Steven Yeun is on the precipice of becoming the first Asian-American to be nominated for Best Actor in 93 years thanks to his outstanding performance in Minari. The film about a Korean-American family that moves to an Arkansas farm to live the American Dream is generating awards buzz for Yeun, but the former The Walking Dead star recently revealed that Hollywood is still struggling to properly tell stories about the Asian-American experience. “We don’t have that space of understanding carved out in society yet on what an Asian American story feels and sounds like,” Yeun told Variety.
While looking back at his early years as a Korean immigrant and an inspiring actor, Yeun opened up about his experiences with poor Asian representation that started all the way back with his first theater audition where he was asked to do an over-exaggerated accent:
The first audition I had in Chicago was called “Awesome 80s Prom,” which was an immersive improvised show, where you have this John Hughes spectrum of characters like Ferris Bueller. Then you have your “Long Duk Dongs,” and I auditioned with Ferris Bueller’s opening monologue. And they said, “that was good. Can you do that all again in an Asian accent?” And I’ll be honest with you. I knew that I didn’t want to do that. The system had no clue that’s not what I wanted. We were just in a different time. And so I remember I did a shitty accent and phoned it, and they still wanted me anyway because that’s how far and few between Asian actors were.
Despite landing his first audition, Yeun couldn’t stomach that it required doing the accent and he turned the offer down, which did not go over well. “Oh, that’s not a good first step in this business,” Yeun recalled. “I pissed somebody off.” Fortunately, things worked out as Yeun went on to land a fan-favorite role on The Walking Dead and now he’s looking very good for an Oscar nomination for Minari.