We’re less than a week away from the Golden Globe Awards now and I’m slowly making my way through most of the contenders. The one film that’s gaining momentum that I’ve yet to see – and I’m hoping to get a screener soon – is Lee Isaac Chung’s Minari, starring Steven Yuen. Minari was just named Best Picture by the New York Film Critics Online Awards and Best Original Screenplay by the National Board of Review. In addition, the NY Film Critics Online recognised Youn Yuh-Jung for Best Supporting Actress (tied with Ellen Burstyn) and NBR also awarded her with Best Supporting Actress (no tie). Right now, her chances are looking VERY good for an Oscar nomination – and if that happens, she would be the first Korean-born actor to ever be nominated for an acting Oscar. I will scream, I love her so much. I mean, of course, her acting work is obviously amazing but the reason I adore her is because she’s the star of a Korean reality show that I’m obsessed with called Youn’s Kitchen. I’m going to bookmark this right here and talk about that another time because it deserves its own post. The point of this post is Minari (which I’m dying to see), Sound of Metal, Steven, and Riz Ahmed, who interview each other for Variety’s excellent Actors on Actors series.
Riz, by the way, was named the NY Film Critics Online and NBR’s Best Actor so it seems like he’s a lock for that Oscar nomination and he could very well follow the path of Rami Malek, who won Emmys for Mr Robot before breaking through in film and eventually taking the Oscar for his performance in Bohemian Rhapsody. Like Rami, Riz won an Emmy for The Night Of and his work in Sound of Metal is one of the standouts of the year.
Both Riz and Steven have spent a lot of time in their careers not being the lead and not being offered too many lead roles, and to see them now, talking to each other over Zoom, rising at the same time, a South Asian man and an East Asian man… well… it hasn’t happened often. This is why, for some of us, it’s an event.
And their conversation doesn’t disappoint. Obviously different people will take away different things from this discussion but for me, there are two key ideas that they unpack together: limitation yielding versatility and codeswitching.
Riz brings up limitation first – which is the common ground for actors of colour: there are fewer opportunities and there is less imagination. These are two separate but related issues. BIPOC actors aren’t considered for as many roles, but people also don’t IMAGINE them being able to perform in a variety of different roles. Cate Blanchett, for example, they’ll put her in anything (and they have! she played Bob Dylan!) because she’s Cate Blanchett, and yes, of course, she is talented, but you could say the same of Sandra Oh, and I guarantee you Sandra’s not being perceived in the same way. Because, let’s be honest, that quality of being chameleon-like is attributed more to whiteness. BIPOC actors experience layers of restriction in this way: their race becomes the main thing about them on top of the chronic lack of representation.
But even though others may lack the imagination, BIPOC actors do not. In fact, playing everything and anything is what they’ve always imagined and attempted, which is an interesting by-product of disparity. It’s kinda like… storytelling. Stories – movies, books, television, etc – have historically been about men and white men, which is why the people consuming those stories have been able to empathise with men, understand men, sometimes at the expense of other demographics. In a similar way, BIPOC actors, or actors with disabilities or LGBTQ actors have had to imagine themselves occupying those roles, since they weren’t seeing themselves in the stories. And that experience, Riz and Steven argue, has actually made them MORE versatile. As Riz asks Steven:
“Do you feel like because of who you are, and how you may not fit a traditional mold as a Hollywood actor, that you had to become more versatile in playing a wider range of different things? And how is “Minari” different for you, in terms of being able to bring more of yourself to this role?”
And Steven’s response:
“I’m excited to talk about all this. Yes — you’ve got to do a little bit more work to be seen, I think, if the system doesn’t really know what to do with you. And the toughest part for me has been breaking through the pattern for myself. Luckily, I think my one skill that I do have is, I don’t really look before I leap — I just jump in and then figure it out. You’ve got to be versatile. I feel such a connection with you in that way. At least for me, the work feels a lot about servicing what’s in front of me. but ultimately, each time I take on a new role it ends up finding a truer version of myself — for myself.”
This moment, for me, watching them talk, was … I can’t explain it without sounding hyperbolic…but I felt totally exposed, in a good way. And the closest comparison I can make is probably juvenile and superficial – but still probably true to anyone who’s ever felt like an outsider: I understand the prom queen (blonde, tall, thin) more than the prom queen herself – because growing up in North America, in white spaces, that’s all I ever f-cking wanted to be, when so many influences around me suggested that that’s the best you could ever be. And this is exactly what Riz and Steven are articulating. The irony of being “not right” for all these parts because of their appearance…when they may actually know much more intimately and thoroughly what those parts are!
Which brings us to codeswitching, and how marginalised people present themselves differently in certain spaces to make their identities more palatable to the western status quo. In other words, you could say, that they – we – have been acting their/our whole lives. What is the cost of that codeswitching though? Steven’s explanation of it really resonates:
“Korean was my first language, but I moved when I was 5, and I slowly lost it over time. It was maintained because my parents kept it up in the house, but what was even worse was not only was I severed from my language and culture, but I was severed from my parents over time. My parents wanted to live in the safety, after they immigrated, of their little bubble of Korean Americans — Korean people in their region. And I was still trying to venture off into America and be a person.
In doing so, I just slowly drifted further and further away from my parents. There was a lot of love there, but there was not a lot of human exchange between all of us. It was mostly a verbal connection or a silent connection that was never realized fully on the surface. When I got to go to Korea and do “Okja,” do “Burning,” and then do “Minari” — what a trip.
That’s the greatest gift to me about acting: If you let it happen to yourself, the expansion that happens is massive. It feels like I can play anything and anyone. Perhaps I didn’t get to touch that when I was younger because I was busy mimicking.”
You don’t have to be Black or South or East Asian to relate to this. It’s the experience of so many from immigrant backgrounds. My husband Jacek is white, from Poland, came to Canada when he was five years old. And he too distanced himself from his background, he can understand Polish but he’s not as comfortable speaking it, because he was busy trying to build an identity in North America. Over the last few years, he has found himself closing that gap, reaching home, reconnecting to his roots. He and Steven Yeun are from two entirely different cultures but this is where they intersect, in this specific but universal way. If you have time, watch the Variety Actors on Actors video of Riz and Steven here. Pretty sure there’s something for everyone.