A conversation on peninsula mentality, emotional pasta sauce and the realities of road rage between Emmy nominees Steven Yeun & Michael Imperioli. Watch Beef now streaming on Netflix!
Topics covered include: The Sopranos cast being sore losers at their first Emmy Awards, hyperbolic reviews, the extremes of Hollywood, getting recognized in Best Buy, only eating Subway sandwiches the entire time Steven shot Burning in Korea, long lost aunts, Michael experiencing an emotional pasta sauce on his first trip to Rome at 25, sprezzatura, the parallels between Christopher Moltisanti and Danny Cho, searching for meaning, breaking generational patterns, playing unlikeable characters with a profound sense of vulnerability, the realities of road rage, and Italian Korean fusion food.
Michael Imperioli: So we should introduce ourselves?
Steven Yeun: Is that usually…
Michael Imperioli: All right?
Steven Yeun: All right. Hi, this is Steven Yeun.
Michael Imperioli: And this is Michael Imperioli, and today we're talking on the A24 Podcast. Where are you today?
Steven Yeun: I'm in my house in LA. How about yourself?
Michael Imperioli: In LA? Yeah, I'm in my house in New York.
Steven Yeun: Right on. It's really cool to talk to you.
Michael Imperioli: Same here.
Steven Yeun: Yeah.
Michael Imperioli: Same here. This is very cool. How long have you lived in LA?
Steven Yeun: I am originally from Michigan. I moved here 2009, and I got here and then I booked a show that took me to Atlanta for seven years. So, I've been like in and out of this place. I did the whole, "I hate this place,” for a while and I'm back to, "I like this place." Fine.
Michael Imperioli: You did a show meaning The Walking Dead, right?
Steven Yeun: Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. Walking dead.
Michael Imperioli: That show.
Steven Yeun: That show.
Michael Imperioli: Where in Michigan. Where are you from?
Steven Yeun: I'm from Detroit Suburbs, Troy, Michigan.
Michael Imperioli: I lived in Royal Oak for a while.
Steven Yeun: Oh, you did?
Michael Imperioli: For a year.
Steven Yeun: For work?
Michael Imperioli: Yeah. I did a series in 2010, 2011.
Steven Yeun: Oh, amazing.
Michael Imperioli: We shot in Detroit, in the city. We made a studio out of some warehouse in Highland Park, but I lived in Royal Oak and, you know, drove-
Steven Yeun: Oh, that's amazing.
Michael Imperioli: ... which is very, not far from Troy.
Steven Yeun: Not at all. Royal Oak is a nice place to get the real culture of Michigan. What did you think of Michigan? You could be honest.
Michael Imperioli: I liked it a lot until it got really, till it got cold. It got very-
Steven Yeun: It's brutal.
Michael Imperioli: ... dismal, gray, and really cold. It was hard for me because my wife and kids were in New York. They came for the summer because the job started in the summer and the summer's quite nice there. There's lakes not far away and, you know, it's kind of like Royal Oak's like small town life. It was really nice. And then they went back to New York for school, and I would try to get back when I could because I was the lead of the show. So I worked all the time.
Steven Yeun: Oh, wait. It was Detroit 1-8-7, right?
Michael Imperioli: Yes, Detroit 1-8-7.
Steven Yeun: Yeah.
Michael Imperioli: So I would fly home sometimes. You know, we did like “Fraturdays.” Like, all night, Fridays, and then I'd get on the first plane Saturday and go home and fly back Sunday afternoon and go back to work Monday at six in the morning. I'd do that twice a month.
Steven Yeun: How old were your kids at the time?
Michael Imperioli: Let's see. The youngest was 8; the middle was 12... No, 13, and my oldest was 20. Actually, my middle was on the show, a couple of episodes.
Steven Yeun: Oh, sick.
Michael Imperioli: He played my son.
Steven Yeun: Can I just say, like, from afar, and I know nothing of your life, but from afar, I very much admire what feels like a really balanced, real life, doing this very strange, at times, work. And, that's, like, so cool. I'm sure it was not easy, but much, much respect.
Michael Imperioli: Yeah. Well, thank you. Yeah, my kids are now all adults and live on their own. So that period's over with living with the kids and raising them. But I got lucky because I had a long stretch where on The Sopranos, I was in New York where we were living at the time, so I got to come home every night. So that was really quite a long stretch of time. And, then-
Steven Yeun: Can I ask, did being on something like Sopranos and being able to do Goodfellas and kind of having... I feel like maybe, perhaps there was a slot for an Italian American existence to already exist, but you were part of the forming of, like, an even more nuanced reality. Does that make it easier at times or harder for you to kind of be a pioneer of that life in a way?
Michael Imperioli: Well, you know, it's an extension of what would turn me on in the business, because it was movies from the '70s and early '80s. Some of whom were made by Italian Americans like Coppola and Scorsese, and actors like, you know, De Niro or Al Pacino, who were heroes of mine, you know. So I definitely had aspiration towards those things. You know, the Italian American acting community in New York is kind of small. There's a lot of Italian-Americans in New York, but the actual acting community is kind of small. So a lot of us, before Sopranos knew each other from other jobs. You know, Goodfellas and some of Spike Lee's stuff and other things.
So when Sopranos hit, a lot of us were already friends. I mean, two of the actors on The Sopranos I knew from when I was a teenager in acting classes. So it kind of felt like a real victory in a way that people you can't... Only really, Lorraine Bracco was really the only star when the show started. Everyone else was kind of in the same boat, done a lot of work, character actors. People knew you a little from here and there. But it felt like a victory when that became a success, and a lot of us who knew each other, you know, had that together. That was really cool, you know, and really fun and that it was so embraced that way.
Steven Yeun: Did you have difficulty that first season of, like, kind of maybe not how it was received, but I heard from Sonny who created our show that they didn't quite fully understand Sopranos that first season when it came out?
Michael Imperioli: You mean the audience, or the-
Steven Yeun: Well, not, maybe not the audience, but maybe the industry, or maybe life at large, or it wasn't celebrated at the way it is now where we're like that.
Michael Imperioli: It was critically celebrated right away. Right? When it went on the air, the reviews were really off the charts to the point where Saturday Night Live did a spoof that first season on the reviews of The Sopranos, because the reviews were really hyperbolic-
Steven Yeun: Right.
Michael Imperioli: ... and over the top, you know. And, people started watching. You know, I think it was the industry itself, we were nominated for best show that first year, and we were the only cable show really, that was nominated for pretty much anything.
But The Sopranos didn't win best show until I think it was season five, which in hindsight, considering it, like, is always on the list of one of the best shows ever. Now, in hindsight, and all these younger people who got turned onto it, the fact that the first four years it lost best TV series to, mainly to The West Wing and The Practice, I think were the shows that were beating it at the time. Maybe NYPD blew that first, maybe not, though. That might've been on the way out. So, industry-wise, it was a little slow and we were such sore losers. Like, we went out to the Emmys and we thought we were going to win, because it did make such a splash that first year, and when we lost best show, we all walked out.
Steven Yeun: I love it. I love it.
Michael Imperioli: We got up in the Emmys and walked right out, all of us.
Steven Yeun: That's awesome.
Michael Imperioli: We were just so pissed off. Really, we're very sore losers and, you know, overly cocky. But yeah, it was an interesting time and it kind of built over time.
Steven Yeun: I don't know. I feel like that feels so justified and also part of the process of being brave enough to put a show like that out to begin with.
Michael Imperioli: Yeah, and it was, I'll tell you the truth. We did the pilot first, and when I read the pilot, you can't really tell how kind of complex and where it would go. The pilot was fun and interesting, but you really didn't get a sense of the possibilities. And I wasn't really sure the tone of the pilot, was it a spoof, because there was a lot of very funny things. HBO series was not a prestige thing by any stretch of the imagination. It was actually the opposite. It was almost like the minor leagues of series.
Steven Yeun: Interesting.
Michael Imperioli: It really was.
Steven Yeun: Wow.
Michael Imperioli: There was no prestige about it. It was really kind of like second place to network TV network. I mean, I hadn't done much television. I had mostly done theater and movies, mostly independent movies. So it was like a series where there's violence and profanity and nudity. It really didn't have much promise, like, as something commercial. So we were kind of surprised, actually, that it got picked up. Then when we did the first season, that's when you really saw after getting script after script, you're like, "Whoa, wait a second. This is way beyond what I thought it was or could have been." And it got really interesting. What was the kind of parallel for you with Walking Dead? Like, did that immediately take off? Was it a slower...
Steven Yeun: Well, for that one, for me, I was so just on a ride that I think if I look at it from a meta level, there was the ride that it took me on in terms of just being a part of something like that where most everybody was unknown. We got to work with Frank Darabont, which was incredible. And then to feel, I remember that's the first thing I'd ever really been on and to have the rumbling while we were shooting episode three, people were like, "This is really good." I don't know. I don't what that means. I'm listening to Jeff Dean Morgan. He wasn't saying that because he was wise enough not to say stuff like that, but there were people that were like, "This is feeling really good."
I was just enjoying it, and that took me on a seven-year ride where I got to see maybe not all the extremes of Hollywood, but I got to touch a lot of things. I saw a lot of things. I don't mean that in some way of, I saw some dark nefarious stuff. I just mean more like, "Oh, I see how this business can be psychologically difficult at times. It can be emotionally draining. It can be a weird social reality." I experienced a lot in a short period of time, very quickly. I'm just grateful for that experience. I got to act being a Asian American guy, being a Korean American guy, in a post-apocalyptic reality where nobody cared that I was Korean American before the world had even caught up to that idea.
I feel like if I had gotten maybe the other pilots that I was close to, which were office comedies or something that was rooted in our current reality, I don't know if I would've been able to see myself as clear. I think I could have been very easily reduced to the role that someone that looks like me should inhabit in a reality that makes sense. I would have just bought into it, because I was young and impressionable and-
Michael Imperioli: You want to work?
Steven Yeun: I want to work. Yeah. I was like, "What do you want me to do? Do you want me to be a plucky assistant. I'll be a plucky assistant." But then to have this carte blanche in a way to really grow my character over time. It was weird, unintentional therapy for me of kind of deconstructing the way that I viewed myself as a person in this place, looking the way that I do. So I-
Michael Imperioli: You mean in the industry or?
Steven Yeun: In the industry, and at times, in real reality, too. I came up doing Second City Theater and-
Michael Imperioli: In Chicago.
Steven Yeun: In Chicago, and I had a great time. Those are some of my favorite years where when you're doing improv, nobody cares also what your ethnicity is. They're just kind of like, "We're just playing make believe, make them ups." So we're just fucking around. I appreciated that. But then once things got scripted in sketch world, then it became hyper-aware of what you are able to play and how the joke is actually crafted around the way that you are and look. And the comedy was very rigid in that way where you're self-aware of yourself.
But for me, I was a young kid. I was not self-aware like that. I was just kind of like, I wasn't even in this confident place to properly make fun of myself from a confident place. I was just leading with self-deprecation as this payment to be around in a way, if that makes sense. And so it helped me really detox a lot of that stuff. Yeah. That was my experience on Walking Dead. It was a very strange trip that I'm very, very, very grateful for.
Michael Imperioli: Was it a hit right away?
Steven Yeun: Yeah.
Michael Imperioli: It was, wasn't it?
Steven Yeun: Yeah.
Michael Imperioli: Yeah. Pretty much out of the box.
Steven Yeun: It popped off. It was like one day I walked into a Best Buy, nobody cared, and then the next day they were like, "Are you the guy?" Then I remember feeling so shocked at that. It kind of fucked me up, but I dealt with it. We're good. Yeah.
Michael Imperioli: Yeah, there's an abruptness to those things that's-
Steven Yeun: Truly.
Michael Imperioli: ... like with The Sopranos, I had been around a bit, and Goodfellas was a very popular movie, so people would know you from here and there. But all of a sudden it got very, very different, very quickly.
Steven Yeun: Because of TV.
Michael Imperioli: That kind of consistency of TV.
Steven Yeun: Yeah, and you're in the intimacy of people's homes.
Michael Imperioli: Yeah.
Steven Yeun: Yeah.
Michael Imperioli: There's definitely a period of adjustment to that.
Steven Yeun: Yeah. Did that go well for you? Was that easy for you?
Michael Imperioli: I don't know. I wouldn't say easy. It was interesting. When the Sopranos hit, it was before social media and really before everyone had phones and the capability to video and take pictures all the time, which was probably a good thing.
Steven Yeun: Yeah. Oh my God.
Michael Imperioli: There was a little bit more anonymity, especially when you have young kids. There’s a little, I mean, now, it's a lot more relaxed, but the kids were young when the Sopranos hit. Actually, my youngest wasn't even born, he was born in 2001, and there's a balance to wanting to protect them and some privacy and things like that. And them kind of navigating that as well.
Steven Yeun: Yeah. I'm finding that with my kids, but they're young. But they’re also-
Michael Imperioli: How old are your kids?
Steven Yeun: Six and four.
Michael Imperioli: Oh yeah, you're in deep.
Steven Yeun: Yeah, I'm in deep. Do you see the bags under my eyes?
Michael Imperioli: That's the beginning. Yeah. It goes very quickly, believe it or not. It doesn't seem like it in the midst of it. But it's wonderful. Those are wonderful ages.
Steven Yeun: We're having a great time.
Michael Imperioli: Of course.
Steven Yeun: That's what I meant earlier too of just seeing from afar and making a lot of assumptions about how to navigate that stuff. But, I always appreciate when I see an actor that feels like you're doing your best, but going home every weekend, that's not easy. That’s not easy.
Michael Imperioli: No, no, it's not. But you make it work, right? They would come out when they could and on vacations if I was on location. After The Sopranos, I was on location a lot and sometimes out of the country or different parts of America. You just do your best.
Steven Yeun: Yeah. What was that like to do Sopranos and then do all this great work in between and then, not that they're completely tangential or completely mixed, but it felt like that must've been so fun to go to Italy for White Lotus. I don't know. I'm assuming.
Michael Imperioli: Well, yeah. I mean I was pretty much, when they said there was interest in me for Season Two of White Lotus, I had not seen Season One. I had heard it was really good, but they said, "Well, it shoots for four months in Sicily," and I was immediately like, "Unless this is horrendous, I'm going to want to do it, obviously." I had been to Sicily before and I've been to other parts of Italy many times and I have family that still lives in Italy. We had actually been to the place where we filmed in Taormina. And I always wanted to work, I had not worked, well, we shot a Sopranos episode in Naples. That was the only time I worked there, but I was dying to do a gig there, and that was a real thrill. And we shot in a small town. Taormina is relatively small. Especially in the summer, it gets very busy because it's a touristy place, but when we were there, from the end of February, it was very quiet and we kind of had the town to ourselves in a way and really fell into the rhythm of that small town Sicilian lifestyle, and it was really fun.
Steven Yeun: Oh my God, you guys got an old world rendering of that place.
Michael Imperioli: Yeah.
Steven Yeun: Maybe that has never happened before.
Michael Imperioli: It was very exciting because the hotel where we shot was closed except we were there, the crew and cast and the staff. So we were living there and shooting there, which was incredibly fun to take the elevator to work. It was pretty.
Steven Yeun: Did you become weird de facto tour guide? Did they make you tour guide or you were like, "Nah, I'm just going to do my own thing"?
Michael Imperioli: We did little day trips and you can take the train really easily there. There was somebody on the crew who really knew everywhere to go that was from there and really helped us out. But you find a handful of cool places, and when I'm on location, I like to find one, two, three good places and then just go there all the time. They get to know you.
Steven Yeun: Same.
Michael Imperioli: They take care of you and you always get a seat. That's what I like to do, and I did that in Sicily. You try a few and whatever's good you just keep going and you make friends and you tip well and then you have friends. And it's nice. I think our job is a really nice job to travel with because you go somewhere and you immediately meet people from that place because a lot of our crew are Italian, and you meet people from that area who know it. Very different than going as a tourist. That's one of the benefits I think of what we do.
Steven Yeun: And it feels like too I've gotten to work in Korea a couple of times, and every time I go back I feel like there's a part of my body that shifts or maybe the easiest way to be like, "Oh." There's a part of my consciousness that opens up, but I also feel like it changes my genes or something when I go back to Korea and work there for a long time.
Michael Imperioli: When was the first time you went to Korea?
Steven Yeun: So I was born in Korea.
Michael Imperioli: Oh, you were born there. Okay.
Steven Yeun: Yeah, but I moved when I was four, so I was very aware of having moved. And then I didn't go back, I went back periodically when I was in eighth grade and a little bit in college, and I didn't go back for 10 years. And then I got to go back professionally to shoot this movie called Okja and then I got to do this succession of other Korean projects of Okja, and then I got to do this other film called Burning there. Doing Burning there really kind of unlocked my brain a little bit, just feeling that place and being there. And, yeah, I probably did a blasphemous thing, but my character at the time in that movie was such kind of like a ritualistic person, so I just ate Subway every day. Which-
Michael Imperioli: In Korea?
Steven Yeun: In Korea, yeah. The best Korean food and I fucking ate Subway every day.
Michael Imperioli: Subway. You always spoke the language since when you were a kid?
Steven Yeun: Yeah, I did.
Michael Imperioli: That's amazing.
Steven Yeun: Well enough.
Michael Imperioli: That's great. I was born in New York and my father was born here, but my father's father was born in Italy, so there were about six or seven kids and half of them came, my grandfather's siblings, half of them came to the U.S. and the other half stayed so there's a lot of family there-
Steven Yeun: Yeah.
Michael Imperioli: … outside of Rome. I never went until I was 25 and I went to Rome, and I remember I was in Paris for a while and then I went to Rome, checked into the place where I was staying, and then went for a walk. And it was right in the center, historical center of Rome. And it was one of the weirdest, trippiest things I ever experienced, and still kind of experience it now, but that first time, because there were so many things that were familiar, like faces and smells and sounds and light and stuff, and yet it also was foreign.
I never had that experience anywhere else because, there was definitely, I mean that part of the world is where my family's from, there is this connection. And I remember I got there, I was with an ex-girlfriend when I was young, and I had a phone number of my aunt and I called. And I am studying Italian now, but I've always had just very pigeon Italian, so I'm trying to, really, the last year I've been really making attempt to learn a little more, and I called up and I told them who I was and they're like, "Oh, we're going to have dinner. Come over." So we got on the subway and we go over, and I had only met the great aunt, so then there was another aunt who was my father's age and a cousin my age and I had never met them. And we're trying to communicate. They didn't speak English. I spoke hardly Italian, not really, but we're communicating. And then they served dinner, which was pasta.
Now here's where it got really trippy. The sauce from the pasta tasted exactly like the sauce that was made in my grandfather's house, because my great-grandmother moved to the U.S. and lived with my grandfather so that was her recipe. It was exactly the same taste.
Steven Yeun: Wow.
Michael Imperioli: And that kind of blew my mind because I was like, "Oh, this is the recipe that kind of was started here."
Steven Yeun: You're time traveling, you're physically traveling, you're in an alternate dimension. That's amazing.
Michael Imperioli: It was really, really wild. And very emotional, that first day. It was really overwhelming. The kind of sensorial stimulation was like, it was, "Wow." And you see in people's mannerisms and speech patterns elements of your own family. It's interesting.
Steven Yeun: Yeah, yeah, yeah. It's beautiful that way. I felt like it was really fun to watch you in White Lotus to see you choose the comfort of being there. Your character was like, "Yeah, we come here, we do this thing, and I know this place and I do this thing." And that's always an interesting thing to kind of like see or feel when you're watching somebody, especially when the show is like, here's a foreign place where the other half of your cast is vacationing there and you're just sitting in the pocket of that place.
Michael Imperioli: And experiencing whatever connection that is because there is a connection. And at the same time, you're a foreigner. That's the other thing. And so there's this weird disconnect, this connection and disconnection. I've been back to Italy many times since that first trip, but I really, really love it.
Steven Yeun: I imagine.
Michael Imperioli: I really loved being there every minute. Do you go often to just visit and spend time there?
Steven Yeun: In the last decade plus, I've gone to mostly work. I haven't really gone to vacation. I hope we can do that more now, now that the kids are a little older. So we're looking forward to that.
Michael Imperioli: That's cool.
Steven Yeun: Yeah. We made this joke in our show about Peninsula mentality and how Koreans and Italians are the same.
Michael Imperioli: Oh, right, because they're surrounded on three sides.
Steven Yeun: Well, we just made a bunch of bullshit up. We were just talking one day.
Michael Imperioli: You're just hanging off the...
Steven Yeun: Yeah, but it was funny to make parallels of just, there's like food, there's like...
Michael Imperioli: Family.
Steven Yeun: Family, culture, fashion. It's a similar kind of thing I feel like. Cars, even.
Michael Imperioli: Tradition, yeah, like ritual, kind of family ritual and cultural ritual and stuff like that. That becomes very important.
Steven Yeun: Yeah. And a little bit of a vibe of, I wouldn't even call it superiority, I would call it chippy superiority. One that's built off of, at least on the Korean side, that feels like a little bit of a chip on our shoulder, so we're kind of trying to flex. I don't know what the Italian one is rooted in. Y'all had Rome. That's very different.
Michael Imperioli: I remember I read something, I forget exactly what it was they were saying, what's some of your favorite things about the culture was just being Italian. That's what Italians said.
Steven Yeun: That's what I mean.
Michael Imperioli: Being Italian, there's a certain flex or a swag that comes with that. There's a really great word in Italian that doesn't really have a translation in English, and it's called sprezzatura, which means doing something difficult, but making it look like it's very easy. Like dressing really good, but making it look like you just put it together. There's an awareness. I went to this restaurant in Positano, right on the water, I think it's called Chez Black, and they made this very simple pasta. It was spaghetti with these little round tomatoes that grow in the volcanic soil of Vesuvius with garlic and a little bit of cheese and olive oil. Very simple, but one of the best things I've ever eaten. And I told the manager, I said, "This pasta, this is one of the greatest things I've ever had." And he said, he goes, "This, the chef, he makes this with one hand, and the other hand he's talking to his mother on the telephone."
Steven Yeun: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Michael Imperioli: It's like, "Ah, that's good. That's very Italian."
Steven Yeun: But all the preparation to make that thing good, all the work is embedded into everything before it.
Michael Imperioli: Yes.
Steven Yeun: Right, like growing that tomato.
Michael Imperioli: Of course.
Steven Yeun: Picking that tomato. Knowing just the right amount of olive oil to put into that pasta.
Michael Imperioli: Right, and simple is not easy. [foreign language]. That's what they say. Simple but not easy. There's nowhere to hide anything. There's only a few ingredients. If you don't get the proportions right and the preparation right, you don't have it.
Steven Yeun: Totally, totally. I feel that, I mean, I didn't know I was going to go here, but that's kind of how I feel about having watched your performance. It feels that way. It feels like watching you in White Lotus and in Sopranos, it never felt like calculated. It felt very lived in. It felt very, like you did a lot of the work unseen.
Michael Imperioli: I kind of felt the same way about watching you in Beef. There was a simplicity, and again, simple is not easy and honesty and trusting that what you're bringing is enough. I think sometimes as actors in the past, you always feel like you got to be doing more and doing more. And over the years I've tried to do less and do less, not do more than what's needed. There's certain demands that have to be met when you play certain characters that just have to...
Steven Yeun: Right.
Michael Imperioli: No, like the The Sopranos, when I started that show, I based my character on somebody that I actually knew who was a very, well, he was an Italian American from New York, and he was very loosely involved with the mob. He wasn't a made guy, but he'd gotten involved with people adjacent to the mob and then had to leave New York because of it.
Had aspirations about being an actor too at some point, but then that didn't work out. But emotionally, what was interesting about him, he was, his reaction to things was so much, it almost looked like bad acting. I couldn't believe he was that invested in everything. And I thought that was really kind of interesting because that's not me. I'm not like that. So I used that in the beginning and then once the show got started, the engines there, you just turned the key, the engines already built. But building the engine, I kind of used him. I never thought about them again, probably after the pilot.
But with White Lotus, I really made an attempt to do as little as possible. It was really, really, really deliberate. I always try to find parallels and as much as I can.
Steven Yeun: Same.
Michael Imperioli: Did you have a good time shooting Beef?
Steven Yeun: I did. I had a good time. It was only painful in so much as that I had to stay in a mindset that I myself, as kind of an immigrant, have been trying to shed my whole life. Kind of a very deep scarcity, but staying in it, justifying his reality from that place, like all of it. It felt closer to your performance in Sopranos in that way where my guy is also big at times.
Michael Imperioli: Yeah.
Steven Yeun: … almost kind of like he needs to tell everybody that he's feeling this way so that it becomes a performance on a performance. He can't just live with the feeling, he has to alert everybody that this is happening to him.
Michael Imperioli: When you said deep scarcity, you mean in terms of the immigrant experience?
Steven Yeun: Yeah, in that way, yeah, just kind of like-
Michael Imperioli: Opportunity and things like that.
Steven Yeun: Got to get it. If you don't have it means you're not anything. You must eat it now. You might go away. Never be satisfied, never be grateful. Just kind of live in this space at this mentality. So it was fun because I was with friends and we were making, we were just laughing.
Michael Imperioli: You were friends with some of the other actors and the creator?
Steven Yeun: Yeah, with the creator, Sonny... Ali, I met. Ali was really wonderful. We met before, but we didn't get to ever work together. I didn't know her very well until this show. With Sonny, just kind of getting to reminisce about what you said, "Our friend who's like this and why is he this way? And is that us too? Are we this way?" Or there's parts of us that are like, "Oh, remember that at church? How weird that was. Did you have that too?" And it turns out we did. And then life gets weird and it's just fun. It's fun that way.
Michael Imperioli: So at what point did you get involved in, you're a producer on it as well, so were you involved in the inception of it and the creation of it as well?
Steven Yeun: Well, Sonny came to me a couple years back and was like, "Hey, I want to write this show about road rage, this road rage incident." I was like, oh, immediate.
Michael Imperioli: That was the seed, the road rage incident?
Steven Yeun: Yeah, yeah. He was like, "Road rage." And then him and I have known each other for a while and most of our conversations start at some dumb thing and then they end up at why does God exist or what is that? What is God? We just existentially loop. But as we got into it, yeah, we started developing it more, and then when Ali jumped aboard, it really made sense. There was something really, it felt right. And so yeah, the whole trip of it was really bizarre and fun and strange.
Michael Imperioli: And all of that comes into the show. It feels like in the show, bizarreness, strangeness, fun, humor. I know I've heard that Sonny talk about the Sopranos and that was an influence I know on him, but that edge of real scary stuff, tragic stuff, emotional, I mean, your character is really lost, it seems.
Steven Yeun: So lost.
Michael Imperioli: Really lost. Searching for meaning, what has meaning and where?
Steven Yeun: Especially when all the meaning that he's been ascribed or conditioned to believe in was intrinsic capitalist value. How much money are you making? What's your status in this place? When he's living in America where they say, where we say you can be whatever you want. And it's like, "What do you mean? I can only be three things. I can be a doctor, a lawyer, or a dentist. That's all I can... I got to do these things. I got to make money."
And I think spiritually, what Sonny was always pointing at with Sopranos was maybe the boldness to let people in on a little bit of the cringey stuff that you usually don't lead with from a community. Not that Sopranos was, I don't know if it was for you, but I don't know if it was some Italian American flag plant. It wasn't some like, yeah, and neither was Beef for us. It wasn't like "We're telling you what Koreans are like or Asian Americans are like." It was more for us... When I watched Sopranos, I'm just like, usually Tony is supposed to just be a fucking rat-like don, just dominating people, doing whatever he wants. But he also goes to therapy and he has moments of weakness and you show aspects of yourself that are pathetic at times. And that I felt like was the spirit of it. Just this unabashed boldness to just exist. To just exist.
Michael Imperioli: Yeah, I mean the dark part of that culture, there's racism and homophobia and sexism and all those things, that small-mindedness. I mean, I certainly grew up around to some degree, not everybody.
Steven Yeun: Same.
Michael Imperioli: But the cool thing if that people get, I think the audience understands. It's like they're presenting, this is how it is. Everyone knows that there's racism. Let's not pretend it doesn't exist. And it's like the dichotomy of my grandfather who is, actually, my mother's father grew up here, a few blocks away from where I live right now, grew up in a tenement right here.
Father died when the kids were young. It was single mother with six kids, one of whom was severely autistic, and they all had to leave school really early and work and that kind of existence and stuff. And my grandfather could say, sometimes would say the most horrendously racist things, particularly about Black people. Yet at the same time, he was a super in an apartment building that had mostly African-Americans. And sometimes on weekends he would drive... There were two women whose husbands were in prison upstate, and he would drive them upstate because they had no way to get there. And then the next day he'd say some horrendous thing. He's like, "Well, she's not like that. She's just good." I grew up seeing that kind of dichotomy in people who, there's this level of ignorance and fear. and I mean, I'm not defending his racism by any means, but I loved him.
Steven Yeun: I mean, you're not even defending, you're just showing his humanity.
Michael Imperioli: Yeah. I feel like that makes so much sense to me. Not as a defense of these things, but more like it's easy to slip back in your small-mindedness and fearful brain when the chips are stacked against you and you're just trying to make it at a place. When your claws are out, trying to just make it, you can go back to what the worst, basic, dumbest, most small patterns of this place can be. And then when you're your biggest self, you're like, "Oh, I see a human being." And we would have the biggest debates about all that stuff. And then he knew how to get me. He would say stuff because he knew it would provoke me, because I was young and I was making my own points, and he would poke at me.
But I think the Sopranos, by willing to show this kind of culture with warts and all, people appreciated that. If you sanitized it and cleaned it up, it would be like-
Steven Yeun: You're kind of sweeping all that stuff under the rug, which never works out.
Michael Imperioli: Yeah, there's a real love to just talk for real. Not from... Its intent too. The intent is so clear, is so important. And you can usually feel that off the screen. I feel like when you can sense the intent.
Steven Yeun: Yeah, yeah.
Michael Imperioli: Is a lot of Korean culture Christianity, is it a popular religion in Korea?
Steven Yeun: I think it became a popular modern religion. I think originally it was very Buddhist, a lot of Confucianism, but I think post Korean War, there was a lot of... Christianity was dropped off and then there was also a little bit of hard capitalism dropped off. Those things can mix very well at times.
Michael Imperioli: Yeah. And are there a lot of Korean Americans who are part of Christian communities in the US?
Steven Yeun: Oh, yeah. And those were those central nexus places where it almost is beyond the religion itself.
Michael Imperioli: It's a community thing.
Steven Yeun: It's a community thing, and people immigrate over here and they just kind of settle into that place to connect and be around people. Which church might be in general for everybody.
Michael Imperioli: That could be a very good thing, especially if, when it's people who are coming from another country and it's like a place you can find acceptance.
Steven Yeun: Yeah, yeah, and it's weird because now that I revisit Korean church these days, and no knock on it, I think it's very invaluable for people who feel like they want that community. And I certainly love touching it too, but I found myself going back to Korean church lately and realizing that now that my parents aren't here, it's not exactly the same. It's not this place to catch us, but it's now kind of a place that can also hide us or be a safe space for those that need. But maybe you can indulge in it, too, a little bit.
Michael Imperioli: That scene when you go and you break down there, is that kind of what's going on, feeling that acceptance a bit? How did you see that scene? What do you think was going on?
Steven Yeun: I think so-
Michael Imperioli: It's a very powerful scene, by the way.
Steven Yeun:Oh, thank you.
Michael Imperioli: It's very moving and very... It's like, wow, because you don't really expect it from your character.
Steven Yeun: No. No.
Michael Imperioli: Up until the... It's kind of the last thing you expect.
Steven Yeun: There's a lot of things you don't expect from Danny, especially when he takes over the praise band and he sings Amazing Grace right after. But I liken it to... This is where I landed. I think everybody's going to come to their own conclusion about what that feels like. For me, the process of making that scene was really interesting, because it illuminated maybe what was happening. We shot the band, we shot the church members, and then when it came to me, we all had this, everybody was being very gracious to give me space. And I remember coming in before when the camera wasn't on me, and I was like, the classic acting thing where you're just like, "Oh, I'm in." When the camera's not on me, "Easy. Let's go. I can do it. I feel it already. I am already kind of weeping right now in my bones."
And I'm like, "Okay, cool. I can't wait." And then they flipped the camera on me and then everybody stopped singing, and they just were like, "Cool, let's iso on Steven, because he's there." Dried up immediately. I tried. I couldn't get it. And I'm thankful that I have had enough experience to not push. And so I just did the take, didn't really go there, just tried to be present. And when we cut, I was like, "Hey, I'm sorry I didn't get there, but I don't think... There's something off. Can I just go take a minute?" And I was just going to go take a minute and think about it. And then I came back and I was like, maybe I need to hear the song differently or something like that. But then I realized, I was like, oh, everybody stopped singing, and that was it.
It was the, it was kind of the disappearing of the self that was the key to that place and that emotion. It was like Danny's holding his story, his pain, the way that the world crushes him, the way that his mind tells him the world is working at every other waking minute, but when he's singing in chorus with everybody, he can kind of let that go. And then all of a sudden he feels this lightness, a little bit. Or maybe a lot of mixed feelings. Just this feeling of, it lands at acceptance, but there's a, and I don't mean a shame, but you're putting yourself out there when you're singing. When you're singing, I remember growing up at church and mouthing the words when I was younger, because I was too afraid to sing. I was like, because I was like this is embarrassing. I don't want somebody to hear me sing. And then you just get more and more just like, you let go, you let go. And I think that was it for Danny was a real letting go of his story that he tells himself every day, that keeps him stuck in the place that he's stuck in.
Michael Imperioli: Yeah. It was very moving and very real and raw and uncomfortable-
Steven Yeun: Deeply uncomfortable.
Michael Imperioli: Yeah. As it should be, because it takes you so by surprise.
Steven Yeun: Thank you. Yeah.
Michael Imperioli: It's a really... So when you shot it, that next take, did you have them sing?
Steven Yeun: Yeah, I actually turned to everybody. I was like, "Hey, I actually think I need you all to sing with me. Can you please sing with me?" And they all sang with me, and then I was sobbing.
Michael Imperioli: And that was very moving to you.
Steven Yeun: Immediately. Yeah. It was this, it was the feeling of not being alone.
Michael Imperioli: And all of them being vulnerable. Singing. Because singing, there's a vulnerability to that, right?
Steven Yeun: Absolutely.
Michael Imperioli: And all of them being vulnerable, and that communal experience must have been very powerful.
Steven Yeun: Yeah. And I think in that way, that's where I feel a little bit bonded with White Lotus as well, because that show is about vulnerability. You can't roll up to that show as an actor, I think, without being aware of some aspects of yourself, or why you might be cast. Not because that person is you, but perhaps the task is it's asking you to access parts of yourself a little bit, to really connect with the audience.
Michael Imperioli: Yeah, like I said, when they said they were interested in having me, and I hadn't seen it, and they only sent a couple of scenes for the tape, self-tape. So I went and started watching it, and at first I'm like, is this going to be some cynic- because cynicism is very popular today, right? Is this going to be some cynical statement about how rich people suck, or white people suck and the world suck? And I'm like, oh, wow. As I watched and watched, I'm like, this guy, Mike White-
Steven Yeun: Mike White, yeah.
Michael Imperioli: ... is able to kind of find humanity, as you brought up before, in these people who, some of whom are saying or doing very despicable things, living questionable lives, yet he's able to find an element of compassion for them. And that, I thought, was very skillful.
Steven Yeun: Yes.
Michael Imperioli: And if you can do that and then suck you into a story, a really interesting story, wow. And I couldn't stop watching it. And then as soon as I had seen the show... As I put myself on tape before I saw the show, I was shooting something else and I was really busy, and I just put myself on tape and my manager said, "You need to watch the show." I said, "Why?" They're like, "You're not getting the tone." And then when I went and watched it, and then I retaped the scenes after seeing it, because I really understood it. But I guess that's what a good writer does. They're able to kind of...
Steven Yeun: Totally. Well, there's good writing, and Mike White and Sonny are incredible, in my opinion. But also, you got to find the right actor too. I don't know if you can just roll up to that, I think.
Michael Imperioli: No, no, you're right.
Steven Yeun: Yeah. Watching you play your character, that can be so heavily judged. That's not easy. That's always the weirdest part about this thing is how... Yeah, I don't know. Every role takes, you just cut in a little deeper and then this world gets a little stranger, I feel like.
Michael Imperioli: Yeah. And you have to see it from the inside. You can't judge the character on your kind of own moral standard-
Steven Yeun: Not at all.
Michael Imperioli: Because then you're done, right.
Steven Yeun: You're done, yeah. Then White Lotus completely fails.
Michael Imperioli: Then White Lotus fails.
Steven Yeun: Yeah. That's the cool part was, I was watching every actor just come from a real place, and that's awesome. And I'm glad shows like that exists right now, in such a hyper cynical time, where... There's new boxes now.
Michael Imperioli: Yeah. That's exciting.
Steven Yeun: Yeah. Very exciting.
Michael Imperioli: New boxes. You mean uncharted territory? Do you mean new boxes like...?
Steven Yeun: I actually mean, there’s now- the old boxes that we all tried to war against, which was rightfully so. Now-
Michael Imperioli: Oh, you mean new boxes of definition and boundary and stuff.
Steven Yeun: Yeah, yeah, yeah. And we've created new boxes, which got quickly, very dark. And it's cool, I think, to have shows, and there's a lot of shows that are like this, which is really promising for me, of not abandoning each other and kind of understanding the humanity of people. Not to justify their actions, but just to look at it for a second.
Michael Imperioli: Yeah, to look at it. Exactly.
Steven Yeun: To look at it, yeah.
Michael Imperioli: And relate, or not relate. But often relate.
Steven Yeun: Often relate, often relate, yes, yes, yes.
Michael Imperioli: Often you can relate, feeling... Like Danny's, that feeling of wanting to take, to have that power, not to feel powerless. I have to… This is not... You know what I mean? I mean, I lived in California for seven years and spent a lot of time in the car, and there's a strange, there's a whole different thing living. I don't have a car anymore, so I take the subway and walk a lot. I take Ubers, but the subway probably more than anything. That's a very different thing.
Steven Yeun: Totally.
Michael Imperioli: When you're in your car, there's a whole other, you can very see how very easily those road rage can happen.
Steven Yeun: Here is like bubbles on bubbles on bubbles, whereas New York feels like there's bigger bubbles, and then there's a whole New York bubble, but here, you're trapped in your own reality really hard, unless you're actively trying to connect with other people, I think in LA. It gets gnarly here. But yeah, it's nice.
Michael Imperioli: Yeah. Every place has its positives and negatives.
Steven Yeun:Totally. Totally.
Michael Imperioli: That's what I've found.
Steven Yeun: Yes.
Michael Imperioli: Well, Steven, it was a pleasure-
Steven Yeun: Such a pleasure.
Michael Imperioli: ... to meet you and talk to you.
Steven Yeun: Yeah, a true honor. Thank you.
Michael Imperioli: This went by really quick. We could have gone on for another couple of hours, I'm sure.
Steven Yeun: I hope I get to catch another conversation with you in the future.
Michael Imperioli: Yeah, yeah. We'll do it in person next time.
Steven Yeun: Yeah, that'd be awesome.
Michael Imperioli: Over either Italian food or Korean food, or-
Steven Yeun: Let's do both.
Michael Imperioli: Both, maybe some hybrid of the two that I'm sure exists somewhere now.
Steven Yeun: Yeah, yeah. I'm going to find one. I'm going to find one.
Michael Imperioli: All right. Sounds good.