Steven Yeun finds rage and bitterness in ‘Beef’

Written by Anna Buss, produced by Joshua Farnham

Netflix series “Beef.” Video courtesy of YouTube.

Actor Steven Yeun says he doesn't like to repeat himself by testing new roles. After a breakthrough acting performance on “The Walking Dead” series, he branched out into a wide range of films, including the brooding Korean-language film “Burning,” and most recently, he starred in Jordan Peele’s 2022 UFO thriller, “Nope.” While those were more intense characters, he also voiced Speckle in the animated series “Tuca and Bertie.”

“The lighter stuff for me right now feels like something that would be so fun and I'd be so down for, but I think I still got a lot more processing of things to do, so I'm excited for these things, too,” he says. 

But when he was cast in Lee Isaac Chung’s “Minari,” a film about a Korean family moving to the United States to start a farm in Arkansas in the 1980s, it was nerve-racking because he was afraid of not living up to expectations.

“That was the first script that I read that I could relate to in a cultural way, that I was like, ‘Wow, this is just about these people existing.’ So for me, the decision didn't feel too difficult, [but] I was definitely scared,” he recalls. “My fear was that I was going to totally ruin this project.”

Turns out, he didn’t ruin it, and he ended up making headwaves when he was named one of 100 Most Influential People of 2021 after becoming the first Asian American to be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actor for his role in the 2020 drama – an accolade he says he still needs to process. 

“To take it all the way to experiencing the Oscars like that, I was just like, ‘Wow! This film just keeps going.’ I think we all need to have a post-mortem powwow with the cast and crew.”

“Minari,” a Plan B production distributed by A24, ended up receiving 249 nominations and winning 121 awards, including Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role for Korean actress Youn Yuh-jung for her role as the grandmother who comes to rural Arkansas to assist Jacob (Yeun) and Monica (Yen Hari) with their children.

More: Filmmaker Lee Isaac Chung was ready to walk away from ‘Minari.’ Then producer Christina Oh read his script

Now, Yeun’s new series “Beef” is also getting rave reviews. The limited Netflix program reunites him with two other “Tuca & Bertie” alumni: Ali Wong, who voiced Bertie, and Lee Sung Jin, or “Sonny,” as Yeun calls him, was co-executive producer of the animated series before he created “Beef.”   

“I'm so lucky to have worked with Ali [Wong], and for us to kind of be together on this. It's a great squad,” Yeun notes.

While Yeun had connected with Wong before, when they worked on “Tuca and Bertie” they recorded their voices separately, so he didn’t get to really know her.  So, whenever he went to the set of the series, he would get excited to play his scenes with her because, he says, she was realistic, gracious and honest about “entering into a new expression of herself” that people might have not seen. Wong is better known for “Ali Wong: Baby Cobra,” “Always Be My Maybe” and “Birds of Prey.”

“Talking to her… I just was just straight up saying, ‘I really don't know, anything you don't know. I'm just as worried as you are,” he says. “For us that was a really cool bonding moment of just maybe laying down any guard that might have been assumed to be up… and we [were] down for each other.”

Their bonding comes alive in “Beef,” which unfolds when Yeun’s struggling, blue-collar character Danny clashes with Amy (Wong), who’s working on a deal that will make her truly rich. Their first encounter happens on a road-rage incident that turns into a bitter and wildly escalating feud.

More: Director Lee Chang-dong and actor Steven Yeun on ‘Burning’

While the darkly-comedic story adds yet another color to Yeun’s palette, he realizes the traumas of the immigrant experience presented in “Minari” and “Beef” are a universal reflection of the struggle of living under “hard capitalism” whether someone is Korean American or white. 

“We're all in it, and we're all made by this place,” he explains. “So the thing that's been really cool, is to explore this in depth in our specificity, and then kind of realize that this is applicable to everyone and people are all experiencing something like this.”

When the production wrapped, however, Yeun and Wong broke out in hives. 

“My back and my shoulders and my neck were just like, up to my ears the whole time… that's not, not part of me,” so, “I did feel this real comedown of having to hold all that tension for so long,” he affirms. 

Yeun says there was a lot of excitement for the story specially because Lee had created a roadmap of the story from beginning to end, which made their pitching around town easy. Netflix approached the A24 production and ended up making them “an incredible offer.”  

“They were just gung ho from the very beginning, and they just put it on the table and were like, ‘We want to do this,’” Yeun, who is also an executive producer in the series, says. “You really gravitate towards people that are gung ho. It felt safe in that way, and the process with them has been really wonderful.”

Yeun’s career has also been zig-zagging. He has been cast to play superhero The Sentry in Marvel’s upcoming “Thunderbolts,” which will involve several “Beef” alumni: Jake Schreier, who directed some of the series’ episodes, Grace Yun, its production designer, Harry Yoon, one of the its editors, and Lee, who wrote a draft of the film’s script. 

“For me, it was kind of a chance to work with everybody again, and that was really exciting,” he says. 

And adds, “The character that [they] wanted me to explore was just someone that I could understand and was interesting, [so] it felt like the next natural zig or zag to be, just lucky enough to keep doing this. I kind of feel amazed by it.”




Kim Masters


Joshua Farnham