Why Steven Yeun Says Making 'Okja' in Korea Was 'Surreal'
"People were confused as to how to treat me.'
Steven Yeun had several critical roles on the set of Okja, the new satire now streaming on Netflix: Not only did he play K, one of the radical environmentalists that kidnaps the movie’s titular super-pig, he also acted as a translator for much of the American cast when the production was in Korea, where Yeun was born and spent his early childhood.
“It was a very meta experience overall,” Yeun told Inverse in a recent conversation, looking back on the shoot with both fondness and maybe a bit of Inception-like wonder. Yeun, now 33, took the role in Okja because it was written for him by writer/director Bong Joon-ho, who is best-known in the United States for the 2013 dystopian flick Snowpiercer. The filmmaker is a legend in Korea, a Palme d’Or-winning auteur who makes genre movies packed with meaning — and a very deceptively dark ending.
Okja, which premiered at Cannes and was nominated for the Palme in May, is no exception. In the movie, which was co-written with Jon Ronson, a mega-corporation called Mirando — which is about as loved as Monsanto — uses GMOs to create a race of gigantic, meaty pigs and in an attempt to win back public goodwill gives ten of them to young people across the globe, to raise in natural habitats for a decade. One of them, a happy swine named Okja, becomes a beloved companion for a young girl named Mija (Seo-Hyun Ahn), who in turn becomes determined to save the pig when it’s taken back by Mirando and its goofy CEO (Tilda Swinton). K is a member of the PETA-like group that travels to Korea to liberate Okja and infiltrate Mirando, and their adventure leads to a comedy of errors, cultural misunderstandings, corporate espionage, and emotionally devastating moments.
Yeun spoke to Inverse about returning to Korea to make the film, working with Bong Joon-ho, and another fan-favorite graphic novel adaptation that hangs in the balance.
You emigrated to America at a young age and have been an actor for a decade; what was it like to go back to Korea and shoot a movie?
It wasn’t the first movie that I made in Korea. I took a trip maybe like three years prior where I just kind of jumped into this omnibus film [Like a French Film]. It was like an anthology film where they have a bunch of short stories. I just had the privilege of working with a really great indie director Shin Youn-Shick. That was my first experience, but that was kind of low-key. This was my first big budget Korean film experience. I would also kind of say it wasn’t really a full Korean film. It’s kind of an international experience.
So now that you’re shooting a big movie in the center of Seoul, what was that experience like for you?
It’s pretty great. It can be a very interesting experience. I think for me personally going back at 30-years-old — I’ve been back there before many times, but just to go back at 30, the age that my parents immigrated with us, it was a little surreal to be there and working as an adult. And to also be there and live out the same kind of thing that K, the character lives out, was interesting too. It was a very meta experience overall.
I imagine you didn’t actually take a giant rampaging animal hostage, so how was the experience meta?
Right. I was a translator in the movie and I was also kind of translator outside of the movie for the rest of the cast. Maybe a little bit better of a translator [than in the movie], but not that much better. It’s this splitting of cultures to know that I look like I’m supposed to be there but when I get there sometimes they don’t fully understand me. It was interesting because people’s inclinations would be to treat me like a native, but then they would meet me and they would be confused as to how to treat me.
You’ve said that Korean-Americans can find certain subtleties in your translations that the subtitles don’t reveal. What should viewers who don’t speak Korean know?
I don’t even know if I can explain it to people. There’s so many layers to the movie that you could kind of take from it whatever you want, but one particular sliver that also exists is the Korean-American experience. I think to put it very broadly, when I watch it or when other Korean-Americans that I talk to watch it, they hone in on that same feeling, which is they feel alien. They feel isolated, on an island. In that same way, K goes through that same journey where he’s his own island, because for him, he’s just trying to fit in somewhere. He’s willing to do whatever he can to fit in anywhere even if it means doing the wrong thing.
I think that’s a very unique experience, not specifically to Korean-Americans — but in this particular film, I think Korean-Americans will get that feeling.
Are you hoping to go back to Korea to make more movies? Perhaps work more with Korean directors when they come stateside to make movies?
I don’t know if there’s any impetuous for that. I would say Director Bong is rare. He can cut through a lot of cultures and split that right down the middle in a great way. I don’t know if that’s for everybody. I think part of the reason why that works for director Bong is he’s kind of his own unique thing. You can’t pinpoint him down to a style or an aesthetic. He just comes with himself. I think that’s the beauty of his work is that this film, nobody else could have made it like this. Would I love for there to be more collaborations between cultures? Absolutely. For sure, but it truly is not for everybody.
During the big chase scene in downtown Seoul, you guys are running from and chasing after a giant super pig as it’s skidding through the mall, but obviously it didn’t actually exist. How did that work, shooting in such a crowded city, stuff being knocked over all over the place by a non-existent animal?
We actually had a live pretty close to real size version of Okja. He just obviously didn’t run. It was more like a foam, but a well-built puppeteer-able kind of thing. It wasn’t like [CGI-placeholder] tennis balls or anything. We had three wonderful operators inside a very simple version of Okja. There was something to touch. There were things to hold onto. They did a great job that way.
You were cast in the movie adaptation of Chew, as the lead in the voice cast, and I’ve read you recorded your lines. But we did an interview with the creator, and he said it’s now not happening?
I don’t know. I’m kind of in the dark about it to be quite honest. We set out to do a recording of the first book to kind of use that to get into the live action version of the next dates, but I think we’re kind of in a limbo right now. I don’t know. I think the creators would probably be the best people to ask about that. I love Chew, Chew is great. I would love to do something with that. It obviously depends on how they’re going to execute that, but it’s a great property. John Layman is wonderful. I’m totally down.
I’m sure people still ask you about The Walking Dead, because people loved Glenn, and I bet some people still ask if he’s coming back.
Yeah, he’s super dead.
But do you still watch the show?
Yeah, I do. I still check in to watch my friends and see where they’re taking it. It’s wonderful. I definitely still watch it.