Adapted from the video game of the same name, HBO’s “The Last of Us” finds Pedro Pascal’s Joel in a post-apocalyptic landscape not unlike “The Walking Dead,” the zombie series that gave Steven Yeun his breakout role in 2010. As Yeun returns to TV in the Netflix series “Beef,” which chronicles a gnarly feud sparked by a road rage incident between a contractor (Yeun) and a vengeful business owner (Ali Wong), he and Pascal discuss humility (including Pascal’s faceless performance in “The Mandalorian”), shame and the chaos of driving through Los Angeles on 4/20.
STEVEN YEUN: How much did you know about “The Last of Us”?
PEDRO PASCAL: Ugh, next question.
YEUN: OK, cool.
PASCAL: I didn’t know anything about the game. The first things that came to me were the scripts written by Craig Mazin. I was like, “This story is amazing.” And my nephews were like, “It’s a video game, you idiot!”
YEUN: I feel weirdly connected to you in a multitude of ways. One is when I was shooting “The Walking Dead” — a show that is kind of spiritually connected to your show — the Last of Us game came out, and I played it 12 hours straight.
PASCAL: Are you serious?
YEUN: I remember finishing it and then coming to set the next day being catatonic. Like, “Guys, I just experienced something.” And then to see you play that part. You fall into your characters in a way that I think is so gracious. Is it the right word?
PASCAL: It’s a very interesting word choice. Because, especially when you mentioned “The Walking Dead,” I remember noticing you and being like … This is going to sound really obnoxious.
YEUN: I’ll take it. I’ll take all of it.
PASCAL: I was like, “That guy’s a star.” So I’ve been drinking it in thereafter.
YEUN: Oh, man. I’m surprised. The journey continues to be a self-effacing one. That’s what I mean by your graciousness. I don’t see judgment in your performance. I see real love in your performance. When I think about “The Mandalorian,” people could get really trapped by that role. Who among us is brave enough, and also — I don’t want to gas you up too much — selfless enough? “I’m going to enter this character that might not have my face be seen,” and then still land it in a way that it doesn’t trap you. These characters are part of your journey, as opposed to eating you.
PASCAL: This is really going to be a compliment fest because your observations are so good. “Beef” is a perfect example of somebody who is not being chased by zombies, he’s not flying a ship through the galaxies, but there’s just so much danger within the averageness of his life. How many people have been telling you their road rage stories? Because I have one that happened yesterday.
YEUN: I had one yesterday too.
PASCAL: Yesterday was a day. It was my fault. I’ve had three incidents, and they’ve all been my fault. I cut somebody off, and I look over, and there’s a big glob of saliva — like visual effects put it there, man — just dripping down the side of the passenger window. And my sister was like, “Fuck!”
YEUN: Holy shit. Like a glob from the driver’s side? He just hocked a hard loogie at you?
PASCAL: He spit at me.
YEUN: What did you do?
PASCAL: I was in shock. It didn’t trigger any rage out of me. It absolutely humbled me and shocked me, scared me a little bit, disturbed me.
YEUN: I wonder if your consciousness about not reacting to that negatively is you recognizing that person’s trying to connect with you in some way.
PASCAL: They want me to drink in their saliva. It made me feel guilty. I was like, “Gosh, people are going through shit.”
YEUN: Yeah, especially yesterday. I got flipped off yesterday.
PASCAL: We’re going to turn this into a discussion on Los Angeles traffic on April 20. I was watching “Beef” with envy, in terms of how much it reflects such a living truth that can happen anywhere but was happening to me yesterday in Los Angeles. Which made me admire your performance even more because I was like, “You’re nailing it.”
YEUN: I feel like the task is always, as difficult as it can be, to not abandon your character. To really live in their reality. I really look inward. “Where am I? Where is the part of me that deeply understands this person? Where is my Danny? Where is that part of me that feels isolated or alone or cringe or gross or whatever?” I would walk up to set every day being like, “Fuck, I’ve got to do what? I’ve got to get dropped from a tree?” And everybody’s just watching, and I look pathetic.
PASCAL: Was that challenging, or did you see it as an opportunity to lean into the richness?
YEUN: I think when I was younger, I was always like, “Why are things happening to me?” And then growing up and also getting to do this work, you’re like, “Oh, things are happening for me or through me.” It was this thing where I had to use my own shame that I’m sure was connected to Danny in that way, like, “Don’t ever bail on Danny. Don’t ever bail on people.”
PASCAL: I’m curious about how much you have to deal with yourself to fulfill an assignment. Because I don’t like actually dealing with myself very much.
YEUN: The way you approached Joel, the performance that I saw the whole time was this depth of pain, guilt, shame, sadness, everything just repressed down. And that’s a lot of internal work.
PASCAL: It’s kind of fun to have the permission to feel everything, contain it, or express it. Something that occurred to me when you were talking about process is how lonely it can be. With age, in some instances, I’ve gotten kind of scared. I can feel like I’m not in it, and I don’t know how to get in it, and I don’t know what I need to do to get in it, other than just breathe, not bail, let all the feelings be and be present.
YEUN: Have those performances ended up being some of the ones you watched back, and you’re like, “I liked what I did there”?
PASCAL: I have been watching less and less. That feeling that I get when I see myself takes me out of the experience in a weird way that I just don’t have the patience for anymore. It can be edited in a way that you have no control over. You really have to give it absolutely everything and then give it up completely.
YEUN: How often does the day shape the performance, even if it’s not directly correlated to what’s on the page? Sometimes I walk in like, “I feel fucking bummed today.” But that works. There’s this subconscious process that happens that I’m not always aware of.
PASCAL: I think it’s so smart to lean into the subconscious process. Because I’m inclined to control the experience and the very painful growing experience of letting go of expectation.
YEUN: I got to work with this particular director, Lee Changdong. We were halfway through the movie “Burning,” and he was like, “A movie makes itself.” And I was like, “I don’t know what that means, but OK.” He’s not trying to control anything. I remember we did this one dusk scene that we only had a 30-minute magic hour window to shoot every single time. And we shot that over the course of a week. We shot it, he watches it all back, and he’s like, “We’re going to do it again.” So we go the next week and do the same thing. And then all of a sudden, one of the takes, a flock of geese fly past and reflect off the windowpane. He’s like, “That’s it.” That’s not available to everybody.
PASCAL: We didn’t have any of that. It was 12 months of “Ah, shit! Oh, well.” And how scary it was to know that you were going into an experience that was 12 months away from home — with a teenager.
YEUN: Yeah. Bella Ramsey was incredible with you.
PASCAL: I could tell they were cool. I knew that. I couldn’t have asked for a more anchoring, generous, thoughtful teenager. And I don’t mean to say that in a patronizing way. They were 17. They had their 18th birthday while we were shooting, and that could have sucked. I relied on Bella for so much of the experience. We were both scared and shy about that, but Bella just inspired me to be mature about it.
YEUN: That last frame, when they’re looking at you to see if you’re telling the truth. That’s a whole journey lived together, all shades.
PASCAL: I really don’t think I’ve met anybody like Bella. They brought the best out of me as a person.
YEUN: And the symbiosis is they have their own growth from that experience too. That’s why this stuff is so strange to me sometimes. You work with a deer, or a young child, and it’s so scary because they’ll tell you if you’re fake every time. If you’re a liar, they’ll tell you every time.
PASCAL: Can I ask about Ali? Your characters are apart for so much of it. How much proximity did you have with one another through the experience before you actually had to confront each other as characters?
YEUN: Ali is my inverse in a lot of ways. I think a more naive, less experienced version of myself would’ve tried to force some sort of chemistry: “Let’s hang out and do the thing.” There was this level of professionalism that felt like Ali was going to take care of her side, I was going to take care of my side, and every time we come together, there’s going to be this interesting tension. What I love about Ali is she’ll pull you aside and just talk shit.
PASCAL: It really is brilliant writing, because the two opposing figures of your show finally end up in nature together. Where was it in the schedule? Was it towards the end?
YEUN: The schedule was gnarly because one day, I’m doing a scene from Episode 5, 8 and 2. And I’m like, “What the hell is happening?” But Episode 10, we shot by itself.
PASCAL: You guys were fulfilling a journey that is a conclusive beginning of another journey. Getting them super sick and high together, bringing them to their knees.
YEUN: Total submission.
PASCAL: Out-of-the-ass, out-of-the-mouth, out-of-the-mind, out-of-the-heart submission.
YEUN: I look at your finale in the same way.
PASCAL: I haven’t seen it.
YEUN: You haven’t seen it? You crushed it! It felt very lived in.
PASCAL: I saw it all up until then. I haven’t done anything for that amount of time before, and so my attachment to the experience is strange. As a guy who’s pushing 50, to feel this very innocent, semi-angry, emotional attachment to an experience that’s over … It continues, but there will never be another meeting Bella for the first time, working with Craig, with the entire crew, with my friend Coco, who did my hair, and the whole family experience of it. I think it was like falling in love, and at the point where you’re like, “I don’t fall in love.” You know? Because it hurts too much.
Set Design: Lucy Holt; Production: Alexey Galetskiy/AGPNYC