Steven Yeun on Being an Asian-American Actor in Hollywood

Steven Yeun
CANNES, FRANCE - MAY 17: Steven Yeun attends the photo-call of 'Burning' during the 71st Cannes Film Festival on May 17, 2018 in Cannes, France. (Andrea Raffin / Shutterstock.com)

Steven Yeun opens up about his experiences working in Hollywood and his time on The Walking Dead.

Steven Yeun from The Walking Dead is arguably one of the most beloved characters on TV history. Now, he’s appearing in an award-winning film, Burning, which is produced by South Korea director Lee Chang-dong. The award has received high reviews from this year’s Cannes Film Festival and is gaining more attention among movie fans.

Yeun plays an emotionally troubled individual who reveals he enjoys setting things on fire. In an interview with Slate, Yeun explains why the role is unlike anything in his acting career. Yeun adds  his time on The Walking Dead was not as fun as he imagined it would be.

Yeun explains, “After reading the script, I was like, ‘Wow, I’m really going to get to play, to feel what it’s like to live in this person’s skin, be present in his present.’ I realized in hindsight that nothing I had done prior gave me that feeling.”

Steven Yeun The Walking Dead
NEW YORK-OCT 9: (L-R) Actors Andrew Lincoln, Chandler Riggs and Steven Yeun attend AMC’s ‘The Walking Dead’ season six premiere at Madison Square Garden on October 9, 2015 in New York City. (Debby Wong / Shutterstock.com)

Yeun adds the number of opportunities for Asian American actors in Hollywood do not provide this level of freedom. He says, “I’ll come back from Burning, and I’ll be like, ‘Will I ever get this experience again? Will I ever feel this free in a character? Will I ever feel like they’re looking to get my best performance? Down to the lighting, the makeup, the boundarylessness that they project on me?’”

Yeun argues the roles he is offered as an Asian American do not define who he is as an actor. “I won’t speak for other Asian American actors, because I don’t know what they’re being offered. But for me, it’s like: nice guy, dependable, supportive, benign. Beige. And as a Korean man, I am not beige.”

Yeun argues that he was frustrated playing Glenn on The Walking Dead. A role he played for six seasons. Looking back, Yeun says, “ I felt beige with Glenn. That was a little bit of the frustration that I could never explain to the wider society, to fans of the show.”

But, he does not regret working on the show and in fact, says he had a wonderful time. “ I made lifelong friendships. I got to learn so much. But I will say that I felt cramped. I felt like there wasn’t space for me to fully spread all of who I was, and that was partly due to me, too, because when I started, all I was trying to do was to work within the parameters that they were giving me. And then, over time, I just outgrew it.”

Steven Yeunn The Walking Dead
LOS ANGELES – OCT 22: Steven Yeun, Norman Reedus arrives at the Paley Center for Media Annual Los Angeles Benefit at The Lot on October 22, 2012 in Los Angeles, CA (Joe Seer / Shutterstock.com)

Yeun continues by that he was mostly stuck playing a “beige” character. “That’s why it was beige. Because he was meant to be the heart of that show. When you look back, you go, “That’s great, everyone wants to be represented that way. Why wouldn’t you want to be a perfect being?” But I don’t wanna [play]perfect because we’re not perfect. And that’s a thing that I wasn’t able to feel for a while because I was holding up this ideal that was way bigger than me, way larger than any single human can possibly do. I became less and less interested in doing that.”

Related: