BURNING's Steven Yeun and the "coldness of now"
By: Andrea Blanch
Steven Yeun: I apologize but I'm at Disneyland right now and there's a giant marching band in front of me. Maybe it's good background music.
Andrea Blanch: [laughs] It's not disruptive at all, thanks. First of all I wanted to say that you've made some great career choices. Quite extraordinary. How did those come to be? Did you make those choices? Did an agent make those choices? How did it all come to you?
Steven: I think it would be hard to say that they were my choices purely. They are choices in that I did say “no” to certain things that came my way after I left [The Walking Dead]. I had a specific thing that I wanted to go for, which was stretching who I was and taking some time to do things that might be uncomfortable for me. I'm continuing that process at least for the near future, maybe forever. But I also will say that it wasn't necessarily me picking through the best work that was available. At the end of the day I'm still given what is allotted to someone like myself, and so I pick the ones that make the most sense to me; the ones that will stretch me the most.
Andrea: I thought it was interesting when you talked about doing voiceovers, and you felt that at times doing them was more freeing than being in front of the camera. That being said, what quality do you think is more important for an actor — the face or the voice?
Steven: That's a hard one. I think voices are often overlooked. There's a strong case to be made that we don't pay enough attention to a specific vocality, at least in how it's presented in acting. But doing voiceover really helped me to work on that muscle. I don't think that one is necessarily more important than the other.
Andrea: For me, there are actors that could be very good, but for some reason I cannot get behind them because their voice doesn't play with me. And there are actors that are not particularly good-looking, but if they have a great voice they get me.
Steven: I think voice is very powerful. Maybe a voice finds its true authenticity when the person digs deeper, becomes more aware of himself, stretches himself and his capabilities. The people who wow me with their voices are people who I imagine are really zen, or at least have a confidence or a kind of a weight to themselves.
Andrea: Why do you think Burning appeals to so many people?
Steven: I think a lot of times people want to be told the truth. I know a lot of people who celebrate escapism. Not that there's anything wrong with that, but we had long bouts of nostalgia with a lot of the films which remind us of our past. While those are great, there's also something to be said about the coldness of now, and I felt Burning attempted to tackle that. I think a lot of people who watch it maybe don't fully grasp all the connections, or maybe they're not meant to. This film stayed with people for so long. So I don't know...I feel like Director Lee is a really incredible person and genius artist and I think he has a pulse and a view on the world that is pretty direct and pretty stark. And his films are jarring and affecting and I wonder if these days it's probably something that we really need.
Andrea: What do you think are the similarities between American youth and South Korean youth. Do you think there are similarities or not?
Steven: Absolutely, yes. I think Korean culture is very rooted in collectivism whereas American culture is very rooted in individualism. But then capitalism and certain other forces have a really strong grasp on these two nations. So you're kind of seeing the next generation, especially the internet generation, express themselves similarly. I think they're all kind of left in this weird space where the internet has freed everybody to accept and look at the entire world instead of just their little country or state or space or city.
Andrea: I read somewhere that the director let you play your character the way you wanted to play him, whether or not he’s a real psycho. Well, what were you?
Steven: You know, that's something Lee entrusted to me, to make a decision on who I really was. I actually didn't end up telling him, either. I feel like that mystery and the preservation of that type of secret is in some way part of the film. It's kind of this thing that lets people ruminate on it, as opposed to being satisfied with just the finishing of a plot. Instead, it leaves this open-ended void. It ends up talking about almost everything. We could make connections to any theory or whatever and you can connect the dots anywhere you want. But ultimately it communicates this deep connection between all of us, but at the same time a deep loneliness that I feel like a lot of us inhabit. It feels right for the time.
All the actors played their parts the way they want to play them which was just this really unique freedom, and space, that he gave to all of us. I mean, he's an expert director. He really set up a situation where the three of us were playing in a real space, and that was really rewarding for me as an actor because it felt like any action was a truthful action. We had a lot of philosophical discussions about what space these individual characters inhabit, what things they might know, and how they might see the world.
Andrea: But if you weren’t communicating how you were going to play the actor, how did the other characters know how to play with you or against you?
Steven: We weren't able to tell who the other one was. So we really had to sit in our own pockets, and sit in our own selves, and be content with our own characters in that space. And in that way it naturally created that ambiguity and that tension, because nobody really knew who the other person was. And that was really fascinating. It was really fun.
Andrea: Did you ever see Dressed to Kill? It was with Michael Caine and was a thriller. Renowned director Brian De Palma directed it. Because of the ambiguity and atmosphere it reminded me of Burning. You're talking about this director being very freeing, but compared to who? What other experiences have you had that weren't as free?
Steven: I mean, I've had experiences where people have literally given me line-readings. Those are not fun experiences. But most of the time it's not that obvious; it ends up coming from rushed parameters, whether it be the filmmaking aspect or just the tenseness of the set, or maybe the way the director might move in a space. They don't always know how to convey what they want naturally. Maybe it comes off as something very direct, which is not wrong, either - sometimes I just want to know what they want in the frame. But what was really fun [about Burning] was that it made me rely on myself, to trust my own instincts. I had to be this person in order to play in that space because he wasn't going to coach me through it that way, nor did he want to. That's where it felt like, "Oh, cool, you are creating your own space here and your own character and your own person."
Andrea: Your character in Burning come across as someone who's extremely zen or very cool, and possibly a psychopath. How do you decompress from something like that?
Steven: That was a tough one to decompress from because playing that character meant simultaneously accepting, in a very Nietzschean way, that all of life is meaningless, and, at the same time, that everything is meaningful. It was a really wonderful exercise, so decompressing from that was tough. If you get to a place where things don't mean anything you're kind of unhinged, and free to do whatever you think is right. I definitely felt the power of that idea - and then I realized that's not a real thing that I can truly inhabit. That's what psychopaths inhabit.
Andrea: So let me ask you, where do you go from here?
Steven: I don't know. I have a son and I have another child on the way.
Andrea: Oh, congratulations!
Steven: Thank you! Life kind of took over and so I'm riding the “life ride” right now. We'll see what the future holds in terms of work. I'm kind of open to it all.
Andrea: What director would you like to work with now?
Steven: There's so many. I'm a really big fan of Yorgos Lanthimos [director of the Oscar-nominated 2015 film The Lobster], his tone and his world. He's so fun. But who knows?