Your grails belong to the universe: The Blackbird Spyplane Interview with Steven Yeun
Talkin’ about relinquishing cherished clothes to the wind, his excellent new A24 series, a beautiful gift from a Tokyo legend, and more
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Steven Yeun — he’s a great actor, and he knows how to pick a d*mn script. His breakout role was on The Walking Dead, a smash hit that set him up to go supernova action mode if he wanted to, but instead he decided to star and/or steal scenes in a run of Spyplane-certified Idiosyncratic Cinematic & Televisual Slappers, including Boots Riley’s Sorry to Bother You; Bong Joon-ho’s Okja; Minari, where he put in a beautifully understated performance and came away with a Best Actor Oscar nomination; the very sick Haruki Murakami adaptation Burning; I Think You Should Leave; and Jordan Peele’s NOPE. That’s what you call taste baby!
Next month you can see Steven do his thing in the excellent new A24 series BEEF, a dark comedy with an unbeatable premise: What if two strangers got into a road-rage meltdown in L.A. and then vowed to destroy each other’s lives??
If all that wasn’t enough, Steven is also a humble mensch who’s mad good at wearing clothes. Whether he’s getting flicked up in some big blue gym shorts and ill crunchy ACGs (above left) or gliding through the night in a beautifully flowy white Issey suit (further down below), this is a dude who knows how to get off a fit with laidback panache…
The other day I (Jonah) was psyched to hop on a SpySatellite Video Link with Steven to talk about such topics as the way both cars and phones make people insane; how BEEF is sort of like HEAT; embracing spicy jawns; wearing costumes on “style exploration” mode and seeing if something sticks; getting a sick rare Dickies suit from one of Tokyo’s coolest dudes; and accepting it when the universe decides to snatch a cherished garment away from you forever…
Blackbird Spyplane: You’re in New York right now — what brought you out there?
Steven Yeun: “Yeah, I’m just here a couple days, but I helped produce this new documentary about Nam June Paik, Moon is the Oldest TV, and there’s a MoMA Doc Fortnight premiere I came out to support.”
Blackbird Spyplane: Your new show, BEEF, pokes holes in a bunch of myths this country tells itself about success and happiness, so it’s perfect that it kicks off with a road-rage incident: Cars are so foundational to all these American myths about freedom, but with road rage we see how they’re also these deranging prisons that seal us off from other people and make us insane. Shout out to trains.
Steven Yeun: “Right, that whole thing of, ‘Open road, I can go wherever I want.’ It’s true. Cars are like the first phones: These isolated boxes where you can pretend to live in your own encapsulated world, scream your screams, curse your curses, assume that someone else is f**king with you when they’re just getting to their destination, too.”
Blackbird Spyplane: The show gets to some extremely bleak places, but some beautiful places, too…
Steven Yeun: “I think we’re all just trying to cut to connecting to each other in a real way, and sometimes you connect deeper to people you fight with, right? Once you break that threshold and get mad at each other, and then you survive it? You’re kind of bonded.”
Blackbird Spyplane: When you put it that way, I’m realizing that BEEF is sort of like a weird HEAT remake, with you and Ali Wong as the two nemesis-soulmates chasing each other around L.A….
Steven Yeun: “You know what, one day we were filming an episode and the director, Jake Schreier, was like, ‘Guys… this is Heat!’ A few days later he texted us this Photoshop where it’s the Heat poster, but with me and Ali on it, and he changed the title to Dumb Heat. Hahaha.”
Blackbird Spyplane: So I’m curious, there’s a ton photos of you where you’re wearing cool s**t, whether it’s running an errand in some big blue shorts & ACGs or arriving at a function in an Issey suit. How much of that is a stylist and how much is it just Natural Yeun Instinct?
Steven Yeun: “Most things, these days, it’s natural instinct. Anything you see me wearing is bits and pieces I’ve collected over the years that now I’m just cycling through — if you saw me every day, you’d say, ‘Oh, you just wear the same few things over and over.’ But I do have to shout out the stylist Thai Lu, who I worked with a few years ago, during that Issey moment you’re talking about. They put me in some incredible stuff that, to be honest, I haven’t been able to replicate.”
Blackbird Spyplane: Like what?
Steven Yeun: “I grew up pretty conservative, and I continue to have an image of myself that’s like, ‘I can wear this but I could never wear that.’ And Thai would stretch me. On the press tour for Okja in Korea they had me in this Vivienne Westwood suit, like pinstriped, pink, brown and light-blue, that I would never have pulled from a rack and would never have thought I could pull off. But I put it on and thought, ‘Wow, I’ve been self-limiting for so long.’ It took someone pushing me.
“Now, on my everyday, though, I feel very utilitarian. I want things that don’t feel dissonant, so I can just travel through the day and get things done. Also my wife and I started sharing clothes. We’ll buy, like, a large sweatshirt and pass it back and forth.”
Blackbird Spyplane: Erin and I do the same thing. Truly, if the one thing people get from this conversation is “swap cool clothes with bae,” we’ve done them a service.
Steven Yeun: “It helps that she’s more stylish than me.”
Blackbird Spyplane: When we were talking about the Bay the other day you mentioned getting dinner at Rintaro one time with Evan Kinori and our mutual buddy Eug. Do you own any of Evan’s clothes?
Steven Yeun: “Yeah, Eugene put me on to Evan a few years ago — I bought this pair of wool pleated trousers that were the perfect fit for me, and I beat them to death for two years straight. I have a couple of his sweaters, too. I’ve only hung out with him that one time, though, and another time at his studio, which is beautiful.”
Blackbird Spyplane: We build these interviews around special cherished possessions, and you chose a very dope brown suit (below) that the writer, DJ and, I don’t know, professional interesting person Kunichi Nomura helped make with Dickies. I hung out with Kun for the first time last November in Tokyo, and I have no idea if he remembers me because he seems like he meets 5,000 people a month, but he’s a really fun dude. He was telling us he’d just taken Dua Lipa to a sex-doll café in an old Tokyo red-light district??
Steven Yeun: “Kunichi’s one of my favorite people on the planet, and I met him through Norman Reedus, another one of my favorite people on the planet. We were all in Japan and spent many nights out together — he’s just a really down person, and gracious, and kind. And he has unlimited energy.”
Blackbird Spyplane: And once you know who he is you’ll be rewatching Lost in Translation, like, Oh s**t there’s Kun, or watching a Phoenix video and be, like, Oh s**t there he goes again, and then you’re on like Dua Lipa’s IG stories and d*mn it if he isn’t there too, haha… He’s the most tied-in man in Japan.
Steven Yeun: “He’s everywhere all the time all at once.”
Blackbird Spyplane: So Kun did this suit as a collaboration between Dickies and his company Tripster, and it’s a true sleeper hit. I think yours is a wool-serge blend, and I don’t know if it’s Japan-only, but it’s not that easy to come by. What’s sick is that you can dress it up if you want — like, you’ve worn it on red carpets — but because of the workwear energy you can rock it really casually, too. They just put out a new Dickies x Tripster capsule last month, but this must be one of the early editions…
Steven Yeun: “It’s from maybe 5, 6 years ago. He offered to give me one, and I went for the brown. I was so happy to have it — it’s clean and stylish and also muted in a way that, like, it just feels like ‘no fuss.’ So I wound up wearing it for every possible occasion, and at a certain point it just became my everyday pants and everyday jacket. I went back and bought another one in tweed, which I have with me here in New York, and then this past winter I saw Kun and he was like, ‘I have something for you,’ and handed me a black one. Those are all in constant rotation.”
Blackbird Spyplane: It sounds like you’re this close to going full uniform-mode…
Steven Yeun: “I mean, me and my friends talk about trying to ‘find the uniform’ and get to uniform life, but it shifts. I remember when I first came into some money, from The Walking Dead, I was living in Atlanta and I got into Sid Mashburn. It’s great clothes, I love those people, but I was also 20, and I think I was looking at style in a very literal way. It’s funny to see pictures from during that time — I had the shoes with no socks, high waters, I even had a pocket pen! I went all-out.”
Blackbird Spyplane: Real 2010-era hashtag-menswear s**t… But I think for anyone who gets into clothes, there’s gonna be some period — or multiple periods — where you’re kind of putting on a costume, seeing what sticks and what falls away, like, ‘Which part isn’t a costume and actually meshes with me?’
Steven Yeun: “Totally. I might have gone a bit too literal, then I grew out of it and went to more-functional stuff — now I find myself gravitating back, but in a way that feels more natural, like, That piece works for my life, that piece works for my life…”
Blackbird Spyplane: Rather than just rocking the full head-to-toe kit without freaking it.
Steven Yeun: “I also mentioned to you that I have these Alden Indy boots — Andy Lincoln put me on to Alden when we were doing Walking Dead, he was wearing a pair of their cap-toe cordovan boots, and I loved them. Andy’s a very stylish man, he actually gave me a 3-piece Margiela suit at the end of our run, like, ‘I think this will fit you better than me.’”
Blackbird Spyplane: Mamma mia. Shout out to giving your friends clothes you love.
Steven Yeun: “So I bought this pair of Aldens, and I remember being, like, ‘These are expensive, but I get the idea of buying something once.’ And at this point, I’ve resoled them two times, they’re beat to death, they’ve got paint on them — they’re just part of my reality.”
Blackbird Spyplane: And I bet they look better for all that flambéing and pan-searing than they ever did.
Steven Yeun: “Oh man, they look incredible. And to bring it back to Thai, years ago they had me buy these Marsèll round-toe shoes, and it took me a couple years, but now I wear them all the time. You’re kind of unlocking a theme of my life, which is special people giving me things I wear forever.”
Blackbird Spyplane: By the way, the fact that in like 2018 you went for the brown Dickies suit, as opposed to black or navy, just confirms your sauce levels, king.
Steven Yeun: “Haha, I’m just a midwestern boy, and I feel like the midwest is a very brown place, I don’t know.”
Blackbird Spyplane: Oh that reminds me — you grew up right outside Detroit, and there’s a cool ‘90s-looking Tigers cap (above right) you wear a lot. What’s the story with that?
Steven Yeun: “I found it vintage, but sadly I lost it in a freak accident. I was in a car and it flew off my head, out the window.”
Blackbird Spyplane: What the f**k! There really are some times when you’re like, Am I a cartoon character? G-d did not want you to have that hat.
Steven Yeun: “Yeah, it’s fine, I like it when the universe tells me I can’t have something. I was, like, ‘That’s the end of that era.’ I cherished it for a while, but it’s gone. That’s basically me. I wear things till they disintegrate or the wind takes them from me.”
Steven Yeun is on Instagram here. BEEF comes out on Netflix April 6. In the meantime go watch him in Burning, even (especially!) if you’ve already seen it.
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