BLAZING A NEW TRAIL
How a Korean thriller marks another reinvention for The Walking Dead’s Steven Yeun
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.