A few months ago, one of my colleagues named Tracey wrote about a certain casting call Steven Yeun turned up to. You can check that out here for context to this article. Steven Yeun’s recent interview with Vulture gives us an update and an insight into his perspective on that fateful audition where he met Bobby Lee.
Vulture’s E. Alex Jung asks Steven Yeun on what he thought about Bobby Lee wanting to yell at him for even auditioning for a five-line-part. Here’s what Yeun had to say:
To be honest, I don’t even remember. I love Bobby and I get where he’s coming from. That is the proper diagnosis of that situation. I’m not saying this to be toeing the line politically, but I don’t think it’s the casting director’s fault because that’s too easy. It’s also easy to say it’s the system’s fault. I think what happened is that we witnessed a specific incident that hasn’t happened again, in which Bobby pinged on how ironic and obvious the situation looked from the point of view of an Asian-American actor, and he called it out, rightfully so. He was like, “What are you doing here?” I disagree that I’m above that, but he’s right — different non-Asian actors have gotten those straight offers. I could sit here and justify it as much as I want to say it’s not skewed against us, but I think it’s much more complex of an issue as to why it’s skewed against us.
However, Yeun did not stop there, he continued to examine the issue whilst inviting us to look at the flip side:
I think a lot of the narrative these days has been about how much it’s skewed against us because the system and the people are biased against us, and that’s very true. But I think one narrative that’s always missing is, “Where have we contributed to that?” Where are we as Asian-Americans right now and how have we contributed either to that perception or the solution? I think we’re at a great, healthy place right now where people are calling out BS when they see it. We also have to be realistic about ourselves and say, are we, as an entire sub-section of America, representing ourselves in the best way we thought we were? Sometimes you can rely on the problem, as if to say, “This is why I’m not getting something,” and not look at the part that’s like, “Are you ready to get that thing? Are you prepared to get that? Have you been working hard to get that?” Because yes, do some white actors or other actors just show up without any prior experience and get the part? Yeah, it happens. Does it happen for us? No, very rarely, if at all. But we’re also sitting in a very specific place. We’ve been here for generations, but we’ve really only been here for two to three generations. We’re talking about the last wave of people. We can go into the history and talk about how many waves there’ve been, and there’ve been many. But you and I sit here as second-generation Koreans.
I think Yeun makes an important point as he addresses the limitations of Asian/Immigrant creativity and to see where that stems from, one of those aspects is certainly Hollywood’s glass ceiling. However, it’s worth looking at the cultural expectations and the relationship with the Arts as a career path for Asians and Immigrants. The desire to “fit in” contributes to the stereotypical roles in life and not pursuing and challenging those values sets us back. At the same time, there is no onus on everybody to challenge anything, everybody has to live a life true to themselves and that is where incremental progress should be the focus. Yeun continues:
How many kids have parents who let them do what I got to do? How many kids come from a situation where they were able to shuck the expectations of who they were, not just by their parents, but by the society they grew up in, and the collectivist culture we all grew up in? Even I struggle with the fact that I’d been doing what America told me I am without even understanding I was doing it.
This is the part that really speaks to me, Yeun’s fear of falling into the pocket that has been ready-made because it’s the easy thing to do. He argues:
“That’s where I feel like a lot of Asian kids are. I have hope for this next generation because they’re growing up in a different time and have different struggles. I would say that with our generation, you talk to a dude and sometimes they do the version of the Asian that they think America is telling them they’re supposed to be, and they don’t even know it. That’s where we have to be realistic: At what point are you circulating and fulfilling the cycle of our underrepresentation? Because what I will say is that they’re waiting for us. They’re super fucking waiting for us.”
The difficulty in fighting for equal representation lies in thousands of personal struggles and the tragedy of that fight is not everyone will make it, but if each new generation has more and more people of color taking those risks, then the pool of creative people that represent each ethnic group on the screen and behind the camera grows bigger.
Yeun talks about the rise of a new wave of people demanding representation on screen and meeting Hollywood in the middle in order to break the cycle:
“Let’s enter this arena — and when we do, let’s kick its fucking ass! They’re not wrong to complain, I think they’re right, but we’ve got to meet that in the middle so we can break the cycle, because other people aren’t going to break it for us”
And finally, did Yeun actually get that five-line role he read for?
No. [Laughs] I wasn’t right for it, man! I walked into it and went, “This is not mine.” […] It was to be a high-school principal, and I can’t be a high-school principal. I still look like a kid! Maybe a Teach for America principal or something. I could do that!
Here’s to breaking the cycle.
You can find Steven Yeun in Okja streaming on Netflix right now!