Yeun recently spoke with Gold Derby senior editor Daniel Montgomery and contributing writer Kevin Jacobsen about developing the role of Jacob, how the film has resonated with people and the prospect of making Oscar history. Watch the exclusive interview and read the complete transcript.
Gold Derby (Kevin Jacobsen): Steven, you’ve been on a long journey with this movie from shooting it to seeing the reception at Sundance to now getting these nominations from SAG and Critics Choice. What has this journey been like for you going from that very personal experience of filming the movie to now seeing people of all these different backgrounds really connecting with it?
Steven Yeun: It’s been so many things. It’s been humbling most of all. I can’t really separate the film from what we all collectively have gone through in this pandemic. It’s just been all the ups and downs and getting to make this in a year where we had none of these new perspectives and perhaps lessons and understandings and then getting to premiere at Sundance to that type of reception right before the world just totally flipped on its head, in hindsight, is really surreal and I can’t really separate. It feels intertwined for me. The lessons that I learned making this film and the lessons that I think the character learns in his journey, Jacob, are not too different than the lessons that I think people, or at least myself have learned over the course of just this past year. So to get to this point where we’re certainly not over it, but at least there’s a little bit of hope and a little bit of, hopefully, faith in pulling all of us collectively out of this experience, that to be mirrored with like people actually getting and coming to see this film and feel the same feelings that I had, I don’t know, it feels crazy. I’ll be honest with you. It feels really insane (laughs).
Gold Derby (Daniel Montgomery): And to be playing this role that’s inspired by writer-director Lee Isaac Chung’s own life, what was that collaborative process like to bring that sense of his family to the screen and the father that you play?
SY: Yeah, I think it’s a testament to Isaac’s heart. In talking to him, I really understand more and more sometimes what filmmaking ultimately is and perhaps what a lot of things ultimately are, but I think filmmaking has all the technicalities and has all the specifics about how to make the film but at the end of the day, sometimes it’s just how to get along with people, just the way that these things are formed and the processes by which you go through them, you can’t do it by yourself and it is such a collaborative experience. Isaac has all the incredible things that any filmmaker needs but also he has this deep ability to just connect with others and give people space and make those feel welcome and I think that was really important. So when he wrote this script, it wasn’t just, “You play my family.” It was, “Let’s come together and come to build this family together.” It started from his casting. It started from the atmosphere he set and just the openness and the willingness to allow someone else to encroach upon a story that I’m sure he holds very dear to his heart. So it never felt like I had to fit in or mold into some conception of what he wanted. It really felt like we were connecting together on, at least for me and him, an internal journey of what it means to be a father, what it means to connect to our own fathers, and just what it means to learn the larger lesson that I think Jacob learns.
GD (Kevin): Yeah, and speaking to that internal journey, there’s a certain subtlety to your performance where, yes, we do have some of the argument scenes between Jacob and Monica where he’s really letting out all his frustrations but for a lot of the film, we’re just kind of seeing your face where Jacob is reacting to something or he’s just lost in thought or he has all these conflicting emotions. Can you talk about what Jacob is thinking about in those moments, that inner turmoil that’s going on in his mind and just how you were able to externalize that?
SY: I wish I exactly knew what I was doing (laughs). Usually, I’m just kind of going on instinct and then I can maybe talk about it in hindsight, but I don’t even know if that’s true. I think he’s a man pulled in many directions, like you say. I think he’s holding so many things at once. I think he’s holding his existence and what that means, his purpose, he’s holding his love for his family. He’s holding, I think, in some way an existential idea in wrestling with God in some way, wrestling with nature and reality and trying to really just control it for himself, and I think where he gets tied up a lot that maybe manifests the way that he breathes or the way that he is and looks and feels is he’s sometimes trapped in his own head. He’s kind of unable to get the noise of all these different things out of his head and I think that also comes because he’s kind of mired in duty. I think he’s speaking from a place of duty and he thinks that his worth and his function is his duty to his family and I think when you speak from that place, it’s very easy to feel altruistic or feel like that’s the right thing.
But ultimately, I don’t know if that’s the best place to communicate love and I think ultimately that’s really what he’s looking for. He’s asking for connection. He’s asking to not feel alone. He’s asking to not feel like he’s the only one bearing the burden of this family and their future on his shoulders. But I think over the course of the film, the things that he learns is that he’s not the only one bearing the burden of this family and this experience and that he is not just a measure of his duty, but he is living out a collective experience together with his family as they endure these obstacles. A lot of them are from his own making, but I think when he comes to understand that, he lets some things go, but ultimately, yeah, all that long way to say he’s just really trying to control life and he can’t.
GD (Daniel): And playing this character who wants to make this farm work and wants to build something lasting for his family and having that conflict with Monica, who thinks they might have greater stability if they go back to California, did you ever find yourself, if you were in that position, might you be more on Monica’s side in some cases, or did you feel that full sympathy with what Jacob wanted to create? Was that ever a conflict that you could feel in yourself, too?
SY: Yeah, I mean, I think Jacob himself also hears her, too. I think he hears and accepts her fears and her desires, but it’s him in his head thinking that he knows what’s best that’s really the issue. Perhaps it might feel like, to him, running away. It might feel like not rising to the occasion. It might feel in some ways in reverse, even though he himself doesn’t in some way attach himself to the idea of faith, he might look at that as a very faithless thing, and perhaps he’s putting faith in the wrong things instead of putting faith in the larger ideas of family or life or the future and what it might bring. He’s really talking about a faith in himself and I think that’s really desperately what’s at odds with him and Monica.
GD (Kevin): You and Yeri Han go on such an emotional roller coaster, Yeri playing Monica.
SY: She’s so good.
GD (Kevin): Yeah. How much did the two of you prepare ahead of time to just figure out their dynamic?
SY: It’s really a testament to Isaac’s casting, I think, initially. And then after that, it really is just she’s so truthful and the first time we met, we really just connected by talking about our perspectives on who this couple was and who these people were to each other. What was really fascinating was that in the ways that we would see each other the same and in the ways that we would see each other differently, and our opinions on it as actors, really informed the same type of tension… tension is the wrong word. I guess, formed the same sort of dynamics of the ways in which people misunderstand each other, couples misunderstand each other. What was really cool was to be with a scene partner that was willing to let those things exist, that it didn’t need to come to some sort of consensus, that we were on the exact same page. We didn’t really over-talk these things. We just said, “I think Jacob’s here. What do you think?” And she’s like, “I think Monica’s here. I wonder if Jacob’s also here.” We would kind of talk about it and then we’d go away and then we’d come and shoot the scene and it felt real. She was so honest and truthful always. So when you have those types of partners, it’s not hard to do your job because it feels real.
GD (Daniel): And you mentioned how this film and this character and the lessons of this pandemic sort of feel like they’re going hand in hand a bit, and it also feels like the perfect time for this, because this is a movie about an Asian-American family pursuing the American dream in a way that so many families do of all ethnicities, at a time of increased hostility towards the Asian-American community across the country. What do you hope that this brings to that, seeing the humanity of all different people?
SY: Yeah, I think for us, it’s hard because this question, we could speak for hours and hours, there’s so much nuance. But I will say that our goal from the beginning or rather, our lack of specific goals were, I think, very helpful in getting to where we wanted to get to, which was ultimately to tell this story true of this very human family and they might look maybe not like the traditional ways in which America understands what Americans are and I think that’s a real thing that this country and our collective conscious needs to understand and face, that what constitutes America is a very eclectic group of different cultures and people and that’s essentially the backbone of what makes America incredible.
So for us, we didn’t really think through any political specifics in terms of how we wanted to present this in any specific way. We were just trying to make this a true story that could get out there and connect to all people without any barriers of entry so that we could connect to each other as human beings, and hopefully, the byproduct of something like that is that people get to see each other a little bit clearer, that we don’t look at each other in such fear and surface level, that we’re not delineated so much by all these cultural limitations or identity separations, and those are all valid and true, but also, there’s these deep, deep connections that I think we can all feel as human beings that transcend all these things.
It’s a real shame, but also not surprising that we’re still in a moment like this where people react out of fear and hate. But what I always loved about this film and this experience was that this film had a lot of love in it and had a lot of heart and deeply wanted to connect to everybody so I hope it adds a positivity to this moment if it does anything.
GD (Kevin): Well, speaking along those lines a little bit, here at Gold Derby, we are an awards site and I’m sure that you’re aware of the Oscar buzz and your potential to make history as the first Asian-American actor nominated for Best Actor. From what I understand, I think you already made history at the SAG Awards for the same thing and I can’t imagine the complicated feelings that that entails, to be making history potentially or just to have that potential, but then to have it be after so many years, decades of Asian actors being overlooked. Is that something that you’re consciously thinking about or are you trying to put it in the back of your mind and whatever happens, happens? I’m just curious about your thought process.
SY: Yeah, I think there was moments, especially in the larger discussion and the reality that we’re all collectively in in the last couple of years that made me consider it and say like, “Hey, there are these things and precedents that haven’t been.” I always understood and held them, but I try not to make them a central focus for the things that I chose or the way that I worked in this business, but it’s great. It’s on one hand, really wonderful that we get to keep making things that challenge reality and challenge the way in which we all collectively understand things and create precedent because it opens doors for real, true things to get through.
Where I feel wary about it to some regard is that I myself know that in the end, where I’m trying to get to is a singular voice really coming from me and my experience that is really unique, as is all of ours, and I can really only speak from my place and I can only really speak from my space that I inhabit. So I’m glad to add to any larger movement and progress. I’m proud of that, but I also want to make sure that I don’t get swallowed up by those things and that I’m not defined by those things and that I can only speak from me, and that I always retain myself throughout, I hope, forever. So that’s where I’m at mentally. It even feels honestly strange to talk about the idea of being nominated or those things just because I don’t even know if that’s real or true (laughs). So yeah, all of it’s strange, but all I know is at the end, all I can really hang onto is my own reality and where I speak from.
GD (Daniel): Is it particularly special to be recognized by your peers at the Screen Actors Guild Awards, not just individually, but also to know that this entire cast and this family dynamic that you created was recognized as an ensemble achievement?
SY: Yeah, I’m especially proud of the ensemble nomination. I think for me, that’s really what feels truest to this experience that I had. It was such a collective experience. There’s not a single person that could be removed from this cast, this crew. This script really attracted some beautiful souls to it. I mean, I think most people will say… I don’t want to speak for them, but for me, the thing that I talk to Isaac about a lot is just the magic quality of the thing that we all collectively experienced. I’ve had that experience a couple of times. I’ve been very lucky. I actually had that experience on “The Walking Dead” where it was a very selfless group of people that came together to service a larger narrative. I felt like it was similar in this situation, too, that we were all kind of servicing this larger story and nobody was trying to stick out or not service it. It was really just in service of this story, and when you get experiences like that, you can’t even sometimes separate what feels autonomous and chosen and what just happens. In some way, and I don’t mean to get too intangible with it, but in some ways the film made itself and I just got to be a part of it and that’s what it feels like sometimes. So I’m really happy for that.