Teo Yoo is waiting for someone to tell him that this is all a dream. The actor shines Past lives, playwright-director Celine Song’s feature film debut that took Sundance by storm, and as the ethereal romance nears its June 2 release, he feels increasingly surprised that this is, in fact, real life. “Every day I try to pinch myself,” Yoo tells me THR via 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 reconnects after decades. Lee’s character has moved to New York where she has married a fellow writer and is beginning to feel an attraction to the life she has left behind; Yoo’s Hae Sung is curious what has become 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 that your life is linear, that you just die after you die, this movie can be sad,” Yoo explains. “But if you believe that, even if there is something not in you inyeon in this life, but it could be in the next life, then it’s bittersweet and comforting.
Yoo, who grew up in Germany and studied in New York and London, explains what went into making the film.
Your character is biographically very different from you. What elements did you connect with?
I have had a sense of displacement for a long time. I was born and raised abroad – I’m actually the only German-Korean actor who works internationally, and from a Western perspective I’m a Korean actor, but Koreans don’t see me that way. It has given me an underlying rush 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 is also a mentality here in Korea, which many people suffer from (and you see that in Hae Sung), that you have to work very hard in your daily 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 I use as an actor.
How did you feel the contrast between Korean and American cultures while working on the film?
It has always been a struggle in my life to express certain feelings or emotions that exist in one language but not 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 off a layer. But it can be difficult to express the right emotions for the specific cultures that will be watching this film. I’m trying to make amends with the Korean audience, but also play a romantic lead that’s acceptable to an American audience. I spent time getting the body language, intonations, and even Hae Song’s Konglish accent right.
Can you talk about your decision to continue acting?
Growing up I was an athlete and thought I would go to college to become a physical therapist. I’ve always loved film, so on 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 made us do were really cool. 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 in that moment that I could do this and be broke, work a part-time job at a sandwich shop 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. In the end I went 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 initial 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’m 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’m a Korean actor, so my manager in the United States thought of me when the script came around. But the first time I read the script, I had a visceral reaction. I broke down a little and cried, because I was so proud that Celine introduced the idea of inyeon to a Western audience in such a light-hearted and clever way. After I taped myself, I did a Zoom with Celine and I expected us to 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 every audition you can see, like now with us, if there’s a certain kind of rapport or chemistry going on. And I could see that I was doing well and I had confidence in that. But I also knew she had to put together the right chemistry for the whole ensemble.
How did you create the chemistry with Greta Lee to play old friends who more or less subconsciously desired each other?
During rehearsal, Celine never wanted Greta and I to touch. I’d go in for a hug or shake her hand, and she’d be like, “No, save it for the screen.” So when you see us meeting in New York for the first time in 24 years, that’s actually the first time we touched, so we longed for each other. I had a really visceral feeling (when shooting) – 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.
Is there a moment from the filming that stands out to you?
When we shot one of the last scenes, there was a moment where we were all sitting outside in our seats on 8th Street (in New York). We all just remembered our days of struggling to become actors 15, 20 years ago. I lived on the corner of Avenue C and 7th Street, worked two jobs while going to school, and dreamed about this day. Celine kept encouraging us to go back to our caravans and rest, but I didn’t want to miss that moment. We were the protagonists of an A24 movie! People passing by asked us what we were filming, and I liked to joke, ‘It is Minor 2.’ ”
The film was one of, if not the only, most beloved Sundance films – did you have any expectations going into that premiere, or did that experience change your impression of what the film could 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 catch our breath. I was at Sundance once before, in 2015 for a movie called Search Seoul, which was well received, but there was not much interest. It feels great that a studio like A24 is behind us. I can’t believe I’m an actor who lives in South Korea but gets to star in these American productions and go to things like Sundance.
Since it was such a whirlwind, you probably don’t remember, but you and the cast came to the THR studio and you had great things to say about the movie and the importance of inyeon back then too…
It’s actually kind of burned into my brain. You were the first of all the people to interview us, and I was so jet-lagged. I was so nervous and the words rumbled in my head. Since I was trilingual and had all these languages in my head, I tried to concentrate and not sound like a gibbering idiot. I really wanted to look good. But I’m glad to hear that. I must have left an 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 subscribe.