On AMC’s hit original zombie apocalypse series The Walking Dead, actor Steven Yeun plays Glenn, a young man who crosses paths with Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) during one of his frequent forays into Atlanta to scavenge much-needed supplies to sustain the camp of survivors that have gathered together, in an attempt to survive without getting infected. Having previously delivered pizzas for a living, Glenn’s knowledge of every shortcut in town proves extremely useful to the group’s scavenging needs, making him an integral part of the group.
In a recent exclusive phone interview with Collider, Steven Yeun talked about becoming involved with such a quality project and working with such an amazing cast for his first major role, being a fan of the comic book, having fun with the more gnarly aspects of the show, why this gruesome story seems to be striking such a chord with viewers, his hopes for Season 2 and how he’d like to make it out to San Diego Comic-Con in 2011. Check out what he had to say after the jump:
STEVEN YEUN: I actually had no clue about it until my manager said, “Hey, there’s an audition for you, for this show called The Walking Dead.” I remember saying to myself, “That sounds kind of familiar.” And then, I looked at the character breakdown and went, “Holy crap!,” and then I picked up the comic books.
Was there something specific that attracted you to this project and this character?
YEUN: To be honest, at that point, just being so fresh to L.A., I was in the mind-set of just getting work, at all costs. But, if you take a step back from it, it’s just such a blessing to be able to play somebody like Glenn. Me being Asian American, it’s nice to have something to play that’s not so very stereotypical. It’s also nice to have somebody that I identify with. I think Glenn is basically ripped from my history, when I was 19 to 21. I see Glenn in me, quite a bit, during those ages. It just all fell into place perfectly. I really enjoyed the comic book. I really enjoyed the producing team. It’s just a dream come true, really.
Was there anything in the comic book that really helped in forming this character, or have you developed him separately from the source material?
YEUN: Having read the source material, I had to have drawn from that. As a fan, I wanted to remain true to that character, but it was really cool because, as we were figuring these characters out, I realized that there was a lot more backstory, rather than what I had gotten just from reading the book. Glenn doesn’t really get much of a backstory there. He’s just seen as this kid who is put in this situation, not knowing where his mind-set is, but then you slowly see him start to develop. Through the show, you actually see him develop by taking cues from the clear leaders, like Rick (Andrew Lincoln) and Shane (Jon Bernthal). You see it happening quite a bit, on the camera, as opposed to what came out in the book.
Does it feel like a big responsibility to take on a character that is a lot of people’s favorite character on the show and in the comic?
YEUN: Yeah, it’s scary. During filming, it wasn’t just jitters from being the newer guy there or the greenest guy there. It was also fear of not messing up such an important character. If you ask any of the other actors, they’d probably say nice things because they’re nice people, but I was always like, “Oh gosh, I hope I’m doing this right.” I was very hard on myself, and I continue to be. That’s why it’s sometimes hard for me to digest watching myself on television. There is some pressure. I’m glad that people have responded well to it, so far. I’m thankful for that. But, I’m also excited now that I have a better grasp of this character than I did before. I want to take it even further and really explore who Glenn is.
What can you say about what’s coming up on the finale, with the story and with Glenn? Is there anything you’re particularly looking forward to fans getting to see?
YEUN: I think the arc of Glenn, without giving much away, is left open. You catch glimpses, here and there, of him developing as a man and as his own person. It hasn’t been fully realized, in terms of six episodes and that span of time, but I can definitely see the development happening as we go. There won’t be any groundbreaking changes that you see within one episode, obviously. That’s pretty tough. But, there will definitely be moments that you notice that Glenn is growing his own backbone, in a way.
Is the more gruesome side of this show fun for you?
YEUN: Yeah, it’s been pretty gnarly. It’s fun. It can only be fun, unless you’re really squirmy about that. Honestly, during that guts episode, they didn’t tell Andrew and I anything. They just put trenchcoats on us and said, “All right, just stand right here and we’re going to put this stuff on you.” It was so ridiculous. We were just sitting there, thinking about how ridiculous it was because we literally had stray hairs on us. The camera couldn’t pick up all the details, but we had some crazy things. We had huge slabs of fat on us and bits of nails and hair. It was disgusting. But, there’s also the beautiful parts of it.
Not to say that I want to see someone’s skull get crushed by a pickaxe, but the episode with Carol (Melissa Suzanne McBride) was really great. There was the juxtaposition of this horror of her bashing her husband’s skull in, with this crazy set of emotions including anger, sorrow, fear and disgust, all mixed into one, and Melissa, who plays Carol, is phenomenal. I remember all of us gathering to watch her, and it was such a cool moment. We were admiring the work of this scene while she was bashing a skull with a pickaxe, repeatedly. There’s some fun days. That’s all I’ve got to say.
How has this ensemble been to work with? Has it been difficult to already lose so many cast members in the first season?
YEUN: It is tough, every time. The ensemble is great. I would always ask Andrew, “Is this how Hollywood is? Is this how every TV show and movie is?” And he was like, “No, dude. This is not. Do not get used to this. Be thankful that this is how your first gig is.” There’s no drama. There’s nothing. Everyone is there to work, everyone is really kind and everyone is very helpful, especially to me. I went in there, hoping to learn. I could have easily been put on some project with somebody who really doesn’t care about teaching or sharing. But, while I was there, all of the cast were very helpful. I would constantly ask questions.
I remember Jeff DeMunn, who plays Dale and is one of my favorite people, sat me down and talked to me about how to adjust to this new life. He took me aside and did that, instead of me asking him. That’s just how the whole ensemble is. Everyone loves each other and everyone really wants to help each other and make the best show that they can. So, to see people leave mid-way is pretty rough. We see some of it coming because we know the general plotlines, but sometimes we get a quick surprise and we’re like, “Holy smokes!” There are moments where we’re like, “Let’s talk to Frank and see if they can rewrite it.” But, it’s all necessary to the final product. It’s crazy.
When you’re working in conditions like this, with the heat and the grime, does it make you bond that much more?
YEUN: That’s for sure. There’s nothing like coming together when you’re afflicted by 140-degree rooftops with guts all over you. We’re doing this crazy nonsense, so we bond over it. It’s nice for us, definitely.
YEUN: Definitely. I think Robert is integral to this whole project. Not just him being the creator of the original book, but also that he’s there. He’s the ultimate fanboy. This is his project. This is his baby. All the changes that come to it, whatever they might be, he helps to greenlit. He’s there.
And with Frank and Gale, it’s no question. It’s pretty wild that my first big gig is to work with those three, of all people. It’s definitely great. You intrinsically trust all their decisions, from all their added experience. What’s great about Gale is that she’s there every day. She’s there watching over production every day. She doesn’t sign papers and then leave her hands off of it. Frank is the same way. He is monitoring and part of the writing team for every single episode. To know that they’re not just putting their name on this as an EP and then delegating the work to everybody else, but that they’re actually really grinding it out with us, that’s really motivating for us and we always want to put out the best. They bring that out of us.
Did you have any idea at all that this show would be as popular as it is, right from the start?
YEUN: No. Seriously. Maybe it was just me shorting myself to hedge my expectations. As a fan, I was excited about the project. If you look at the body of work for the people involved, I was excited about the project, but I didn’t really know. There were people saying, “I think we’re going to be part of something huge.” You can say that all you want, but even in the little time that I’ve been in this industry, I’ve learned that it isn’t exactly what you expect, so you’ve got to have a level head. I thought people would dig it. I thought people would enjoy it. It’s AMC. I thought people would be fans. But, I did not think we would be the best new show on television. Definitely not. I did not think that we would have the ratings that we did. I did not think that people so worldwide would be watching it. It’s just insane. Me talking about this right now feels weird because I don’t even fully grasp what’s happening yet. I remember talking to my girlfriend about the Entertainment Weekly cover, and I was like, “Holy crap! I’m on this show.” It’s just all kind of surreal, so I’m taking it day by day.
Was it a big sigh of relief to get picked up for Season 2, after only two episodes had aired?
YEUN: Definitely. I was nothing but a worry-wart, the entire time. I was like, “Oh gosh, I’ve got to find my next project. What do I do next? How do I build on this?” But, luckily, they greenlit it. Having that greenlit and having that security is definitely a weight off my shoulders, but I’m sure there will be more weights on my shoulders added very soon.
What do you think it is about this gruesome zombie apocalypse show that has really struck a chord with viewers?
YEUN: I think there are fans who love the genre to begin with, and there are fans who love the comic book to begin with, but fans of the comic book aren’t necessarily fans of the genre. There are obviously a lot of those people who love both, but I’m not a huge fan of that genre, personally. The book is about zombies, in that it is the over-arching theme, but what’s going on is the story of these people and how these survivors deal. I think that’s so much more of an interesting story, and that’s what really gets and hooks these readers into the book and the show. It’s a mix of fans of drama, fans of AMC, fans of horror and fans of Frank [Darabont]. It’s a lot of people just coming together and realizing a genre doesn’t have to be fixed in one specific detail. I know a lot of people who say, “I reluctantly watched the first episode because I don’t really like zombies and that stuff, but I was pleasantly surprised by the characters and the drama of it all.” I think that’s what keeps people coming back and brings new watchers to the show. What the show does is cross many, many different viewerships.
Are you concerned with the huge gap of time that fans will have to wait to see Season 2? Do you worry about the risk of people losing interest?
YEUN: I try not to question the choices of the production. They’ve done such a good job up until now that I’m sure they have the right plan in place. And to be quite honest, we don’t even know exactly when it will be coming out. We haven’t heard any final dates on shooting, so we’re guessing that it’s going to be a full year. But if it is, I hope fans stick around. Lost made people wait a full year. If that’s the case, sorry. But, I think they’ll be happy when it comes around again.
What’s been the most fun thing about doing this show and what have the biggest challenges been?
YEUN: The most fun thing about doing the show is that, as a nerd, the fun has been in learning and having it be like a grad school for me, every day. Every moment is a new experience. Every conversation is a new gain. What I learned, in the two months that we shot, I don’t think I could have learned in two to four years of drama school. It’s invaluable to me, and that’s been the most fun. It’s been nice to let this be a learning experience in everything.
The biggest challenges are in the same vein. It’s about retaining all that stuff. Also, the physical stuff is not as easy as we originally thought. I play a lot of sports and I remember saying, “Oh, I’ll be fine, running around or doing anything.” And then, I remember the first day I got there, they started the take and after four takes I was on the ground, on my back, with a banana and a Twizzler in my hand, and my face was green, and they said, “You can’t get back on set for another 30 minutes.” That was a, “Welcome to Atlanta,” and that put everything in perspective.
Will you get to go to San Diego Comic-Con with the show in 2011?
YEUN: Yeah, I really hope so. I didn’t get to go. I got to go to New York Comic-Con. I’ve never been and I’ve heard it’s crazy, so I’d love to see it. To be quite honest, I’d like for people to want us to be there, too. I’m hoping. I’m knocking on wood, so we’ll see.
Are you hoping to balance doing this show with doing film work as well?
YEUN: Yeah, I want to stretch myself. Another reason why I’m so fortunate is that this is a drama and I’ve been brought up in comedy. Before I moved to L.A. last October, I was in Chicago touring with Second City. So, comedy was my thing for the last five years. And then, I came to L.A. and was mostly auditioning for sitcoms. Somehow, I landed The Walking Dead and it’s great because it stretches and works different muscles for me, and it really lets me stretch myself as a performer. Now, I’m really excited to flex my comedy muscle. Hopefully, I’ll get some opportunities to do that. But, I’ve always loved drama. This is a blessing because I can show a little bit of what I can do, and hopefully more, in the future.
What initially interested you in acting?
YEUN: I was more into music, before I got into college. In high school, I used to play guitar and sing. I did a lot of that. But, when I graduated and went to college, I remember my freshman year and this girl from across the hall, who is one of my good friends to this day, had a brother who was in the school improv team. We went to go watch a show and it blew my face off. I remember saying to her that night, “I want to do that so bad!” So, I went and auditioned and I didn’t get it because I was terrible. I took an improvisational course that they offered at school, which was the last course that they offered, ever. They don’t have it anymore. And after that, I auditioned again. That bug bit me hard. I loved improv. That’s what I moved to Chicago for. So, I continued to pursue improv in Chicago, and Second City somehow let me play. That’s just how everything panned out.