Into the Deep End With Steven Yeun
The dashing young star of AMC’s The Walking Dead talks about digging into his character for the upcoming third season and reveals how the more pressure he feels—from fans, from community, from himself—the deeper he goes.
by OLIVER SARIA
photographs by YANN BEAN
While on location in Atlanta, Ga., where he’s shooting the much-anticipated third season of the The Walking Dead on AMC, Steven Yeun confesses via phone, “I sometimes can’t check my hat at the door.”
That can be a frightening admission, given that the hit zombie drama series, which returns Oct. 14, and the graphic novel upon which it is based center on a band of survivors of the zombie-apocalypse and the subsequent horrors they encounter.
“Sometimes I’ll bring it home, and you find yourself like, ‘Oh, I haven’t seen daylight in a week because you’re going out to work and you come home and you don’t even want to go outside and you’re just, like, depressed,” Yeun says. And, to make matters worse, the actor happens to be on a huge Korean cinema kick. “And actually that doesn’t help me unwind,” he says. “Man, Korean cinema is so messed up. I love it, it’s amazing, but it’s like so guttural and terrifying.”
Guttural and terrifying also aptly describe The Walking Dead. If the series hews closely to the comics, which Yeun confirms will “weave in and out of each other,” viewers can expect even more f***ed up s*** to happen this season as the characters face off against the only monsters worse than zombies: other humans!
Yeun, 28, plays Glenn, the resourceful former pizza delivery boy, who is so far the only Asian American to survive the cataclysm. (Apparently, the ravenous, flesh-eating zombie hordes have had their own veritable all-you-can eat buffets in Chinatown, K-town and every other Asian-town.) But if you assume Glenn is just another token Asian character, think again. Yeun hints that Glenn will figure prominently in the coming season. “You’ll see a lot of growth with Glenn, and you’ll see a lot more sides of Glenn,” says Yeun. “You get to see what does Glenn look like when he’s pushed too far? What does Glenn look like when he actually has to defend the people that he loves? And I think that’s going to be really fun to watch.”
Much-deserved credit certainly goes to comic book creator and television series executive producer Robert Kirkman for crafting a multidimensional character. He explains his inspiration for Glenn via email: “My oldest friend is from Atlanta and is Korean, so I thought of him when I was choosing Glenn’s ethnicity. It’s important to me to try and accurately portray the world as it is, i.e., not all white, like some comics do. That said, I wanted Glenn to be resourceful and strong, a character Rick (played by Andrew Lincoln) could lean on when he needed to … not ‘the Asian guy.’”
However, Kirkman is quick to praise Yeun for breathing life into Glenn. “Steven has really brought a tremendous amount of charm to Glenn,” he says. “Some people may find this surprising, but Steven is hilarious, he’s a brilliant comedic actor, and his outtakes on the show are by far the best. Giving Glenn that undertone really has brought a lot out of that character and made him even more endearing than he is in the comic.”
Upon the comic’s landmark 100th issue, the pop culture website A.V. Club described Glenn as “the everyman of the [comic] series, a fan favorite because, who doesn’t want to root for the average Joe that has somehow managed to survive and find love in a zombie wasteland? Glenn could be seen as the heart of this series, the compassionate character who still holds on to hope in a world of depressing futility.” In the television series, Yeun imbues Glenn with some welcome levity, a refreshing palate cleanser to an otherwise heavy meal.
Given the strong source material and Yeun’s high likeability quotient, Glenn is not your stereotypical Asian male role in Hollywood, relegated to either being a lap dog or attack dog, neutered by his own nerdy incompetence or dogged stoicism. In fact, Glenn actually does get the girl, and—wait for it—she’s smoking hot! His relationship with Maggie (played by Lauren Cohan) offers viewers a romantic respite from the unmitigated carnage, and promises to be one of the most intriguing storylines for the coming season since Glenn reciprocated Maggie’s “I love you” in the season two finale.
Naturally, Glenn has emerged as a sort of folk hero for Asian American men. During a lively Q&A with Yeun hosted by social news site Reddit, Glenn’s love life was a frequent topic. Viet Huynh, a 30-year-old manufacturing engineer from Tampa, Fla., who goes by the handle vietkhaaaaang727, sparked an interesting exchange with the following tongue-in-cheek comment: “Your relationship with Maggie gives me hope that I, an Asian male, can also land a white princess!” Yeun smartly ducked the topic, and in the ensuing conversation, Huynh received some words of encouragement from his fellow redditors, which he relayed later to KoreAm. “I was surprised by all the white chicks responding that they love Asian guys,” Huynh said. “I left very very hopeful.” In terms of the dating advice he gleaned, he said, “Just to be myself and eventually someone will appreciate that … or I’ll be one of the last guys on earth, and the chicks will love me too, haha.”
Last-man-on-earth-gambit notwithstanding, Huynh also explained Glenn’s broad appeal among Asian Americans. “I like that he’s really Americanized like most American-born Asian men are—Asians, I should say. I really do like him because he is a great non-stereotypical Asian character … I can relate with that.”
With such a devoted following, it’s no wonder, then, that Yeun is feeling the pressure all around. He can tick them off one by one if he wanted to:
§ The Walking Dead fans
“They love our show and they spread it around, and whenever we meet anyone, they’re like, ‘Your show, I can’t wait for it to come back, like, it’s so amazing. Our whole family gets together and sits down and watches it.’ And then you question whether they should have kids or not because they’re probably showing it to small children. If that’s the case, if you’re getting everybody together to watch it, all we want to do is make this really good. And you know the third season is kind of [when] to fine-tune and make better what we’ve already established.”
§ The fans in Korea (a whole ’nother level of insanity)
“I went to Korea last year after we wrapped and I came back with full-blown anxiety—I’m not even joking, my stomach shut down. … [The show’s] popular in Korea and I’m Korean, and so it just becomes this storm. It’s nuts, it’s really nuts, like fans waiting for you outside your hotel. For me it’s a constant battle of, like, I don’t know if I deserve all this. And I think that’s where I was finding a lot of anxiety because, you know, when someone treats you like you’re Brad Pitt, but you’re not even close to Brad Pitt, it’s weird, you know what I mean? You’re just like, ‘No, no, no, you don’t understand. Just a year ago, I was eating tuna out of a can.’”
§ Family and friends
He states that one main motivation to perform well is to get his friends and family “off my back—not in a bad way, but those are my harshest critics. I think my friends and family have been really good at not letting me get ahead of myself and kind of keep me in check.”
And then there is, of course, the pressure of being an Asian American actor when roles with some heft are few and far between and the backlash from a community starved for humanizing portrayals can be harsh. Early in his career, Yeun turned down an acting gig in Chicago because, as he put it, “they wanted me to play Long Duk Dong.” But, for actors that do play stereotypes, Yeun reserves his judgment.
“Honestly, if you could make that fun, and you can do it and you can make that your own and have fun doing it, then, God, by all means do it,” says Yeun. “I don’t personally want that character to represent us in terms of the fact that we’re American. We speak English. We pay taxes. We grew up in Michigan. So for me, it’s just I couldn’t do that honestly.”
Luckily for him, he’s landed a role that doesn’t compromise his principles, and he’s not about to squander it. “I just hope to kind of do right, you know? If it definitely forwards, you know, kind of like helps the Asian American male to really permeate throughout Hollywood, then I don’t know if I can take that torch, but I’d love to do anything I can to help that.” But in terms of his own career, says Yeun: “My biggest struggle is to never become that guy that got hired because they needed to cast this role Asian American. I don’t want to be that guy that got added just because he had to fill the look rather than the actual abilities.”
It’s no wonder, then, why Yeun might have difficulty sometimes letting the character go once the cameras stop rolling. He has a lot riding on Glenn. “I think the journey of Glenn as the character has also very much mirrored my journey as an actor,” he says. Yeun, like Glenn, started off needing to prove himself—Yeun landed the coveted role only six months after moving to L.A. from Chicago, where he cut his teeth as a member of the famed Second City Theatre—and now that he has matured, feels the weight of responsibility. To the extent that diving full-bore into a character can produce a more authentic portrayal, Yeun sounds willing to accept the risks. “It’s been great for me to stay in this character, and maybe it’s not safe ’cause you can get kinda really bogged down by trying to stay in it, but it’s been leading to better work. I think I got to some places this season that I don’t know if I ever would have gotten to on any other show.”
Besides, given the subject matter, who knows how long the ride will last. One day, your character is testing a condom’s shelf life with the hot farm girl on the floor of an abandoned pharmacy, and the next day, you could be zombie chow. Might as well dive into the deep end for as long as you can. Along the way, Yeun is grateful for all of his good fortune.
“Right off the bat, I get to play a non-stereotypical Asian character that’s awesome,” he muses. “Two, I get to be on a really popular show. Three, I get to be surrounded by amazing actors who I learn from every single day. Four, I get to be placed in a position where I get to push my character; and then on top of that, you know, you get these amazing people on a friendship level that teach you more than just how to act, but how to live life.”
For now, Yeun’s life is completely consumed by the show. No major roles have been booked just yet, but if redditors have any say, he’d appear on the NBC sitcom Community, which is known for its genre parodies. (Incidentally, Yeun and Danny Pudi, who plays Abed on Community, are both alums of the Chicago-based Asian-Am sketch troupe, Stir Friday Night, so let the online campaign for the “Pudi Re-Yeun-ion” ensue).
And as far as dating is concerned, Yeun says he’s single, but his newfound celebrity hasn’t made things any easier. “Sometimes it makes it harder to meet a girl, you know? Because if they are a fan, you never know what they are exactly thinking. But I mean I haven’t been able to really even have time to test that theory, anyway, so it doesn’t really matter.”
And—in case anyone’s curious—no, he and Lauren Cohan are not an item. “We’re really good friends,” he says, “[She] and I have a lot of fun on set, and she’s a brilliant actor, so it feels really good chemistry-wise to play that relationship.”
So while it might sound like Yeun is stressed out, in truth, he’s exactly where he wants to be. Yes, the pressures—of stardom, of expectation, of private standards—are there. But Yeun proclaims, “I love pressure. I really do love pressure. I hate it, but then I crave it.” And, ultimately, when it’s all said and done, Yeun muses, “It’s for, I think, a good cause?” he says, laughing. “I don’t know. We’ll see when I reassess after all this.”
If the cause he’s referring to is being a role model for other actors, or combating stereotypes or dedicating himself to his craft, or—hell—raising awareness about the zombie apocalypse, then, yeah, those are all good ones. And if he’s wondering if he’s excelling in any of them? So far, he’s got nothing to worry about.
Styling: Jeff Kim @ Margaret Maldonado Agency
Grooming: Erica Sauer @ Exclusive Artists Management
Production Assistants: Toya Antoinae and Inki Cho
This article was published in the October 2012 issue of KoreAm. Subscribe today! To see all of the amazing photos of Steven Yeun, purchase a single issue copy of the October issue by clicking the “Buy Now” button below. (U.S. customers only.)