Steven Yeun, Yuh-Jung Youn react to 'Minari' making Oscar history for Korean performers

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Amy Kaufman
·5 min read
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(L-R) Steven Yeun, Alan S. Kim, Yuh-Jung Youn, Yeri Han, and Noel Cho in "Minari" from A24.
Steven Yeun, left, Alan Kim, Yuh-Jung Youn, Yeri Han and Noel Cho in "Minari." (Josh Ethan Johnson / A24)

Yuh-Jung Youn has always liked watching the Oscars. From her native South Korea, she'd tune into the telecast to play a sort of "fortune teller," predicting which performers would take home Academy Awards.

"If I was right," she said, "I was very proud of myself. And usually, I was right."

She considered herself part of the audience, never imagining herself onstage despite her acclaim as an actress in Asia. The glamorous Hollywood ceremony was another "side of the world's story," she said. "It was not my story at all."

So when she heard Monday that she and "Minari" costar Steven Yeun had become the first Korean performers to ever receive Oscar nominations — she in the supporting actress category, he as a lead actor — she struggled to metabolize the news.

"It's very strange to me. I don't know how to describe it with my lack of English, but I am trying to speak from my heart. This is more than enough. I feel like I'm already a winner," said Youn, 73. She was settling back into her home in Korea when the nominations were announced about 10 p.m. locally, having just returned from a job in Vancouver, Canada, a couple of hours before. Because she had yet to be vaccinated for COVID-19, she was under a mandatory 14-day quarantine, celebrating with a glass of Champagne and puffing on a vape pen.

"I am way over 70, so I can do whatever I want in my house," she said with a laugh.

Yuh-Jung Youn in "Minari."
Yuh-Jung Youn, seen here in "Minari," on Monday became one of the first Korean performers to earn an Oscar nomination. (A24)

"Minari," which earned six nominations, including for best picture, follows a family of Korean American immigrants attempting to start their own farm in 1980s Arkansas. Youn plays the family's grandmother, who agrees to move into a bare-bones trailer to help raise the grandchildren while her son-in-law (Yeun) toils away on his new plot of land.

Yeun, 37, was born in Seoul but moved to Canada with his family when he was 5. Like his costar — whom he said he spoke with from Los Angeles on Monday — he too grew up feeling that the Oscars were inaccessible to him. But he also had mixed feelings about headlines singling him out as the first Asian American nominee in his category.

"From my perspective, I'm just doing me," said the actor, who was celebrating by eating a chia seed pancake his wife had cooked for him. "I'm very fortunate that I've been able to do work that feels pulled from my place. I carry with me so many things — including being Korean and Asian American. I'm glad and happy that I might be contributing to a larger, deeper understanding of who we are to each other. But I'm really just trying to play my part as well as I can."

Since "Minari" debuted at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2020, both he and Youn have generated strong critical praise for their work. Youn, who has been called "the Meryl Streep of Korea" by numerous American publications, acknowledged that she's found the warm reception "kind of stressful."

"I tried not to listen to that, because I didn't think it would happen to me," she said. "I know being called the Korean Meryl Streep is a compliment, but for me, somehow it was not comfortable. She's a worldwide famous lady. I'm just Yuh-Jung Youn from Korea. Everybody is different. I like to be myself, always. I felt sorry for me and her to be compared together."

Actor Steven Yeun.
Steven Yeun, 37, is the first Asian American lead actor to be nominated for an Oscar. (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

Youn has worked for decades in Korea, but "Minari" was the first movie she made in the U.S. In Vancouver, she just wrapped her third North American project — an adaptation of Min Jin Lee's "Pachinko" for Apple TV+. While she said she has enjoyed the experience of doing international press, she isn't certain whether or not she wants to continue acting outside her country.

"I'm a very domestic person, and I was very content with my job and my career," she said. "I like to be speaking in my own tongue. It's very comfortable. But if there's a chance for someone who cannot speak English well, like me, I like a challenge. Maybe I can try, even though I regret it right after, because it is tiring and too much for me."

If she has the "strength and energy," she said, she would like to travel to L.A. for the Oscars, deeming it a "lifetime experience."

Yeun, meanwhile, was still focused on digesting the positive news after a head-spinning year filled with so much tumult.

"I'm still processing what this is. That's literally where I'm at: What is this? Especially with the backdrop of this last year," said Yeun, who starred on the zombie series "The Walking Dead" for six years.

"I'm still figuring out what’s happened to us and where we’re at. [The year] has torn a veil off for all of us — removed a layer. In some ways, I'm thankful for that. But I recognize how scary that is. A lot of institutions got seen for what they were — the brokenness for what they were. I’m glad for it, because I think we can rebuild.

"But I recognize a lot of people are scared, because the safety we thought was there is also revealed to not be what we thought it was. It’s a super f—ed up year. So these are cool things — this nomination — I'm thrilled and I'm so blessed that I get to experience this. But I'm trying to hold both things at once, and it’s difficult."

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.