In Netflix’s Beef, creator and showrunner Lee Sung Jin tees up a potentially mundane grievance — impatient honking and flick off in a parking lot — which escalates into road rage, then puts two strangers onto a dark, codependent mission for revenge bordering on farce. It’s also incredibly, darkly funny.
Minari best actor Oscar nominee Steven Yeun plays Danny Cho, a down-on-his-luck contractor who decides he’s got nothing left to lose until a confrontation with self-made, Goop-inspired plant mogul Amy Lau, played by comedian and Always Be My Maybe star Ali Wong. Teetering on a major deal that could validate everything she’s worked for and finally free up time to spend with her young daughter, Amy has everything that Danny doesn’t. What the two share is a commitment to their sense of being wronged by the other and a tenacity in seeking revenge that seeps into the rest of their lives. For Danny and Amy, pettiness toward a stranger acts as a proxy that allows them to avoid dealing with their larger existential problems.
Joseph Lee plays George, Amy’s husband, the son of a legendary furniture craftsman a la Isamu Noguchi or Charles and Ray Eames. George is an artist himself and creates brightly-colored, poop-like sculptures (which were made by the Beef props team and production designer Grace Yun said were inspired by yoga). His privileged upbringing prevents him from understanding his wife’s ambition and blinds him to her simmering anger. Young Mazino plays Paul, Danny’s guileless younger brother and roommate who gets roped into his drama and can’t seem to escape. The show takes viewers through parts of Los Angeles usually unexplored on screen without being too on the nose or pandering. It deftly portrays nuances of the Asian American experience that exist far from cliches without apologizing or explaining, and speaks universally to our modern, disjointed times.
The 10-episode series premiered with a Certified Fresh 100% Tomatometer score and also stars David Choe (Isaac), Patti Yasutake (Fumi), Maria Bello (Jordan Forster), Ashley Park (Naomi), and Remy Holt (Junie). Rotten Tomatoes spoke with Yeun, Wong, Lee, and Mazino about rage, art, and how filming the series changed how they deal with anger.
(Photo by Netflix)
Soo Youn for Rotten Tomatoes: I found the show delightful and utterly depraved in a way that’s completely relatable — in LA. I was wondering how relatable you guys thought it was universally. Or what was universally relatable about that kind of incident spinning out of control — especially if people don’t know how easy it is to have that kind of confrontation in Los Angeles?
Steven Yeun: I mean, if we’re not having road rage in real life, we’re definitely having it on the internet, wherever. People love finding rage wherever you can find it. And so that feels relatable to me. I hope people can relate to that.
It kind of feels like Twitter to me. You have this whole beef or find it or watch it.
Ali Wong: And it gets out of control. Like so fast.
Yeun: Yeah, yeah totally.
And then you’ll go to your real life, and you realize no one knows what you’re talking about.
Yeun: [Laughs] No one cares. It just keeps moving without you — 100 percent.
And you’re amped up for no reason.
Wong: It’s so true. That is such a good way to think about that, reminds us of Twitter. Yeah. Twitter’s totally right.
You’re just amped up then you’re trying to explain to people and when you explain it, and it just sounds stupid.
Yeun: Yeah, you had a fight with a person on a computer across the world. [Laughs]
Wong: And they have how many followers? Is like a blank silhouette of a person? [Both laugh]
Yeun: You fought with a bot? [Laughing]
This is a basic question: Have you guys ever had an incident of road rage or that kind of everyday anger? That you either reflected on or the show reminded you of?
Wong: There was one time, this guy was waiting for me and my family to pull out our minivan, to pull out of a space. And then I just let him know, because we had two kids that were young in a double stroller, I said, “This is going to take us a bit to pack the car and move out.” And he was like, “Well, hurry up.” And I was like, “I just told you, we can’t hurry up because we obviously have two kids.” And then he was like, “Well, the whole world isn’t just waiting on you.” And I was like, “I know.” That’s when it quickly escalated, and then he said, “Fuck you.” And then I ran after his car screaming.
But now, I would not engage in that anymore after we filmed the show. [Yeun laughs]. Now when something like that happens, I’m like: I hope nothing happens. I hope nothing happens. I hope nothing escalates.
Wait, is that true?
Wong: Is what true? The story that I just told you about the parking lot or that I hope things don’t escalate?
That the show had a pivotal role in you…
Wong: Yes, I am very fearful of escalation now. [Laughs] Because I lived through six months of it. It was fictional but it was, parts of it were joyful. And parts of it were unpleasant.
Yeun: Yeah, we went for it. It was fun.
Steven, any similar…
Yeun: Um, I don’t know. I mean, you know what I normally do is: I grumble in my car by myself. One of the things that I ended up improvising — then watching it back was like, “Oh, you idiot” — was when Amy runs back and runs over the garden that Danny has already ran through. He goes, “Oh my God, you idiot!” And it’s like, no one’s hearing you. You’re by yourself. You’re judging someone for something you did something even worse to. I was just like, Oh, that’s us. That’s me yelling in my car by myself — and nobody.
(Photo by Andrew Cooper/Netflix)
Joseph, I didn’t realize that you were a real artist — an artist artist — when I watched the show, and now I just have to get this question out of the way: I just want to know what you really thought of your character George’s art. [Lee is an established painter.]
Lee: I really liked it.
Lee: I thought it was really interesting. Yeah, my wife and I, we actually went to an exhibition while we were filming. And we found an artist that actually has very similar work. And so very quickly, we realized that there was actually a market for this. Yeah, it was actually really cool.
Oh. You would buy it?
Lee: No, absolutely not. [Giggles] But I’ll admire it on social media.
(Photo by Netflix)
Your characters are the ones that are closest to the main characters, who are so full of anger, that’s dissipating and leaking into their daily lives and playing out big in their minds. I’m wondering, as the recipients of all of that anger on the show, how did you guys prepare for it? And was it was very challenging to inhabit those kinds of characters where I imagined it’s kind of like being a goalie — you’re just waiting for the balls to come at you?
Lee: I think everybody has their own version of that. We all know people that just kind of express themselves in either toxic or harmful and unhealthy ways. And sometimes you just, you can’t do anything else but to just love on that person for who they are. And so, yeah, I think there were certain aspects to George receiving that type of energy that I was able to tap into, and then to humanize.
It’s an engaging, I assume emotional, show to shoot. Would you have given such a gracious, graceful answer before you had shot the show, do you think? That was a very generous answer.
Lee: Yeah. Yeah. Honestly, you’ll probably have to ask my wife about that. [Laughs]
I’m gonna ask her about the art too. What about you, Young?
Mazino: I think for Paul, his response to the toxicity and receiving the residuals of that is to maintain a distance and separate himself and stay in his own world and disappear into his games, which is what I would do outside of set. Because I wanted to maintain that — my image of Danny, which is inside that studio, inside that apartment, because Steven in real life is much more incredible and different. So I didn’t want to undo that magic and I wanted to just keep it focused on this distance and wanting to get away from his character’s negativity.
(Photo by Netflix)
Did you have any relationship with Steven beforehand? How did you guys create that bond as brothers who are kind of fated?
Mazino: No, not until not until I got the role. And then to prepare for that we met up a couple of times and had food. But a really good moment was when we met up and played basketball. Just pickup basketball on court, just played one-on-one for like 30 minutes straight until we’re both exhausted.
Lee: As you do.
Mazino: As you do. I think basketball is a great medium to get to know someone. It’s just in that physical dance that a lot of stuff just comes out. We found a really cool moment there. And we both were like, this is it. And we worked off of that.