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Steven Yeun: Sustaining The Other Vertices in Lee Chang-dong’s Burning

Steven Yeun in Burning

Jong-Su (Ah-In Yoo) meets Hae-Mi (Jong-Seo Jeon) dancing at a storefront display beside a lottery machine. Her dance partner projects keywords (“Sales,” “Prizes”) over a PA system and through a K-Pop deluge. They are lures. Hae-Mi has rigged the whole raffle, Jong-Su wins a pink wristwatch (per her intervention) and she expects he’ll gift it back to her. This is no meet-cute, it’s an odd-reunion, Hae-Mi reveals to Jong-Su, her old friend. They grew up together, but Jong-Su either can’t remember or can’t recognize her post-plastic surgery. He won’t forget her now.

These two characters thicken and sink to form the heavy center of writer/director Lee Chang-Dong’s Burning, until it manifests a third in Ben, played by Steven Yeun, an affluent youngling whose presence mangles the film’s slouching line into a scalene triangle. Rendered over Jong-Su’s sweltering shoulders, Ben is obvious, phony, richer, and, with great unsubtle force, impeding on his relationship with Hae-Mi — which was what exactly? Would you call it romantic?

Questions only build. Jong-Su, suffering writer’s block, surmises great fiction over the holes. His obsession for Hae-Mi is traded for a paranoia over Ben. Could Ben really be the sociopath Jong-Su calculates he is? Or is Ben offering his company and hand innocuously? These relentless questions of authenticity, and even the film’s largest, looming afterthoughts, required Steven Yeun, in a performance without leaks, to operate simultaneously as both a singular character and one that could work plausibly as anyone he’s perceived to be.

Filmmaker: Do you ever struggle with an actor’s writer’s block when you’re working with material that you haven’t directly experienced yourself and can’t relate to?

Yeun: I think that happened to me a lot on TV. Time constraints and situational constraints can rush you through the process and all you have to rely on is your gut. When you do that you can miss connections. But that’s the job of an actor, I’ve learned over time, prepare prepare prepare. Dive into it so the intentions of what you’re trying to say are clear to you. And on the day, all of that will probably blow up because the parameters are not how you imagined them. But that’s why you have to retain the core subtext of what you’re trying to say, so that you can naturally extrapolate from there.

Filmmaker: Do you have a routine to your role preparation?

Yeun: I have a brilliant acting coach, Deborah Aquila, who helps me a lot. She helps me approach work on an academic level, very Stella Adler-style work. You’re really just researching this person and getting to know them. I found a lot of help comes from not the external decisions you’re making, like what he eats and wears — and those things are important and will function into all of it — but by figuring out that person’s reason to live. What makes this person continue on? Sometimes that answer can be paper thin and sometimes it’s layered beneath the different masks that character sets up for themselves. Sometimes there is nothing, you just get the raw visage of who this person is. Sometimes the person has no desire to connect to a real reality. So I start at that framework and layer the rest on.

Filmmaker: And you had those answers for Ben? Did anything about him remain a mystery?

Yeun: Ben made a lot of sense to me. I don’t know why… I do know why. There are moments where you can relate to what it feels like to be alone in success, what it feels like to be off on your own island, even as you’re traveling country to country. Immigrant people are often reminded how paper thin these social agreements are. And while it is beautiful, and you are part of these things and part of a society, sometimes these things reminds you how easily they can shun you. Starkly, you’re made aware that you’re actually alone. It’s sad, or it’s not. That’s the truth and you move forward from there. 
I was ready to be in that headspace for some reason.

Filmmaker: I know you noted that your collaboration with writer/director Lee Chang-Dong was very open, but was there any direction you couldn’t take your character?

Yeun: I think we ran into some — not difficulties — but moments where culture had its way. This is a Korean master who, in both a traditional sense and the Korean cinema business sense, you must respect. You’re expected to respect your elders and you’re expected to respect this director position that Lee’s in. It’s easy to convince yourself that you can only do what the director tells you to do. Luckily, I’m an adult now and have my own opinions, and on top of that you have an open director who doesn’t work non-collaboratively. He’s there because he wants to vibe on your level. That’s what I loved about working on this film. There were moments where I’d tell him that a scene or direction didn’t feel right to me and then he’d try to convince me to do it anyways. So I’d tell him I would do it for him but that he wasn’t going to like that take.

I might even propose a different way of doing things that he’d come to agree was the right way about it. That’s mostly because there was never one right thing. We were all trying to find the thing we were looking for. It was a collective experience in that way. It was never like “I think it’s this” or “No it’s that.” It was more like “try this,” see if that works and then find the one. It took a purposeful effort mixed with Director Lee’s openness and collaboration to let the moment tell itself.
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Filmmaker: How much of this mystery character had already been envisaged by Lee Chang-Dong by the time you came on? What holes did you have to fill in?

Yeun: We talked a lot about the philosophy of the specific character, where he views life, and how he views it. We kept ruminating on that in the background. We did the technical things like making sure the nuance of the words and pronunciation were on point. But in the middle of that there was just a freedom. Director Lee trusted me. I felt really supported during this time. Nothing felt arduous. It never felt like our personalities were ramming up against each other. I just kept going with the flow of it all.

Filmmaker: Do you feel he directed you differently than he did the others? Perhaps he was more open with your performance and more rigid with Ah-In (Jong-Su) and Jong-Seo (Shin Hae-Mi), which might hypothetically lead to appropriate differences in your performances?

Yeun: I’m sure. I can’t speak for their experiences, but, with my character’s status, I imagine you have to manipulate that performance less. Ben stands from a place of such power in the film and you almost can’t direct that in a way. So we left it to an open collaboration. With the others I imagine there was a lot more specificity in the emotion and the motions that they could convey within the space of their characters. But on set it all seemed pretty open.

Filmmaker: Does that openness extend to being able to play with the dialogue?

Yeun: Yeah he goes on the fly. He’ll rewrite and he’ll give me the new words on the day. And that was hard for me because my reading comprehension of Korean is not that good. So I need to really pour over it, really get into breaking down words, just to know the root of what I should be trying to say. I covered Shakespeare in that way.

One particular moment was when Ben went to introduce Jong-Su and Hae-Mi to his friends outside of the restaurant. Ben was originally supposed to stay there and facilitate a conversation. But I remember feeling like I wanted to get out of there. I’m bored of introductions. I’d rather just say “Hey, meet so and so” and then head inside.

Lee said try it. So in the scene I just bailed. And then he’s gone and then you feel that void. Suddenly it’s awkward. Those are the kinds of moments we’d find collaboratively. We could only find that because he was wide open to it. I just tried to react to everything as natural as possible. That’s what was so fun about the experience.

Filmmaker: Does Lee like to include the actors in discussions about the film’s themes, bigger ideas, and aesthetic?

Yeun: I think on this film you couldn’t help but to. I can see why some actors might not want to hear the thematic implications so as not to crowd the mind of the performance. But if anything that’s how this team was assembled. We’re all nerds about this stuff. Ah-In and I would go late into the night just ruminating on this stuff. What could the film imply or say? Jong-Seo is so brilliant, we’d have conversations about the same thing. It felt like we were part of some process that was bigger than us, so you just let yourself go to it. Personally, I can enjoy approaching something academically, as I did for Burning, but I think there’s a limit. There’re roles where that approach would not be helpful.

We made connections and talked as actors and we’d bring what patterns we found to Lee but [laughs] he already knows. He’s not even there to confirm or deny for us. He’d just go “hmm” and we’d be like “OK,” defeated.
Director Lee’s great. He has things to say when it’s instructional, but when there’s nothing to say he’s just “chill, man.”

Filmmaker: I think it’s interesting that the majority of viewers are reading this film linearly, in a way that doesn’t or hardly questions whether or not your character did what Jong-Su believes you did. Has that been your experience with audience reactions as well?

Yeun: To me it’s never about that answer, right? The film’s not about whether he did it or not. You can see it in two ways. In some ways Jong-Su looks the worst off. Potentially, he could just be a sociopath that’s making up whatever he wants, creating his own reality, taking out justice the way he sees fit — mired with so much rage and internalized anger that might not even be associated with Ben. It can just be some guy’s inward spiral. But it’s all perspective. That’s the world we live in. It is a mystery [and] all of our realities are bumping up against each others. Then, someone sees something differently and suddenly they carry it out all the way. That isn’t to say Ben isn’t what [Jong-Su] thinks he is, it’s only to say who knows?

Filmmaker: The film is entirely perceived over Jong-Su’s brooding shoulders, are you also framing your performance over them?

Yeun: I wouldn’t say that I was trying to fit into a mold or vision of another character per say. I don’t think we carried that as part of the narrative because I think that would have loaded the performance too much. Instead, I think, in my collaboration with Lee Chang-Dong we wanted Ben to appear in a certain light sometimes and another light other times. I think that’s where we tried to cultivate that ambiguity.

You can dive into this film so deep if you want to and come out of it with so many themes and connections, but I don’t think that comes from a director connecting a million dots together for you. Lee’s just telling it as honestly as he sees it, and when you do that it’s not so hard to connect them on your own. So, I think it was just conscious efforts to retain a mystery.

Filmmaker: The film’s biggest questions and themes hinge on that mystery and ambiguity. Ben is either who Jong-Su perceives him as or not. How do you determine when your character’s being sincere to yourself without deflating the necessary mystery of him?

Yeun: I think part of that is direction, for sure, Lee Chang-Dong is a genius in that way. I think even his decision to cast me is one of those directorly choices that lent to that. Knowing what I’d inherently bring as an American actor, for example, to a role that is a full Korean person. He didn’t want me to fully shakeoff my Americaness. He wanted that as another layer to the character. Not to identify Ben as an American, but just to give that dissonance where this Korean person is doing all the things a Korean person does, but with this otherness about him.

Personally for me that’s a pocket that I can relate to as an immigrant, where you’re just living in the middle of things anyway. You feel off on your own island, you’re a man with no country. I feel that in my actual life, so it wasn’t that hard to access that portion of the role.

I will say, conscious choice wise in playing with the ambiguity, I honored the text. You start from the privileged standpoint of a man [Ben] who looks at the world the way that he does. He’s tasted so many things if not everything. He could be bored, he could not be, there’re so many things this person can be.

The truth is, this character — in some ways — is the most present character out of all of them. They’re living in their fantasy worlds while Ben may really be sitting there in the moment, in reality, watching, and observing. Through his observations maybe he deems that nobody’s living on the same plane as him. Everybody’s off in their dream land imagining and projecting where their lives are supposed to be even while they’re living it. So, Ben’s just sitting there fucking bored.

Filmmaker: Did you have to find the motivation behind two different characters? Or did you never approach your character as the sociopath Jong-Su sees him as?

Yeun: I lived in the mind of Ben, who is both aware of what others might perceive him to be and also what he intends to be. He is present. For my approach I just tried to be present.

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