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Teo Yoo is waiting for someone to tell him it’s all a dream. The actor is the protagonist Past lives, playwright-director Celine Song’s feature debut that has taken Sundance by storm, and as the ethereal love story nears its June 2 release, he’s feeling more and more amazed that this is, in fact, life real. “Every day I try to pinch myself,” says Yoo DAY on Zoom from his base in Seoul.
Past lives follows two childhood friends — played by Yoo and Greta Lee (The morning show) — who grew up in Seoul and reconnects after decades. Lee’s character has moved to New York, where she is married to a fellow writer and she has begun to feel the attraction to her life that she has left behind; Yoo’s Hae Sung is curious what became of her. It’s part love triangle, part exploration of destiny – the film is based on the Korean concept of inyeon, a reincarnation-like idea of how we end up in each other’s lives. “If you believe your life is linear, that you die after you die, this film can be sad,” explains Yoo. “But if you believe that even if something is not in your inyeon in this life but may be in the next life then it is more bittersweet and comforting.
Yoo, who grew up in Germany and studied in New York and London, explains how the film was made.
Your character is quite different from you biographically. What elements did you link to?
I had a feeling of disorientation for a long time. I was born and raised abroad: I’m basically the only German-Korean actor working internationally, and from a Western perspective, I’m a Korean actor, but Koreans don’t perceive me that way. It gave me an undercurrent of sadness and melancholy, which I think Hae Sung has. I could understand the feeling that there are forces in your life that you cannot change. There’s also a mentality here in Korea, which a lot of people suffer from (and which you see in Hae Sung), that you have to work very hard in your everyday life, and I have a lot of empathy for that. I moved to Korea because I wanted to embrace my identity, which also means embracing that struggle: It added color to the palette that I use as an actor.
How did you perceive the juxtaposition between Korean and American culture during your work on the film?
It has always been a struggle in my life to express certain feelings or emotions that exist in one language but don’t exist in another. For example, I think vulnerability is one of the most beautiful words in the English language; in Korean the translation is used to describe the detachment of a layer. But it can be difficult to express the right emotions for the specific cultures that will be viewing this film. I’m trying to be good for Korean audiences, but also be an acceptable romantic lead for an American audience. I spent time figuring out Hae Song’s body language, intonations, and even Konglish accent well.
Can you tell us a little about your decision to pursue acting?
When I was growing up, I was an athlete and thought I was going to college to be a physical therapist. I’ve always loved cinema, so during my (gap year) I decided to do something I’d regret not doing, so I signed up with Lee Strasberg for three months. My teacher was the late Irma Sandrey, and at first I thought some of the exercises she had us do were really crazy. But she sat me down and said, I think you should come to my master class and think about actually doing this. I called my dad to tell him, and I knew right then that I could do it and be broke, work part time at a deli or convenience store and act on site and be happy. I could be 70 performing for kids in a park and be happy. I ended up going to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and that was it for me.
What do you remember about the audition process for Past livesAnd your first reactions to the script?
I think I was one of the last people to audition, not only for the character but also for the cast involved in the film. The character was traditionally Korean, which I am not, as I was born and raised overseas, so my representatives in Korea would not have thought of me directly. But from a western perspective, I’m a Korean actor, so my manager in the US thought of me when the script came. But the first time I read the script I had this visceral reaction. I sort of broke down and cried, because I was so proud that Celine had introduced the idea of inyeon to Western audiences in such a lighthearted and intelligent way. After I checked in, I zoomed in with Celine and I expected we’d read the scene and talk about it a bit, but we ended up spending about three hours together.
Did you immediately feel that the role was yours?
After each audition you can tell, like with us right now, if there’s a certain type of relationship or chemistry going on. And I could tell that I did a good job and I was confident about it. But I also knew she had to pull together the right chemistry for the whole ensemble.
How did you create chemistry with Greta Lee to play old friends who unknowingly yearned for each other?
During rehearsals, Celine never wanted Greta and I to touch. I’d come in for a hug or to shake her hand, and she’d say, “No, save that for the screen.” So when you see us meeting in NYC for the first time in 24 years, it’s actually the first time we’ve touched, so we’ve been longing for each other. I had this really gut feeling (during filming): My palms were sweating and my heart was pounding out of my chest. I’m really grateful that the audience gets to experience that too.
Do any moments of the shoot stand out to you?
When we shot one of the final scenes, there was a moment where we were all sitting outside in our chairs on 8th Street (in New York). We were just reminiscing about our days of struggling to be actors 15, 20 years ago. I was living on the corner of Avenue C and 7th Street, working two jobs on my way to school and dreaming of this day. Celine kept encouraging us to go back to our trailers and rest, but I didn’t want to miss that moment. We were the protagonists of an A24 film! People passing by asked us what we were filming, and I like to joke: “It is Painful 2.’ ”
The film was one of, if not the only, Sundance’s most beloved films – did you have any expectations for that premiere, or did that experience change your impression of what the film might be capable of?
I knew we had something good on our hands. But the festival was just a whirlwind, it was overwhelming. The movie was so well received and everyone wanted to see us, there was no time to breathe. I’ve been to Sundance once, in 2015, for a movie called Search for Seoul, which was well received but did not generate much interest. It is important that a studio like A24 is behind us. I can’t believe I’m an actor living in South Korea, but he gets to these American productions and goes to things like Sundance.
Since it was such a whirlwind, you probably don’t remember it, but you and the cast came to the THR studio and had wonderful things to say about the movie and the importance of inyeon even then…
It’s actually kind of burned into my brain. You were the first of all the people who interviewed us, and I was so late. I was so nervous and the words were jumbled in my head. Being trilingual, having all these languages in my head, I tried to focus and not sound like a stuttering idiot. I really wanted to fit in. But I’m happy to hear that. I must have left some kind of impression.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
A version of this story first appeared in the May 31 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to register now.