"Connected through inyeon": Teo Yoo reflects on the fate that guided his career and to "Past Lives"

The actor on embodying a traditional Korean man, overhauling how he approaches work and details of his next project

By Hanh Nguyen

Senior Editor

Published July 2, 2023 10:59AM (EDT)

Past Lives (A24)
Past Lives (A24)

"We have inyeon," Teo Yoo tells me on a Zoom interview.

The "Past Lives" star is using a term that's an everyday concept for Koreans, referring to a fated human connection. Whether it's freighted with meaning, such as long-lost siblings reuniting by chance, or a seemingly trivial interaction with a Subway sandwich artist fulfilling your order – that's inyeon. In fact, your reading this story is inyeon. 

"If two strangers walk by each other in the street and their clothes accidentally brush, that means there have been 8,000 layers of inyeon between them," Greta Lee ("Russian Doll," "Morning Show") explains as Nora in director-writer Celine Song's beautiful, meditative directorial film debut "Past Lives."

"I always felt a little bit of somewhat an outsider."

In the movie, Yoo plays Hae-sung, the childhood friend of Nora (Lee) in South Korea before she makes a life for herself in Canada and then later New York. The two reconnect 12 years later in wistful, nostalgic conversations over Skype before once again falling out of touch. A dozen years after that, Hae-sung visits New York to finally meet Nora again in person . . . along with her husband Arthur (John Magaro). These momentous meetings reflect the inyeon for all involved, including Song, whose real-life experiences inspired the movie.

Destiny, reincarnation and alternate realities where two people may have intersected differently are running themes in "Past Lives," which evokes existential questions of "What if?" for the characters and the viewers alike. Naturally, even this interview prompts a moment of reflection.

"The concept of inyeon is also used in day-to-day life in Korea, not as philosophically deep but very casually," says Yoo. "When we are talking together, we have inyeon. Maybe there was something going on in our previous lives that we are now like this, having rapport and talking to each other."

Those unfamiliar with Yoo's work might be surprised at the circuitous path he took to eventually play this typical Korean man in "Past Lives." The trilingual actor was born and raised in Germany before studying acting in the United States. Although he's made his career in South Korea for the past 20 years – ranging from action projects and thrillers to rom-coms like Netflix's K-drama "Love to Hate You" – he wasn't among the actors initially considered to play Hae-sung.

Check out the full interview with Yoo, in which he discusses his career trajectory, the physical and linguistic preparations for "Past Lives" and how he believes inyeon has influenced his roles.

The following interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

I'm still reeling from this movie. Even when I rewatched the trailer I cried. Were you surprised about how emotional it was when you first got the script?

Well, when I first got the script, you usually read it without any preconceived notions or expectations. So I wouldn't say I was surprised, but I was just deeply touched. I had such a visceral reaction because I cried at the end of the script, which is really hard to do, because being affected by music or by anything visual is easier than just reading a text. So yeah, I was really moved by the quality of the writing.

Your trajectory is sort of the opposite of Celine's and Nora's — in that you were born in the West and then moved to Korea. What was appealing about Korea, the entertainment industry at that time?

I've been an actor for almost over 20 years now. And during the time when I moved to South Korea that was maybe maybe six or seven years into my career. I just got freshly married to a Korean woman. And also the opportunities and the work that was given in the West were things that I couldn't identify with. So I just packed my bags and went where there was more challenging and interesting work – just the spectrum of the variety of characters that I was able to portray.

What sort of influence did that upbringing have on you to connect to Hae-sung?

Even though I'm not your average Korean man, the way Hae-sung is, ultimately, I was the last to be cast because the audition material came to me fairly late in the game. People wouldn't think of me for the role because I'm not a traditional Korean man. Even in Korea, we have a word for foreign-born Koreans, and therefore the identity attached to that is somewhat different. So my American manager sent me the script, and this is how I got it.

But I say that having been born and raised as a Korean and looking different from my German peers, and growing up around mostly immigrants from Eastern Europe, and from the Middle East and Northern Africa . . . and then later coming to America, studying acting and living in New York for seven years –  I wouldn't say that I'm a sad person. But I always felt a little bit of somewhat an outsider. And there was always an undercurrent of melancholy in my life. And it's really hard to explain because I don't know how to define melancholy, but it's an emotion that you all understand when we feel it or when we see it in music or movies or art. I think that I was always looking for a project where I can express that type of melancholy. And I think it worked well for the trajectory of Hae-sung's character because he is someone who – because of his environment – has to exercise ultimate emotional restraint. And I think melancholy is a result of that. So I knew how to portray that. This is a link that I understood about the character, and I was glad that Celine was seeing the same thing.

It's interesting that you said restraint, because I think the physicality came across when I was watching Hae-sung approach Nora for the first time in 24 years. I was like, "Oh, he's totally a foreigner. He's not Korean American." What sort of preparations did you do to embody that more traditional Korean man physically?

I would say though, there were two things. One, internally, I met with the child actor, his name is [Leem] Seung-min who played the younger Hae-sung. And he had this wonderful way of showing how – subconsciously, because I think I don't think he's aware of it – how shy he was. He always had his elbows glued to his upper body. I thought that felt like an interesting character trait to show physically, so maybe I can take it into the adult Hae-sung. So in my mind, I was working on a sense memory exercise where I have a rope tied around my arms glued to my body. And they only come loose when whenever he drinks with his friends or in the bar scene, so this is when he loosens up a little bit physically.

"People tend to forget that I'm always working on every character with a speech coach no matter what job I do to prep."

The other thing was that I don't know who came up with the idea, but it's such a Method-y thing to do. But Celine didn't want us, Greta and I, to touch up until that encounter when we meet after 24 years for the first time. So during rehearsal, it's kind of a funny thing because it's not a big deal until you make it a big deal. If you're like, "Come on. We are professionals, we don't need to do something like that." But whenever we would have the instinct – because actors are very physical beings and we are huggers – and whenever I would go in for just a handshake, Celine was like, "No, no, no touching. Save it for later for the screen." So it made for a pretty good hug [when it happened]. And that kind of restraint also, like physically and during preparation, I think, built a kind of love and longing for the other, for the other for your scene partner. And I remember having like this visceral reaction of just waiting there, and my heart pounding out of my chest and having sweaty palms. I'm glad that we did. Like finally, ultimately, the audience gets to experience that first moment with us, so that I think it's a wonderful thing.

Past LivesPast Lives (A24)It's certainly impactful and shows when the characters are talking to each other right afterward. We even see this in the trailer: After the hug, all each of you can do is just say, "Wah!" over and over. In the movie that keeps on going and going and going, which was one of my favorite moments. Was there any sort of discussion about how many times you each can say that, or was it all scripted?

Yeah. The "wah" was scripted but then, if you do it consciously a certain amount of times, then it can feel very anticipated and very just like memorized. So I think it was important that we had all the lines and everything really well rehearsed, but then in that moment, you have to trust your gut instinct and the feeling and the energy of how they are working with you and how the the emotional back and forth is going. I think we were then given permission to be free in certain moments of the film, and that was one such moment.

That worked out well, because I was just thinking, "How long this is gonna go?" but it felt authentic. Since you're trilingual, did you need to improve your Korean fluency at all or, on the flip side – how did you prepare for the more broken English?

Oh, that's interesting. So I'm coming into it with Korean almost being my third language even though it's my mother tongue. People tend to forget that I'm always working on every character with a speech coach no matter what job I do to prep. I've never actually worked on a German project where I would be really using my German, and then English was my second language, and Korean ultimately my third. I had to prep really hard to show the right sound of the vowels and the intonation of that character, so that we get really a sense of how traditional Korean Hae-sung is. But at the same time, not make his Korean English accent sound funny, and authentic and realistic for this film. That's something that I work technically on.

Similar to how it was with Greta, you actually didn't meet John Magaro face to face until Hae-sung meets Arthur in the movie. What was that like?

I think it was great, because, the production team was professional enough to cater to all our needs without us ever meeting. Even during tests or something when we would meet during the same time in the office.  One would usher us in in the front and the other one in the back – those kinds of things. It was kind of fun, like a cat and mouse game, but it all made for like a good first moment. And I remember just I think we even use that first take when we first meet. It was good. I mean it was also very Method-y to do but I would say it worked for us.

I'm no judge but how is John's Korean? There was laughter in the audience after his Korean lines.

I think it's better because he was appropriately bad. He was saying, "You know, I could be better. I could prep better." And Celine was like, "No, no. We want it to be like that because it shows that he makes an effort and it's kind of sweet." 

This may seem random, but I often ask this of multilingual people — what language do you dream in? Have you ever noticed?

I dream in English and Korean with German subtitles. [Laughs] It's actually – I gotta be honest, jokes aside, I think I'm actually a very visual dreamer. And I dream in circumstances and not in language. So that was always interesting to me. I never dreamed and talked in a dream. It's always like this, like something abstract happening. 

"I was making an essay in the language of film because that's the only type of media that I really understand."

You directed a film "Log in Belgium" during COVID lockdown. Directed seems a very limited word – you also wrote and performed in it. In what ways did that experience influence who you are as an actor or artist now? And would you be interested in directing more?

When the chance is given, yeah I'm interested in directing, but not at the moment. I think it would be important to me to because I identify as an actor first, that there would be something on my mind and my circumstance that I really need to express that. Otherwise, I feel like I'm dying. You know, if the stakes are high of me having to express something about myself, that's very personal to me, then I would look into directing again.

I didn't direct out of the intention to direct. I was doing COVID lockdown in the beginning of 2020 in March, April, when I was with a production abroad. Basically, I was home alone stuck in my hotel, without being able to go anywhere, in an environment which language I didn't speak. So I basically just recorded my day-to-day life with my cell phone to grasp ahold onto reality and not go insane.

Then I received an audition, and I didn't have anyone to read it with. So I taped myself first as a reader, and then I was acting with myself and that had this interesting dynamic that I could break character and ask myself questions about myself that I haven't thought about. And so thereby, like an interesting second character was born and an interesting interview structure was born. I projected my three languages as a metaphor for different parts of my life: for the present, the past and the future, and with like hopes and dreams and traumas and regrets and worries about the future. So it had an ongoing three-act theme. It's a very personal – I guess it was more kind of an essay than a documentary. So, basically, I was making an essay in the language of film because that's the only type of media that I really understand.

Did that experience make you view directors differently? 

Yeah, because I realized it's never all about the actor. It's what it's about the vision of the director. And if you know what the director wants and is confident about their vision, then you can trust them. And on the other hand, it also made me a more confident performer because it made me think about continuity a lot. Because [with that project] I was ultimately the director, but then I had to go back into the actor's mind and remember what I need to do, but also remember objectively what I need to get. So having those two sides definitely informed me as an actor.

Past LivesPast Lives (A24)You're also a former athlete, right? So how does physicality inform your acting? We've already mentioned Hae-sung's body language.

"[The concept of inyeon] changed the way I approach my work entirely."

Yeah, as a teenager, I was very athletic. I believe [it informs my acting] in a great way because sometimes you're not as heady, even though you do a lot of homework. When the coach says do something, you just do it, you don't question it. And I think that helps because you basically throw yourself into a situation without fear of failing, but just technically and physically going through it. And that's what I love about drama. Because ultimately, you're not thinking about the result, but the process is being captured of what you're going through. And I think you can only get there by doing it. And by not being lazy and prepping, and rehearsing and trying really hard, and giving it time to repeat, at least for me. Every actor is a little bit different, but I think having that background greatly prepared me as an actor.

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What can you say about your next project, "The Worst Boy in the World"?

It was really hard to do. It's a really cool crime story, it's a noir crime series. And it's the first time that I've ever tackled a character like that, because the guy that I play in it is an attorney. In the first episode, we see him coming out after being five years in the mental asylum. Why he got there, and the crime cases that happened in the high school that he has to solve from then on into the series, are all connected to his past and why he became the way he is. So it's a very interesting story with a lot of plot twists and turns.

And finally, how did doing "Past Lives" make you reflect on inyeon in your own life?

It had a deep effect on me because it changed the way I approach my work entirely. Before I was more like a very technical actor, and I would rely upon what I learned, and on my experience. But what I realized is if you know what works, then you tend to lean upon those mannerisms because you know they sell. But I feel like in that moment, then you get stuck and you don't grow anymore.

But coming upon the concept of inyeon, I think that about the characters that I portray from now on in the future. And when I think of it as that, then for me there's a realistic possibility that the characters that I act actually had a previous life, or something going on in my previous life connected through inyeon, which gives it for me on a personal level a more realistic way of approaching it.

"Past Lives" is currently in theaters nationwide.

By Hanh Nguyen

Hanh Nguyen is the Senior Editor of Culture, which covers TV, movies, books, music, podcasts, art, and more. Her work has also appeared in IndieWire, and The Hollywood Reporter. She co-hosts the "Good Pop Culture Club" podcast, which examines the good pop that gets us through our days, from an Asian American perspective.

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Interview Inyeon Movies Past Lives Teo Yoo The Worst Boy In The World