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Steven Yeun makes Oscars history as first-ever Asian American lead actor nominee

Steven Yeun standing in a field with his movie family in "Minari."
Steven Yeun, foreground, stands with his movie family — Alan Kim, left, Noel Cho and Yeri Han — in “Minari.”
(David Bornfriend / A24)

Steven Yeun made history Monday morning with his Oscar nomination for his performance as Jacob, a Korean father who moves his family to a rural Arkansas farm during the 1980s, in Lee Isaac Chung’s “Minari.”

Yeun becomes the first Asian American to be nominated in the lead actor category. Despite “Parasite’s” historic wins last year, the Oscars, like much of Hollywood, has an abysmal record when it comes to recognizing Asian and Asian American talent.

The only other actors of Asian descent previously recognized in the lead actor category are Yul Brynner (“The King and I”) and Ben Kingsley (“Ghandi,” “House of Sand and Fog”). With Riz Ahmed’s nomination for his role in “Sound of Metal” Monday morning, the 2021 Oscars mark the first time that two actors of Asian descent are among the lead actor nominees. The British Pakistani Ahmed is also the first Muslim to be nominated for lead actor.

Yeun’s nomination comes on the heels of his nomination as male actor in a lead role at the SAG Awards, where the film ensemble and supporting actress Yuh-Jung Youn also scored nominations.

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Steven Yeun posing in a gray sweater
Steven Yeun made Oscar history thanks to his performance in “Minari.”
(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

Best known for his tenure as Glenn in the long-running “The Walking Dead” as well as his acclaimed performance in 2018’s “Burning,” Yeun has spoken about his personal connection to “Minari” and the early pressure he felt around the role in a story rarely told in American movies.

“We’re still navigating a business and a career and an art form that doesn’t really have a lot of Asian Americans in it,” Yeun previously told The Times. “That’s changing. But it also leaves us with no real road map. So then every step feels new. Every step feels like frontier. I found pride for that lately.”

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Youn, a veteran Korean actress, also scored her first Oscar nomination Monday morning, for actress in a supporting role. She portrayed the foul-mouthed, wrestling-loving grandmother in “Minari” and is the first Korean performer to be nominated in any acting category.

Youn, a household name in South Korea, made her American film debut in “Minari.” It was reading and feeling the authenticity in Chung’s script that persuaded her to board the project.

“Never in my dreams did I ever think a Korean actress would be nominated for an Oscar, and I can’t believe it’s me! I am incredibly humbled by the honor,” Youn said in a statement Monday morning. “Thank you so much AMPAS, A24, Plan B, my Minari family and our entire cast and crew. We made this film with love, and I thank you for loving us back. And thank you, Isaac. This is all because of you!“

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Minari” premiered at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival, where it won both the grand jury and audience awards, and has been a critical darling, picking up a number of nominations from various critics organizations throughout the awards season. Last month it won the Golden Globe for foreign-language film, despite criticism of how the film was categorized.

The 2021 Oscars will take place April 25 and will air live on ABC at 5 p.m. Pacific.

Including ‘Minari’ and ‘Nomadland,’ there are multiple projects that scored historic 2021 Oscar nominations. Here’s a helpful guide.


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