Steven Yeun jolts onscreen in Lee Chang-dong’s slow-burn mystery thriller Burning like a bolt of lightning: unexpectedly and impossible to look away from.
He is the debonair, impassive cipher Ben, a man of mysterious wealth and murkier motives—a modern-day Jay Gatsby, as working-class aspiring writer (and Ben’s frustrated romantic rival) Jong-su (Yoo Ah-in) scoffs resentfully. In Lee’s simmering, South Korea-set adaptation of the 1983 Haruki Murakami short story “Barn Burning,” Ben cuts a figure of stark, faintly malevolent glamour: the chic black Porsche to Jong-su’s run-down white pick-up truck. Understated class tensions boil over into paranoia and obsession. And Yeun plays the villain with effortless leading-man charisma.
The South Korean-born, American-raised Yeun—best known for his six-year stint as Glenn Rhee on The Walking Dead—easily commands the screen as Ben, rendering casual slouches magnetically aloof; politely-stifled yawns into inscrutable power plays. The actor calls it “beautiful and powerful” to inhabit Ben’s void, “to feel what it feels like to just be there watching, and really letting things wash over you,” he tells The Daily Beast.
It’s far from a Zen state of mind, he warns: “Through privilege and some enlightenment, Ben has come to understand to be present. But he’s lost himself because nobody else is present with him, and reality is actually incredibly boring for him.” Hence Ben’s secret pastime, the only way the sophisticate says he can feel his own pulse: by burning down abandoned rural greenhouses in the dead of night, for the hell of it.
Not that we ever see Ben set a greenhouse alight; he reveals his supposed hobby several hits into a shared joint, with the same detached amusement he regards everyone with, particularly those beneath him in the socioeconomic pecking order. Whether or not Ben is screwing with Jong-su—and whether or not he’s capable of much darker crimes—is left maddeningly ambiguous. But slowly, viewers realize they’ve been locked behind Jong-su’s suspicion from the start. And how far can you trust a jealous writer to be objective?
The deeper Jong-su’s envy of Ben’s moneyed lifestyle runs, the more convinced he becomes that Ben is behind the disappearance of his high-school classmate Hae-mi (first-timer Jeon Jong-seo), the little-girl-lost object of his disturbingly possessive crush. Yeun feels for Jong-su’s misery. “All the pain that’s caused is self-inflicted,” he muses. “I don’t know why he keeps complying to these weird, terrible situations, but he keeps complying, because that’s the system of what you’re supposed to do.”
Picking apart the systems he was born into and the ones he’s perpetuated himself preoccupies Yeun. It comes up in our conversation, at a corner table in a New York hotel suite, and in every film role he’s taken in his two years since leaving The Walking Dead. His characters in Mayhem, Okja and Sorry to Bother You rankled against the cruelty of corporations. The latter dealt explicitly with race, code-switching, and capitalism’s absurdities. And Okja reflected the strange isolation of being a Korean-American in Korea.
But it took Lee and Burning for Yeun to feel wholly “free” in a role, for the first time—to feel unconstrained by a gaze that sees him as Asian first and a person second, and to feel immersed rather than like an island between worlds as on Okja (for which Yeun played translator both onscreen and on set between cast members). It’s a rare experience for actors of color in Hollywood to feel the lifting of that othering. I ask how he feels about returning to work in a system that may see him that way again.
“I realized that it’s a mixture of a lot of things,” he says. “It’s not just the system. It starts from the system. It’s not just writers, not just individual people. It’s that mixed in with also, some of it is self-imposed, if I’m gonna be very honest, you know? I think that’s what I learned for myself that was a big portion: I had somehow internalized the lens by which we speak of people of color, to describe myself in that way. I was used to explaining who I was constantly, so once I did something that didn’t ask me to do that in that way, I was confused but also felt free and lighter.”
“And then I realized that, yes, some things require me to explain myself, but a lot of stuff doesn’t and I do sometimes anyway. I think that’s a conditioned thing that I can end for myself because it’s a choice that I’m making.”
That isn’t to absolve Hollywood entirely. “Things need to change for sure,” he emphasizes with raised eyebrows and a laugh. “People’s perceptions of human beings need to change. But also, the process needs to take its time to work itself through to the people because there’s self-acceptance that happens too, you know?”
He points to the “movement” of Asian American-fronted films, from this year’s Searching to Crazy Rich Asians, To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, and beyond. “There’s a lot of great momentum and fervor and now you’re seeing a lot of talent. And that’s all great. But then you realize, like, OK cool, I gotta make sure that this thing doesn’t take over and consume me; that I can still be human, and that this doesn’t mean I have to constantly explain myself to the viewer; that I can enter into a role and say, ‘I’m just gonna be here. And I’m gonna have all the confidence to be here.’” Self-acceptance, as he identifies it, is a vital part of that movement now. “It’s also being OK that you’re an Asian person. And I think most younger generations are.”
Yeun’s family emigrated from South Korea to Canada when he was five (they later settled in Troy, Michigan) and he visited the homeland “pretty often” until he reached the eighth grade, before reconnecting with it again in his twenties. At 34 now, Yeun says he is in “that strange middle generation where we were really all about hiding. It was all about assimilation, all about trying to remain as docile as possible in some ways. And that’s where I think we have to do a little bit of work internally to be like, ‘We don’t have to do that.’ That was imposed on us but we don’t have to make that realized constantly. We can stop that for ourselves.”
“It’s survival instincts,” he adds. “You know, I understand it. It doesn’t need to be shameful. I guess it’s more like, process it and then try to get it out of there, you know?”
Reprogramming like that takes intense self-interrogation, as he illustrates it, tracing biases down to the source. “We are conditioned to pick a favorite thing, but that usually means we’re gonna pick the thing that someone who looks like whoever we are is supposed to pick,” he reasons. Take his love of the color blue: “Why did I choose that? Is it true? Do I really like blue? I like blue! And then you can stick with blue. Or you can go, actually, I don’t like blue. I actually like this and that’s what I’ve been meaning to say the whole time. Those are the tiny things.”
Then there are the tensions encoded even deeper. “You internalize trying to be accepted by greater society and you base your self-worth on what other people think of you, and that’s just a human thing that we gotta deal with,” Yeun says. “But it is, from my perspective, encoded in us, as a Korean person, because the system of Korea is kind of set up that way. And the funny thing is it’s almost socially-mandated there.”
He describes the “hierarchy” in Korean that demands different speech and tones for those in higher positions and elders, or those older by even a year. Specificities change when speaking to someone the same age, and again with someone younger. “There’s these systems in place that perpetuate these things where you realize that your self-worth is actually based on where you stand in the pecking order instead of just, I’m just happy to be me.”
“Here we do the same thing,” he continues, gesturing to the city below us. “But me, as a Korean immigrant, that’s how I learned to find myself, unfortunately. And in my later years, I realized that’s what I needed to deconstruct. Am I comfortable with me, flaws and all? And then with those flaws, do I want to become better? I think that’s what it boiled down to: I started making my own choices.”
Yeun’s choices in film roles, meanwhile, have steadily diverged ever further away from the paragon of stand-up dudes that was Glenn Rhee. From the deranged rebellion of Mayhem to the surrealist comedy of Sorry to Bother You, to his most darkly hypnotic work yet in Burning, Yeun makes for a reliably seductive romantic lead, yes—and notably, one who often operates against a backdrop of seething class warfare.
Donald Trump can be seen on TV in an early scene of Burning, blustering indistinctly inside Jong-su’s parents’ home near the North Korean border. Yeun demurs when asked how the detail fits among the film’s myriad splintering points of tension. “I wish I could say that I was choosing these things as if I had some larger motive,” he says. But class tensions, “right now,” he admits, “that just resonates as the most true.”
In the last two years of Yeun’s ascendant film career—Okja and Burning both premiered at Cannes, and the latter marks Yeun’s first foray into the Oscars conversation—that truth, he says, is what lured him to these roles. “These takes tend to be very honest and deep, and so it makes the words a little bit easier to say in that way, you know?”
He leans forward, his soft-spoken conversational voice now emphatic. “I’m attracted to these things because they attempt to say something, to mean something,” he says. “They have a point of view, and the directors and the voices behind them have the passion to project that. And I’m all-in for that.”