It’s fitting, maybe, that the male leads of the continent-spanning “Past Lives” had to do their joint interview from different countries. John Magaro hopped on the video call from Budapest, where he was filming a new project, while Teo Yoo joined from Los Angeles, where he had traveled to attend November’s starry Art+Film Gala at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
“It was quite overwhelming for me,” Yoo told us, still reeling from the party. “You try to look nice and be present, and not freak out when you shake hands with Keanu Reeves and Pedro Pascal.”
Both men, who are in their 40s, felt fortunate to still be celebrating “Past Lives.” The movie has come on strong at the start of awards season, earning the top prize at November’s Gotham Awards and a strong haul of five Golden Globe nominations this week, including a key one for best drama. Directed by Celine Song, the film stars Greta Lee as Nora, a Korean immigrant living in New York whose marriage to good-natured Arthur (Magaro) is tested by a visit from her childhood sweetheart, Hae Sung (Yoo).
It’s the most delicate of love triangles, because Nora can’t simply choose one or the other: Hae Sung is her Korean past and Arthur is her American present, and she must hold space for both in order to feel complete. Still, the carefully calibrated performances from Yoo and Magaro have had audiences swooning. (The Times critic Alissa Wilkinson called the men “magnificent.”) As each gazes at Nora, wondering if she will return his love, the accumulation of all their loaded glances is almost certain to break your heart.
Greta Lee with Magaro and Yoo in the film. “Each and every one of us were, at one moment in time, working in that neighborhood as struggling actors,” Yoo said. Credit…A24
“I don’t think I’ve ever been a part of something quite like this,” Magaro said. “To continue to be in the conversation of films, especially at this time of the year when such enormous things are coming out with a lot more power behind them, it’s been really nice. It’s one of those little films that could.”
Much is made in “Past Lives” about inyeon, the Korean concept of destiny, and Yoo referred to it frequently when describing the film’s long tail. For the actor, who grew up in Cologne, Germany, and now works primarily in South Korea, “Past Lives” has been a major breakthrough since its Sundance Film Festival debut in January.
“Oh my God, I was a mess,” Yoo said, recalling how he felt after the premiere there. “But I want to put John on the spot. John, have you seen it with an audience yet?”
Not yet, Magaro admitted: The movie is simply too special to him. “If it’s a film that I don’t have so much invested in, I’m more inclined to watch it with an audience,” he said. “But because we all left a big piece of ourselves on the screen for this one, it’s just been hard for me to have the courage.”
Here are edited excerpts from our conversation.
What sort of reactions did you get when the film came out this summer?
JOHN MAGARO I knew people would make it, like, “me vs. Teo,” but that’s not what the film is about. This is not “Twilight,” this is not Edward and Jacob. If I’m being honest about it, it bothered me that some audience members have turned it into that kind of movie, but it’s been really nice to see the people who are really seeing the deeper message of what Celine was trying to do. This is much more than just a story of unrequited love — it’s about something that’s deep and cosmic.
YOO I think it also depends on the amount of life experience an audience member has had and what they can perceive. Maybe they will come back to the film at some point and they will say, “Oh my God, I hadn’t seen that other layer.”
MAGARO The heart of the story is her coming to terms with who she is and choosing herself instead of being defined by either of the two men. It’s the idea of standing on your own two legs and being able to have one foot in the past and one foot in the present, and still being OK with that. I think that’s a lovely notion.
What did your wives think of the movie?
MAGARO My wife is Korean American, too, so she saw a lot of parallels between her own life and her own family story. She isn’t an immigrant herself, but her folks came here in their university days and she was first-generation. There is a piece of her that is still back in Korea and there’s a piece of her that is part of whatever this American experience is, so she felt very connected to the story and pretty emotional about it.
YOO My wife already thinks of it as a modern classic. She thinks it’s going to be one of those movies that people are going to talk about throughout the future.
What was going on in your lives when the script for “Past Lives” came to you?
YOO I was in the middle of shooting a reality TV show in South Korea.
YOO Yeah. It was during Covid, and I was on a small island with a few celebrities on a cooking show. It was for newlyweds who didn’t have a chance during the pandemic to go on their honeymoon, so we were providing this extra special experience for them, and I was cooking my butt off every day for two weeks.
MAGARO I got the script right before the pandemic. My wife was pregnant at the time, and we had just moved into our new place in Brooklyn. I remember loving the script and wanting to be a part of it, but then Covid hit and it was gone. That summer, there were some rumblings that it was coming back but they were going much younger. I think they had cast Teo’s role, and it was a younger guy. Then that all broke down and they needed old people to do it, so they called the nursing home and we came out.
YOO I remember Celine saying the initial idea for the film was conceived when she was 29, so she thought she needed to write it for 20-year-olds. And as the film progressed, she turned 30, and then became early 30s, so then she needed to revise it — she matured, and the characters needed to mature. So in this way, we met, and this is how inyeon comes into play.
It’s funny that the film was conceived prepandemic because so much of it feels even more relatable now, like the frequent video calls between Nora and Hae Sung.
MAGARO That’s one of those inyeon things Teo was talking about. If this movie came out before Covid, would it have resonated as much? I mean, look at what we’re doing right now on Zoom. The whole idea of me being in this part of the world and you being in the other part of the world is so much more universal.
How did the two of you get to know each other?
MAGARO We were kept apart until the scene where the two characters actually meet. We were really lucky to have a crew of people who were able to facilitate Celine’s wish, so that night when we finally did meet, we got to share this real experience that made it into the movie. But after that, we went back and hung out in our trailers for a while. We had a drink, we had a toast and we got to break the ice a little bit.
YOO It was a relief, after all the pent-up stress.
MAGARO Yeah, because Celine wanted Greta to talk about him to me, and about me to him. That night, we got to hang out and let our hair down.
YOO On my end, I feel like there was an unspoken bond of trust. I’d never met you, but just seeing your body of work and the person you are, I knew that the moment that we would meet and work together, there will be something of a shared brotherhood.
And all that lent an electric charge to the bar scene you have together.
MAGARO That’s one of my favorite scenes that I’ve ever done, actually. First of all, it was our chance to finally share a moment. All this mythology had been built up around each other, and we got to sit there in the bar and talk man to man and play a scene that was written so beautifully, showing these men who were not combative men. Although they’re both jealous, they could temper that.
YOO Yeah, I always talk about it in terms of vulnerability. I’ve watched a few of those YouTube reactions to the movie, and I see those faces that they make: “Ooh, awkward.” And I’m like, yeah, that’s exactly the sweet spot, that vulnerability, because it gives way to human beings who are able to get hurt a little more, but that also gives human beings kind of a passage to get loved a little more. That vulnerability is a space that is a bit more needed nowadays, and I feel people are seeking that out and thirsting for that.
How did you feel when you wrapped the film?
YOO First of all, there was a tremendous sigh of relief. I felt this heavy burden was lifted off my shoulders because I’m not at all a person like Hae Sung: I don’t live with a lot of repressed emotions, so it was really, really hard to live in that bubble for those seven, eight weeks. But there was a scene we shot in St. Mark’s Place and one moment in between takes where we didn’t go back into our trailers. We were cherishing the moment because each and every one of us were, at one moment in time, working in that neighborhood as struggling actors and bartending somewhere around the corner. And now we were all leading actors with our names tagged to the back of our chairs in an A24 film in the middle of New York City.
Teo, you came to New York as a young man to study acting but didn’t see opportunities there to play characters you could relate to. How does it feel to come back and star in a film like this?
YOO It feels like a dream come true, who am I kidding? To be an East Asian actor and not have to lean against tropes like martial arts and comedy, but to be a romantic lead and be accepted as that with the power of my talent? That’s really something to me. I’m really, really lucky, and I don’t take it lightly.
How close is your current path to the one you imagined you’d be walking?
MAGARO Not this at all. I think a similarity between me and Teo is that you’re from Cologne, I’m from Ohio — we’re from places where this didn’t really exist. I went to school, I stumbled ass-backwards into agents in New York, and I thought maybe I’ll work in regional theater or something like that because the idea of film was so alien to me. I try to keep a level head because it’s weird to work with people who you had posters on your wall of, you know?
MAGARO And when you get to work on films like this, it’s surreal. You are part of this magic that you grew up loving and not knowing how to reach. And even for a moment, you get to peek in and touch it and taste it. I’m getting emotional, actually, saying this. It’s beyond words, but no, I never expected this.
YOO Me neither. I mean, in a faint way, in the distance maybe you dream about it and you hope for it. But initially, after my studies in New York, I thought I would be a street performer in Europe, to be honest with you. I really thought I would be performing in parks for children, doing juggling acts. My wife helped me to set my mind into a different trajectory to go to Korea and then get cast in film and television, but I had my mind set on something like a nomad lifestyle.
I guess that’s where we all are coming from: If the industrialized world wouldn’t have had invented the magic of light and cinema, we would still be on the back of a carriage going from town to town, from village to village, gathering people around and telling stories. Now, we just do it in a more heightened and luxurious way.