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'Minari' star Yuh-jung Youn knows how to create a good grandma

Eric Webb
Austin 360
Yuh-Jung Youn plays the Yi family grandmother, Soonja, whose arrival from Korea turns grandson David's young life upside down in "Minari."

There's not a weak performance to be found in writer-director Lee Isaac Chung's "Minari." The most memorable, though, is certainly from iconic South Korean actress Yuh-jung Youn as firecracker grandmother Soonja. Youn's prolific career in film goes back to 1971's "Woman of Fire" —  she's been called the Meryl Streep of South Korea — and while she's primarily known for her work in her home country, U.S. audiences might recognize her from Netflix sci-fi show "Sense8." 

In "Minari," gregarious Soonja enters the lives of her daughter's family like a card-playing hurricane, sometimes clashing with her plucky young grandson, David (played by Alan Kim). As the immigrant family navigates life in rural 1980s Arkansas, Soonja and David bond over nature, heartbreak and Mountain Dew.

"Minari" is Youn's first American feature film, and she's already taken the country's film community by storm. She's nabbed several awards for her role from various critics groups so far, and she's been nominated for best supporting actress by the Screen Actors Guild Awards, Independent Spirit Awards and Critics' Choice Awards. Results of those races are pending, and an Oscar nod isn't out of the question.

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We caught up with Youn over Zoom a few days ago. This interview has been lightly edited for clarity. 

American-Statesman: What attracted you to the story of "Minari"?

Yuh-jung Youn: When I read the script, it was very real to me. You know, you cannot beat realistic things. So I said, "OK, I will do it." That's what happened! (laughs)

Your character, I'm sure a lot of people told you, is such a fun, exciting, lively person — she actually reminded me a lot of my own grandmother. Have you known women in your life that remind you of Soonja, whom you drew from in creating the character?

(I was) thinking about my great-grandmother's love (during filming). I didn't understand (her growing up), so I was very regretful every moment. Nowadays, it's too late. She passed away a long, long time ago.

What were some of those things that you didn't quite understand about her when you were younger?

It was tragic, actually. At (the time), it was after the Korean War, so everything was just short. When you are young, you don't know what's going on, actually. My great-grandmother (was) trying to save the water and save the food, and to me, that was not clean, because she used the water again and again. So that's why I (didn't) like her. So stupid! Later on, she always said she doesn't eat, she said she's not hungry. It's breaking my heart, still, every time I (talk) about this. She tried to save the food — her sacrifice.

Then, at 60 years old, I realized she was hungry like us. That stupidity! I cannot go back and just tell her. I wish I could just kneel down front of her and then, just begging her: "I was so stupid, grandma." It's too late.

Yeri Han, back row from left, Steven Yeun, director Lee Isaac Chung, and foreground from left, Yuh Jung Youn, Alan Kim, and Noel Cho pose for a portrait to promote "Minari" during the Sundance Film Festival in 2020.

In the movie, nature plays such a crucial part. It's all about the land, and the water, and the plants. Your character seems to understand the natural world in a way that some of the other characters don't, with planting the minari, and then the natural remedy she makes for her grandson at one point. What do you think that connection to nature says about your character?

I think that's the wisdom of that old age. I'm sure she knows how to plant that minari, and then she already has some lifetime lesson. That plant never dies. Until we made that movie, before I got that information from (director) Isaac, I didn't know about the minari that well. We eat it all the time. ... That's the grandma's wisdom. She knows if she plants that seed, it will never die.

The movie is very peaceful, and there's a lot in it about patience and about slowing down. Soonja tells David at one point, when he's worried about running due to his heart condition, that they can go slow, and that's OK. But I know that film shoots are often not peaceful. How were you able to kind of get into that sense of peace and that slower pace that comes across in the movie?

That's Issac, I think. You even said, in the filming, just chaos. Then he'd say "act," and then you've got to act! 

Soonja teaches David a lot about life. Is there anything that playing this character taught you?

Well, (there) was a very nice scene I thought Isaac wrote, when David was praying. His mother is a very devoted Christian, she wishes him to see heaven. ... Grandma's idea was, if he sees heaven, that means he is gone. So she was so upset and trying to just embrace him, and she said, "I will never let you die," and "No, nothing's gonna happen to you." I would do it as a grandma, and then I would do it as a mother. That's why we need parents and grandma and family — we need encouragement (between) each other.

Would you consider yourself a spiritual person? 

Not a spiritual person.

What was it like working with Lee Isaac Chung on this film, from an actor-to-director standpoint?

How can I describe — it was kind of embarrassing, because he's my son's age. And watching him directing me, directing other actors, I just admired and respected, without any temper. Me, I'm very temperamental, especially while I'm filming. ... He was very calm, and he controlled the child actors, and he's very comforting (to) me and encouraging me to do this. He's never rude to anybody. So I thought maybe he was just inhuman — I thought he was Jesus!

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You've been very celebrated for this role. You've won some awards already, and you've been nominated for more. How does that feel?

Actually, we are not celebrating at all, because this is my first-time experience. Never thought about, well, never dreamed about having an award from America. So I don't know how to react. Still, it's not real to me. And then stupid me asked a couple of days ago, when I got the nominated (for the) SAG Award, I asked my friend, "Is it a big thing?" and she said "It is big." (I asked,) "So what (does) the SAG stand for?" And she said, "S, screen. A, actors. Guild." "Oh, actors vote (for) actors, I get it."

Me, being an actress (for a) long time, if some other actress approved me as a good actor, that's a very rewarding thing, very grateful thing. ... I'm learning now. I'm learning day by day.