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Steven Yeun Is Wary About Being Defined Only as ‘Asian American Actor’ Over Just an ‘Actor’

For Yeun, being labeled an "Asian American actor" risks putting him in "a weird box" that he'll have to crawl out of moving forward.

Steven Yeun in "Minari"

Steven Yeun in “Minari”


One of the biggest stories to emerge out of Oscar nominations morning in March was Steven Yeun becoming the first Asian-American actor to land an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor. Yeun is nominated for his performance in Lee Isaac Chung’s “Minari.” While the performer is honored to break down barriers, he’s also wary that being defined only as an “Asian American actor” comes with its own burdens. As Yeun discussed in a new cover story on “Minari” published by The Hollywood Reporter, he doesn’t so readily accept he’s an “Asian American actor” and not simply “an actor.”

As THR writes: “Yeun doesn’t seem particularly thrilled about his status as the first Asian American nominee for the best actor Oscar. ‘If I step out of myself and see what that moment might mean beyond just me,’ he remarks, ‘it’s cool that we get to establish new ground and that young Asian American kids can feel like this is possible for them, too.’ But personally, he confesses, ‘I’m just not reactive to it in any direction.’ He’s leery that such a high-profile achievement might end up a kind of burden, in which people view him as an ‘Asian American actor’ first and ‘actor’ second.”

“Sometimes a narrative around [identity] ensnares [you] and places [you] in a weird box that we have to then crawl back out of,” Yeun told THR, adding the same ideology extends to “Minari” itself as the film is only about “one facet of Asian America” and “doesn’t speak for all of it.” “It might even just speak for this one family, you know?”

Even in the weeks leading up to the 2021 Oscar nominations, Yeun was cautious to make a big deal about landing such a historic nomination. The actor said in an interview with Variety published last December, “It’s probably a bummer that that is the case. This is a hard one for me. As great as it would be to set a precedent or be part of a moment that breaks through a ceiling, I personally don’t want to be ensnared by that moment, either. The truth that I’m trying to understand for myself is who I am, individually.”

Yeun continued, “I’m happy to serve a larger moment for the community. And I’m happy to push narratives and show who we are because I am that, too. I am an Asian American and the pride I have for that is immense. But also, for me, it’s really about carrying my space and myself through this life and making sure that I tell it true from my perspective. But it would be awesome, and I hope that we can have many more of those and that it won’t be an issue moving forward.”

Yeun is nominated in the 2021 Best Actor Oscar race opposite Chadwick Boseman for “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” Riz Ahmed for “Sound of Metal,” Anthony Hopkins for “The Father,” and Gary Oldman in “Mank.” Yeun’s Best Actor nom is one of six Academy Award nominations for “Minari.” Other noms for the A24 release include Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, Best Original Score, and Best Supporting Actress for Yuh-jung Youn.

In the weeks following his Oscar nomination, Yeun has booked a role in Jordan Peele’s latest film project and has set up a new Netflix comedy series with Ali Wong and A24. Yeun fan can tune into the Oscars on Sunday, April 25 at 8pm ET on ABC to find out if he takes home the Best Actor trophy.

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