Connect with us


Next Big Thing: ‘Past Lives” Teo Yoo on Not Being Able to Hug His Co-Star



Teo Yoo is waiting for someone to tell him this is all a dream. The actor stars in Past Lives, the feature debut from playwright-director Celine Song that took Sundance by storm, and as the ethereal romance nears its June 2 release, he’s feeling ever more amazed that this is, in fact, real life. “Every day I try to pinch myself,” Yoo tells THR over Zoom from his home base in Seoul.

Past Lives follows two childhood friends — played by Yoo and Greta Lee (The Morning Show) — who grew up in Seoul and reconnected after decades. Lee’s character has moved to New York, where she’s married to a fellow writer and has begun to feel a pull to the life she left behind; Yoo’s Hae Sung is curious about what became of her. It’s part love triangle, part exploration of fate — the film relies on the Korean concept of inyeon, a reincarnation-esque idea about how we end up in one another’s lives. “If you believe that your life is linear, that you just pass away after you die, this movie can be sad,” Yoo explains. “But if you believe that even if something isn’t in your inyeon in this lifetime but it could be in the next life, then it’s more bittersweet and comforting.”

Yoo, who was raised in Germany and studied in New York and London, explains what went into making the film.

Your character is quite different from you biographically. What elements did you connect to?

I’ve had a feeling of displacement 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’s given me an underlying current of sadness and melancholy, which I think Hae Sung has. I could understand feeling like there are forces in your life that you can’t change. There is also a mentality here in Korea, that a lot of people suffer from [and that you see in Hae Sung], that you have to work really 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 a color onto the palette I use as an actor.

How did you feel the juxtaposition, between Korean and American cultures, during your work on the movie?

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 peeling away a layer. But it can be hard to express the right emotions for the specific cultures who are going to see this movie. I’m trying to make right by the Korean audience, but also be a romantic lead acceptable for an American audience. I spent time getting Hae Song’s body language, intonations, and even Konglish accent, right.

Can you talk a little bit about your decision to pursue acting?

When I was growing up, I was an athlete and thought I would go to college to become a physical therapist. I always loved film, so during my [gap year] I decided to do something I would regret not doing, so I enrolled in Lee Strasberg for three months. My teacher was the late Irma Sandrey, and at first I thought some of the exercises she had us doing were really crazy. But she sat me down and said, I think you should come to my master class and think about really doing this. I called my dad to tell him, and I knew in that moment I could do this and be broke, work a part time job in a deli or convenience store and act on the site, and be happy. I could be 70 years old performing for kids in a park and be happy. I wound up going to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and that was it for me.

Lee and Yoo in a scene from A24's Past Lives.

Lee and Yoo in a scene from A24’s Past Lives.

Courtesy of A24

What do you remember about the audition process for Past Livesand your early reactions to the script?

I think I was one of the last people to audition, not only for the character but for the cast involved in the movie. The character was traditionally Korean, which I am not, since I was born and raised abroad, so my reps in Korea wouldn’t have thought of me directly. But from a Western perspective I am a Korean actor, so my manager in the States thought of me when the script came around. But the first time I read the script I had this visceral reaction. I kind of broke down and cried, because I was so proud that Celine introduced the notion of inyeon to a western audience in such a lighthearted and smart way. After I put myself on tape I did a Zoom with Celine and I expected we would read the scene and talk about it a little bit, but we ended up spending about three hours together.

Did you feel immediately that the role was yours?

After every audition you can tell, like with us right now, if there’s a certain kind of rapport or chemistry going on. And I could tell I did a good job and I was confident about that. But I also knew that she had to put together the right chemistry for the entire ensemble.

How did you create the chemistry with Greta Lee to play old friends who have been sort of unknowingly longing for each other?

During rehearsal, Celine never wanted Greta and I to touch. I’d go in for a hug or to shake her hand, and she would say, “No, save it for the screen.” So when you see us meet in New York for the first time in 24 years, that’s actually the first time we ever touched, so we yearned for each other. I had this really visceral feeling [while shooting] — my palms were sweating and my heart was pounding out of my chest. I’m really grateful the audience gets to experience that, too.

Does any moment from filming stand out to you?

When we shot one of the final scenes, there was a moment when all of us were sitting outside in our chairs on 8th Street. [in New York]. We were all just remembering our days of struggling to become actors 15, 20 years back. I used to live on the corner of Avenue C and 7th Street, working two jobs while going to school and dreaming about 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 leads of an A24 film! People passing by would ask us what we were filming, and I like to joke, “It’s Minari 2.’ ”

The film was one of the, if not the single, most beloved films out of Sundance — did you have certain expectations going into that premiere, or did that experience change your impression of what the film could be capable of?

I did know we had something good on our hands. But the festival was just a whirlwind, it was overwhelming. The film was received so well and everybody wanted to see us, there wasn’t time to breathe. I was at Sundance once before, in 2015 for a film called Seoul Searching, which received a good reception but there wasn’t as much interest. It feels major that a studio like A24 is behind us. I can’t believe I’m an actor who’s based in South Korea but gets to be in these American productions and go to things like Sundance.

With it being such a whirlwind, you probably don’t remember, but you and the cast came to the THR studio and you had wonderful things to say about the movie and the importance of Inyeon then, too…

It’s actually kind of burned into my brain. You were the first of all the people who interviewed us, and I was so jet lagged. I was so nervous and the words were scrambled in my head. Being trilingual, having all these languages ​​in my head, I tried to focus and not sound like a babbling idiot. I really wanted to come across well. But I’m glad 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 News84Media magazine. Click here to subscribe.

Check the latest Hollywood news here.