Past Lives : Exclusive Interview with Actor Teo Yoo on the Sundance Favorite Film

Past Lives : Exclusive Interview with Actor Teo Yoo on the Sundance Favorite Film

Synopsis : Nora and Hae Sung, two deeply connected childhood friends, are wrest apart after Nora’s family emigrates from South Korea. Two decades later, they are reunited in New York for one fateful week as they confront notions of destiny, love, and the choices that make a life, in this heartrending modern romance.

Rating: PG-13 (Some Strong Language)

Genre: Romance, Drama

Original Language: English

Director: Celine Song

Producer: David Hinojosa, Christine Vachon, Pamela koffler

Writer: Celine Song

Release Date (Theaters):  Limited


Distributor: A24

Production Co: Killer Films, CJ ENM Co.

(L-R) Greta Lee, Teo YooCredit: Jon Pack


Exclusive Interview with Actor Teo Yoo 


Q: You have had a very interesting life. You were born in Germany and studied at Lee Strasberg’s Actors Studio in New York. Then you moved to Royal Academy Dramatic Art in London after New York and Berlin. Then, you decide to move to Seoul in 2009. What was the motivation behind that move?

TY: Because I wanted to have a variety of stuff that I can draw on in my work. I discovered that there was this small shop like a supermarket that would make DVDs of Korean TV series and films. That was the first time where I really concentrated on getting my knowledge, my mental archive, of Korean film history into my system. I was really inspired by films of the early ’90s in Korea. It was before this kind of Korean new wave. And that inspired me to go back and check out what’s out there for work.

Q: Talk about how you were cast in this film? What was your first impression of the script as well?

TY: I was the last piece of the puzzle for Celine, the director. I was the last one she looked into — even though I am a Korean based actor in Korea, I’m not necessarily considered typically Korean, and the role calls for a typical Korean actor. I got the script and audition through my American manager Kyle. He asked me to put myself on tape and I got a call back. During a call back, it usually goes for an hour and I thought we would talk a bit about myself and go through the scenes that I’ve already shot.

But we ended up zoom-calling with each other for about three hours. We went through the entire script two or three times over with several different notes. I guess Celine liked me and therefore she was testing out what my acting chops were. I remember reading the script for the first time and having a very visceral reaction to it. I cried. It was deeply moving. My manager was like, “Dude, what took you so long?” I don’t know, we acted together for three hours. Is that a good sign? Then after two weeks, I found out that I got the part.

Q: Even though you speak English fluently, your character mostly speaks Korean in this film. What kind of conversation did you have with Celine to tap into your character? 

TY: It might come as a surprise to American audiences, but Korean is my third language because I was born and raised in Germany. German is my first language and then, in my 20s, I learned English kind of by osmosis by studying acting — same thing with Korean. I learned Korean more in detail after I turned 30 and moved back to Korea. Having said that, for me, I always prepare with acting coaches for each project that I’m attached to. Same thing with this project. It was important that I can portray how I put this in the right language.

Each language has certain types of words that are not translatable into another. Therefore I have to understand the emotion of that one word which is unique to its culture. I have this color scheme of three different cultures that overlap and I operate on the outer spectrum of those colors which kind of fade in and out. That’s very interesting to me because they deal with sadness, loneliness, and melancholy. In the case of this film, it was the word “vulnerability” because you can’t translate that into Korean or German.

But using the Korean language on the one hand, and then using the emotional vulnerability and the consciousness about vulnerability with that language bridges the gap between two different cultures. Whenever we talked about the character, I was trying to find a way to make that emotional accessibility, not only work for her, but also for an American and Korean audience because I play a Korean guy. So that was our preparation.

(L-R) John Magaro, Greta Lee Credit: Jon Pac

Q: That’s a tricky one. Talk about the collaboration between your character and Greta’s. They were childhood friends and sweethearts who have not seen each other for a couple of decades. How did you create the bond that’s there? But at the same time, they hesitate, and are awkward, that’s there as well. Talk about walking with Greta and creating that bond there.

TY: We talked extensively about our characters’ background and how we made it work for us. Celine wanted us, at the rehearsal stage during pre-production, never to touch. So, when we hug on film after 24 years, that’s actually the first time we really touch. It’s kind of a method-type of preparation, but it worked., Since we weren’t allowed to do that, Celine was jokingly like a sadist, saying, “Hey guys, you can’t touch, just go home.

I’m the only one who can hug people here.” I remember that visceral feeling, having sweaty palms and my heart pounding in my chest. It’s great that audiences get to experience that with me and with us. It translates into how the audience feels about it. I’m glad that it all worked out.

Q: This is Celine Song’s first feature film. What surprising elements did you find about Song’s direction which might be different from other directors that you’ve worked with.

TY: This is Celine’s first film but for me, it was never an issue because with veteran directors or first timers, it doesn’t matter — whomever is good is just good. During the initial meeting she was very specific about what she wanted and what story she wanted to tell. That’s all you want as an actor, to feel you’re in safe hands because sometimes you don’t know how to do a certain scene and you prepare it in multiple ways. You show whatever you need to show and you still feel like you’re not being judged. She edits the best performances together to get what she needs.

(L-R) Greta Lee, John Magaro, Teo YooCredit: Courtesy of A24

Q: In this film, your character was testing the water for when they meet with John Magaro’s character Arthur for the first time, talk about the dynamic, creating awkwardness and hesitation in a way. talk about the collaboration working with him?

TY: Celine didn’t want us to meet and the first time that we meet on film, is the first time that we’ve ever met. The crew of our production was professional enough to cater to our need of not wanting to see each other. Whenever there was a test or a group zoom meeting, we blacked out our screens. One person was ushered in in the front and the other one was ushered out in the back and just knowing the body of his work and listening to rather talk about their process. And then also being with me, I knew that we were both very vulnerable men and with that, I felt like also in a safe place to be very open and very sensitive together with them when we were working together.

Q: This movie was one of the hits at Sundance, people have been talking about it as a favorite. 

TY: It’s overwhelming. And it’s still overwhelming. Who am I kidding? It’s an A-24 production, I’m the lead in it and it’s just like a dream. I’m level headed enough to not be caught up with superficial hype, but at the same time, the real reactions of audience members who are not necessarily part of the industry, those I really appreciate. I’m just thankful that I can be here.

Check out more of Nobuhiro’s articles.

Here’s the trailer of the film.

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