While Yuh-jung Youn is a well-known actress in South Korea and across Asia, Minari can be considered her American film debut. And what a debut it is! As Soonja, the grandmother who comes to rural Arkansas to assist Jacob (Steven Yeun) and Monica (Yen Hari) with their children, Youn delivers an often hilarious and ultimately tragic performance that has gained notice from nearly every critics group during this awards season.
In our conversation, we talk about all the fresh attention she’s earned since Minari was screened for critics last year, as well as what it was like to film in the blistering heat on set and what it was like to play a character with such a challenging arc.
Awards Daily: How did you come to the project?
Yuh-jung Youn: Through my friend, she introduced me to Isaac. I met him before we started this film on a different occasion. He was teaching at the University of Utah, and he asked me to do a Q&A with his students. The first question had to do with my first movie, which was back 50 years ago, so I was really surprised. Being his age, how could he remember my first movie? So I was impressed. Then later I found out that he wrote this script Minari, and my friend sent it to me. Even with my lack of English I tried to read the script. And 30 or 40 pages later I called my friend back and asked ‘Is this a real story?’ She said ‘Yes.’ So to me it was very authentic and genuine, so I said, ‘Okay I’ll do it.’
AD: You’ve had a long successful career in cinema, you’re just not well known here in America. What was it like coming over to Oklahoma and filming in such a rural setting? Was it unique for you?
YJ: Well, I experienced a little of America living in Florida, back in ’75 to ’82 or something. [Laughs] So, I had a taste of the southern part of America. So it did not surprise me. But the weather was just hot and humid, and I was sweating every day. [Laughs]
Other than that, it was not very different from Korea. After all, it’s the same thing. We try to do our best between camera and actor and director. It was not much different. I thought maybe the Hollywood thing was glamorous, but it wasn’t. [Laughs]
AD:A trailer in the woods is not glamorous, is it? [Laughs] So, when you come into the film, you bring a kind of lightness to the film and almost a kind of comic relief. Did you feel like part of your job was to inject this lighter feeling and a sense of humor?
YJ: No, I didn’t plan on that. Nowadays, as I get older there aren’t many roles for an old actress. But, now I get to focus on who I work with. The people are important to me. But my dear friend introduced me to Isaac and I trust her, and so I had faith in Isaac.
AD: Your character is able to help the family so much when you first come into the film, but then your character has a stroke. After that everything changes about your character. Was it difficult to play that sort of affliction?
YJ: It was difficult physically trying to remember which part of the body I shouldn’t use. [Laughs] I learned that in Korea. A neurologist came to my house and they showed me a lot of YouTube videos, and he actually performed in front of me which parts to drop, how to walk, how to drop one side. On set in America, there was no one to correct me if I was doing it wrong. But luckily there was very good editing, and I did okay.
AD: I think you did a little better than okay. [Laughs] Well, when you finally saw the movie, did you feel it was what you expected it to be? Was there a big difference in what you thought it would be when you first read the script and what came out?
YJ: The first time I saw the movie was at Sundance. Before that, I hadn’t seen it because I went back to Korea and didn’t have a chance. We had discussed the ending scene a lot because the original script was different, and it had a different ending. I kept telling Isaac ‘This is the ending you should do, the original ending’ but Isaac—he’s a very wise man—said ‘yes, of course I understand this point of view, but we will do it this new way.’ Isaac and Steven (Yeun) were right. Their thinking was different than mine. When I saw it, it was a lot better than what I thought. My theory was wrong!
AD: The fire scene is so heartbreaking, because your character wants to do something useful—
YJ: Yes, yes.
AD: But in doing so, she accidentally starts this disastrous fire. What was it like to film that sequence?
YJ: The sequence was very physical. We had to do it in just one take because the flame is not listening to the director. You cannot say ‘Action!’ and the flame will go this way or that way. It was so intense, and we were so nervous about what was going on that Isaac forgot to say ‘Cut!’ So here I am putting out the fire, waiting for Isaac to say cut. Anyway, I survived all right.
AD: Having seen the film now, what has it meant to you personally to be a part of this movie?
YJ: Nowadays, I’m very proud to be a part of it. But Sundance was my first time seeing this film, and me being an actress all I can see is ‘Why would I do that?’ Or ‘I could have done this better than that.’ I cannot enjoy the movie at all. Maybe the second or third time I will enjoy it. But the first time I didn’t enjoy it at all. [Laughs]
AD: How does it feel to be part of a production here in America that has been so successful, and that has been responded to so well?
YJ: Honestly, I was just shocked. When we made this film, we didn’t plan to have this much attention. I didn’t plan to have some kind of award from America. Golden Globe or Oscars is what we watch on the television. It’s not my life. Now they’re talking about awards, and I don’t know how to describe the feeling or how to react. That’s my honest feeling.
AD: People talking about you being nominated and being on top ten lists and talking about awards—I know you say it’s shocking but I’m sure it’s got to be gratifying to have people appreciate your work so much.
YJ: I’m very grateful, but I’m still not sure. When you interview someone you have to say nice things, so I don’t know if people are just being polite! People keep saying I got the award from here and there, talking about trophies but where is the award? There are no trophies! I am sure they’re not lying, but I still don’t believe it. I heard we were nominated for a best ensemble award. We did have an incredible ensemble together. Because we filmed together. We ate together. We shared everything together. So that we had a great ensemble. That is something I am sure about.
Sasha, Ryan, and Clarence have been stuck with me since April 27, 2018. Co-creator (with Ryan Adams) of the Reframe feature, staff writer, interviewer du jour, and a proud member of GALECA and the Indiana Film Journalists Association. I also scribe on boxing at NY Fights. My essay "My Black Grandpa" was shortlisted as "Best of Folklore" by The Bitter Southerner in 2018. My first work of fiction, "Eat 'Em Up, Tigers!" was published in Detroit Stories Quarterly in the 2020 summer edition.