PIONEERING SPIRIT. Korean-born actor Steven Yeun and star of TV’s The Walking Dead is a talented actor, but he’s also a pioneer of sorts as one of several Asian-Americans in different fields breaking down barriers and stereotypes.By Petricia Yuvita and M. Berlian
Steven Yeun is adamant about being an American and cringes at suggestions that he take token ‘Asian roles.’ He is a guy that wants to succeed on his own merit and talent as an actor (as well as musician and a comedian) and not on what he looks like.
Born in South Korea and raised in Canada and Michigan (in the U.S.), he got into the world of comedy after college and eventually made his way to L.A. to be an actor. The rest, as they say, is history.
Here, he gives DA MAN some exclusive insights into his world.
‘Brando’ jacket by G-star Los Angeles on Melrose
DA MAN: There seems to be this craze surrounding Asian-Americans currently, following the ‘Linsanity’ phenomenon. What’s your take on that?
Steven Yeun: It’s great. At its core, it’s just a great story. When you add the Asian-American element, it becomes something that Asian-Americans can grab onto and find pride in. Initially, I was just happy to see an Asian-American make it and do well in the NBA, but after seeing all the things that followed, such as the racially insensitive headlines or the idea that Asians are somehow alright to be made fun of, it really opened up my eyes on the fact that we are still so far behind in this country. But damn. Jeremy. Keep killing it.
DA MAN: Also, there is a huge craze in Indonesia (where DA MAN is based) for everything Korean: K-Pop, Korean TV serials, Korean food, etc. Were you aware of that, and does it make you feel proud?
Steven Yeun: I wasn’t totally aware of all of that, but that’s great to know. It makes me proud that my cultural heritage has such reach. However, I think for me personally, I identify first as an American. I was born in Korea but raised in America. I have only the utmost love and respect for my Korean cultural heritage, but at this point, I am definitely more American than anything else. I think that’s why I really want to succeed here (U.S.) over anywhere else. Here is where I identify with more.
DA MAN: What can you tell us about your journey from South Korea to Michigan to Hollywood?
Steven Yeun: I was born in South Korea in ’83. I moved to Canada in ’88 briefly and then to Michigan. I was raised in Michigan, went to college there and eventually moved to Chicago where I cut my teeth doing improv and sketch with the Second City and some other groups (Stir Friday Night, Hands). After that, I decided to move to L.A. in 2009 and I can’t tell you how, but I was very fortunate. I booked The Walking Dead in the first five months.
DA MAN: Did you always want to be in the entertainment industry?
Steven Yeun: I think, to some extent, yes. My dream as a kid was to be a SportsCenter [ESPN] anchor but that obviously never panned out. I also wanted to get into music, but man, everyone is so good. I played growing up at church and jammed with friends, but nothing too serious. It’s a pretty tough industry, but then again so is acting. We’ll see about music though, still want to give it a shot at some point.
DA MAN: You had several small parts and guest roles over the last few years, now that you are a series regular on a popular TV show, how does that feel?
Steven Yeun: It feels amazing. It’s amazing to get work, period, but to get work consistently and have job security (as much as you can have on our show), it’s amazing.
DA MAN: You’ve been starring in the TV show The Walking Dead since 2010, what can you tell us about your role and how did you get the part?
Steven Yeun: I play the role of Glenn. He is a Korean-American survivor of the zombie apocalypse. He is kind of a kid when you first meet him. He didn’t have much going for him in the past (he was delivering pizzas) and, because of that, he kind of has a chip on his shoulder about making a mark for himself in the world.
DA MAN: How has your character, Glenn, developed since Season 1?
Steven Yeun: Initially, you see Glenn as someone who is willing to do whatever, whenever. He is frequently sent out on missions to go scavenge for food or supplies and he does it willingly because he doesn’t really value his life as much as he should. Because he has no direct family with him, he looks at it as an opportunity to prove his worth and, if he dies, then he dies a hero. As he progresses throughout the second season, you see him grow up into a man, start asserting himself and also find love. The love is what messes him up in a sense. Because of his newfound love, he reassesses everything he’s known up to that point.
DA MAN: What is it like working with your cast-mates and who is your favorite?
Steven Yeun: All of them are great. I think I hang out with Jon [Bernthal, who portrays Shane] the most because he and I play basketball a lot. He’s a great guy. But honestly, this isn’t to be all proper, but everyone on the cast is great. I think that’s what keeps us coming back to the sweltering heat for more.
Suit by Klein Epstein & Parker, shirt by Joe’s Muscle Tank, shoes by Esquivel
DA MAN: You recently had to shoot a love scene with your co-star Lauren Cohan. Is it harder or easier to have to shoot it with someone you get to interact with every day?
Steven Yeun: It’s definitely easier. I think with actors, there is an inherent understanding that both parties want to do a good job. So, because of that, they get comfortable quick and they understand what’s going on. Also, she’s really great, so it wasn’t hard at all.
DA MAN: Is there some pressure, being a fan-favorite?
Steven Yeun: Well, I don’t know if I would be considered the fan-favorite, but it is nice. I don’t see it as pressure, I just see it as a blessing.
DA MAN: You’re starring in a show with a loyal audience and fans that discuss everything you do online. Have you ever Googled yourself to see what they have to say?
Steven Yeun: Yes. [It was a] bad idea.
DA MAN: What other fantasy shows do you like to watch?
Steven Yeun: I’ll be honest, I don’t watch that much TV. I did just finish watching Friday Night Lights, though. That was fantastic.
DA MAN: Are you planning on doing a feature-length movie anytime soon?
Steven Yeun: I hope people are planning on casting me in a feature-length movie.
DA MAN: You mentioned that you were part of the improvisational comedy group, The Second City, before landing the role in The Walking Dead. What kind of comedian are you?
Steven Yeun: I think I’m kind of your jack of all trades, master of none. I tend to come to comedy from a real heady place. I love weird things and I love smart writing. However, I’m always good for a solid fart joke, too.
DA MAN: What are some of the tough choices you’ve had to make to get where you are now in your career?
Steven Yeun: I’ve had to give up some opportunities in order to keep a sense of integrity for myself. It all had to do with doing an ‘Asian’ role that I wasn’t comfortable doing. Like I said before, I’m American. I speak English. I don’t do it with an accent.
DA MAN: Do you think it’ll get easier, now that you’ve had success?
Steven Yeun: I think many opportunities will be easier to come by, but it’ll still be pretty tough to navigate.
DA MAN: How do you describe your personal style?
Steven Yeun: I love clean Americana. I like snug fits, slim cuts and crisp lines.
DA MAN: What is your greatest ambition?
Steven Yeun: To do something great that has nothing to do with myself.
DA MAN: What is the most interesting role you’ve ever had?
Steven Yeun: The one I’m playing now. Very lucky.
DA MAN: Do you have a dream role? If so, what makes you want a role like that?
Steven Yeun: I want to play someone deeply disturbed. I like that idea because I think all people have that side to them, and some people choose to never tap that side. I haven’t really tapped that side of it in my actual life. I’d love to try it acting.
Photographs: Yann Bean
Grooming: Travisean Hayes
Stylist: Esther J. Han
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