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Ascent of Korean-American actors

Steven Yeun, Ki-hong Lee and Randall Park emerge in the U.S. entertainment industry with major roles on TV and in film

Hollywood has long been criticized for portraying Asian characters as caricatures instead of complex human beings.

However, the past few years have seen more and more Asian-Americans taking lead roles, playing charming, multidimensional characters who appeal to a wider audience.

Here are three up-and-coming Korean-American actors who are chipping their way through the U.S. entertainment industry’s “bamboo ceiling,” both in film and on network television.

Steven Yeun

Steven Yeun in “The Walking Dead” (AMC)
Steven Yeun in “The Walking Dead” (AMC)

Seoul-born Korean-American actor Steven Yeun is an interesting mixture of seemingly disparate elements: a humble Christian upbringing, fierce Detroit pride, a bachelor’s degree in psychology from a prestigious private college, and a funny bone rooted in improvisational theater.

Yeun’s family moved to Michigan when he was barely 2 years old. There, his parents set up two beauty supply stores and nurtured high hopes for Yeun to become a doctor.

At Kalamazoo College, however, Yeun joined Monkapult, the school’s improvisational comedy theater troupe, and was instantly bitten by the performance bug. After graduation, he went on to train with Second City, an acclaimed improv troupe that has been home to famed comedians including Amy Poehler and Tina Fey.

In 2010, roughly one year after moving to LA to pursue an acting career, Yeun landed the role of Glenn Rhee in AMC’s megahit series “The Walking Dead” -- a role that has since brought him wide recognition and invitations to appear on late-night and prime-time U.S. talk shows such as “Conan” and “The Ellen DeGeneres Show.”

Generally acknowledged as a fan favorite, Glenn has displayed a wide spectrum of emotions and growth -- something that is rare for Asian actors in the United States.

Since his big break, Yeun, 31, has starred in the independent film “Origins I” and continues to appear on the fifth season of what has become America’s most watched show.

The multitalented actor is also active on social media, sharing his photography, writing and music with fans.

Ki-hong Lee

Ki-hong Lee in “The Maze Runner” (21st Century Fox)
Ki-hong Lee in “The Maze Runner” (21st Century Fox)

The youngest on our list is Ki-hong Lee at 28 years of age -- a figure which demonstrates how long it can take Asian actors to break into the American scene, compared to rising Western stars.

Lee was born in Seoul but moved with his parents to New Zealand when he was 6 and then to Los Angeles when he was 8.

In 2011, Lee made his acting debut with the East West Players theater company, which is famous for showcasing Asian-American actors. Before this he had been working at his parents’ Korean restaurant in LA.

Lee’s breakthrough came with the 2014 teen blockbuster “The Maze Runner.” His role as Minho was a major plot driver and not one for which he was typecast. The character is heroic and humble, and is a decisive leader.

He has signed on for the sequel and also appeared in the film “The Stanford Prison Experiment,” which opened to rave reviews at this year’s Sundance Festival.

The success of “The Maze Runner” and the subsequent spotlight on Lee’s charm and good looks enabled him to make history by becoming the first Asian-American to appear on People Magazine’s list of Sexiest Men Alive, placing fourth.

Lee still feels a strong connection to Korea. He regularly takes his American friends to Korean barbecue restaurants and boasts on Twitter that he can find Korean markets wherever he travels.

He is also set to appear in the first feature film by the YouTube channel Wong Fu Productions. Lee stated early in his career that he hoped to star in one of the Asian-American powerhouse trio’s short films and has since appeared in five.

Randall Park

Randall Park in “The Interview” (Columbia Pictures)
Randall Park in “The Interview” (Columbia Pictures)

Starring alongside Ki-hong Lee will be the seasoned actor and comedian Randall Park. Park received a meteoric boost in fame through his lead role in the controversial film “The Interview,” in which he played North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un.

The plot polarized audiences, who had difficulty accessing the film, with some praising it for being brave and others labeling it as idiotic. In any case, the film has put Park on the map after 10 years of dedication to acting in Hollywood.

Previously, Park had major supporting roles in a number of comedies, including “Dinner for Schmucks,” “Sex Tape,” “The Five Year Engagement” and “Neighbors.”

In addition, Park has been steadily building a repertoire of cameos and recurring roles in successful American TV series such as “Veep” and “The Office.”

This year, Park will play his first lead role on the small screen as the patriarch of a modern American-Asian family in the show “Fresh off the Boat.” It will be the first time since Margaret Cho’s “All American Family” that an Asian family will be the subject of an American sitcom.

Park told the LA Times that he took the role very seriously.

“It’s a lot of pressure ... we’re conscious of the community and we want to do right by it. We don’t want to delve into stereotypes,” he said.

Being born and raised in LA has not deterred Park from seeking out an active role in the local Korean community. He is said to regularly consult his peers and parents about the major roles he accepts.

By Rumy Doo & Elliott Brennan

Photo cap:

Steven Yeun in “The Walking Dead” (AMC)

Ki-hong Lee in “The Maze Runner” (21st Century Fox)

Randall Park in “The Interview” (Columbia Pictures)