Steven Yeun, who stars in the psychological thriller The Humans alongside Beanie Feldstein and Amy Schumer at this year’s TIFF, didn’t exactly have a precise career path lined up for himself when he left (a.k.a. died a gruesome death on) the hit TV series The Walking Dead in 2016. Actually, he left without a path, a clue, or even a real hunch of where his acting might take him.
“I wish I could say that I had some grand plan or a real inkling of what I wanted to do,” he told Lainey Lui at a virtual TIFF In Conversation With… event held on Sunday evening.
“I didn’t know what direction I was going in. I didn’t know what was happening. So many things have been hard work but also timing and luck and blessings,” Yeun admitted. “For me, when I left The Walking Dead, I’d just gotten married, I was about to have my first child, and we’d just bought a house. We did it all within one year. We went on quite a ride”
But despite what might seem like a situation where an actor might want to hold on to a steady gig, Yeun knew that in order to evolve as both a human being and an actor, he had to move on.
“I had spent seven years post-college doing this incredible journey and ride of The Walking Dead and I hadn’t realized how much of that experience had seeped into my reality and my identity. So when I left I really had to take some time to figure out who I was,” he said.
That time gave Yeun the opportunity to choose opportunities that, he says, “felt like things that didn’t want to put me in a box.” Projects like Parasite director Bong Joon Ho’s Okja, Boots Riley’s Sorry To Bother You, Lee Chang-Dong’s Burning, and the role that earned Yeun his first Oscar nomination — in Lee Isaac Chung’s hugely successful Minari.
Initially, said Yeun, “the things that came to me after Walking Dead were great projects. They were asking me to be the lead, they were asking me to be the star, but when I would read the synopsis it still felt adjacent to the character I had played,” Yeun explained. “And I really don’t like staying in one place for too long. So that was the motivation for me: I like doing different things.”
Burning, he felt, was the performance that was a turning point for him as an artist. “Getting to play someone that is so beyond any construct — he’s beyond nationalism, he’s beyond boundaries. He’s just kind of floating in this nebulous existence where he can do whatever he wants to. That’s a feeling that’s never been afforded to me. Not that it’s a good feeling, but that level of power and status is something I’d never been able to access living here in the West. Getting to do that [in Korea] alters you. I felt like I had done some weird work of pulling away a lot of my Western domestication and in doing so, those scenes, it felt so fun and free.”
It was also a pivotal point in Yeun’s career. “When I got to do Burning in the same year after it came out, the offers or projects that people wanted me to be a part of really changed. Steven Karam saw Burning and offered me the role in The Humans.”
The actor said that building a family was one of the motivators for him to change and grow as a person and to really figure out who he wanted to be. Discussing his childhood, Yeun said, “Coming over [from South Korea] when I was four I was very aware of the fact that I was not from here and very aware of every choice that I made to try to be here. Knowing that has always been this weird tug and pull of how much do I need to comply and how much do I need to survive and how much can I push against that?”
At this point in his career, his craft is giving him the tools to dig for those answers. “The last couple of films have been my journey to understand and examine the things I had lost from my past.”
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