How Ali Wong and Steven Yeun Channeled Rage, Pain, and Loneliness to Make ‘Beef’
In the spring of 2019, Lee Sung Jin was driving home through Los Angeles traffic from his job as a writer on the animated series Undone, at the end of a perfectly fine day in his dream profession. Sitting at a red light, he missed the change to green while studying Waze. A driver in a white SUV behind him leaned on his horn. Then, as Lee recalls, the man pulled up alongside Lee’s car, “said a bunch of shit, and zoomed away.”
We’ve all been there, on the giving or receiving end of this unfortunate brand of road rage. Usually, we calm down and move along with our day. Yet Lee, whose colleagues describe him as thoughtful and laid-back, couldn’t let it go. “I was like, ‘You know what? That’s not OK to do to someone. I’m going to follow you home,’” he says. While he “didn’t really have a plan,” Lee stayed on the other car’s tail down the freeway. When the driver finally pulled over to get a look at his pursuer’s plate, Lee put on a pair of sunglasses, rolled down his window, gave the guy a two-fingered “I’m watching you” gesture, threw his car in reverse, and peeled away feeling full of life and adrenaline.
That encounter became the center of Lee’s extraordinary new Netflix series, Beef (premiering April 6), which is overflowing with both drama and dark comedy. In the show’s opening minutes, depressed contractor Danny (Steven Yeun) backs out of a hardware-store parking space and nearly collides with aspiring mogul Amy (Ali Wong). She honks, he gets offended, and soon they’re chasing each other through the streets of L.A., with precision maneuvers out of a Fast & Furious movie. From there, Danny and Amy grow determined to ruin each other’s lives — mainly so they can ignore the mess they’ve made of their own. What starts as a series of petty pranks quickly spirals into unspeakable acts of emotional and physical violence, all of it somehow flowing out of this one minor act of aggression.
Beef is the latest example of the incredible range and depth Yeun has demonstrated in the years since he left The Walking Dead, as well as a startlingly great dramatic showcase for Wong, whose acting work has generally been closer in tone to her stand-up comedy persona. The process of making it was so intense that Yeun and Wong both came down with a severe case of hives after production wrapped. Wong even changed her hairstyle as a way to separate herself from her character’s oppressively negative vibes. Yet it also bonded the two stars and Lee together so closely that Wong now says it’s “unbearable” to go too long without getting together.
It is not a show any of them expected to be making, least of all its creator. Lee, who goes by Sonny, is a graduate of the NBC Page Program, who spent a while in the mid-aughts blogging about television under the name Captain Oats (a.k.a. Seth Cohen’s plastic toy horse from The O.C.) because he was too broke to go out in New York. By the early 2010s, he had written for comedies like It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia and Two Broke Girls, enjoying the work but always feeling like he had to hide his more offbeat tastes. (Asked to name his favorite comedy, he would cite Caddyshack because he knew it was a favorite of his peers. Secretly, he prefers Seth Rogen’s The Night Before.) Lisa Hanawalt, his boss at the animated dramedy Tuca & Bertie (which co-starred Wong as the shy birdwoman Bertie), says, “When I met him, Sonny seemed like someone who was trying to cultivate mellow vibes in his life, but he also had a lot of stuff bubbling beneath the surface.”
With Beef, he’s finally letting some of that stuff out. In the months following the road-rage incident, Lee considered it just an amusing anecdote to tell friends and co-workers. But a conversation with A24 executive Ravi Nandan made him realize “there might be a show here about two characters that are very stuck in their own subjective realities.” That fall, when he mentioned the idea to Yeun — who’d become a friend after auditioning for Lee’s unsold FX pilot Singularity, and later, playing Wong’s mild-mannered boyfriend on Tuca & Bertie — the concept started to really take shape.
“Aren’t we all attracted to road rage?” Yeun asks, later adding, “We’re not living only just in the metal box on the road, we’re also living in the metal box in our own minds, on our screens. Everything’s tailor-made to an individual existence now. Things are rarely feeling shared. So I could see why we think everybody’s the enemy and everyone’s out to get each other.”
Lee began talking with Yeun about what kind of character Danny would be, gradually interweaving aspects of Yeun’s own life into the script. Both Yeun and Danny emigrated from Korea when they were little, and Danny winds up performing in the praise team at a Korean church in Orange County, much like Yeun did growing up in Michigan. Yeun would eventually have to wrestle with how to justify his character’s worst behavior. (For starters, Danny returns to the church not as a sincere gesture of faith, but as part of a side hustle he has going with his shady cousin Isaac, played with rakish charisma by the artist David Choe.) Yet the parts of himself that Lee worked into the material proved invaluable. As Danny talked about never feeling like he quite fits in, Yeun could think of a kindergarten photo he’s kept: “I look so sad. There’s a little gap between me and the next person. Then you look at photos of me when I was in Korea just the year before, and I’m flipping my head upside down, so excited, still feeling so safe.” Despite all the success he’s had over the last decade, he admits, “I don’t know if that [uneasy feeling] is ever going to go away.”
Initially, they struggled to find Danny’s arch-nemesis, assuming it would be an older white man like the one who had honked at Lee. Wong knew both Lee and Yeun only casually through their work on Tuca & Bertie, but when she called Lee to catch up early in the pandemic, he began to think the show would be much more interesting and layered with her as the other driver. What had once been conceived of as a Stanley Tucci type was now an ambitious woman with Chinese and Vietnamese parents, and Beef would in time begin borrowing from Wong’s life as liberally as it had from Yeun’s. Production designer Grace Yun even visited Wong’s home and used it as inspiration for the interior of the house Amy shares with husband George. “When I got to set,” says Wong, “I was like, ‘Wow, this feels like in the Wayne’s World movie when they go to the [recreated] Wayne’s World set.’ It’s familiar, but it’s a little weird.” Yun made subtle tweaks to reflect the iciness of Amy’s inner world and her dynamic with George, such as spacing out the wooden slats along Amy’s staircase so that “superficially, it might seem really serene and Zen, but really, it feels like you’re in a cage,” Wong says.
(Also contributing to the fun-house-mirror feeling was the casting of George. When Yeun came to see Wong in concert on her first tour following her star-making Baby Cobra special, he brought along several friends, including artist-actor Joseph Lee. Wong admired Joseph’s artwork so much that she bought a triptych of his photos that she keeps on a wall of her office. During preproduction, Wong says, the team was “having a really tough time” finding the right man to play George, until “casting said, ‘We just had a really promising audition from this guy who’s an actual artist.’ It turned out to be him!”)
Wong, who divorced husband Justin Hakuta in 2022, is guarded on exactly where the lines between her and Amy blur, but admits the show “gave me the opportunity to talk about a lot of things that I haven’t found a way to talk about in my stand-up.” The pair remain close, Wong says. Hakuta, a fixture in her comedy, encouraged her to take a role on the Amazon sci-fi series Paper Girls so she wouldn’t go into a project as demanding as Beef without having acted in four years. Wong says she’s not concerned that audiences might assume there are parallels between Amy’s marriage and her own.
“If I worried about what people thought, I probably wouldn’t create anything,” she insists. “As long as I understand, which I always have, that everything I do is a representation of some honesty, but not a full representation, that’s the healthiest way to go.”
Though Beef gradually excavates the specific trauma and neuroses that are fueling Danny and Amy’s feud, it also feels very much a show of the moment. The two antagonists appear to be in wildly different social strata, but both are experiencing crippling economic anxiety, as Amy’s seemingly lavish lifestyle is a facade resting on the whims of a mercurial billionaire (Maria Bello) interested in buying her company. And the road rage speaks to a rising level of societal anger that seems somehow to have gotten worse in recent years.
“I felt like people were supposed to come out of the pandemic nicer,” says Wong, “but there’s big asshole energy going on right now.”
Ask the two stars which character brought more of that energy in the show’s inciting incident, and you get two very different types of answers. Yeun doesn’t hesitate before blurting out, “Amy!” At the suggestion that Wong must have her own opinion on the matter, he jokes, “I’m sure she does, but that sounds like a bunch of bullshit, whatever she’s going to say.” But it turns out that Wong had barely considered the notion of who was at fault before being asked. After a few moments’ thought, she begins to see things through Amy’s eyes and pins it all on Danny.
For the most part, it was a struggle for each principal to stay in the head space of this dark world Lee had created. The first episode sees Amy, deeply dissatisfied with her marriage, masturbate with the help of George’s semi-automatic pistol, while Danny, in his opening salvo, urinates all over her bathroom floor. Yeun gets to do some of the funniest work of his career amid all the despair and dysfunction, but often worried, “Can I love this guy?” Wong, who’s not exactly a shrinking violet in her comedy persona, was less worried about the gun scene (“Gun masturbation, shmasturbation!”) than about some of the more nuanced moments as the series unfolds, like a therapy scene in which she was startled to find herself crying. Even Lee broke down in tears in the writers room one day, while talking about “the general dread feeling that’s in a lot of us.” That turned into a speech Amy delivers to her husband.
(The gun scene was inspired by Lee’s obsession with The Sopranos, and specifically, an episode where Richie Aprile holds a gun to Janice’s temple while they have sex. That series also influenced how he wanted to portray Beef’s predominantly Asian world, so that it would be informed by the characters’ backgrounds without feeling like it was primarily about being Asian-American. “Do you know some Italian-American uncles that are like Paulie?” he says. “Sure. But it’s not because that show’s leading with it.”)
The season finale — the only episode where the two leads spend a concentrated amount of onscreen time together — was an endurance marathon shot in a natural expanse of Chatsworth, in suburban L.A. Between the punishing elements and the complex psychological material, Wong found herself pulling Yeun aside in between takes so they could talk about their personal lives, just to tune out the work.
It was the product of a friendship that began when Yeun sent Wong an enthusiastic Twitter DM after watching Baby Cobra and grew exponentially during filming, with both actors offering each other safe harbor during an intense shoot. “On the first day of rehearsals,” Wong recalls of her Academy Award-nominated co-star, “he put his hand on my shoulder, looked me in the eye, and said, ‘I don’t know anything you don’t know.’ That set the tone for the rest of the show, because I do believe that he is this once-in-a-lifetime talent.”
Overall, the production was a gauntlet the likes of which its stars won’t soon forget, for good and for ill. “It’s not a mystery as to why Steven and I broke out into hives,” suggests Wong. “We were both holding a lot of anger and toxic energy. Then it transitioned to this beautiful thing where I left the show not with anger, but with so much appreciation for the bond I formed with Steven and Sonny. I did go to Joshua Tree soon after, and I did mushrooms. Oh, my God, this is so corny, but at one point, I was sobbing and I was calling out Steven’s character’s name between sobs. I think it was part of letting it all go.”
The experience proved cathartic for Lee as well, both professionals and personally. He’s finally written something that feels “true to my voice.” Perhaps just as importantly, he adds, “I honestly haven’t had road rage since I started developing this show.”