In her native South Korea, she’s a household name. Now making her American film debut as the loving and foul-mouthed grandmother Soonja in Lee Isaac Chung’s acclaimed family drama “Minari,” veteran actress Yuh-Jung Youn has become the first Korean nominated as supporting actress for a SAG Award. Many observers expect that, come March 15, she will add her first Oscar nomination to a celebrated 50-year career.
“My life is full of accidents,” Youn, 73, declared bemusedly over video chat last week, describing the instinctual way she’s made some of her boldest moves — and how in the mid-1970s she almost gave it all up, leaving a successful career in Korea to move to America with singer Jo Young-nam, whom she married and started a family with.
Focused on her new start, she figured her acting days were behind her. Then her marriage ended and she found herself raising young kids, desperately in need of a job. Youn contemplated working as a supermarket cashier in Florida. She checked the minimum wage. “It was $2.75 an hour. I said, ‘How could I manage paying the mortgage?’”
She was skeptical that Korean society at the time would welcome her back with open arms. But with the encouragement of a writer friend, Youn came out of retirement and went on to become one of the country’s most respected screen stars. “I was 38 at the time, and that was the turning point of my life, and being an actress,” she said with a smile.
Opening Feb. 12, more than a year after winning the top prizes at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival, “Minari” is named after the hardy Asian herb whose seeds Soonja brings with her when she arrives in rural 1980s Arkansas from Korea to live with daughter Monica (Yeri Han), son-in-law Jacob (Steven Yeun) and their young children, Anne (Noel Kate Cho) and David (Alan Kim).
Jacob is determined to see his American dream flourish, staking his family’s future on a stubborn plot of farmland. As the whole clan strains under the pressure, precocious David finds himself at odds with his unconventional grandma and her confoundingly Korean ways — until they bond over Mountain Dew, pro wrestling and a profound mutual understanding that grows into the beating heart of the film.
Lee Isaac Chung’s moving immigrant drama “Minari” is a gentle, truthful and tender story of family.
Having built a career around daring roles, Youn more recently forged a new path as a reality TV star with her own hidden camera show, “Youn’s Kitchen,” in which she runs a pop-up restaurant in other countries with fellow Korean celebrities, cooking for strangers who have no idea who they are. (A popular spinoff, “Youn’s Stay,” follows the actress and megastars like Choi Woo Shik of “Parasite” fame as they host a bed-and-breakfast-style guesthouse for visiting foreigners.)
Taking on her first non-Korean projects in recent years — including her guest run opposite Doona Bae on Lana and Lilly Wachowski’s Netflix drama “Sense8” — might also have to do with a deeper, more personal yearning. “My friend and I were talking a couple of days ago about why I’m coming back to the States, why I’m interested in projects overseas,” she mused. “Maybe it’s because my sons are Korean American and living in the States. Maybe, deep in my heart, if some kind of project will connect with America, then I’ll see them one more time.”
Youn dived into “Minari” and her long and varied career while waiting out a hotel quarantine in Vancouver, Canada, where she will soon film Apple TV+’s “Pachinko” series, adapted from Min Jin Lee’s bestselling novel, marking her third U.S. project to date.
After such a successful career acting in Korea, what made you say yes to “Minari,” this small American independent film?
A friend of mine who brought me the script said she knew Isaac very well and that he was a very nice guy. I understood why she said that, because I’d met him before I got the script, and he was such a nice guy. But being a nice guy doesn’t mean anything to do with the project. I started to read the script — it was written in English, so I had a hard time — and maybe 30 or 40 pages after that, to me it was very real. Very authentic. I called her back and said, “Is it his story? Is it a real story?” She said yes. So I said to her, “OK. I’ll do it.”
Why did it matter to you if this was a true story or that it was Isaac’s own story?
I’ve been in this business for such a long time, and when you read a script, you can tell the difference. His story touched me. I am going to be the first audience for a script, and unless I got touched by that script, there’s no reason to do it. That’s my feeling. I thought maybe it was his story. It was so authentic.
Alan Kim was 7 years old when he filmed ‘Minari,’ and now he finds himself in the midst of an awards campaign while going to Zoom school.
Did you find you related personally to Soonja or to other characters and perspectives in the story?
Different perspectives, because I don’t relate to Soonja at all myself. But everyone has a grandmother. And I thought about my great-grandmother. Because my grandmother passed away when I was really little, I didn’t have any memory with her. But my great-grandmother was still living when I was 10. I thought about her a lot. I had good memories, come to think of it now, but at the time, I didn’t like her very much at all.
She sacrificed her life for us during the Korean War. When I was a kid, I didn’t understand the situation at all. I thought she was trying to save everything for our family, even water. We didn’t have enough water after the war... and she tried to save that water. In order to save that water, she washed [with it] again and again. I thought that was very dirty. Stupid me. It still breaks my heart, and I feel so sorry for her. To think, “My grandma is very dirty. I don’t want to get close to her.” It’s terrible.
My great-grandmother was still living when I was 10. I thought about her a lot.
— Yuh-Jung Youn
Those are the kinds of things we often don’t realize until much later in life. What did you respond to in Soonja as a character?
[My] first question to Isaac was, because it’s his grandmother, should I imitate her? I’m sure he has vivid memories, but he said, “No, you don’t have to. It’s all yours.” I appreciated that very much. He gave me the freedom and space that I could create that character.
Festival audiences have really fallen in love with your costar Alan Kim, who was 7 when “Minari” was filmed. This was his first film. How did you establish your dynamic with him?
He didn’t have any experience acting, so I thought, “Wow — what am I going to do with this ignorant boy without him knowing, ‘Action?’” It’s going to be miserable.” But I was stupid. I didn’t have to worry about it. Our first scene was between him and me, and Isaac planned really well. [Kim] memorized all the lines, [and] in the scene, of course, he doesn’t have any affection for his grandmother. He doesn’t like me at all.
He was like a sponge. He just absorbed. Whatever instruction Isaac gave him as director, and with me, he was just himself. I’m the grandmother whom he doesn’t like. It was very natural, and I think it worked out really good.
You must have had fun moments together on the set of “Minari.” [Warning: Urine for a mild spoiler.] When David gets mad at his grandma and pranks her by peeing in her drink...
It wasn’t a problem. I knew they weren’t going to give me real pee. (Laughs) I did ask Isaac, “Did you really give pee to your grandmother?” Knowing Isaac, he’s a very humble and very genuine and sincere guy, so I cannot imagine. Of course, he was 7 years old at the time, but I couldn’t picture him doing it, or doing mean things to Grandmother. So I asked him personally, “Did you really do it to your grandmother?” And he said, “Yes.” I said, “Wow! You are so mean.”
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You were known for taking on daring roles even early in your career. When you first started out, what excited you about acting?
Most actors and actresses fall in love with a play or a movie, but not in my case. I was looking for a part-time job, actually. Back in the ’60s, television was new to Korea, and I had a chance to look around the station. A guy at the station asked me to do this: There was a famous emcee who had a program, and I was supposed to stand with him. If he asked me to bring a gift for the audience, I was supposed to bring the gift for the audience. That was my part, and they gave me good checks, so I said, “Wow, that’s nice.”
I kept going a short period of time, and then one guy from the station asked me to audition to be an actress. I said, “No. I cannot do that.” He said, “I guarantee, you will pass. Just read the lines in front of the camera.” So I did, and, of course, I passed. That’s why I started acting.
Was there a point when you did fall in love with acting?
Honestly, I’m not easy to fall in love with something. Maybe that’s why I stopped for a while. Because in my time, when you’re a certain age, you’re supposed to marry. That was the Korean tradition at the time — not anymore, but 50 years ago. I got married and thought, “Maybe this is the end of my career.” Later on, after I got divorced, I had to work. There was no work. I was kind of embarrassed; divorce was a big thing in Korea in my time. It was very sinful, getting divorced, so you couldn’t be on television or in public — it wasn’t said, but [it was in] the atmosphere.
I was coming back to the States because I had a house at the time. I took both of my two sons and put them in public school and thought, “Maybe I can work as a cashier at Publix.” Publix is a supermarket chain in Florida. I was thinking seriously and checked the minimum wage. It was $2.75 an hour. I said, “How could I manage paying the mortgage?” Then a writer friend of mine said, “Don’t be stupid. You’re very talented. You can work here. It’s not your fault you got divorced.” I said, “Do you think I can work again?” She said, “Sure. You don’t know yourself. You’re very talented, and you’re very different from others.” She encouraged me and gave me a role back in Korea. And from that time, I was thinking seriously about acting.
From that time, I think I really became an actor, because I worked so hard. I seriously practiced a lot and tried to think about the lines — why this line is supposed to be this way or that way. I was 38 at the time, and that was the turning point of my life and being an actress.
I was 38 at the time, and that was the turning point of my life and being an actress.
— Yuh-Jung Youn
What was your life in Florida like? Did you have your version of the American dream?
Most Korean people who had a dream of coming to the States at that time, in the early ’70s — it was about trying to live a better life. My life is full of accidents. The fiancé at the time, he was singing for the Billy Graham crusade in Korea. Billy Graham’s team asked him, “Why don’t you give up the secular singing and be a gospel singer?” They brought us to the States like presenters and found out I am an actress in Korea. They thought if I came to stay with the American people, in six months or so I would pick up English and could do religious movies with him. That was their plan.
It fell apart because they found out I couldn’t speak English. [I] kept being asked, “Who is your favorite actor?” At the time, I thought, “Robert Redford is very famous. And if I say Robert Redford — it’s too common, I think.” When you are young, you are so stupid. I rather would say a classic actor, so I said, “Montgomery Clift.” And he said, “Huh?” For six months, he couldn’t understand. So that project fell apart.
Some church offered [my husband] a scholarship studying the Bible, so we went down to Florida. That’s why I stayed in the States and had two kids over there.
Was it an easy transition for you to return to Korea?
We went back to Korea because he was still a famous singer and would have concerts from time to time in Korea. We were going to stay for like two years and see how it goes, but we ended up getting divorced. There was no choice. I didn’t think, “What is my plan?” I had to face the problem of feeding my two children. And I was very desperate — for acting or anything — raising two kids. I was desperate, looking for jobs. I would do anything at that time.
Do you consider yourself a brave person? Did you then?
I didn’t know then, but now looking back, I was a very courageous person, I think. Maybe I’m fearless. I don’t have any fear.
One might guess that just based on the roles you’ve chosen to play — even in your early works, like the [femme fatale thriller] movies you made with director Kim Ki-young in the ’70s, films like “Woman of Fire” and “Insect Woman.”
Around that time when I got the [“Woman of Fire”] script, I was getting kind of famous. Everyone noticed, “Oh, she’s different.” I got a lot of scripts from the movie industry, but to me, they were all the same things — you know the old story of the poor girl that falls in love with the rich boy and his family denies her, things like that. It was all boring to me, and then the “Woman of Fire” script came along. I thought, “Wow, this is different. I’ll play it.” I don’t like to get bored, I think.
Your first American project was the series “Sense8,” for the Wachowskis. How did that come to you? Had you decided to go out for American projects?
That was an accident. My friend and I were talking a couple of days ago about why I’m coming back to the States, why I’m interested in projects overseas. Maybe it’s because my sons, they are Korean American and living in the States. Maybe, deep in my heart, if some kind of project will connect with America, then I’ll see them one more time. A Korean casting director asked me to do the role and sent me the script, and I said, “This is too small.” Right before she hung up, she said, “I’d like to show foreigners that we have actresses like you in Korea. That’s why I called you about this small part.” She was speaking honestly, and to me, honesty is very important. So I said, “OK, I’ll do it.” That’s what happened.
I enjoyed it very much. [Lana] Wachowski very much appreciated my acting. The problem was, she added more lines. She’s the writer and the director, she’s everything. We had to do one scene in Berlin and she said, “Wow, you are a one-take wonder.” That was a very nice compliment from her.
“Minari” is being released, and you’re about to film “Pachinko.” Are you hoping this moment opens more doors for you to projects in the U.S.?
I don’t think I can speak English dialogue, because I’m not good at English, but I like challenges and new projects. And [“Pachinko”], I read the novel and I was really touched: “It’s me, and I can play this role really well.”
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In Korea, you have your own popular reality TV show, “Youn’s Kitchen,” in which you and fellow celebrities cook for strangers in other countries who have no idea that you are a famous actress. What kind of experience were you hoping to have when you said yes to that?
My problem is, if I believe in somebody, then all the way, without questioning, I just do it. The producer Na Young-Seok, I have trust in him, and he asked me to do it. Of course, he was saying I’m not going to work at all. I’m not a good cook. He said, “You don’t have to cook. Someone else will be cooking, you can just go to the beach and hang around, whatever.” That was all a lie.
Because I trusted him, and he was planning some new program — “OK, I’ll do it.” My problem is if I get a job or if I get a mission, then I’m not thinking about other things. I’m just concentrating. “I have to finish this.” I’m not a good cook, so you can imagine how much time I concentrate on that cutting board. I burned myself and everything. That’s why I think it succeeded, because they see me working so hard.
You say you’re not a good cook, but on that show you are so meticulous in your preparations.
Because I’m not good. I know I’m not good, so I have to just do it, follow the recipe and try not to make mistakes. That’s why. I am a good worker.
Was being a reality TV star something you ever thought you’d do?
No, I never even dreamed about it. Never thought about it. Everything is an accident. My life is an accident.
At Sundance in 2020, The Times invited young “Minari” star Alan Kim into its photo studio. Now he’s in the Golden Globes and Oscars races.
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