Yuh-Jung Youn (‘Minari’) on the differences working on an American set [Complete Interview Transcript]

Yuh-Jung Youn is one of the biggest stars in South Korea but she just broke out in America thanks to her role as the no-nonsense grandmother in “Minari.” The role has earned her numerous awards and nominations from the SAG Awards, Critics Choice and more.

Youn recently spoke with Gold Derby contributing writer Kevin Jacobsen about getting recognition for “Minari,” what it was like working on an American production and what previous film she would recommend people check out to see more of her work. Watch the exclusive interview above and read the complete transcript below.

Gold Derby: You have won a lot of awards in your career, but you are really earning so many nominations and wins for “Minari,” including from the Screen Actors Guild Awards. What is special to you about getting this kind of recognition for “Minari”? 

Yuh-Jung Youn: Sorry to tell you, because I’m usually working in the Korean industry, not knowing this kind of award. I didn’t even expect having awards from America. I’m living on the other side of the world so to me, first, what’s happening to me? I don’t know. But when we made this film, we didn’t expect this warm welcoming. We just made it together, just like family. So I’ve been numb (laughs). I’m sorry to say. And Gold Derby, you’re a company? What do you call that?

GD: Yeah, we’re a company, we predict awards, nominations. 

YJY: At first when I heard Gold Derby I thought maybe you were a racing company for horses or something (laughs). 

GD: In a way, we like track awards derby, if you will. So it’s like a metaphor (laughs).

YJY: I’m learning little by little every day. 

GD: Well, I want to start at the beginning also, with your director, Lee Isaac Chung. I heard he just offered you the role directly. What was it about the way he sold it to you that just made you want to do this project? 

YJY: Truthfully, he’s not a talkative person at all. Actually, I got the script through his friend and happened to be my dear friend, and she gave me the script. It was written in English so, of course, I had a hard time reading it out and in the middle of the reading, somehow it just touched me. It’s so authentic to me. So I called her back, “Is it based on his real-life story?” And she said, “Yes, it is.” So I said, “OK, I’ll do it.” That’s the way we started. Then I met Isaac. 

GD: Well, it is such a personal story for him but I’m curious if you felt any kind of a personal connection with memories of your own relatives, your grandmother, your mother, anyone you had a connection with in your family that just felt familiar to you in the script? 

YJY: Yes, of course, because we all have a grandmother and my grandmother passed away during Korean War time. So I don’t have much good memory, a specific memory with her. But my great-grandmother was still living when I was 10 and I was so rude and bad to her. During the filming, I thought about her a lot, “How ignorant was I and stupid? I didn’t know her sacrifice and her devotion.” I didn’t realize at the time, the whole time I was thinking about her and I can see her face looking at me when I was 10 or nine or something like that without any feeling. She was always staring at me. Now I get it because when you get [to be a] grandmother, you don’t have to correct your grandson, “Do this, don’t do this,” or something like that. When you’re a parent, you’re trying to correct them and trying to make them better or something. But when you become a grandmother, you can just enjoy them growing and even if they make a mistake, it will pass, or something like that. So I thought about her a lot and the way I look at David, that’s the look I saw from my grandmother. 

GD: I think a lot of us also have thought about our own grandmothers just watching this movie and it’s so universal. But I want to speak to you on the set as someone who has had mostly a career in Korea, are there differences that you’ve observed from being on a set in America, or was it just all kind of the same to you? 

YJY: Yes, it was a very big difference because I was in Korea 50 more years so everyone knows me and everyone, most of them from industry people, knows, “She’s not a morning person so we should just schedule this way and that way.” They are very concerned about my schedule before I say something. This one, in Tulsa, they don’t know me. So I was the first to go to the set. Usually in Korea, I don’t go because the first day of filming is just chaos, I know. So I could say probably in Korea that, “No, I’m not going, please postpone my schedule for the next week,” or something like that. But there’s nobody to talk to about my condition. So that was the big difference (laughs). 

GD: Yeah, that’s a pretty big one. Well, once you were on the set working with Isaac and just still developing your character, how would you describe his directing style and what he gave you to help you and your performance? 

YJY: Oh, he was great, really. Usually, there’s a different way to directing. Everybody is different but it depends on the director. I asked him first, “I know you have a very vivid memory of your grandmother. So should I imitate her or does she have some special gesture or something?” He said, “No, no, no, you do it yourself.” I felt like, “He has big confidence in me. So, OK, I will do that.” So that’s where we started and then every moment I saw him was the middle of chaos all the time with a child actor and me and all the crews in that small trailer. But he was so calm and so gracious. Me, I’m very temperamental (laughs). And I’m upset. I’m telling people I am upset. This is not, “You’re supposed to do this to me,” or something like that. He never said anything about anything. Actually, I respected him, really. He’s much younger than me. How could he be calm like that? How could he be controlling that child boy and this old lady? So that moment, I was thinking, “OK, whenever they call, I’ll just finish my mission.” (Laughs.) 

GD: Well, there is that great dynamic between you and Alan Kim, who plays David, and there’s just so much comedy in those scenes that you share together. He, from what I understand, has never acted before, but he gave such a spirited kind of performance, such confidence. I’m curious what it was like working with him and if you were actually surprised by what he was bringing to the film. 

YJY: Of course, I was scared because I heard that he doesn’t have any experience at all, a seven-year-old boy. “What am I going to do with that little boy?” (Laughs.) Then, I found out it’s nothing to worry about. He prepared everything. I mean, he memorized all the lines and we’d usually take a wide shot between him and me. So, of course, we didn’t have any problem and Isaac was smart enough. He doesn’t have to like me. David doesn’t like Grandmother at all, so he was himself just according to the lines, and he didn’t like me at all. So he was like a sponge. He observed all the feelings. So then after that, Isaac asked him to do this expression or something like that. So it worked out very good. We didn’t have any problem, him and me. 

GD: Nice. Well, you do provide so much of the comedy of the film. It’s a film that can be quite dramatic and emotional, with the fight scenes that Steven Yeun and Yeri Han are having. But you are this kind of comic relief just in how blunt your character is. So when you were just reading the script, did you find her to be funny on the page or did that just come naturally to you as you were performing as her? 

YJY: When I read the script, I didn’t realize, acting funny or something like I didn’t plan on. But because of the culture difference between David and Grandma, I think it’s naturally, to the audience, comedy. But like Charlie Chaplin says, “Life is tragedy in close-up but it’s comedy when in long shot.” So that’s what the audience gets that I’m playing comedy. I wasn’t playing comedy. I was very serious with him, trying to just do something, cannot speak a word of English, trying to communicate with him. 

GD: Well, one of the other interesting dynamics in the film is between Soon-ja and her daughter, Monica, played by Yeri Han. Did you think about what kind of relationship the two of them had as mother and daughter when they were younger? 

YJY: I asked Isaac. The reason she wasn’t able to cook, she was a working lady, career woman, actually. She was running the business and she sold everything from Korea and trying to provide surgery money. That’s why she came and looked after them. That’s the reason she came. So that tells me everything and I am myself, single working woman to raise my two boys so I didn’t have a problem understanding her character. 

GD: And just going back to how well the film has been received, when did you first get a sense that this could be a film that would just resonate with so many people? 

YJY: When we went to Sundance, we went there all together, Isaac, Steven, Yeri. We came from Korea so when we had a very warm welcome from the audience, I thought, “Oh, this is more than enough. People understand our situation and our movie.” So I was very grateful for the audience and then even Isaac got the awards. I was so happy I even cried for him because I felt like my son made something. He’s younger than my son, Isaac is. So that was the end of my thinking about this movie and later on, one of my friends, the one who introduced Isaac, she kept asking me, “We should have some Zoom call with somebody.” So I said, “What does Zoom call mean?” I’m a very old lady. I’m not used to all new technology, nothing. I’m ignorant at everything. So we started and if I knew at the time it’s going to be like this, I could have a translator, but we were starting between Isaac and Steven and Yeri. We all know each other and they know my English so, “OK, we’ll do it.” That’s when I started and it got bigger and bigger. So I don’t know what I’m going to do with my English (laughs). 

GD: I love it. Well, I do think a lot of American audiences are really discovering you for the first time with “Minari,” but you do have this extensive career. I’m wondering if there’s a movie or a show or a project from the past that you are proud of, that you would just recommend that people watch if they want to check out more of Yuh-Jung Youn. 

YJY: My first movie, the director’s name is Kim Ki-young, he passed away a long time ago. Stupid me, I didn’t realize he was a very genius director, but that first movie, luckily, I would have a chance to work with him later on. After 50 years now, I appreciate that movie, so I can recommend my first movie, “Woman of Fire.” I was once the woman of fire back 50 years ago, more than 50 years ago. 

GD: Yeah, I would be curious to watch that now and also look at “Minari” and see the differences, see the similarities. 

YJY: Yeah, yeah! (Laughs.)

GD: So just as we wrap up here, I have read a few interviews with you and you’ve mentioned the idea of taking chances, how you really like to challenge yourself in your career. Are there still challenges that you are hoping to accomplish that you might be able to do now that you’ve sort of become this maybe even worldwide star? 

YJY: No, not worldwide star, but during the interview, I realized I’m very daring or ignorant, because having an interview, if I know myself, like limited English, “I’m not going to do that,” or something like that but me, stupid me, I’m always, “OK, I’ll do it.” And that’s my problem (laughs). So that’s why people become very brave. It’s not braveness. I’m not thinking about what’s going to happen. That’s my problem, I think.

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