Steven Yeun Chats With Two ‘Walking Dead’ Staffers
Over lunch at an L.A. haunt, actor Steven Yeun leads a lively conversation with The Walking Dead writers/producers Angela Kang and Sang Kyu Kim.
Edited by JULIE HA
Photos by ELIZABETH KIM
Who can forget the zinger of a line: “Everything is food for something else”? Or the wrenching scene when protagonist Rick falls to the ground in shock and grief after learning his wife Lori has perished? Fans of AMC’s hit post-apocalyptic zombie series, The Walking Dead, can thank Angela Kang and Sang Kyu Kim, respectively, for scripting that line and that scene.
Actor Steven Yeun, who plays Glenn, may be the most prominent Korean American identified with the show, but viewers who carefully study the opening credits may have caught Kang and Kim’s names flash across their screens as producers and writers for the acclaimed series, which just wrapped its third season.
Kang, who previously worked on the unaired NBC series Day One and the former FX show Terriers, has been with The Walking Dead’s writing staff since 2011. Kim worked on the TNT drama Hawthorne and the Starz network’s Crash before joining The Walking Dead in 2012. (Kim, incidentally, left the show after the third season, and is working on other TV and feature projects.)
Yeun has called the two writers “brilliant.” Glenn is often described as the most humanizing portrait of an Asian American male on TV today, and KoreAm thought who better to interview Kang and Kim than the actor who brought life to some of their words? The writers met up with Yeun at the Hungry Cat in Los Angeles and chatted over lunch about their craft, the industry, and why the character of Glenn portends a promising future for Asian American portrayals on the tube.
Steven: Angela, how did you get into writing?
Angela: I always was into writing stories since the time I was a little kid. I kept a binder of stories that I’d written from the time I was in first grade. Then I started writing plays in high school … and when I went to college, I had some plays produced through the theater program I was in. Coming out [of college], I started doing some plays, and actually, a decade ago, I was in KoreAm magazine because I had written a play that was in Los Angeles, and it did fairly well. So that was my main writing for a long time. And then, I guess I just always loved TV. I thought, I want to learn how to write for TV. I ended up going to grad school at USC and did an MFA in the film program and learned to do screenwriting and TV writing.
Steven: That’s amazing that it doesn’t seem like there was a hitch in a step ever with your parents saying, “What are you doing?”
Angela: Oh, they definitely were like, “What are you doing?”
Angela: I mean, we’re Korean, so, they were like, “What are you doing? You should be a lawyer!”
Steven: But how proud were they when you came out in KoreAm?
Angela: Super proud. You know what would make them more proud? If I was in the Korean-language newspaper.
Angela: That’s legit!
Sang: Yeah, that’s the holy grail.
Steven: I remember when I came out in the Michigan Korean Daily, [my parents] were like, “Yeah!” But I was like, “Appa, you know those guys!”
Steven: So, Sang, how did you get into writing?
Sang: Like Angela, I loved writing as a kid, but I grew up loving film. My dad, he would have gone to film school in Korea if they had one. He would sneak into movie theaters in Korea and watch American films. When he came to America, he would just sit me down and make me watch all the classics: The Third Man, Citizen Kane, every David Lean film, at the age of 5. I remember we were in Chicago, and he took me to see Raiders of the Lost Ark, and I was just so blown away by this movie, and my dad was as well. I loved it so much that I didn’t want the story to end. So I continued it. I had the Nazis coming back and stealing the Ark and everything.
[So] I wrote always as a kid, but I had a hitch. I went to school out in Chicago, and I was pre-med all four years, took the MCATs twice, and I was ready to apply—had a stack of applications. At that time I was working as an assistant for a law school professor at my university and taking some biology classes. So I’m at a computer all day and had a lot of down time, so I started writing out the stories I always had in my head. And I just started looking up screenplay formatting books, and once I started doing that, I called my parents and said I decided not to apply to med school and I’m going to go for this. And there was that shocked silence—like, “You just spent four-plus years preparing for med school!” But luckily my parents are very creative.
Steven: What did your folks do?
Sang: My dad was a reporter for a Korean newspaper and a producer. And my mom played cello in an orchestra. … Once they saw that I was serious and I stuck with it, they were like, “We support you.” So, I was writing in Chicago for a few years, then eventually came out to L.A. for film school at [the American Film Institute]. And then after that, the CBS [Writers Mentoring] Program, which Angela is also a part of, and that’s where I met Glen Mazzara (former showrunner for The Walking Dead).
Steven: That’s awesome. I mean, it’s crazy to think that, with the upbringing that we’ve had in terms of a very immigrant-style upbringing, you really have to lead the charge on determining your own destiny. You to have to say: I’m not going to go that conventional route. Was there ever a moment for you guys where it seemed like, there’s no turning back?
Sang: I think, for me, it was when I moved out to L.A., because I love Chicago. I’ve lived all over the country, but Chicago is like my hometown … and I decided to pick up and start all over and go to L.A. So for me, that was like I’m going for this 100 percent. I’m not going back. For me that was a big move, and it wasn’t easy.
Steven (to Angela): Your folks, in their opposition, were they OK [with your writing career] as long as you kept bringing back rewards or a finished product?
Angela: I think they just worried that I would not live a comfortable life. They were immigrants, and we didn’t have the most easy life, like my dad always worked two or three jobs, you know. My mom died. There was a certain amount of hardship, and it’s always hard for anybody to move to a whole new country and start over. My grandpa in Korea had started the first insurance company in Korea … is super-educated, spoke three languages, [but] he came to the U.S. and worked at a motel. So it’s that immigrant story. You want the kids or the grandkids to have a more comfortable life. It was always that worry … [that I] be set up in something stable, and entertainment seems scary.
Sang: That’s the other thing. [Our parents] didn’t have examples that they could be, “Oh, so-and-so did it—he’s Korean or Asian.” I think today, ’cause there are so many more examples of people on screen and behind the camera, it’s maybe a little bit easier for a child to convince [their parents and say,] “Look, Steven’s doing it. Angela’s doing it. So I can do it, too.” But back then we had nobody.
Steven: At this point, do you think it’s just a matter of numbers, or is there another factor as to why we don’t have more Asian Americans on screen? Is it only because Hollywood’s not ready for us, or is it also we have a talent deficit?
Angela: Well, I think, it’s kind of everything. I mean, listen, … you have kids, like Caucasian kids, who are starting artistic training really young, and they kind of are primed with the mindset of “this might be what I do when I grow up.” So you just have larger numbers of people doing the preparatory steps for a creative career, whereas I feel like, a lot of times, Asian Americans start really late. Which is totally fine, but you just have fewer people who are ready to go, ready to hit primetime, in a way.
Sang: And fewer opportunities for them to develop their craft, I think. I mean, when there’s a role that says “open ethnicity,” you know that it’s kind of not. It’s like, we’ll see everybody, but you know in reality it’s not. … I think it’s numbers, but I [also] think people need to be more vocal.
Steven: Now, have you run into a situation where you did write something and you made it “open ethnicity,” and you just cannot find the talent there? Like, you’ll audition Asian American actors, and you won’t find what you’re looking for? I think that’s a dark reality we have to face.
Angela: I do think that’s a reality sometimes. I think it’s sometimes hard even if you’re looking for a white actor to find the right fit, you know? [You can audition] dozens of people, but it’s hard to find exactly the right person. And then, just because there’s such a smaller pool that you’re dealing with whenever you’re dealing with minorities, then that sometimes works against you. And you always hope that you’re going to find that break-out person, give them a chance. Sometimes it’s hard to find that person, and sometimes that person may not have that access to get in front of the right people.
Steven: Or he’s a doctor right now. I get asked the question, “What advice can you give me on how to make it in this industry?” And God if I know. I don’t know sh-t. But one thing I was fortunate enough to do—and I’m hoping other Asian actors will do and anyone in the creative field does—is put themselves up against everyone. Put yourselves in a situation where you’re [up] against every single person just off the basis of your skill.
Sang: I think if you’re a minority, you have to be even that much better. You have to be so much better to push through that wall and inertia. So if you just show your stuff to your friends or within a community who’s going to be supportive, anyway—again, I’m not knocking it—it’s great to have that kind of support. But once you do that, push beyond that and say, well, let’s put this to Sundance. If it’s good enough for these guys, let it win Sundance, and that’s when you’ll start breaking down barriers.
Steven: Do you think the way America sees Asian Americans begets the way that we’re portrayed on the screen, or is it the way that we’re portrayed on the screen begets the way we’re perceived in the United States?
Angela: It’s sort of a chicken and egg problem. I know that, certainly a lot of Asian males I know, and you guys can tell me if you feel the same way, but there’s a feeling like, “Why are Asian guys always portrayed as kind of like weak and effeminate and cowardly? Why does that stereotype exist?”
Steven: I remember growing up … like we [Asian Americans] were cool to be friends with, but a girl—especially at that age of high school—to take a huge risk and start dating an Asian guy? [Shakes his head.] It had nothing to do with whether she liked him or not.
Sang: I think, as we portray more Asians on the screen, we have a responsibility, the more and more they’re on there, to be aware of the stereotypes and what the prior image is, and, sometimes, do the opposite. I remember, on one show, we had a Korean American character, and we were going to introduce the wife, and everyone was like, “OK, let’s find some good Asian actresses.” I was like, “Well, let’s not make her Asian.” There are a lot of Asian dudes marrying and dating non-Asian people, but you just don’t see it [on-screen], so they don’t see it. So even small things like that, where it’s like, let’s just switch it up. The wife was [cast] Caucasian, and even the actor was like, “Thank you for doing that.” You know, because it’s like a small thing, but when people see that, it’s like, “Oh, OK, so [Asians] can date people outside of their [race].”
Steven: Have you guys faced opposition in the face of coming up because of your race?
Angela: I don’t know if I’d say opposition necessarily. But what I would say, going back to a point Sang made earlier, you feel like you need to be better because there is a perception, a lot of times, if you are any sort of minority, whether it’s ethnic or female or different sexual orientation, there’s the perception, “Oh, you’re the beneficiary of some sort of affirmative action,” whether through a diversity program or staffing or liberal guilt. So I feel like I have to prove I am better than other people who would be at my level.
Steven: That’s something I battled with even on the course of the [The Walking Dead]. When I first got hired on the show, I thought, “God be damned if I looked like the guy hired just because I looked the part!” For me, it was like trying to disprove that the entire time. Thank God for you guys writing Glenn to be such an awesome character: to have the chair moment [in Episode 307], to have good moments of growth … you know, a lot of other Asian Americans tell me, like, “Dude, you’re holding it down for the Asians, like, you’re having sex with a white girl!”
Angela and Sang: [Laughs]
Steven: And for me, actually, [I’m thinking] you guys should be more happy for the fact that I’m having sex, period—and it’s not a joke. And that it’s not exotic, or it’s not some kind of one-time thing. It’s like a true love. That’s where the pride comes from. It’s just being humanized.
I was actually talking about this with somebody recently. Which is, I wonder if the Asian American identity is best served, within the whole context of The Walking Dead, through Glenn than [with] any other character? I was thinking: would it be cool if Glenn were a Daryl? Would it be cool if Glenn was a Shane? Would it be cool if Glenn was a Rick? I think all of them have their benefits in their own ways, but Glenn gets to tell the everyman story from beginning to finish.
Sang: Yeah, you’re the most relatable character.
Angela: I think Glenn is, absolutely.
Steven: And that’s so cool that we get to do that, and I get to be part of that. The first season that I got on the show, I was checking Twitter, and I would check and search for “Walking Dead chink,” and “Walking Dead Asian.” First season, “Walking Dead Asian”—all over the place. “Walking Dead Chinese”—all over the place. And then “Walking Dead chink”—a ton. It would be: “Whoa, this chink on The Walking Dead is pretty cool!” Then second season, that number drastically fell, but it was still there. Now they just call me Glenn.
Sang: That’s great.
Angela: I’ve always felt that Glenn’s character, for most of our audience, is the person you think, yeah, I might be that guy in the apocalypse. He’s just a normal dude, wants to go about his life, be loyal, trying to figure sh-t out, find the cute girl and fall in love. You’re just trying to be a human being. I think Daryl is great, and he’s a fan favorite because he’s the kind of guy you kind of wish you could be, but you’re kind of not. Like, who is Daryl?
Steven: Nobody’s Daryl. That’s Jesus!
Angela: You’re, like, I wish I could be a crossbow-toting badass. But Glenn is the guy…
Sang: He’s the most balanced character. And, he’s the only one gettin’ any. That’s pretty impressive. I mean, in the whole show.
Sang: That’s solid. That’s solid work.
Steven: Well, thanks to you, guys.
Angela: It’s the comic, too. Glenn is always gettin’ it in the [The Walking Dead] comic.
Steven: Thanks to [The Walking Dead comic and TV show creator-Robert] Kirkman.
Do you think that this is going to beget more … do you think Hollywood sees this character as like, “Hey, this is possible, people can relate to an Asian American male”? Do you think this next row of pilots is going to have a semblance of that, or is going to be Two Broke Girls all over again?
Sang: I think [a character like Glenn is] only going to have a positive effect.
Angela: I hope so.
Sang: Because like I said … if I was growing up [now, with] more Asians on TV, I could at least go to my parents and say, “Look.” They couldn’t say no one else is doing it. Now there are so many faces out there, and Glenn’s a great character, and you play it really well. And to show that example that it can be done, and people love this character, it just gives more ammunition and more inspiration for kids to say, “I can do it, too.”
This article was published in the May 2013 issue of KoreAm. Subscribe today! To purchase a single issue copy of the May issue, click the “Buy Now” button below. (U.S. customers only. Expect delivery in 5-7 business days).