In ‘Beef,’ Road Rage Is Only the Beginning

LOS ANGELES — In the upcoming Netflix series “Beef,” Steven Yeun plays Danny Cho, a struggling handyman in Los Angeles who becomes embroiled in a road rage incident with Amy Lau, a wealthy entrepreneur played by Ali Wong. Over 10 episodes, their simmering hatred fuels an escalating series of poor decisions, setting off a bizarre chain of retribution including but not limited to robbery, vandalism, catfishing and bad Yelp reviews.

The show was created by the writer Lee Sung Jin (“Dave,” “Silicon Valley”), who first worked with Yeun and Wong on the animated series “Tuca & Bertie.” (Yeun and Wong played a robin and a song thrush who are lovers.) Around the same time, Lee was involved in a road rage confrontation in Los Angeles that would inspire his new series.

“Beef” is Lee’s first outing as a series creator and showrunner. It also features Yeun’s first regular role on live-action TV since his character, Glenn, was killed off “The Walking Dead” in 2016. Glenn’s gruesome murder sparked viewer outrage but things worked out great for Yeun, who has since appeared in acclaimed films like “Minari,” which brought him an Academy Award nomination for best actor, and “Burning.”

Lee and Yeun are set to work together again on Marvel’s forthcoming “Thunderbolts” movie, their first forays into the MCU: Lee as a writer, Yeun in a yet-to-be-revealed role.

On an afternoon in March, Yeun and Lee got together at the Apple Pan, a beloved hole-in-the-wall burger joint on L.A.’s west side. Over hickory burgers, fries and slices of pie, they talked about how they met, the inspiration for “Beef” and their Korean church connections. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.

In “Beef,” Yeun and Ali Wong play strangers who become embroiled in a bitter feud.Credit…Netflix

Tell me about the “incident.”

LEE SUNG JIN I was getting on the 10. The light turned green and I didn’t go right away, and a white BMW X3 starts honking like crazy, pulls up next to me and [the driver] says a bunch of [expletive] at me. I was like, That’s not OK — I’m going to follow him home. In reality, I wasn’t actually going to follow him; I’m not that courageous. But back then I lived in Santa Monica — when we both got off at Fourth Street, I’m just commuting home, but I’m sure he was like, Oh my God, this guy is following me.

I thought there was something interesting there, how we’re all locked in our subjective world views, and we go around projecting a lot on the other person and not really seeing things for what they are.

How did you two first meet?

LEE We actually met through Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg. I was doing their pilot “Singularity” for FX, and I had really wanted to work with Steven. Seth and Evan are huge fans of his. [To Yeun] I don’t know how they knew you.

STEVEN YEUN I don’t either. I guess maybe comic book worlds? Just me being in “Walking Dead” and them being fans of that world. And being gracious people, too, they invited me over to their house one time and properly smoked me out.

LEE So Seth and Evan [introduced Lee and Yeun]. And after that first meeting, we had you and your wife over at our place. I was with my now-wife, and I remember feeling like we were going to know each other for a while. There was just something very comforting and familiar. We have very similar backgrounds.

YEUN We’re not from the coasts. And we’re Korean. And we’re working in this business.

Playing his character in “Beef” was “almost therapeutic,” Yeun said. “How do we see the world when you’re living in this space of, like, This place is designed to crush me?”Credit…Ryan Pfluger for The New York Times

LEE And we both came up in the Korean church.

How did you come up with the character of Danny?

LEE I’m sure there’s a lot of me in Danny, but I think there’s a lot of all of us in Danny. I knew I wanted this guy to have a chip on his shoulder. I knew he lived in Reseda. I had just bought a home, and I was hearing a lot of funny stories about handymen and contractors shooting themselves in the foot when it comes to their work.

YEUN Danny was an interesting thought experiment — it was almost therapeutic. How do we see the world when you’re living in this space of, like, This place is designed to crush me? I’m pretty sure all of us feel that way to some degree.

What was that like to play for 10 episodes?

YEUN I was pretty exhausted most days; you’re kind of living in a hypervigilant state. But I also relate to that life. I never dreamed I would be in this position in this business, and I think that makes you learn how to avoid things that could potentially harm you. For me, that seems like a very immigrant lens.

Have you had road rage?

YEUN Oh for sure. I think anybody who tells you that they haven’t is a liar. But my road rage is usually contained in my car.

Yeun plays a handyman with a chip on his shoulder.Credit…Andrew Cooper/Netflix
Wong plays a wealthy entrepreneur.Credit…Andrew Cooper/Netflix

The series revolves around this relationship between Danny and Amy, but you aren’t together physically for much of it. What was that like?

YEUN It was exciting, because you would hear the rumblings of how shooting was going on the other side. And I’m sure she was also hearing the other side. But then every time we would get together, it was very electric.

I could see you and Ali getting into it, just as people.

YEUN There’s good electricity between Ali and I.

LEE They’re very similar, but opposite in a lot of ways — I mean that in the best way. We’re all close friends but I think when you have that, it does cause electricity.

Much of the series takes place in parts of Los Angeles you rarely see on TV, including a Korean church in the Valley, complete with a praise team.

LEE I’ve actually known Justin Min [who plays the praise team leader] since he was a kid, because his older brother, Jason, was my best friend in college. When Jason moved out to L.A., Steven, before “The Walking Dead,” went to the same church as him and was in the praise team.

Jason actually arranged all the praise team songs in the show, and we prerecorded the music with this amazing producer, Ariel Rechtshaid, who does, like, Beyoncé and Adele. Jason is a pastor now, and he pulled his actual praise team from his church, and there were extras from that church who knew you, remember? There were these little kids going, “Uncle Steven!”

YEUN That week was really fun, because we shot at an actual Korean church in Chatsworth. There was something very nostalgic about that week.

“I thought there was something interesting there, how we’re all locked in our subjective world views,” Lee said about the incident that inspired the show.Credit…Ryan Pfluger for The New York Times

L.A. has always had plenty of road rage, but the problem got even worse during the pandemic. To what extent is this a Covid series?

LEE We wrote it during Covid, and we were seeing headlines like: “Because of Covid, road rage up.” So yeah, it was in the air.

But even aside from the rage, the thing that gets exacerbated with Covid is this sense of isolation and loneliness. When Amy talks to George in the intimacy exercise scene about this feeling she’s had forever, that came from me telling the writers’ room about my own low points. I was talking about my goddaughter, Lily — she was 4 at the time — and how I just hope she never has this feeling, and I started crying because it was very sad to think that she’s going to have to deal with it. I think that the show is really getting at the core of this feeling that a lot of us can’t escape.

Do you ever wonder why you got so mad during the encounter that inspired this show? Or is it a common thing for you?

LEE Um, yeah, I think I should probably reflect on it more.

YEUN I think you’ve done quite a lot of reflecting!

LEE Well, I’ve definitely thought a lot about not just that incident but why I am the way I am. And why any of us are.

It’s easy, in writing, to point to one thing and be like, Oh, it was this trauma in my past, like, A leads to B leads to C. But that’s just not how we work. The lines aren’t straight — it’s very wiggly, and there’s a lot of stuff. I think that’s what the show wants to explore: That it’s not one thing. It really is about how hard it is to be alive.

Is that BMW driver going to see a picture of you and go, Hey, that guy made this into a TV show?

LEE No, I was wearing sunglasses.

YEUN Also, that guy probably gets into five of those a day. He’s telling somebody off because they didn’t go fast enough? That guy lives in that space.

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