First published in the Sept/Oct’ 18 issue. of Film Comment Magazine.
The way that Lee shoots—I don’t know if he shot Peppermint Candy  or his other films [in the same way], but this time, he was very off-the-cuff. He followed what the film intended for us to do. There were many times when we would turn a scene out, put it on camera, and he’d watch it and go, “Nah, today’s not the right day.” So we’d break and come back another day, and all of the conditions would be somewhat similar, but then suddenly, a flock of geese would fly over at just the right time, and he’d be like, “That’s what I was looking for!” That was one of the coolest ways to make a film. I don’t know if anyone other than director Lee could replicate that experience.
Your character, Ben, is a classic cipher. Neither the Haruki Murakami story that inspires it nor the film divulge much detail about him. How did you prepare for the role? Do youknow who Ben is?
I think I know who Ben is. Director Lee didn’t guide me too specifically. He said, “Let’s pick and choose moments where we can play with how Ben is perceived, but I don’t have any notes for what or who he is.” In fact, I remember him saying, “The mystery at the end is whether you are a murderous psychopath or just a rich person with no morals. And you determine that.” That was incredible for me because I know what Ben did, but nobody else will.
I prepared for the character with a lot of reading: Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, nihilism, that kind of thing. I feel like Ben lives in that world. Someone who has that much money and privilege is playing a totally different game from the rest of society. That’s the approach that I took: what’s a man like when he doesn’t believe in anything? What is he burning for?
That manifests in his body language. There’s a languor to the way he walks, the way he sits.
He thinks everything is meaningless, so he’s not in a rush to get anywhere. He’s just about being there. Why does he have to live? He doesn’t know. He’s just literally not fascinated by anything.
Yeah, kind of like where we are on the precipice of how far we want to go into the Internet [laughs]. For director Lee to get me, a non-native Korean actor with very American sensibilities encoded into my body, to be there in the world of the film—it was a genius move, but I feel like it was also appropriate for the film’s themes. In the last couple of years, all the walls and the borders that used to separate us are gone. They’re only there in name and in older structures, but in the minds of the youth, you can live in Portugal and that’s just like living in Brooklyn. And I think the next generation feels very lost, very lonely.
There’s less specificity to where Ben comes from, too—what separates him from the other two characters is that they come from a place, a real place.
For sure. Ben doesn’t necessarily represent America, by any means—or even the Western world—but he represents someone who’s seen the world for what it is, or, has the privilege to have seen a lot of it. And it’s interesting now to look at the West and the East trade ideologies, slowly. You go to Korea and kids these days are trying to find themselves and be themselves and express themselves and “be me.” And over here, in the West, we’ve inherently had that as our general understanding of how to be, and now I feel like we’re trying to find tribes. The Western world is trying to find more collectivism and the East is trying to find more individualism. It’s all about balance. That’s something director Lee and I talked about a lot: balance.
Were you a big fan of Lee’s work before? Had you been following his career?
The first film of his that I saw was Poetry, in 2010. And I remember thinking that the film had a very different feel from the other Korean films I had seen at that time, which were all rooted in that revenge-thriller, moody, dark, gritty aesthetic. And I was just struck by how plain [Poetry] was, how grounded it was, how real, and I remember losing it when I saw the actress who looks like, or represents, my grandmother. You know, I’ve hurt my grandmother in similar ways. It connected me to a place that I’d never thought of before. Prior to that, I had connected to performances or ideas or films in American culture that were always one step adjacent to me, or representative of me from a personality stance, but it wasn’t fully 100 percent.
Your Korean-American identity is not made explicit in Sorry to Bother You, but I thought there was still something significant about placing an Asian character within the film’s context of race and class in America.
One of the things that I was very conscious about and that I discussed with Boots [Riley] was just a general recognition of where an East Asian person sits in American society. Everyone wants to incorporate every minority into a giant glob and say, hey, we’re all oppressed, so let’s all come together. That’s the greater mission, of course, but at the same time, East Asian people have to actively acknowledge their privilege. You don’t get killed on the street, you don’t get turned down from jobs in the same way. It’s a whole different ball game. There’s oppression in a multitude of ways, and if you acknowledge that, then you can start from a place of truth. That’s how I approached Sorry to Bother You. I didn’t want to overstay, or overshoot. I liked the fact that [my character] Squeeze was a union organizer, because he just facilitates things in the background. I would sometimes say to Boots, I don’t think I even need to be in this frame, can I just step out? That’s probably not a smart way to be an actor in this business, but it felt appropriate.
You were almost like an everyman character, which I’d say is against type for Asian roles.
Yeah, I agree. That’s kind of also what I had been playing on The Walking Dead for seven years. But [Squeeze] was partly everyman, partly: know where you need to be seen, and know where you don’t. That works incongruously within Sorry to Bother You, which is all about: be loud, be proud, be assertive, be you. With my character, it was: be you, but be low-key you. That was my approach. There were memorable moments that people really like about Squeeze, but I don’t think he’s someone where you go, “I remember that character outright, for sure, because he did these things.”
I actually did find your character memorable. Maybe not in the way that Cassius and Detroit are memorable, but as a representation of what a real union organizer would be like. I think Squeeze is a grounding influence in the film, because otherwise it’s easy to get swept up in the fantasy of it all.
I’m glad you picked up on that. That’s what I wanted to accomplish. For sure.
What kind of roles are you looking for next? I read that you’re quite selective.
Is that common knowledge now? Oh no! [Laughs] I’ve been lucky to have a little bit of a cushion in my life. Being on a big show is great; it means that I can make these slower decisions. You know, after leaving The Walking Dead, I just worked nonstop for about two to three years. We just had a kid, so it’s been nice to be at home, for now.
You said that you talked about wanting to work with Lee Chang-dong in an interview and then you got the role. So is there a name you want to mention in this interview—a dream director?
Oh my goodness, there’s so many. I love Denis Villeneuve’s visuals, and I’d love to play in that space. I’d also love to work with director Park [Chan-wook]. I could sit here and list a bunch of directors that I want to work with, but… I guess I’m looking for the thing that feels right. And I’m just being Dad right now!