in and of itself is very liberating, too. It’s for me just realizing it prioritizes a lot of things for you and takes the weight off of things that maybe you shouldn’t put so much weight on. That type of thing I definitely needed, so it was a liberating feeling.

Do you think the film will travel across borders or that American audiences will embrace it?

I really hope so. I do believe the future holds a more cosmopolitan way of looking at things. Things like Netflix have done a good job of prepping people to read subtitles and watch a film in another language. I think this film is important and paints a really interesting portrait of now and perhaps the younger generation that feels a certain way but maybe doesn’t have the words to express it. I really do hope that this gets to cross boundaries. I am in my own vacuum where I do get to see all these foreign films in Cannes, but we are becoming more cosmopolitan. I like the word "cosmopolitan" more than "global" – it’s less scary.

Do you still watch The Walking Dead to find out what is happening to Maggie?

Ooh, I haven’t been watching TV. Is that bad? I’ve caught some episodes here and there, but I’ve been mostly working. I still talk to all my friends and they keep me updated.  I think the friendships are much more necessary to keep up with, so it’s been nice.