'Minari': How Steven Yeun’s immigrant experience inspired his Oscar-nominated performance (exclusive)

Freda Cooper
·Contributor
·3-min read

Watch Oscar-nominee Steven Yeun talk to Yahoo about Minari

After Parasite’s spectacular awards success in 2020, South Korean filmmakers are back in the spotlight, this time with the story of an immigrant family trying to build their own version of the American Dream in the 1980s. 

And in playing the pivotal role of the head of the family in Minari, actor Steven Yeun was able to draw on his own experiences as the son of immigrants, and those of his own father.

“I migrated to America with my family when I was four,” he explained to Yahoo Movies UK. 

Read more: Oscar Nominations 2021: Snubs, surprises and reactions

“Moving over to a new country certainly brought its own type of isolation. You’re untethered to your homeland and you’re in a new place, trying to carve out a new space for yourself.”

Watch a trailer for Minari

He described how his parents’ decisions and sacrifices have always influenced his life. “As the son of first generation immigrants, I feel the desire to make sure that I don’t let the boldness of their decisions go to waste, and choose to follow my own path individually as well. 

"And that is something that I deeply related to, both with my own father and in Jacob [his character in the film], that desire to create their own reality.”

The film follows Jacob and his family as they build a new life in Arkansas, following his dream of becoming a farmer and growing Korean produce. 

Steven Yeun, Alan S. Kim, Yuh-Jung Youn, Yeri Han, Noel Cho in Minari (Altitude)
Steven Yeun, Alan S. Kim, Yuh-Jung Youn, Yeri Han, Noel Cho in Minari (Altitude)

As well as reflecting the immigrant experience, it’s an intimate and tender portrait of multi-generational family life. Yeun compared the lives of the two children in the film to his own as a young boy. “For a lot of fathers, the language of how to convey their love gets mixed up with the desire to express their own duty and their value to their family,” he said.

Read more: Hollywood slams Golden Globes for categorising ‘Minari’ as Foreign Language Film

“That was something I experienced as a child, because my dad was always away, just trudging through work. Now I’m an adult, I can see the journey he had to go on and what the difficulties were in his life. I drew on that experience and Isaac [writer/director Lee Isaac Chung] has written something honest and true.”

Steven Yeun, Yeri Han, Yuh-Jung Youn in Minari (Altitude)
Steven Yeun, Yeri Han, Yuh-Jung Youn in Minari (Altitude)

Yeun’s acclaimed performance has earned him an Oscar nomination for Best Actor, alongside recognition from the Screen Actors’ Guild in the same category. His Oscar nod makes him the first Asian-American, and the first person of East Asian descent, to be nominated in this category. 

He originally came to public attention for his long-running role in TV’s The Walking Dead, which was followed by his critically acclaimed performance as a mysterious stranger in Burning (2018).

Steven Yuen in Minari (Altitude)
Steven Yuen in Minari (Altitude)

More Oscar recognition has come Minari’s way with an additional five nominations, including Best Picture and Best Director for Lee Isaac Chung. At the BAFTAs, it’s received six nods, including Best Film Not In The English Language and another nomination for Chung as Best Director.

Altitude will release Minari on demand and virtual cinemas in the UK and Ireland from this Friday, 2 April, in drive-in cinemas from 12 April and cinemas from 17 May.

To learn more, visit Minari.film.

Watch: Steven Yeun discusses his role in Amazon's Invincible