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Steven Yeun talks about 'Beef,' his new hate-fueled Netflix series with Ali Wong

ADRIAN FLORIDO, HOST:

Have you ever had a gripe you just can't let go of? If you have, you might see a bit of yourself in the characters on Netflix's new series "Beef."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BEEF")

STEVEN YEUN: (As Danny Cho) You started this.

ALI WONG: (As Amy Lau) Me?

YEUN: (As Danny Cho) Yeah.

WONG: (As Amy Lau) OK. You're the one who backed into me like a psycho.

YEUN: (As Danny Cho) You're the one that flipped me off.

FLORIDO: What starts off as a small case of road rage spirals into a full on cyclone of revenge. This isn't just any ordinary beef. The two main characters, played by Steven Yeun and Ali Wong, are trying to ruin each other's lives.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BEEF")

YEUN: (As Danny Cho) So stop messing with me and leave me alone or else. You hear me? This is your last warning. You do not want to unleash the beast.

FLORIDO: It's Been A Minute host Brittany Luse sat down with Steven Yeun to break down this hate-fueled romp.

BRITTANY LUSE, BYLINE: Just to get a sense of how people should be thinking about your new Netflix series, "Beef," what historical or celebrity beef best describes the beef in "Beef"?

YEUN: (Laughter) You know, all the best beefs are when people are equally measured, right? Tupac and Biggie don't beef unless they're, like, Tupac and Biggie. We tried to capture that best beef. I think Danny and Amy are equally matched rivals. They respect each other. There's a connection underneath the beef connection, if you know what I mean.

LUSE: Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.

YEUN: Yeah.

LUSE: I'm glad that you brought up the idea that they're, like, equally yoked in a way and that there is some sort of connection beneath the beef.

YEUN: (Laughter).

LUSE: Because, first of all, I loved the series. Like, me and my husband ran through it. To me, "Beef" also kind of functions similarly to a rom-com. Like, the characters have constant tension, and the show is always finding ways to bring them together, to make them collide.

YEUN: Yeah.

LUSE: I found that it gave me actually the same satisfaction in a way as watching a romantic comedy but with pure hatred instead of romantic love.

YEUN: That's amazing (laughter).

LUSE: But so much of what makes the relationship between Amy Lau, played by Ali Wong, and your character, Danny Cho, is this mutual recognition that they share. Like you said, neither is afraid to go toe to toe kind of to the death with the other person, and you two really sell that tension.

YEUN: Thanks.

LUSE: When you came together to work on this show, what was that game-recognize-game moment where you realized that you were perfectly matched for this project?

YEUN: We got to meet each other here and there, but we never really connected. And I think coming onto this show, I couldn't fully see what was happening or what was possible until we started reading together. And I was like, ooh, this is going to be fun.

(LAUGHTER)

YEUN: Ali also has just this really warm personality and just warm presence that is really inviting, that is really nurturing and caring. And when you can feel safe and connected to each other off camera, you can really lay into each other on camera.

LUSE: The class tension on "Beef" is palpable. It drives a lot of the story. Amy is rich. She didn't come from money, but she's living good. And Danny has been struggling financially all his life. And, like, naked explorations of intra-racial classism don't often show up a lot on TV. How do you see that as enriching the show?

YEUN: I think for us, like, the framework of what we wanted to build Beef around was just, like, how do we get to the human quicker? We just kind of, like, flattened that whole landscape by being like, it's all Asian people. So now we can just get to who these people are. Then anyone can access them. Then it's an open door and an invitation for anyone to sit at the table respectfully and eat from our table, too, and connect with us as human beings.

LUSE: Danny stands out to me for his rage. What was it like to explore the depths of anger and greed and deceit that are within Danny? Because I could see it going either way. I could see it being cathartic, right?

YEUN: For sure.

LUSE: Don't get it twisted. I was rooting for Danny (laughter).

YEUN: Yeah, thank you.

LUSE: I was rooting for him, right?

YEUN: Hell, yeah.

LUSE: He was my guy. I was rooting for him. I could see that going either way, though, playing him. Like, I could see it feeling cathartic. But I could also see it as something that could burn you. Like, what was it like?

YEUN: Playing Danny was, at times, asking me to revisit a part of myself that when I was younger, I didn't have a full handle over. With Danny, it wasn't that it was cathartic, per se. I got tired being that angry for so long. I got like - I was like - at some points, I was like, all right, I'm got to do this today. Every day, you know, I'd show up on set and I'd just be like, Danny's doing what today? And I'm just like, how do I justify this? How do I not hate Danny? How do I love Danny? How do I never bail on Danny? Because Danny is a side of all of us. And how do I never bail so that the audience will never bail?

LUSE: Ali Wong stated in an interview that you both broke out in hives - hives. You broke out in literal hives after filming. Like, what was so intense about filming that made it have that physical manifestation for you?

YEUN: You know, what was interesting was we realized that she broke out in hives on her face, and I broke out in hives on my body. And I was like, whoa, that's actually kind of incredible. That might be, like, the perfect analogy for how Danny exists and how Amy exists, which is, like, Danny only knows how to give of his body to get around. Like, he has to fix something or climb something or, like, break something or, like, be used for his body. And the anger emanates from that place. And for Amy's character, she's just navigating a whole cerebral reality of higher, upper echelon corporate world. And it's a different ask. They have different strengths. You know, the hives, it was a release of tension for us as actors. But, you know, looking back at it, it's kind of cool. It was just like, it is that yin yang.

(LAUGHTER)

YEUN: Like, she completes the head and I complete the body, and it's like - it's pretty funny.

LUSE: Watching "Minari" and "Nope" and now this role in "Beef," I kind of see, like, in three of these recent onscreen characters for you this, like - I don't know - this connection. Like, they're all men who are haunted or taunted, in a way, by the promise of success. And they're all coming at it from different angles, of course, and with different stakes at play. But to some degree, they're each willing to forsake something significant in order to finally get the success or achieve the thing that they believe is going to save them and fix everything. Does that feel true and is that something that you relate to?

YEUN: Oh, for sure. I wish I had concocted that triple feature to explore it explicitly that way, but it feels like we're all trying to get away from ourselves. We're so lost in comparison, looking at Instagram and being like, I should have that, or I wish I had this. I had to get off of Instagram because I was like, unfollow everybody because I was like, if they're on my feed, it will just give me these mirrors back to me of me feeling inadequate about my own reality. I'm not trying to live that life. I got two kids. Like, I'm too busy to be, like, caught in a rut like that, you know what I mean? And it was extremely helpful just to be like, OK, cool, stop looking at other people's plates.

LUSE: It's so wild, though, because, like, you've been so successful. I imagine that there are people who are going to be listening, like, in disbelief - right? - that you would have those same feelings, too.

YEUN: Well, you can eat, eat, eat and never feel full. I think everybody struggles with that, right? I hope, otherwise I'll feel more alone.

(LAUGHTER)

FLORIDO: That was It's Been A Minute host Brittany Luse talking to actor Steven Yeun. His new show, "Beef," is out now. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Brittany Luse
Brittany Luse is an award-winning journalist, on-air host, and cultural critic. She is the host of It's Been a Minute and For Colored Nerds. Previously Luse hosted The Nod and Sampler podcasts, and co-hosted and executive produced The Nod with Brittany and Eric, a daily streaming show. She's written for Vulture and Harper's Bazaar, among others, and edited for the podcasts Planet Money and Not Past It. Luse and her work have been profiled by publications like The New York Times, The New Yorker, Vulture, and Teen Vogue.