I recently had the opportunity to interview Happy Cleaners star Yeena Sung. Born in Seoul and raised in Cheonahn and Bundang South Korea, Yeena has been working in theatre and film for the past nine years, having graduated from both New York University and Columbia University. Her theatre credits include Twelfth Night, Hi-Fi Wi-Fi Sci-Fi, Campfire, and To Pieces. In addition to her leading role in Happy Cleaners, Yeena has been in many films and will soon appear on the seventh season of Darren Starr’s Younger. Over the course of our interview, Yeena and I touched upon many different areas such as the differences between performing on stage instead of film, and the portrayal and conversation surrounding Asian/Asian-American performers and characters. Read our full conversation below.
What are some of the differences you noticed between growing up in South Korea compared to when you came to the U.S.?
Yeena Sung – One of the main differences I’ve noticed is that Korea is much more focused on the collective ideals, whereas there’s more attention to the individuals in the U.S.
What are some things you look for in a role or project before signing on?
Yeena Sung – I like to be in projects where the narrative is in-line with my core values and ones that I truly believe are important to be told. In terms of roles, I am drawn to play characters that are either very close to me or the extreme opposite of me – interestingly enough, they are both equally challenging and enlightening.
When it comes to theatre, you have done Shakespere, musicals, multimedia pieces etc. What are your favorite aspects of performing on stage compared to film and TV?
Yeena Sung – I love theater productions because, unlike film and tv, you as the actor get to experience the full journey as the character without having interruptions or cuts. It’s an amazing feeling to go through the full arc and every time you perform, it’s an opportunity to understand and get closer to the character and the story. I also enjoy the energy you get from the audience members. Every night is different and you can never fully anticipate how, where, or when the audience members will respond. And no matter what, unless it’s life-threatening, “the show must go on”. This means you can’t stop midway and it’s up to the performer to navigate any unexpected things that may come up. It’s a fun and scary challenge, and it keeps you on your toes!
I enjoy the filmmaking process just as much. I love the aspects of having to be highly concentrated and to not be distracted by the cuts in-between. You also have to have a huge imagination and inner-life that is just as driven and strong as when you’re performing on stage. People often say, “be natural” or to “tone it down”, but nothing about the film sets’ environment is natural. I actually think the fun challenge of on-screen acting comes from embodying and channeling that big inner life without being theatrical, and expressing it in a way that is in the style of naturalism.
The experience of acting in both stage and film/tv are distinctly different but I believe the core of acting stems from the same place. Thus, I enjoy doing both!
You have done a few projects centered on young teenage characters such as Clique Bait and Let’s Play Dead Girl. How does Asian/Asian-American culture and values impact (if at all) how adolescence is portrayed compared to how it is portrayed in American film and television?
Yeena Sung – This is a difficult question to answer because both of these films weren’t centered around the Asian/Asian-American experiences. It just so happened that the characters I played were Asian/Asian-American. There are narratives that actively hold space for how the characters were impacted by the Asian/Asian-American culture and values. But in the case of Let’s Play Dead Girl, the director just wanted to have a diverse cast to realistically represent his upbringing from Queens. However, the story wasn’t about my character being uniquely Asian-American. As for Clique Bait, it is a short film specifically about teenagers who go to an international highschool in Hong Kong. But that was just the setting and the actual story touches upon the complex relationship between two friends who grew apart. I think these characters might have been portrayed differently if the purpose of the film was to concentrate on how the characters were affected by their respective cultures.
I think we’re at a stage where we are curious and eager to learn more about the specific cultures and how that affects the story telling. And that’s fine. But I ultimately hope that, even in films that are culturally specific, audience members can learn to celebrate the differences but also relate to the characters as fellow human-beings experiencing the complexities of life.
How did you come to be involved with Happy Cleaners and what drew you to the role of Hyunny in particular? What aspects of Hyunny if any could you identify with?
Yeena Sung – I found out about Happy Cleaners through a casting call on Backstage. I read the description of the piece and was immediately drawn to it. However, I was at a low point in my journey as an actor at the time from facing multiple rejections and wasn’t going to audition for it. But on the day of the audition, I decided to show up anyway. It’s funny because the directors were struggling to find the right actor to play Hyunny and I happened to be the last person to show up to the audition!
I was initially drawn to Hyunny because I felt that we were very similar. Hyunny and I are both resilient and we don’t give up on things easily. We continue to look at the positives despite the hardships. Our vulnerabilities are often overshadowed by our grit but it’s the softness in our hearts that allows us to move forward.
What facets of Asian/Asian American life does Happy Cleaners capture really well?
Yeena Sung – I would say everything about Happy Cleaners portrays what it means to be a Korean family who immigrated to Flushing, New York. The intergenerational struggles and friction between the younger and older generation is spot on. I also love that there are a lot of scenes involving food, because it is a huge part of how Koreans communicate to one another- even if there are no words involved. The common Korean greeting to check in with someone is, “have you eaten rice”. Just from this, you can tell how important food is for Koreans and I love that this film was able to portray that.
With films like Happy Cleaners, The Farwell, and Parasite receiving critical acclaim, have you noticed changes in the cultural conversation surrounding types of roles and stories available to Asian and Asian-American artists? How would you like to see the cultural conversation continue to evolve?
Yeena Sung – I think an important change is that Asian and Asian-American artists are finally starting to be included in these conversations. Asian/Asian-Americans have been invisible to the public eye and were not attended to for a very long time; Asians were often seen as obedient and easily silenced. My hope is that more conversations and platforms will open up to bring more agency for all actors of color. Actors, especially those who are marginalized, are susceptible to working in environments that inhibit their ability to perform their rights. Due to the lack of opportunities, BIPOC actors often partake in productions that they don’t feel comfortable being in, play roles that perpetuate stereotypes, or do work for less or no pay. We need to have more conversations to change this cultural norm and actively create space for all artists.
I also hope to see more conversations that focus on what the actual story of the film is, rather than just on the aspect of asian-ness. I think it’s a great start that Asian/Asian-American performers and stories are gaining more popularity. However, I hope that the attention doesn’t come from a place of “othering” but from a genuine interest in the intention of the story.
What are some cliches and stereotypes surrounding Asian stories and performances you try to avoid or hope to see less of in projects?
Yeena Sung – We’ve all heard about the stereotypes around an Asian character with an accent, a nerd, an asian guy who is de-sexualized or an asian woman who is highly fetishized. Even if it’s not that big of a cliche as the ones mentioned above, oftentimes Asian/Asian-American characters are written from a person with some type of prejudice and therefore the roles aren’t fully dimensional and only serve as foils to highlight the other white characters. Unless there is a specific purpose to have these characters present, I try to avoid these types of roles because I do not want to perpetuate negative stereotypes. I simply want to be an actor who can be a vessel for portraying characters truthfully and fully!
In your opinion, what are some under-represented aspects of Asian/Asian-American life and culture you hope get more representation in the future?
Yeena Sung – I think we concentrate a lot on the differences of being an Asian/Asian-American and the narratives we see are very specific to a certain race or background. It’s definitely stories that we need more of because we haven’t seen enough of them and they deserve to be celebrated. However, we are all human beings at the end of the day. As much as I am happy to be in narratives that are centered around the experience of being Asian, I’m just as interested to be a part of stories that are intercultural – where different people from varying backgrounds coexist – which is how America is.
Have you noticed any differences in how American writers and directors approached storytelling compared to Asian or Asian-american artists?
Yeena Sung – It’s difficult and a bit unfair to generalize, but I’ve noticed that in the case of Minari, Happy Cleaners, and The Farewell, these specific Asian- American writers wrote stories that are very much centered around the characters. The characters are what move the story forward, as opposed to the plot. I’ve also noticed that the edits for these particular films are slower than other Hollywood films as they focus more on the emotional journeys that these characters go through. I admire them for making these bold choices and I can’t wait to see more projects that are written and directed by, as well as starring Asian/ Asian American artists.
How important is it to you to not only play roles that directly address Asian/Asian American stories, but also simply feature Asian/Asian-American actors playing roles as simply part of a cast and is a compelling character regardless of race?
Yeena Sung – It’s just as important for me to play roles that address Asian/Asian American stories as well as roles that don’t really address those narratives.
I think Asian/Asian American actors often struggle to get cast in stories that aren’t Asian/Asian-American narratives because some argue that it doesn’t “make sense” for them to be in them. I’ve had an experience where I made it to the final round of auditions to play the role of a daughter, and evidently I didn’t get the part because I wasn’t the “right fit for the story”. Truth be told, I knew I wasn’t cast, not because I wasn’t fit for the role, but because the rest of the family members that had already been cast were white. You get the story.
There’s nothing wrong with Asian/Asian-American actors being a part of Asian/Asian-American specific stories. It’s actually amazing to get the opportunity to celebrate a story that is mine. But it becomes a problem when Asian actors are just limited to that. Especially if it’s due to one’s lack of open-ness and inability to see beyond the actor’s asian-ness. I’m not saying this to stress that we should all be color blind. Never! For one, that’s not possible and two, that’d be erasure of one’s culture and race.
I just hope that we could collectively grow to appreciate and embrace the race of the actors and also be able to see beyond it, so that we don’t pigeonhole Asian/Asian-American actors to play only one character or one story. We are all people at the end of the day and all human-beings are so complex. I just want to be an actor who is in service of playing these different characters as well as be a part of stories that portray the full human experience- whether it be through a narrative that is centered around the Asian/Asian-American experience or not.
Is there anything advice you would give to Asians/Asian Americans looking to be actors,writers,etc?
Yeena Sung – Be true to who you are! Don’t lose a sense of who you are just because you want to prove to others that you can fulfill what they want from you. At the end of the day, you know yourself best. Being flexible and being open is a very important trait to have as an actor, but that wouldn’t serve you in the long run if you lose yourself along the way.
Furthermore, I hope you find a way to be generous with others without yielding the power you hold as an actor. I think it takes years of practice to achieve this sense of confidence (I’m still working on it myself!) but I truly believe that an actors’ voice can have a huge impact on others.
You are about to guest star on the next season of Darren Starr’s series Younger, is there anything you can tease about your role?
Yeena Sung – I can’t give too much away but I’ll be playing Dylan Park, an emerging writer from Queens!
Is there anything else you would like to add for our readers?
Yeena Sung – With the success of films like Happy Cleaners, The Farewell, Minari, and Parasite, I feel excited for the progress that’s been made in this industry. But I also can’t help but feel deeply saddened by the Anti-Asian hate crimes that’s been surging this past year. There is a divide between what we see in the industry and reality. I believe this is why we need more stories of varying Asian and Asian-American experiences. My hope is that when more stories are made, audience members will have more opportunities to empathize with these specific stories; to digest these different cultures, race, and identities as complex but equally connectable human experiences.
Thanks for having me and I hope this interview will create room for thought and curiosity!
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