Since its on-screen premiere in 2010, The Walking Dead has become one of the most-watched basic cable shows in television history, and Steven Yeun has starred in it from the very outset. Shane Hannon chatted with him ahead of the eagerly-anticipated resumption of Season 5 about his acting career, his character Glenn’s journey and how being on the show has changed his life.
In the season 2 finale of AMC’s hit post-apocalyptic drama The Walking Dead the show’s main protagonist Rick Grimes (played by London-born Andrew Lincoln) solemnly told the rest of his group of survivors “We’re all infected.” It is a poignant and hard-hitting moment in a show filled to the brim with drama and character development, and it is far from surprising that viewers worldwide have themselves been gradually ‘infected’ by the increasingly gripping storylines. One ever-present in that group of survivors has been the likeable character of Glenn, played convincingly by Steven Yeun, and his foray into the world of acting ultimately saw him thrust, fairly unexpectedly, into the role of a lifetime.
Born in Seoul to first-generation South Korean parents, Yeun’s family moved to Regina in Canada’s Saskatchewan province before settling in Troy, Michigan. He admits himself that the arts was probably always the direction in which he was headed, even if his Bachelor’s Degree at Kalamazoo College saw him graduate in Psychology with a concentration in neuroscience. “I always had a kind of performance bug in me, probably from an early age. I was THAT kid – the kid that needed all the attention.” Acting wasn’t always the intended performance medium for Yeun however. “Growing up I did a lot of music. I primarily played at my church a lot and then when I got to college I thought I was going to continue fiddling around with music but I found improv comedy and when I started doing that it just kind of flowed naturally.”
The late Robin Williams once said of improvisational acting “… sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, but when it does, it’s like open-field running.” Yeun’s interest in the improv scene developed in his freshman year of college, and subsequent time spent learning the trade at the renowned Second City comedy club in Chicago would serve him well. The importance of improv for any budding actor is not lost on Yeun. “I would say if you’re gonna attempt to be an actor, if you’re shooting for that, you should definitely start, or at least fortify yourself with, improv.” This purest form of theatre can seemingly go a long way towards moulding burgeoning acting talent from a young age. “One of the hardest hurdles in the beginning with acting is getting over your self-conscious self. To be able to go to those crazy places where you show really ugly parts of yourself or make yourself look dumb – you have to just let loose in not caring about what other people think. Improv really shakes that up right off the bat.”
Most actors will spend a lifetime trying to make it in Hollywood, but Yeun’s rise upon his move to Los Angeles in late 2009 was nothing short of meteoric, something he is all too aware of. “I’ve been very fortunate and very blessed – it’s been an amazing ride. I landed in L.A. and six months later I was on the biggest show ever. It’s pretty surreal so I’m waiting on a giant piano to fall on me at some point.” Having had minor non-recurring roles in shows like The Big Bang Theory and Law & Order: LA, Yeun received his big break when he was cast in The Walking Dead in 2010. Test readings at the home of series developer Frank Darabont, perhaps best known as the director of films such as The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile, would lead to Yeun being offered the role of Glenn Rhee, a former pizza delivery boy who seems to thrive in the new level playing field that is a zombie apocalypse. “So then The Walking Dead (audition) happened and I remember just feeling ease about it. I had already choked and then felt what rejection was like when you were so close so then I just didn’t give a shit and went for it… That’s the journey of an actor. You let every single thing that you do either push you further or inform you to take a different path – you just learn from your experiences.”
I always had a kind of performance bug in me, probably from an early age. I was THAT kid – the kid that needed all the attention
Glenn is a character whom all fans of the show will have observed is both lively and good-natured from the very first episodes, helping to save Rick from a tank surrounded by zombies or ‘walkers’ in the centre of a run-down Atlanta, Georgia. Yeun affirms of his character “He’s inherently a good person. His moral integrity is definitely intact and he sticks his neck out for a complete stranger and saves Rick. He puts himself out to do lots of things, but is he afraid to do them? Absolutely.” The sense of equality in a post-apocalyptic world is another reason why Yeun thinks his character almost relishes the downfall of society as the world knows it. “You put him in a place now where the colour of your skin doesn’t matter, the size of your stature doesn’t matter; it’s basically just down to can you survive in this world, and he can. I’ve had a lot of fun seeing him grow over the five seasons we’ve had.”
Yeun feels The Walking Dead has been such a resounding success partly because of the incredible scripts and character development, a testament to the executive producers as well as the writers of the original comic book series of the same name, on which the show is based. “What I continue to hear is a resounding connection with each character, depending on who you’re into. I think that’s what keeps people coming back – they just want to know what happens to these people.” He is also of the opinion that the show is very appropriate for this particular time period. “The internet can give you all of the bad news from anywhere and you feel like the world is about to end at some point! And so people are thinking ‘What would I do if the world ended?’ And they get to now see a show where you get to pick and choose or identify with one character one week and another character another week. I think that’s a really cool viewing experience.” Yeun is also quick to point out that it is perhaps The Walking Dead’s originality that keeps viewers glued to their screens. “If it was just another zombie show where you didn’t focus on the characters and you just focused on how the people are going to get out of each situation, then people would probably get bored of it after a while.”
For Yeun one of the main themes represented in the show is that of redemption and the second chance. “You look at Glenn and it’s not necessarily a tale of redemption in terms of he’s done something wrong in the past. It’s more a tale of a second chance at playing this world the right way, of not letting the personal or societal pressures around him before the apocalypse bring him to a place where he doesn’t think he can succeed or be a leader.” This growth that Glenn undergoes is undoubtedly partly because of his loving relationship with Maggie (played by Lauren Cohan). Yeun contends that the relationship “… really grounds Glenn and puts him in a place of understanding and realizing that this world might be worth living in, that even if society isn’t there anymore if you have someone to live for it’s definitely worth it.” Many of Glenn’s moments of comic relief come when he’s with Maggie also, and this ability to smile together through thick and thin is an indication of the strength of the bond between them. “Now it’s no longer a matter of whether this relationship will work out, but rather it’s how do we continue to live and keep a semblance of humanity in this world, even if it is by making each other laugh.”
People were really excited about the first half of Season 5 – I would say the second half blows that out of the water to be quite honest
The Season 5 premiere of The Walking Dead in October 2014 drew 17.3 million viewers in the U.S. alone; to put that into context, around 7 million less people watched Breaking Bad’s overall finale the previous year on the same channel. Action figures and other merchandise related to the show are big-sellers, and the achievements to date are clearly something Yeun and his fellow cast members are unequivocally proud of. “We have collectively created something that never existed before out of thin air, got people together to make it, and now it’s become so big that it has entered into the zeitgeist of the world. If you ask anyone if they know what it is, typically they will say yes, that they’ve heard of it or seen it, and that to me is a surreal accomplishment by humans in general.”
The action and violence prevalent in the first half of Season 5 has left the show’s audiences wanting to see what will happen next, and Yeun stresses that some violence is necessary in the world of The Walking Dead in order to survive. “I would say it’s not even a matter of whether the violence has gotten more gratuitous or anything like that. I would say the stakes have risen. Sometimes the world dictates that you have to behave in certain ways, that you have to do what you have to do in order to survive, if you want to survive.” With Glenn’s group left at the mercy of the residents of ‘Terminus’ in the Season 4 finale, it was inevitable that Season 5 would bring bloodshed between the group of protagonists’ and their cannibalistic captors. “The slitting of the throats and all that stuff – it was graphic but it was also necessary to show the lengths people are willing to go to eat and survive.” The barbarity of the revenge carried out by Rick and the group also proved “how much they were willing to do to keep their people safe.”
Glenn himself has had his fair share of action, notably when tied up by Merle alone in a room with a ‘walker’ in Season 3. “It was really fun. Dan Sackheim, the director, just had Glenn Brown, our camera operator, put a hand-held camera on me and follow me. I had worked out this whole stunt work system and we went for it and I remember just collapsing afterwards. I got my fair share of bruises but it was worth it because it feels like an organic scene. It was just ‘action’ and the whole scene in one shoot.” The physical scenes aren’t the truly exerting ones however. “Those are really fun to play. I would say the hardest scenes to play are the really quiet moments, the really surgical moments are tough.”
I landed in L.A. and six months later I was on the biggest show ever. It’s pretty surreal so I’m waiting on a giant piano to fall on me at some point
Yeun has also dipped his feet into the world of film, and had a key role in Mike Cahill’s science-fiction drama I Origins, released in 2014 at the annual Sundance Film Festival. “I was looking for a project in the off-season and I was really excited about doing something a little bit different than the character I had been playing.” The film tells the story of a molecular biologist who makes a stunning scientific discovery about the human eye which has extensive implications. Yeun admits he is a fan of the director. “He’s able to take a really insane idea that’s far-reaching and seems to be beyond the everyday human scope and scale it down and put it in a setting where it’s very, very reachable.”
There are many actors that Yeun admires immensely – Tom Hanks, Matt Damon and Sam Rockwell to name but a few. But it is also certain that, as an ensemble, the cast of The Walking Dead are making waves of their own, and the upcoming second half of Season 5 is eagerly anticipated. “People were really excited about the first half of Season 5 – I would say the second half blows that out of the water to be quite honest. People went for it and we got such great actors that got such great material. Everybody really left their guts on the floor – there’s a lot of stuff coming for Glenn too and I’m just excited for people to watch it.”
The death of a main character in the mid-season finale in November was a huge emotional blow to the entire group, with questions to be answered over where the survivors go from here. “It affects every person and I think in the second half you’ll really see how the dominoes fall after such a big hit like that.” Yeun is himself proving to be a big hit with his performances, and we have only seen the tip of the iceberg in terms of his burgeoning career. There is no end in sight for this remarkably popular show, but when that final episode does come Yeun wants it to finish in style. “I hope for our sake and for the viewer’s sake we’re able to give people a satisfying finish.” Until then – long live The Walking Dead.
Steven Yeun can be seen in his role as Glenn on AMC’s The Walking Dead when Season 5 resumes on February 8th. Watch it on FOX UK the following day or catch up on previous seasons on Netflix.