How a Korean thriller marks an­other rein­ven­tion for The Walk­ing Dead’s Steven Yeun

Empire (UK) - - PRE.VIEW - BETH WEBB

SHAK­ING LOOSE A char­ac­ter that you’ve played for seven years in a wildly suc­cess­ful TV se­ries can be hard. Steven Yeun is still best known as The Walk­ing Dead’s Glenn Rhee — but in Burn­ing, a new thriller from Korean film­maker Lee Chang-dong, he turns from zom­biebur­dened pizza boy to Korean ty­coon with ef­fort­less con­fi­dence. Amaz­ingly, he nearly turned down the role.

“There was a mo­ment where I was like, ‘Can I do this?’” he says. For a Korean Amer­i­can, born in Seoul and raised in Michi­gan, Yeun was trou­bled by his first non-english lan­guage role. “I don’t have that un­der­stand­ing of Korean lan­guage. I thought, ‘Can I even play this part?’”

Yeun is quick to credit Chang-dong, who has qui­etly es­tabished him­self as a crit­i­cal dar­ling since his 1997 de­but Green Fish, as the rea­son to over­come his fears. “He opened the door and said, “You are the ac­tor for this char­ac­ter.” To get a bless­ing like that from a re­ally wise di­rec­tor gives you a lot of con­fi­dence.”

Loosely based on a Haruki Mu­rakami short story, the film fol­lows lonely Jongsu (Yoo Ah-in), his crush Haemi (Jeon Jong-seo), and Ben (Yeun), a Gatsby-type busi­ness­man with a nasty habit of burn­ing down green­houses. Yeun pre­pared meticulously for the role, per­fect­ing Korean, read­ing Ni­et­zsche and mak­ing playlists (in­clud­ing “Bon Iver, a lit­tle clas­si­cal mu­sic, and a lot of hip-hop”) that spoke to his char­ac­ter. From pizza to Ni­et­zsche — not a bad pro­gres­sion.

In the two years since Glenn’s bloody exit from The Walk­ing Dead, Yeun has cho­sen a run of sur­pris­ing film roles (Okja, Sorry To Bother You), but took a lot from the show that sent him into or­bit. “It was seven years of al­low­ing my­self to feel con­fi­dent in a safe space,” he says. “It pre­pared me to do the job that I’m in­tended to.”

So ac­claimed is that job that it could lead Burn­ing to earn South Ko­rea’s firstever nom­i­na­tion at the Os­cars. For his part, Yeun is keep­ing both eyes on the prize. (Un­like Glenn.) BURN­ING IS IN CIN­E­MAS 1 FE­BRU­ARY

Top to bot­tom: There goes the green­house; Firestarter Ben (Yeun); With Jongsu (Yoo Ah-in) and Hae-mi (Jong-seo Jeon).

Steven Yeun spoke to Em­pire dur­ing the Lon­don Film Fes­ti­val on 19 Oc­to­ber.

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