In Lee Isaac Chung’s Minari, actress Yuh-Jung Youn plays the grandmother who swoops in from South Korea to the small Arkansas town where her Korean-American family have made their home, delightfully disrupting their lives. With her abundant charm and unfiltered ways, she makes a significant impact in this heartwarming story of the American dream. The veteran actress made history when she became the first South Korean actress ever to receive an Oscar nomination in the Supporting Actress category. Here, she discusses forging a connection with a very American film, and how she is grateful, but somewhat stressed, by her nomination.
DEADLINE: Was being an actress always the ultimate goal for you?
YUH-JUNG YOUN: No, it wasn’t. It just accidentally happened to me, being an actress. I was actually looking for a part-time job, and back in the ’60s when Korean television was becoming famous, I was touring the station, and somebody suggested to me that I attend some kind of program. The moderator asked me to come stand beside him and hand some gifts to the audience. I said, “OK, I’ll do that,” and they gave me a check. Then one day, I ran into this other guy working for the drama department, and he asked me to audition and just to read lines in front of camera. I said, “No, no, no, no, no. I’m not person who could read the lines. I don’t know what the lines mean!” He just said, “Just read it.” He was the director of the station. So, I read the lines and that’s where I started.
DEADLINE: You had plenty of roles in South Korea, but Minari marks your first role in an American film. When you first read Lee Isaac Chung’s script, what was your reaction?
YOUN: Before I even read the last page, I found it very authentic. It touched me. I made the phone call to the person who gave me the script and asked if it was based on [Chung’s] real life, and she said yes, so I said, “OK, I’ll do it.” I’m a very quick decision-maker.
DEADLINE: How did you connect with the story?
YOUN: I connected it with my great grandmother. I was nine when she passed away, but I was really bad to her. The reason I didn’t like her—it’s very stupid now—but after the war, we tried to save a lot of things. We didn’t have enough of everything and we had a water shortage. My great grandmother tried to save the water. She used the used water again and I saw it and I felt like she’s dirty. That’s the reason why I didn’t like her. It’s like David [played by Alan Kim]. David doesn’t like my character because she smelled like Korea. That I understand, really. And then in every other situation, it felt natural and very realistic. I, myself am a grandma, so there was no problem playing that role with just a grandson, but the nice thing about Isaac was that when I asked him, “Should I imitate your grandmother or is there any specific gestures should I imitate?” he said, “No, no, no. You just play whatever you feel like to do.” So, he gave me the space and freedom and was very open-minded about that character.
DEADLINE: How was it having Alan Kim playing your grandson? He is quite charming.
YOUN: I enjoyed Alan because he was like a sponge. Firstly, he doesn’t have to like me, and I was a total stranger to him, so it wasn’t a problem. He was well prepared. I was kind of worried because of the experience of a seven-year-old boy, but my worry was all wrong.
DEADLINE: Seeing that this was your first American film, did you find major differences in the production process from your acting career in South Korea?
YOUN: I didn’t have any problem, but in Korea, I had a long career, more than 50 years. Everybody knows me. I’m not bragging about myself but…
DEADLINE: You should brag about yourself.
YOUN: In Korea, they know me [laughs]. They know what I don’t like and what I prefer on set. They know all the details. Here, nobody knows me. I was just nobody to them and I realized that I’ve been very spoiled in Korea.
DEADLINE: Hollywood is currently going through this change when it comes to representation of people from Asian, Black, Latinx and other marginalized communities, and then there is the violence against Asians which is terrible. Do you think this is a very American issue or do you think it spans across the globe?
YOUN: I think all the across the world. I think that the world is changing. My son, who is Korean American, is living in the States. He was worried about me coming to the States for the Oscars, because he was scared I would get hurt. He asked, “Don’t you need to have some guard or something like that?” It’s a sad thing. Just because you are Asian, there’s no reason to be attacked randomly like that.
DEADLINE: People in the U.S. call you the Meryl Streep of South Korea. Do you see that as flattering?
YOUN: I feel sorry for me and for Meryl Streep—she doesn’t know me [laughs]! To be honest with you, I don’t like to be compared with somebody. I don’t like to be the competition. I admire her work and everything, but there’s a story for her and there’s a story for me. I’m Korean.
DEADLINE: What does it mean to you to be the first South Korean actress to be nominated?
YOUN: Very stressful. I was just very happy being nominated. I never even dreamed about being nominated for an Oscar. People will be very happy for me if I get the win, but it’s very stressful. It’s not like I’m representing the country by going to the Olympics, but I feel like I’m competing for my country. It’s stressful.
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