When Steven Yeun left his longtime role as the ill-fated Glenn on AMC’s mega-hit zombie apocalypse show The Walking Dead, he could have found it difficult to shake off that mantle. But at Cannes this year, Yeun has embraced a more unconventional thriller in the form of Lee Chang-dong’s Burning – loosely based on Haruki Murakami’s short story Barn Burning.
The choice to play the role of the mysterious and privileged Ben came easy to Yeun he said, since Chang-dong’s work had always resonated with him on a personal level. “Director Lee is one of my biggest inspirations and heroes,” Yeun said during an interview with Deadline at Cannes. “His films, for me, cross that culture as a Korean-American where I got to feel what Korea feels like through his films as a kid.”
The film follows protagonist Jongsu (Ah-in Yoo) and his crush on Haemi, (Jong-seo Jun), which is thwarted when Ben comes along. As Ben speaks Korean, preparation for the role was intense for Yeun. “Korean is my first language,” Yeun said, “but it’s not my primary language, and I had a lot of work to do with Korean, to memorize it all. Ben speaks pretty high-level Korean, so that took a lot of practice. It was a lot of work on that end, which I was happy to do. And it was actually really wonderful for me personally.”
Describing finding the role as “kismet,” Yeun said it emerged from a comment he made at Cannes last year. “I remember when we were doing press for Okja,” he said. “I kind of blurted out he [Lee] would be amazing to work with. I never thought anything of it. And then out of nowhere, I get a phone call, in the middle of the night. And they’re like, ‘Director Lee wants to talk to you because there’s something that he wants to see if you’re right for.’ He sends me the book, and I read the book. I love Murakami. I was like, ‘I think I have to do this.'”
For more from Steven Yeun, watch the video above.