‘Beef’ Star Young Mazino On Learning From Steven Yeun and If There Should Be a Season 2

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'Beef' Star Young Mazino On Learning From Steven Yeun and If There Should Be a Season 2

Photographs: Getty Images, Netflix; Collage: Gabe Conte
Mazino was the Netflix series’s breakout star as Yeun’s endearing little brother.

Moments after they’d wrapped their final scene together on the set of Netflix’s Beef, Ali Wong took Young Mazino’s hands and looked him dead in the eyes. “You can have the career that you choose,” she told him. “It may be just formality to her, but to an actor like me, and working on this kind of a level after only doing guest stars on procedurals out of drama school, getting those kinds of words… she has no idea how that alleviates years worth of self-doubt and imposter syndrome.”

Mazino, 31, is refreshingly open about the years of struggle in his personal and professional life and made him wonder, for a time, if acting was less of a passion and more of a retreat. He dropped out of college after what he describes as an existential crisis and took the MegaBus to New York City on a whim. He put in time at Stella Adler Studio of Acting and went through the rigmarole, taking odd jobs during the day and running off mid-shift to auditions. “When you’re catering hors d’oeuvres at parties, there’s a feeling of: You are an extension of this plate of macaroni bites. And that’s a very dehumanizing thing.”

The grind eventually landed him background roles on boomer shows like Prodigal SonBlue Bloods, and New Amsterdam. But his role on Beef, which uses the occasion of a road rage incident to unpack themes of generational repression and rage, has been something of a revelation. He plays Paul, the cooler, less-tortured younger brother to Danny (Steven Yeun), charming audiences—and eventually Wong’s Amy—with his unbothered, infectiously positive demeanor. It’s a true breakout role, no easy feat with Yeun and Wong putting up Emmy-worthy performances, but Mazino stands out—and he’s ready to keep the momentum going. “I’m seasoned as an actor, I’ve gotten my reps in,” he says,“but I need more challenges to really cultivate my craft and see what other hidden chambers I have within me.”

GQ spoke Mazino about existentialism, the ongoing resonance of Incubus’s “Drive,” and acting—or as he calls it, “this loving maternal creature that’s been looking out for me and led me through some really dark times.”

GQ: What has it been like for you having to hold onto the experience of Beef for all of these months up until now?

Young Mazino: It’s a strange feeling because of the gap in time between actually doing the work and then a whole year goes by with utter silence and then there’s the response, but it does feel very relieving and liberating to finally have the cat out of the bag. And the response so far has been quite unexpectedly amazing, and I have a lot of gratitude for being a part of something special.

You play Paul, the younger brother to Steven Yeun’s character Danny. How did Sonny [creator Lee Sung Jin] first present the character to you back in 2021?

From the breakdown and from the brief character description, I had a general idea of the psychology behind Paul. He’s bigger than his older brother but in other ways much smaller, like his [emotional intelligence], and he’s overshadowed by him. He likes to work out. Can’t hold a job. Never went to college. Immediately I was like, ‘I’d be perfect for this role.’ [Laughs] But it resonated a lot for me. What I didn’t realize was how involved he would end up getting and how he becomes a source of the catalyst that sparks the drama that ends up developing.

Your character is believed to be dead at the conclusion of the penultimate episode. Thankfully, we learn in the finale that he survived. Were you at any point nervous that Paul wouldn’t make it?

I wasn’t worried, but I was aware that death was looming. If I remember correctly, there were talks about multiple people getting killed. And Sonny has spoken to this, how in earlier versions it was a hell of a lot bloodier. This is the tame version that people received. I have so much trust in this storytelling and in Sonny that if I were to get murked in Episode 9, I would have fully embraced that.

Let’s talk about Episode 9. It’s the final showdown, in which all of the characters come together for the first time in what feels like a battle royale. The brothers both escape, but have to scale one last wall to make it all the way to freedom. And it’s here where they have their final face off, of sorts.

That’s the scene I was really looking forward to, because I think that scene really solidifies people’s opinions on morality between Paul and Danny. It was intense to film, but also memorable because as an actor, you want to work on the really extreme stuff. The stakes were high, and to have a scene partner like Steven, it’s special because I think maybe coming from his background and his education, particularly working with Second City, he’s liberated from the lines and the dialogue. I think the script served more as a really strong blueprint, and he was able to make amendments with the dialogue to really capture the essence of what we were going for. That scene where he says, “You’ve got to get away from me.”—the lines were different. It was supposed to be I think: “You’ve got to get out of here.” But the switch is this collective realization that I’m not your fortress; I’m your prison. And he had to say whatever he could— even if it meant destroying our relationship—in order to let me be safe.

Beef creator-showrunner-director-executive producer Lee Sung Jin and Young Mazino on set filming episode 109.Courtesy of Andrew Cooper for Netflix.

Speaking of Episode 9, I loved the use of Björk’s “All Is Full of Love.” And as a scholar of Dawson’s Creek, I have to also call out the use of Paula Cole’s “I Don’t Want to Wait.” What were your favorite musical cues used in the show?

It’s gotta be [Incubus’s] “Drive.” That was my song back in the day. I remember it was featured on Now That’s What I Call Music! 6 or something. Growing up as a Korean-American kid, my parents were too worried about getting set up and surviving, so culturally, no one showed me anything. So when I first heard Incubus and “Drive”, for a lot of reasons it spoke to me and that became my go-to song whenever I was feeling any type of way. Especially because I was feeling so boxed in in Maryland and the artist in me was starting to question if this is where I was supposed to be.

What was it like for you growing up in Montgomery County, Maryland?

Before the world tells you to “shut up and sit down,” I remember being full of energy. I would dance and sing and write songs and little short stories and draw armies. My imagination was full-throttle and I think my mom instinctively knew I needed an outlet, so she put me in so many extracurriculars. The rest of my family was always working, busy, so I spent a lot of time in libraries. I was obsessed with authors like Brian Jacques and comics. In some ways, I felt ostracized as a kid and I never really felt like I fit in, because in school I was one of the few Asian kids and I was scrawny. I spent a lot of time to myself, filling it with my own imagination. I channeled [the things I was watching and reading] into whatever I could. Oftentimes that came in the form of the school play or musical or church skits. I remember playing King Herod when I was 6 or 7 with a little sword by my waist and getting to play the villain… that liberation was so tangible to me. From then on, I would always gravitate toward some kind of performance because I didn’t have to be myself. I didn’t have to be boxed in as this Asian kid that I was made to think I was. 

And when did acting become something that you began considering as a career path?

My pursuit of acting began as play, and then it became a form of escape and I moved to New York to get away from everything because I was going through a very bad existential crisis-slash-depression in college because at that point, the people a couple of years ahead of me were getting married, buying houses—and to me, that just couldn’t be the end of it. So I ran away to New York, and then it became a form of pursuing truth when I got into Stella Adler, which pushes the notion that growth as a human and growth as an actor are synonymous. Acting has been this loving maternal creature that’s been looking out for me and led me through some really dark times.

I imagine that move to New York  had to have been quite an adjustment.

I fell in love with New York because it grew me. When I first got off of the MegaBus, I got scammed immediately. The city empties out your wallet, it empties out your heart and soul, and it leaves you broken. And then, if you’re willing to last, if you’re willing to stay in the underbelly of New York, it starts to reveal serendipity and miracles and people who are so real, so kind. I was only able to survive in some moments because of people’s kindness. And I also learned very quickly that lows I experienced in Maryland have no comparison to some of the lows experienced in New York by other people. The whole experience was very humanizing. It tests your grit. I couldn’t have asked for a better experience.

I’m curious to learn more about your experience with Ali Wong. This was a significant departure from what many of us know her for.

I’ve looked up to Ali, and my sisters adore her, so she’s always been this comedic deity to me. What I didn’t realize was how much openness she had. I think a large part of acting requires good listening, and in stand-up, you’re speaking to a crowd. From the conversations we’ve had, Ali has done an innumerable amount of sets. She would do, like, 9 to 13 sets a day for over a year in New York, and I think as she was doing that to work on her craft, she also had to be in tune with the audience. She can’t just give a spiel and walk off. She has to absorb how they feel. So I think she was already growing that innate understanding of intangible communication and listening and reacting, so it didn’t feel like I was working with a stand-up comedian trying to be an actor; it felt like I was working with an actor pursuing the truth alongside me. 

There’s chatter, as there tends to be, about the possibility of a second season. I think this happens a lot with shows like this where an audience loves something so much that their inclination is to want (or in some instances demand) more without the thought that some things are complete as they are.

When you have a showrunner like Sonny, that world-building goes so deep that even after we stopped filming, those characters continue to live their lives. I can only surmise what they’re doing, and if Sonny wants to go back into that river and draw that story out, I’m sure that he could. But from an objective viewer point of view, that ending was so frickin’ spectacular… it was a jaw-dropping moment, similar to when I finished Bong Joon-ho’s Memories of Murder the first time. I’ve been to the casinos and sometimes it’s good to walk away when you’ve peaked. I personally think it was a perfect ending.

Are there actors out there whose career trajectories you really admire?

Steven, for one, because he was paving the way when nobody was in an industry that wanted to keep him as Glenn [in The Walking Dead] and he said, “Fuck that.” And now he’s working with auteurs like Jordan Peele and making shows like Beef. In terms of body of work, I was a huge fan of Philip Seymour Hoffman. Even in his supporting roles earlier on, he stands out because his craft is so well defined. Cate Blanchett in Tar was spectacular. Tilda Swinton, who’s a chameleon. I’m trying to figure out what path I should go on, if I should try to be more of a chameleon or if I should insert as much of my own essence into these stories. But that’s the exciting thing: what projects will come my way and what path I’ll find myself on.

Do you have a next project that you’re eyeing or touching down on?

There’s some directors that I’m courting and having conversations with. On a more macro view, the lynch pin of it all, the one project that would define where I want to end up would be Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai—to have any role in that, even if I was just one of the villagers. That film is peak cinema, peak storytelling, peak world-building. I have this duality where on one side I want to work with auteurs and on projects that speak about the human condition, things like Beef, like Charlie Kaufman’s writing or Derek M. Cianfrance’s films, or something more surreal like Nicolas Winding Refn or Bong Joon-ho. Also, I grew up a big manga geek. I still read all of these mangas and anime comics. That stuff sustained me. So I do want to partake in that world as well. I’m also hesitant because there needs to be a merge between auteurs and recognizing this [intellectual property] in manga and anime, that they’re not just PG-13 comic books or kids material. It’s rich worlds to not just pull threads from, but to bring out the whole tapestry and merge it with storytellers. I want to find a balance between fulfilling my childhood dreams of partaking in projects that I care about, but also my artistic desire to uncover more of the human condition.

I have to imagine being a part of this show has changed your life beyond just the professional. 

Now I can kinda see where the bar is. I knew it was above me, but now I can kinda spot it. You know in those anime fights when someone gets punched so hard that they disappear and they’re just a twinkle in the sky? The bar is somewhere above that. And that gives me a lot of excitement because it’s more room to grow. It reinvigorated my soul, to be honest, realizing that there’s so much more for me to explore. Finally getting on the edge of this world, I’m filled with a lot of excitement and exciting dread of what’s to come, and wondering if I’ll be up for the challenge.

How existentialist.

And bordering nihilistic. If all else falls short, I have no problem just chopping wood in the backyard and making music.

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