It’s hard not to love Steven Yeun. His character, Glenn, on The Walking Dead, was a beloved everyman, and his recent turn as a radical animal rights activist in Okja has been called the “most realistic Korean American character in film history.” Yeun is the kind of actor you wish you could see in more roles—or on the cover of magazines—and his latest interview with Vulture’s E. Alex Jung won’t dispel you of that desire.
Yeun is reflective, charming, and very honest in addressing race and Hollywood, especially when it comes to Asians and Asian Americans. His thoughts are particularly interesting in the light of the scandal surrounding the pay gap between the white and Asian stars of Hawaii Five-0 which is still taking place at CBS.
A few highlights:
On why only a Korean-American could have played his role in Okja:
A Korean-American actor is very specific. I think if you got a native Korean who spoke English the comedy wouldn’t have worked. If you got a Korean-American who didn’t have a better understanding of Korean, it wouldn’t have worked. As an Asian-American person, K feels ostracized from the community on both sides and no one will really let him in, so he’s kind of at the mercy of what they decide. It makes him a little foolish; he just wants to be liked really bad, and he’ll do whatever it takes to get that.
On how Glenn was treated on The Walking Dead:
I didn’t think of it as racism, where it’s like, Oh, this is racist. I caught it in a way of Oh, this is how we’re viewed all the time – as part of some glob, some amorphous, non-individualistic collective. We’re like a Borg, and so because of that, they’re like, “Well, we don’t need to give the shine to that character. There’s all these other characters who are so cool!” I’d always hear people go, “I love Glenn, he’s my favorite character.” But the merchandise would go one way. That really might be the market, so I’m not going to sit here and be like, “Why didn’t they make Glenn merchandise?” But there was a disparity.
On what it means being a second generation Korean American:
Even I struggle with the fact that I’d been doing what America told me I am without even understanding I was doing it. I grew up in the suburbs of Michigan. Racism was not overt, it was super undercover, and while you’re there you don’t notice it. You think you’re fine, because 6 percent of your school is Asian, and that’s enough. ... Then you grow up, you go to a place that’s more diverse, you talk to other people, and you go, “Holy shit. I became exactly what everybody told me I was instead of being who I actually am.” That’s where I feel like a lot of Asian kids are.
On being an Asian American from a “weird” place:
Even now, talking about this new wave of Asian-Americans who are advocating for our fair shake is a beautiful thing, I think, but a lot of them are from the coasts! They’re getting, like, angry about new racism and it’s like, “Dude, I was formed by that racism.” I’m not saying their struggles are any less than mine, but mine is very different. You look at someone who comes from where we come from and they go, “Oh, you’re the dude who got whitewashed.” No dude, I had to survive, so I conformed, and now I’m finally fucking out of that matrix. I did it!
On turning down racist roles:
It was for a thing called Awesome 80s Prom, like Tony and Tina’s Wedding, where you physically go to a play but you’re in the play as a patron and they act around you and improvise. There was one Awesome 80s Prom in Chicago, and they go, “Bring an ‘80s monologue from a movie,” so I did Ferris Bueller’s opening monologue, and they’re like, “Can you do it in an accent?” I was like, “It’s Ferris Bueller, what do you mean do it in an accent?” And I realized they wanted me to do Long Duk Dong, so I left. I got reamed out by my brand new agent, but I was like, “Fuck that! I’m not doing that shit!”
You can (and should!) read the full interview here.