Words With: Steven Yeun Turns Lionheart on “The Walking Dead”

As an admirer of all things ‘zombie’, “The Walking Dead” has become a sort of TV show bible for me. For two seasons, I have been immersed in a war of zombies versus a small group of human survivors. Out of that war, a hero has risen. The character and the man who plays him is not what one would picture a hero to be. Actor, Steven Yeun has redefined the qualities of a ‘knight in shining armor’. He is not superhuman or muscular, but an ordinary twenty-something Asian American guy who always wears a baseball cap. Millions of people have watched as Steven’s character has evolved from a pizza delivery guy to a leader who saves lives and makes noble decisions.

In reality, Steven has also taken his share of risks. Though not life-threatening, he first pursued law and medicine before discovering his passion for acting. He went against his family’s expectations and became apart of The Second City renowned improv company in Chicago before moving to Los Angeles. After a few stints on shows such as, ‘The Big Bang Theory’ and ‘Law and Order,’ he joined one of today’s most admired ensemble casts on AMC’s ‘The Walking Dead.’ As the show moves into its 3rd season, Steven gains even more fans, from South Korea to America. While on break, the actor shared with me his stories on set, survival tactics in the event of a zombie apocalypse and much more….

PP: How did you go from applying to law or medical school, to acting?

SY: Well, I was fortunate to go to Kalamazoo College which is a small, liberal arts school. They kind of push you to do everything. Because of that, I was able to pick and choose what really interested me. Our school has an improv group called Monkapult. I remember my first week there they had a Monkapult show. I went to watch it with my friend, and I said, “This is frickin’ awesome. I want to do this so badly.” It was a fun thing that I wanted to do. Then it kind of just bled into the rest of the theater scene there. So I did what I needed to do to appease my parents up until graduation, and then I threw that at them.

PP: How did they respond to that?

SY: They weren’t particularly thrilled, but they were definitely as supportive as they possibly could have been. So, they let me do it, which was enough support from an Asian parent as I could get and it worked out. It really did, and now they’re happy.

PP: You became part of a theater company in Chicago?

SY: Yes. I was fortunate enough to play with the Second City. I got to tour with them for a year. I was on a cruise ship for thirty months. That’s a way to pay your dues. I don’t know if I can ever ride a cruise ship the same again, but it was a great learning experience. So, I cut my teeth in Chicago. I got to play on the same stage as some of my biggest heroes, and then I just moved out to L.A.

PP: Who are your biggest heroes?

SY: Oh, people like Steve Carrell, Tina Fey, Scott Adsit, Chris Farley; it just keeps going. All those people got to play on those stages. We got to do their scenes.

PP: So do you consider yourself a comedic, dramatic actor, or all of the above?

SY: I’m definitely not a stand-up if there’s any confusion there. I don’t do stand-up. I wish I could. It’s so funny. But I definitely do a lot of improvised comedy, scripted comedy and sketches. That’s where I mostly learned everything. ‘The Walking Dead’ was kind of a departure from that, which could’ve maybe been the best thing ever, too.

PP: Tell me about that. What was your first impression when you started working on The Walking Dead? Did you read the comic books?

SY: Oh, yeah, well, I wasn’t hardcore into the comic books, but I had definitely read them before and I was a fan as much as you can be. I had read it and I tore through three books at a Barnes & Noble. I just didn’t pay for it because I was poor.

PP: Understandable.

SY: So I just read them there on a tip from a friend, and that was five years before. I thought, “Ahh, this is a great book.” Then I never paid it much more attention because I wasn’t really collecting comics at the time. Five years later, after some other auditions went really well and didn’t pan out, we came upon this and my manager and agents put this project in my hands. I don’t know what happened, but they chose me, so…

PP: The show requires you to shoot guns and handle a large amount of ammunition. Did you go through any type of training?

SY: Oh, man. You know what the best part of our show is? There is no training. Other than safety stuff like “Don’t point it at other people or ‘Don’t do this, don’t do that’,” we didn’t get trained on how to shoot guns. I think that was for the better considering none of these people actually do know how to shoot guns. So, just to go off what they think is right as characters is, I think, honest.

PP: Speaking of characters, you play Glenn who has really come out of his shell since the 1stseason. He’s more of a hero now. Can you relate to him?

SY: Absolutely. For me, college was kind of that same time for me where I came in having all of these fixed ideals. I thought that the world operated a specific way and that I needed to kind of fit into the mold and kind of be a cog in that machine. But then you realize as you grow older that you need to find your own place. You can’t just be a simple thing to lead everybody else on, but you have to be your own person. I think that was something that I went through in college, and that is definitely something that Glenn is going through right now.

PP: How do you think your character has evolved?

SY: I think before he was much more concerned with doing the right thing. He didn’t really have much going for him, so he saw this new opportunity as a way to make himself a hero. But he didn’t know quite how to go about it. Instead, he just volunteered for every dangerous mission. He did everything willy-nilly because if he dies, he goes out a martyr.

PP: Right.

SY: And he goes out a hero. I think now that he sees the way that you have to operate in this new world, it’s a struggle between holding onto society, or just giving into the chaos. With the addition of new purposes to live, which is Maggie, Glenn is kind of struggling right now to figure out what he wants out of life and what exactly life means to him. That’s definitely been an interesting thing to play.

PP: Tell me about the cast. Obviously it’s a great ensemble show. What is it like on set, and have you grown close with any specific cast members?

SY: Yeah. All of us are really close. I would say the people that I interact with the most would be Melissa Suzanne-McBride who plays Carol, Jon Bernthal who plays Shane, and Lauren Cohan who plays Maggie. We all just get along. That’s the greatest thing about this, and I’m so scared for any other project that I might have to do because I think this is kind of a one in a million thing where everyone really loves each other and everyone’s really, really supportive and so fun to be around. And what’s been awesome is there are people who are our leads and they kind of set the example and the whole show follows suit, so it’s been pretty great.

PP: Where do you shoot?

SY: We shoot in Atlanta.

PP: What’s the scene that has been the most fun to film?

SY: Oh man. I can’t give away anything, but there’s something coming up where I got to do a lot of stunts and a lot of gun work. That was a blast. I would have to say the well scene was also very fun.

PP: That’s what I thought you were going to say…

(Steven was lowered into a well to haul out a zombie)

SY: It was fun because it was letting me improvise and just kind of do whatever I needed to do to be in that moment. But man, that was so painful. Painful because they can’t show harnesses, so we had to use the thinnest harness belt. It’s basically a seat belt tied around my groin, and after maybe the twelfth hour of shooting, that’s not as fun.

PP: For the Walking Dead fanatics, can you reveal anything as we start watching the end of the second season and into the third?

SY: Honestly, I can’t. I think what you’ll see is stakes heightened. You will see relationships really tried and you will see everything that people have been waiting for to erupt. Everything that’s been building is going to just blow up. That’s going to be really fun to watch.

PP: Of course, I have to ask you… If the zombie apocalypse started right now, where you are right now, what would you do, where would you go, and who would you take with you?

SY: Okay, I’m on 4th and Detroit in my car. I would probably hang back; my parents are in town, so pick them up, pick up my brother and my dog, and then just make it to, I don’t know, maybe the Grand Canyon? I might grab my laptop. You don’t know how long the internet will still be running and you’ll still want to check Facebook. Then I’ll take my phone; there are a lot of games on there. And maybe–

PP: Um, you can take one thing, Steven, and that’s it.

SY: Oh, I can only take one thing?!

PP: I’m just joking!

SY: Aww, man. I’m a terrible survivor.

PP: Well you’ve survived up ‘till now. Zombies have been a phenomenon for the longest time. What do you think the fascination is with them?

SY: I think it’s a couple of things. I think for one, it’s just their turn. For some reason, the world has embraced monsters again and they’re just kind of going through it. It’s just a matter of time before we latch onto the Loch Ness Monster. Another thing is, people are living life right now like the world’s about to end, which is scary, but also kind of cool, because it kind of makes people do things that they never would’ve done. I think that is kind of shown in zombies, and it’s kind of a way to blow off that steam of being afraid that the world’s going to end, and what better way than to watch it happen before your eyes?

PP: As an Asian American actor, how do you feel about AA actors and roles in Hollywood? Do you find that there are more opportunities, or do you feel like there’s a lot of typecasting and tokenizing going on?

SY: I think that things have gotten better, which thank God it has. I don’t think we’re over the hump yet in terms of typecasting, though. I think when people write specific Asian roles, they tend to be a certain way; more stereotypical. But what happens is now, people are more willing to open up roles that are not specifically written for an Asian person. I’ve been very fortunate in that the majority of things that I’ve played have been not Asian. I just happen to be Asian, with the only exception being Glenn. What’s great about Glenn is he is Asian, but he’s not stereotypically Asian. I’ve been very blessed in that regard, in being able to play an American, which I am. I think as we go along, it’ll be on Asian Americans who want to be actors to push for those roles that don’t necessarily require being Asian. Then it also might be to write stuff for ourselves. I think what it is, is after a point– this is my soap box moment, by the way– it goes past the idea of building Asian awareness. I don’t think that it’s that on us as Asians to necessarily do Asian things and take ownership of them. I think we’re at the point where we should just do good work, and also subsequently being Asian, that should be enough to change the minds of a lot of people.

steven yeun interview, by pamela price, the walking dead

PP: What do you want for your career beyond The Walking Dead?

SY: Honestly, for me, this sounds so actor-y and meta, or whatever; esoteric, and whatever big words you can attach to it, but honestly I just want to be truthful. To just always know when I’m doing a bad job, know when I’m doing a good job, know when I deserve something, and know when I don’t deserve something. I just want to do good work, and if that means that I should stop acting, then maybe I should, but if good work means that I should continue doing it, then I will do that I think that’s my goal for now.

PP: Do you write or have any interest in directing?

SY:  Yeah, I do write. I definitely have an eye for directing that I would love to use, but I don’t think I’m ready to do that yet because I haven’t figured out this acting thing completely. There’s so much more to learn. In terms of writing, I love writing but I’m not particularly well-disciplined at it, because my improv background has kind of made me lazy. I’ll write a script where I’ll be like, “And then, ummm, this happened, but we’ll just improvise the rest.”

PP: So, you were born in South Korea do you ever go back there or do you have a connection there at all?

SY: I was just there two weeks ago. I have tons of family there. I was there for a month, and I came back to what was supposed to be a vacation with much more stress than I had previously. Not in a bad way, but my mom is the youngest of nine, and my dad is the second oldest of five, and they’re all in Korea. My dad is the only one that left and mom, and we have one more aunt that’s out here, but it was just a lot of people.

PP: Do people recognize you over there?

SY: Yes, which has been really flattering and amazing. I think what’s great about Korea, and I think what’s great about any country, is they have a lot of patriotism and a lot of pride when someone who they can relate to makes it in America. I don’t know if I’ve made it yet, but to their knowledge, I’ve made it. I think my proudest moment was when a sixty year old Korean couple came up to me and said, “Hey, are you Steven on the Walking Dead?!! Good job!!”

PP: That’s great. And what about here?

SY: I think L.A.’s a little bit more lax, which I really like. People just say, “Hey. You’re on the Walking Dead. Good job.” It’s like, “Cool, thanks.” And there are also a lot of actors here too, so I don’t know if people really want to go fanning out, especially when they’re like, “I’m going to destroy you someday.”

PP: Is there something specific that you like doing when you’re not shooting the show?

SY: Yeah, I love just working out my back, and my chest, and my triceps. (Pause). I’m totally joking.

PP: Okay. I was gonna say “Oh, he’s a work-out guy?!”

SY: No, no. It wouldn’t show. I don’t know where you would even see that, but I just love walking around sometimes. If I’m in Atlanta, and I have days off, I’ll probably be in walking around with my dog, and taking some pictures, reading a book, or watching a movie. If I’m in L.A. and I’m not doing any work per se, I will maybe go to the gym just to keep the flab down a little bit. Keep the rice fat down. Then occasionally, I will go to my church and do things there. I just kind of keep busy.

PP: You’re around, you’re around.

SY: I’m around. I’m a man around town.

Steven recently posted a ‘goals for 2012’ list on his blog. He wrote, ‘I want to push myself,’ ‘I want to pay it forward,’ ‘I want to have my hand in everything,’ ‘I want to help.’ To me, those are the words of a kind hero. Words that would come straight from his character’s mouth on ‘The Walking Dead.’ As his career blossoms, I look forward to seeing what other roles Steven will break the mold for and shape with his personality. Until then, don’t miss the midseason premiere on Sunday, February 12th at 9/8c.

Twitter: @steveyeun  

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