To be fair, we are sitting in a barbecue restaurant in Texas as a vaguely Explosions in the Sky-esque band rumbles with a cinematic sense of dynamics upstairs. We’re here to talk about Beef, the creator and showrunner’s remarkably perceptive new series starring Steven Yeun and Ali Wong, both of whom have also agreed to join me for a weighs-you-down-in-the-best-way late breakfast/early lunch at Austin hotspot Lamberts. But like the dangerously good smorgasbord of food we sample across our hour-plus conversation—brisket, ribs, hot links, macaroni and cheese, waffle fries, ranch style beans, fried pickle spears, red snapper ceviche, and braised collards all compete for table space—the topics we end up covering are as varied as they are deeply satiating.
While the show’s title is Beef, this is decidedly not a show about food. Lee’s creation is about the other type of beef, as it follows the aftermath of a road rage incident between two strangers. A truly wild pursuit on the road between a struggling contractor Danny Cho (Yeun) and a self-made entrepreneur with a seemingly picture-perfect life, Amy Lau (Wong), turns into a feud that escalates and begins to unravel their lives and relationships.
Throughout the meal, the band upstairs repeatedly swells in and fades out while unknowingly soundtracking a discussion that, like the series itself, is equal parts hilarious and sharply existential. On occasion, the band is loud enough to almost drown each of us out, though this too feels like it mirrors some of the themes explored on the show. It’s also fitting given how intentional Beef’s needle drops are—I’ll spare you the spoilers here but just know that a certain Hoobastank song is potentially on the verge of having a second life.
Mere hours after our heavy lunchfast, Beef premiered its first two episodes half a mile down the road at the Paramount Theater as part of SXSW’s 2023 film and TV lineup. The response was rightfully rapturous, and—this is something that never, ever gets old—there is truly nothing like watching a new film or series be born as its proud parents look on.
Before Beef hits Netflix on April 6, the show’s creator and its two leads joined Complex for an extended conversation on, well, a bit of everything. Read the full discussion below.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity, as well as to remove any full-fledged spoilers.
LS: Oh yeah so, The Tuch. We knew that that was probably, that was a first-thought idea. Way too literal. And then Ali and I connected and we had known each other not well [but] I worked on Tuca & Bertie and you called and we caught up. She’s just so funny talking about the harsh truths of life. The timing was very spot on. So I left that phone call being like, “That’s interesting.” I mentioned it to Steven and Ravi and they were super in and I called you and pitched [Ali] the rest of the show.
And this is still like 2018ish?
AW: No, it was COVID. I remember those phone calls being over Zoom in San Francisco.
LS: Yeah so maybe the initial call was in like 2019. Yeah, because we were all quarantined. Then we developed the show. It was really nice having them on so early because as I’m even getting the pitch ready, they’re so involved.
Yeah, because when I first heard about it it was in pitch form and it was already, like, put together.
LS: When I pitched it, it was very mapped out. I pitched the whole season and the characters were pretty fully formed. And then Netflix won.
So what drew you to this project aside from being friends?
SY: I mean honestly a lot of it was Sonny [Lee Sung Jin]. think we’d been itching to work together for some time but I think it’s the way that Sonny and I talk. We always kind of speak in this weird third space so when he brought up road rage I was like, “That’s it.” And then we just kept talking. I didn’t think about it much. It was just like a feeling.
LS: And just to give you a sense of what those conversations are like, that initial road rage call would start with like, “Hey, I got into this road rage thing.” And then three hours later I would be like, “Is that why God is the way he is?”
The show kind of follows that format, as well. What drew you to this?
AW: Well, I think when you collaborate with people the biggest factor is always the trust for me. It can be really scary and I’m used to doing everything by myself. Because he has such good taste and I knew Sonny to be, like, this incredible writer and I always wanted to work with him and because Steven is so Steven, I was dying to work with him. That was the main hook for me and then the concept was actually kind of secondary.
It was amazing but it was really more about, I’ve learned to prioritize people who I can collaborate with more because if I don’t trust them that’s when [people start] to freak out and bad behavior comes out. I just knew. I just wanted to work with them so badly. We barely [saw each other] on Tuca & Bertie and Steven and I never recorded in a booth together. I think I met Sonny once?
LS: I’ve got my walls up, you know. I don’t even think we really said hello much.
AW: And then this was like, his thing. What an honor to be a part of his first big thing. You only get that chance once to get “The big squeeze.” So I was really honored and excited to be asked to be a part of it.
And this is your first series to go to series, right? After like 15 years something like that?
LS: Yeah, 15 years.
I’m sure that feels awesome.
LS: Yeah, it does. … You know, once we sold it it was like, “Go, go, go.” Because we sold it in March and then we had a writers’ room by April. It’s been a blur. I haven’t really had a chance to stop and process it until really last night.
SY: After we got the green light, we just rolled right through into production. That was crazy.
So, any preparation? Did you pull from any real place?
SY: I think we pulled from, you know, not all real places. … but I think the cool part is the landscape of this show and the characters that we’re visiting are like people that perhaps we haven’t seen on television before. So you have all these, like, stories that have been kept under the surface of friends, you know, or personal experiences or, like, your cousin. That was really fun to visit because we could all relate to that place. And so we would like be like, has this ever happened to you? And it’s like, “Oh, yeah.” Or, what’s it like when you’re at this place? That was really fun to chip away at.
I loved David [Choe] in the show.
LS: They were very close with him prior. We actually had a lot of trouble casting Isaac. A lot of the auditions we were seeing were just going so hard into that K-Town mafioso thing and I think I was watching Choe Show. So good. And the way he was talking about his upbringing, I was like, “Oh that feels like Isaac.” So I texted them, like, “Do you guys mind?”
SY: Both of us, like, tag-teamed.
AW: We’re very good friends with him and I remember having a conversation with him beforehand. Because I was really excited about the idea and at the same time I was like, “He really doesn’t need this and that worries me.” I said, “Listen, if we decide to do this you have to show up and you have to show up on time. If you don’t show up on time, it will cost us a lot of money and then it will affect my friendship with you and that’s not worth it. So, like, while I do think you will be right for this role, I think if you’re not willing to commit to doing that then you shouldn’t do it.” And then he, to his credit, he was like, “It sounds really fun I’ll show up on time.” He took it so seriously!
He brings something really special to it.
AW: Oh yeah.
SY: I think that is Dave though. He’s like a focus laser. If you give him something that he believes in, if you give something to focus [on] I’m sure he just demolishes. He was incredible.
AW: I think what was exciting about him too was, you know, for that character it’s really easy to perform menace. But I think it’s just true of all the people in the show, all of us underneath have a menace that doesn’t need to be performed, you know?
But it’s still there, yeah.
AW: It’s a little bit of an essence inside of us. And he is like this artist or whatever but naturally, he still has that and I think that adds to a lot of the tension in the show.
LS: For an actor, you just want someone to tap into something true, right? And David doesn’t know how to be false. Like, he is just always himself all the time and so when he’s performing … this guy doesn’t know how to be not true because every moment he’s just being 100 percent real, which is really what you’re asking for when you yell, “Action.” One funny thing was, so we asked him to submit a self-tape and he was like, “What’s that?” His was edited in the style of The Choe Show so it was like [him] starting a line and then being like, “Oh fuck! Fuck! I messed up!” and then it’s rapid cuts of bloopers and then it goes back to the audition. It was the most creative self-tape I’ve ever seen.
AW: His costume also in the auditions was very close [to the character]. I think he was wearing a white Jordan tracksuit.
LS: White Jordan velour tracksuit. I was like, that’s exactly what Isaac would wear. He was like, “Yeah I already have this.”
How did the rest of the cast come together? Did you have ideas in mind?
LS: The rest of the cast not so much. We took a long time auditioning for Paul. [Young Mazino] came in at the last second out of nowhere [and] crushed it. He does such a good job. Maria Bello [who plays Jordan Forster], she really really loved the script and we actually pivoted the character toward a lot of people that she knew—that very, like, top one-percent world.
Because initially, I was almost thinking of the family of Walmart, the Waltons, right? And then she and Grace [Yun], our production designer, and Helen [Huang], our costume designer, helped pivot it more toward this person I’ve never really seen before who has this brutalist aesthetic. Everything’s kind of black and stark but she has, like, crowns in her room but sells herself as this very, like, woke champion.
LS: Yeah, very performative. I wasn’t sure how it was gonna land but the reactions we’ve been getting are like, “Oh my, God! I’ve worked for someone like that.”
SY: We’ve got a great cast. Pretty fucking awesome.
Had you been itching to get back to episodic live-action TV? I think it’s your first since Walking Dead, right?
SY: Yeah, um, not really.
AW: [Laughing] Did you say not really?
SY: Yeah, I mean, it’s a testament to just us working. I’m just following stories and people. I think Ali said it perfectly—Who do you wanna spend time with?
LS: And I’ve pitched him stuff before but he was like, “Nah.”
SY: I’m not afraid to say no. TV is an intense process and it asks something different of you than film does, I think. And so I think with that and understanding Beef was, like, the one. And it’s not some sacred thing, it’s just like, do I wanna spend my time with…
With these people, right.
SY: And it’s like, yes! It’s been awesome. I’m glad it’s TV and not just one small thing. We got to spend months together.
What made A24—you said they were involved kind of from the beginning—what made them the right choice for this?
LS: I had known Ravi for years in my broadcast days. I had a pilot at NBC that he was actually a producer on and we had kind of fallen out of touch and so we just scheduled a general meeting to catch up and I happened to have that road rage prior. So I just really like that they were so encouraging. Ravi, to his credit, was just like, “Oh I can see there’s something that’s bonding you to those characters. Keep going.” A24 does do a great job of, you know, obviously, they have such a great track record and you know they also have a very strong brand. I’m not gonna lie. I was seduced by the merch.
AW: [Laughing] That aspect ratio blanket, do you like that?
LS: I have the umbrella.
The music choices are really good, as well. Limp Bizkit, I think popped up. Sugar Ray popped up.
LS: Thank you. Yeah, a lot of those songs I’d write into the outline and you assume you’re not gonna get it and shockingly Netflix is so supportive and we were able to get, like, all the songs.
SY: That’s Sonny’s mastermind from top to bottom. That soundtrack was in there from the get. He fought, like, multiple hands trying to rip it from him. He just kept pressing. And I really think that whole soundtrack is super iconic.
Were you familiar with the Incubus song already?
SY: We talked about this, maybe that’s why it came up. I had performed that at my high school church talent show, so we’re like revealing cringe memories.
LS: That’s what was so refreshing working on this because no other project with no other group of people could I be like, “Oh, hey. At Korean church afterward, did you have a Taylor 7 series guitar with lifted strings? Because if I pitched that with any other group of people they’d be like, “What?”
SY: They’d vehemently deny it.
The scene with [Amy] and the gun in the first episode is an incredible scene. How many takes did that take?
AW: That was, like, so short. That was so not hard to do. I was like, “I got this.” It was more the therapy scenes that I would say were the more challenging ones where I had to talk for a long time. I’m so used to having a lot of stuff to do and gesturing a lot and to just have to sit there [and do] a page and a half of basically me talking straight words that I didn’t write myself.
I did understand them but I think that was a lot more challenging than masturbating with a gun. That was fun, that was easy, and it just felt—that one felt very honest. We had been struggling to come up with what Amy could do that was something that was naughty and private for herself. And as soon as Sonny pitched that I was like, “Yes! That’s it.”
LS: And again I would be so hesitant to pitch that to [someone else].
AW: That could have taken you down, like, to the wrong person.
LS: Yeah, “How dare you?”
I love the follow-up line too where [Joseph Lee’s character George] is like “I don’t fuck guns” or whatever it is.
AW: Oh, that was so funny. That was on the set, on the day, that you came up with that.
LS: Because before there was a line that one of the writers had written. I think it was, “Well, vanilla’s the most universally beloved flavor of all time,” which is very funny on the page but then when we got it on its feet it just felt a little too long and too written and I was like, “Oh fuck. We need something new.” And we tried a bunch. It was like the last thing that we tried and Joe, Joe crushed it. He is very funny Because he takes it so serious. Like to say “I don’t fuck guns” with, like, fight energy.
So good, so good.
AW: I don’t know if you know this but he’s also a really incredible artist.
Oh really? I didn’t know that.
LS: Yeah, you should check out his art. A little fun anecdote about the gun masturbation scene, so the pilot was originally written to be all Danny’s story first and then Amy’s story. So the gun masturbation was just its own scene. And then as we were editing it just felt better to crosscut [with other things].
Any favorite scenes or that were the most fun for you as actors?
AW: I mean, I think the finale, you’ll see the finale. I think that was really special because in all the episodes that you’ve watched [Steven] and I are barely [in scenes together] so we obviously have a rapport so it was just really nice to spend all that time together and then to just watch, it really does amaze me to watch Steven work. It just feels so true, what he’s experiencing and I just—it was just so interesting to watch someone be so committed and willing to put his body in a space that was so true. I’ve never forgotten that.
SY: There’s so much balance to this show. Because the thing I learned from Ali is, also, don’t forget to protect your body, like, your instrument.
LS: The finale was also fun because it was the last thing we shot. All season long we were all over the place but then the finale was all in that last week. So it did feel like the end of summer camp a little bit. So a lot of emotions. It was really, really fun. And I don’t wanna ruin the finale at all but also the vibe for every shot felt very special.
AW: Also the other thing that was really special about that was that Lee was directing. That’s the first episode of television that he’s ever directed. And again, that only happens once, you know? And I know what that’s like afterward to experience someone seeing it and you never get that again. So that was very special.
Do you feel like you were able to savor that experience or were you just so in your head?
LS: [Laughing] No. I haven’t been able to savor anything. Because I was writing that, I wrote the final episode during shooting while I had COVID and it just—everything was like a sprint and we’re really running out of steam by the end. It was all very DIY, almost like indie filmmaking, so it was exhausting and I did not have a moment to think. But in hindsight, it feels so special because, I mean, it really is like you’re a kid again. Like when your brain turns off and you’re in it.
On the topic of food, the long chicken sandwiches from Burger King being included throughout? That’s such a, like, childhood thing for me. When I was watching it, I was like, those exact sandwiches too.
AW: I had never had one of those before that day.
SY: Where are you from? Can I ask where you’re from?
SY: You’re Alabama? I think that’s the thing that’s interesting is that, like, whenever Sonny and I talk about it we talk about Burger King chicken sandwiches as if they’re like—not exclusive to us—but maybe a Korean church thing. But then you realize that it’s kind of like a Middle America thing. It’s like if you kind of grew up non-coastal.
Oh yeah, yeah.
SY: You know what I mean? That’s the go-to move.
But it’s almost like a delicacy on some level too.
SY: A Whopper’s too intense, right?
SY: But like a chicken sandwich is, like, just so good.
I can taste it just talking about it. I never ate four in a row like your character, but—
SY: It was funny, we were shooting that scene and I would take the bite and then I’d try not to swallow it because I was like, “Oh, I gotta save [my appetite] for multiple takes.” I found myself [not stopping]. It’s so good.
How’s everyone feeling on premiere day? Excited? Confident?
LS: Just last night I started to get a little nervous but also excited. I’m ready for people to see it.
AW: The baby’s crowning.
LS: That thing is crowning.
SY: We’ve been talking about it for so long and I’ve never been as an actor so much in the process of it. Even in delivery or early buzz or whatever I never really get to hear anything. … It gave me the chance to, this show, to like zoom out to kind of look at it for what it is. I’m not even trying to say that I don’t care if it’s good or bad but kind of looking at it and I’m really proud of like the angle we came at off the story with. I’m just, like, shit, I just wanna—
You’re at peace with it at this point, yeah.
SY: I hope everybody gets to catch this. You just qualified how I should feel about it. It’s just what it is. That’s pretty cool.
AW: Yeah, for the first time I think last night [I started to realize] it’s a big deal that this is happening. Because, yes, it is work but I’ve always had the attitude of no matter what happens, I haven’t really thought much about how it’s gonna be perceived. I’ve never experienced being at a festival [like this].
SY: This is a crazy breakfast, y’all.
It’s a crazy breakfast.
LS: I feel like I’m in Friday Night Lights. God, I love that show so much.
SY: Explosions in the Sky carried me through a lot of, like, acting moments. On The Walking Dead, I would turn on Explosions in the Sky. Have you seen The Sandlot?
Oh yeah, I grew up watching that.
SY: Right? I showed my kids The Sandlot and Willy Wonka, the original Gene Wilder one.
AW: Our kids watched them together.
SY: There’s no hesitation. They just watch and sit through it. There’s no screaming. There’s no, like, “I’m too scared.” I was thinking about this the other day because I showed my son Little Giants right after and he couldn’t get into it. He actually was like, “I don’t wanna watch this,” and I think it was because Sandlot and Willy Wonka speak truth to kids whereas Little Giants speaks at kids.
Almost down, you’re right.
SY: Down to them. They’re like, “Oh shit, Let’s make this precocious kid say some really adult shit.” I think about, you know, it feels like a time I find a lot of pride in [our] work and working on this show together because it felt like it came from an honest place that feels right to us always but especially [right now].
I agree. I love how it uses revenge as a catalyst to explore—it’s not a revenge show.
LS: Yeah, and that’s by design. We could have easily sold this show without the road rage, especially with these two attached. But I think there’s something about, you know, sort of putting the kale in the smoothie where in the modern era you’ve got to kind of guide people to want to think about [things]. Even the way we wrote the season. The pilot is actually very designed to be as wide of an entrance as possible, even tonally. I will say that the first half is a hair broader than the second half and it’s all by design [to just be] welcoming to the modern audience and slowly start to narrow.
What are some traits that you guys found yourselves admiring about your characters?
LS: One, I love that question. No one’s asked us that question. It’s usually the opposite.
SY: I think Danny, is a survivor.
AW: I would say the same thing about Amy, a survivor.
LS: I feel like that’s what is redeeming about the world, you know? It’s like, as shitty as everything is and how hard it is to be alive, we’re still here. And that’s saying a lot.
Beef will premiere on Netflix on April 6.