Steven Yeun can often be found around LA, shooting the shit with other comics, and doing improv Yeun spent four years at Chicago's The Second City comedy club before coming West two years ago. But what you might not expect—from knowing him, at least—is that Yeun stars on perhaps the most dramatic and horrifying show on television: AMC's gruesome The Walking Dead.
After a few commercials and an appearance on "The Big Bang Theory," Yeun landed his breakout role fighting zombies... and running from them. We talked with Yeun over the phone while he was on the road to visit his home—Troy, Michigan—where he was raised in a first-generation South Korean family. His parents hoped he'd become a doctor. Years later, Yeun, accompanied by his dog, Agnes, tells us about the years since he left that path—starting when he traveled this same road in the opposite direction, away from Michigan, his parents, his career as a doctor, and towards the city of angels.
OLIVER SINGER: Where are you right now?
STEVEN YEUN: I'm going through Iowa... Close to Illinois. I'm driving back home to see my parents. It's just me and my dog on the road together.
SINGER: What kind of dog?
YEUN: Oh, she's a small mini black goldendoodle. That's a golden retriever-poodle mix.
SINGER: Cool. Where's home?
YEUN: Troy, Michigan; it's a suburb of Detroit. It's like a Fullerton or an Orange County type of place.
SINGER: So we're not talking 8 Mile territory?
YEUN: No, but my parents own some beauty-supply stores in Detroit proper, near 8 Mile—gunshots here and there, that sort of thing. I worked at the store a bunch, and the place definitely lives up to its reputation. Our store is in the middle of Detroit, near the original Coney Island, off of Inglewood. Lots of stuff would happen. My father's gotten held up at gunpoint, we've had robbers in the store, people trying to start fires... One time a guy tried to steal something, and when my dad stopped him, the guy took a swing and they got into a fistfight. Midway through the fight, the guy pulled a pointy umbrella out of a bin of them we were selling and tried to stab my dad, and of course my dad picked one up and they ended up umbrella-fencing until the police got there and broke it up. Yep, it was an old-fashioned umbrella fight in downtown Detroit.
SINGER: Is that what drove you to LA?
YEUN: What brought me to LA was work! I moved to Chicago after college—I went to Kalamazoo—did my nerd thing, graduated, and moved to Chicago to pursue improv. I cut my teeth at Second City for about four years, and afterwards I told myself it was time to move. And I left. That was 2009. I got to LA in October, and lo and behold, it worked out.
SINGER: I'm sorry, hold on—your "nerd thing"?
YEUN: Well, my parents originally wanted me to become a doctor—that's why I was in school; I was pre-med, and I graduated with a degree in psychology and a concentration in neuroscience. Really, the plan was for me to go to med school.
SINGER: How did your parents react when you told them you wanted to act?
YEUN: Not well. My father recently told me that he'd written me off: he didn't want me to struggle the way he had, and he instantly dismissed his aspirations of my having a comfortable life. But they gave me two years to pursue it... Reluctantly, but they gave it to me. They were the ones who told me to go to LA. They said if this was what I wanted to do, then I'd better give myself the best shot.
SINGER: So you only discovered acting in college?
YEUN: Yeah, it was my freshman year. I was living across the hall from a girl named Kasey Klepper, whose brother, Jordan Klepper, used to be a big part of Kalamazoo's improv team. Kasey took me to see one of their shows, and my face melted off. I thought, I need to do this... I auditioned, but didn't make the team. So, I took my first acting class, and it opened my eyes to a whole new world. I'd always been interested in performing on some level, but now, I was going to do it. I tried out again and got onto the team, and from then on, I was sucked into the whole theater scene. I got cast in my first play, Balm in Gilead, and played this Colombian drug dealer, Xavier.
SINGER: What's your background?
YEUN: [laughs] I'm Korean-American. Not Colombian. My parents are first-generation, and I'm like... in-between, because I moved over here when I was four or five.
SINGER: Got it. Did your parents come to see the play?
YEUN: My mom did, yeah. She thought I was terrible. She was trying to be nice and said, "Good job," but when I pressed her about the truth? She said, ‘'You were not very good.'' Which was actually awesome for me, because I thought, ‘'Okay, if I want to do this, even for fun, I've really gotta step my game up." So for the rest of school, I worked at it. I got a little better, a little better, and by the time I graduated, I knew I wanted to continue onward.
SINGER: What was your first step?
YEUN: Chicago. I followed Jordan Klepper, who by this time was a huge presence at Second City, and eventually I made it to their touring company. By the time I moved to LA, improv was such a big part of my life that I couldn't stop. So, I do it here and there. My friend and I, Howie E. Kremer, have a two person show called Wet Hands.
SINGER: What was the first non-improv gig that you landed in LA?
YEUN: First thing I landed was thre commercials in one sitting. It was great. Those kept me alive for a while. Then I tested for a pilot on ABC that I didn't get, but the casting director threw me a small part on The Big Bang Theory. After that was The Walking Dead. It was a very fortunate six months.
SINGER: Six months?!
YEUN: [laughs] Yeah, some people hate me for that. Like I said, it was a very fortunate six months.
SINGER: So how did The Walking Dead happen?
YEUN: The timing was just perfect. I remember after that ABC pilot audition, really celebrating. I felt so good about it that I treated myself to Denny's. That's right. Denny's. I thought, "Yeah! I deserve a moderately priced breakfast!" And then my manager calls and says, "Sorry, we'll get the next one." And I thought, "Shit, man, that's it for me." I had one chance, and I screwed it up. Maybe this isn't going to work out. And then I went in for The Walking Dead. Two auditions. After the first one, they brought me to Frank Darabont's office, I read for him, and he was like, "Okay, do you want the part?"
SINGER: And you passed?
YEUN: ...Out? Yeah, almost.
SINGER: That's a huge achievement in a short time-span. Any advice for young actors out there?
YEUN: Confidence. That's huge as an actor. Confidence can get you a long way. Maybe it's a cultural thing, being Korean, but my first reflex has always been to exude humility—but it doesn't help you in acting. For acting, humility isn't the best thing. It'll weaken your work. So it's a head game for me. "Can I really be confident in knowing my skill set is down? Can I perform like I own this role?"
SINGER: Tell us about your character, Glenn. Is it easy to relate to his zombie-predicament?
YEUN: Glenn is a young kid trying to grow into a man. He was a pizza-delivery boy, coasting though life, and then the zombie apocalypse levels the playing field. He gets the chance to start over. A new opportunity to make a mark on the word. And yeah, I can relate to that. That was me at 19. I remember thinking; I'm going to win at everything. I don't care how big you are, I don't care if you're better, even. I'm going to win.
SINGER: That's an attitude that can get tiring, no?
YEUN: Absolutely. I can't justify taking one minute of free time for myself. I'm restless to do things. Anything! Hell, I'll watch Top Chef and I think, "God, maybe I could be a chef," I'll watch a dancing show and think, "God, maybe I can be a dancer." I mean, that's how I got into acting. I visited an improv show and thought, "Hey! I could do this." It sounds like arrogance, but I don't think it is... just an ambition to reach out and touch something new.
SINGER: You in Illinois yet?
YEUN: About to cross the border.
THE SECOND SEASON OF THE WALKING DEAD WILL PREMIERE IN OCTOBER. SEASON ONE IS NOW AVAILABLE ON DVD AND BLU-RAY.
Slideshow photo credits
Photography: Eric Silverberg
Stylist: Ashley Phan-Weston
Groomer: Sarah Dorsey