Hollywood Highlight: The Genre-Defying Steven Yeun

By Cali Cardenas

Cast members of long-running television shows or movie franchises experience great success, but often at the expense of their future roles. Audiences love and cherish the characters they get to see grow across multiple seasons or films, but the characters’ identities and personalities can potentially become attached to the actors and actresses themselves. One actor who has actively fought against this restrictive phenomena is Steven Yeun.

Photo Courtesy of Emily Shur for The New York Times

Steven Yeun, best known for his role as Glenn Rhee on The Walking Dead (2010–2021), has found success outside of the undead franchise with films like Minari (2020), Okja (2017), and Beoning/Burning (2018). The 37-year-old actor most recently made waves with Minari, earning himself an Oscar nomination for his performance in the Golden Globe winning film. Defying franchise association restrictions, genre pinholes, and racial stereotypes, Steven Yeun has made his own place in Hollywood as a multidimensional and incredibly talented actor.

Yeun was thrust into The Walking Dead almost immediately after starting his acting career. After only five months in Hollywood, Yeun landed the role as Glenn Rhee and embarked on a journey that no one expected. The show had a rocky start in its adaptation from comic form, but after being picked by AMC The Walking Dead has been hugely successful, largely due to its astonishing visual effects and character focus. As the only recurring Asian-American cast member, Yeun began to feel some pressure from his role; serving as both a sex symbol and role model for Asian-American audiences was a taxing responsibility. Yeun took on the role with authority and grace, but by the end of Glenn’s story arc, Yeun felt no regrets leaving the show. While The Walking Dead is still in production today, Yeun left the show in 2016, after the untimely death of Glenn Rhee. After six seasons and 5 years of filming, Yeun felt it was right to move on to a new chapter of his acting career.

Photo Courtesy of Gene Page/AMC

Breaking away from his identity as Glenn, Yeun has forged a new path for himself as a respectable and skilled actor, not just as an apocalypse caricature. Yeun’s transition from the gory and action-packed The Walking Dead, to more elegant and meaningful films like Lee Isaac Chung’s Minari, seems natural in his ambitions to diversify his filmography and succeed as an actor. Yeun’s dedication to the craft is obvious when looking at his pre-production acting preparation; Yeun practiced his Korean almost daily for the filming of Burning, and later refined it to add his father’s accent for Minari. Yeun is able to create such diverse works because he acknowledges that different roles require different stages in someone’s life. Having ambitions for a diverse and evolving acting career is what pulled Yeun out of the crisis he experienced after leaving TWD, and it’s what has propelled him to where he is now.

Yeun has not totally left the television scene, however. Also known for his voice acting, Yeun has been in shows such as Netflix’s Tuca and Bertie, The Legend of Korra, and even Dreamsworks’ Voltron: Legendary Defender. You can even hear Yeun’s voice in two separate video games, believe it or not. Although Yeun has proclaimed his love for the stage and camera and doesn’t plan to remain in voice acting, his work so far has been valuable and enjoyable. In efforts to expand his career, Yeun has ventured into a variety of mediums that demonstrate his storytelling abilities.

Photo Courtesy of Josh Ethan Johnson/A24

It may be that Yeun’s diverse filmography is a testament to his acting skill, but it also serves as a confirmation of his character and devotion to acting. In an article for Indie Wire, Yeun revealed that despite his passion for acting, he still turns down job opportunities that don’t feel right to him. After being tied to The Walking Dead for so many years, Yeun is thankful to be able to choose his work and only accepts jobs he is proud to be in. So, audiences can be sure that every Steven Yeun performance they see is his best one yet. You can catch Steven Yeun in the upcoming films Nope (2022, directed by Jordan Peele), and The Humans (2021, directed by Stephen Karam).

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