Had you watched the show before you were cast?
I had, yes. I wanted to be a spy! I really wanted to play a double agent. But I could see immediately that Young-Hee was a very chatty character. Very fun. She’s witty and she has a good time trying to be an assimilated American. Those idioms, she tries to play with words — in Korean, we don’t have a lot of those sayings. She tries to joke, and she chooses hard words even though those letters might not be in the Korean alphabet.
Is there a specific phrase you’re thinking of?
[In this week’s episode] there’s a joke that she tells —it’s not a joke, it’s a family story but it needed to have this really funny punchline, and it doesn’t really punch at the end. She’s speaking it in her mind in Korean and it’s very funny, but when it’s translated it doesn’t have the same punch. It’s kind of a sad moment if you watch it in the context of what’s happening with Don and Patty/ Elizabeth.
How did you develop the accent?
My initial accent was closer to the one that I naturally would have had. I grew up in Korea for the most part until I was 5 or 6 years old. At home my mother only spoke Korean and most of my family spoke Korean. I had to work very quickly and very hard to break my accent.
When we started approaching how old Young-Hee was and how thick they wanted her Korean accent to be, I just brought the one that was natural to me. And they said, actually, we’d like her to be about ten years out [of Korea], not 15, 20 years out, which would be closer to where I am. So I had to go to my mom and say, “How would you say these words? What would be the easiest way your Korean brain would translate this into English?”
I wonder if your mom slipped into the character subconsciously.
Oh, yeah. I didn’t think so until I started watching some of the episodes. I would see my mannerisms coming out — even facial expressions of my mom as I said certain things, or gestures, little head nods that she does.
Young-Hee’s sense of humor stands out right from the beginning. I noticed just from watching clips of you being interviewed or your Tony acceptance speech, you seem to have a similar sense of humor. Did you talk about that with the writers or showrunners?
I only started thinking about that when we were filming the episode at the movie theater. So much of the wit and the humor that they put into Young-Hee is very natural to me, but we had never discussed any of it. But I got to know the writers during lunch breaks, on set, and I wonder, were they spying on me?
Have we seen the last of Young-Hee?
What I was told by J and J [showrunners Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields] was that this is a very common op for the KGB. They would infiltrate a family and get to know them and they’d get what they want and just leave them in pieces. So I wouldn’t be surprised if this is the last we see of this Korean family, just in pieces at the end.
Well, you’ve really bummed me out.
I know. I’m bummed, too.
The Americans airs Wednesdays at 10 p.m. on FX.