Steven Yeun: 'The Walking Dead' Changed Me Forever

'It disguises itself as an easy show to watch,' says the actor. 'Then you realize it's trying for something much deeper'

Steven Yeun as Glenn Rhee on The Walking Dead
Gene Page/AMC
Steven Yeun as Glenn Rhee on 'The Walking Dead'
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In anticipation of The Walking Dead's season premiere on Sunday, October 13th, Rolling Stone will publish an exclusive interview with a new cast or crew member every day this week. Yesterday, Andrew Lincoln told us he'll play Rick Grimes until the zombies bite his face off. Tomorrow, makeup maestro Greg Nicotero will share the secrets of his zombification process.

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What were you into growing up?
Everything. I played a lot of sports – hockey, football and basketball. What's so weird is I would always get into them and then I would lose interest really fast – with almost everything, actually. I read a lot of books early on and then I stopped reading books. I became that kid that would just get books to have and never read them. I couldn't focus on one thing.

Did you act in your school plays?
Never. Any performance I did was mostly involving music. I played at church, actually – I led praise and stuff like that on the guitar.

Were you a good student?
I was, because if you really think about high school, it's not that hard. But given that framework, I was a bad student in that I probably could have had a higher GPA. I don't want to say this, but it was still Asian level – you know what I mean. [Laughs] It was a good GPA overall, but it was not good for, you know, what we're used to. I shouldn't perpetuate that but. . .

You were the shame of the Asian community.
Yeah! [Laughs] Mostly I was that kid that wouldn't read the book but could just bomb out some sort of book report and get a decent grade.

What did your parents do?
They owned beauty supplies. The Korean immigrant tale is probably beauty supply, dry cleaner, jewelry store or engineer. My folks did the beauty supply route. I grew up middle class and very Christian. It was a really nice upbringing – very suburban. What's amazing was that the other half of that reality was being in Detroit and having those beauty supplies stores. My parents would go to work everyday downtown in really bad areas. They still have all their stores in really bad areas. But it's cool because you find such heart in those areas.

Were your parents first generation immigrants?
Yes but I'm probably considered 1st generation as well. I was born in Korea. I came over when I was five years old, so I heavily, if not fully, identify with being mostly American.

When you got The Walking Dead job, did you get a sense of what they show was trying to do?
I'll be honest: Talk to early season one Steven and he'd just excited to have a job. I didn't really question the scope of what the storytelling was like. I was just like, "How do I keep being employed?" That was my focus.

Why do you think people have responded to the show the way they have?
It disguises itself as an easy show to watch, like, "Oh it's zombies. It's action. It's crazy. Let's watch it." It's easy to jump into. Then you realize it's trying for something much deeper: It's a show about survivors and survival and how that works. Also, there's an apocalyptic feel to the world right now. Just as the world's getting flatter, as we're more connected, we see worse things happening. Everyone is obsessed with this 'When is the world going to end?' kind of mentality. It's nice to fantasize about.

How has the show's success affected you?
I came to a realization that my life, at a certain point, has changed forever. That's strange. I freaked out a little bit. I stopped going outside my house. I started hermitting a little. If you had any insecurities, it just magnifies them because now you have the world watching. But I'm coming to terms with it.

Some people complain that the show drags at times. What do you think?
There's a sweet spot. The tough part is the show, its core, doesn't allow for moments of breath. You can't have an episode where nothing happens – where you're just sitting, having a beer and talking. You can't do that, because the nature of the show is chaos. So there's a fine balance. I thought last year we balanced more on the side of action and people loved that, but we sacrificed a lot of character moments that could've been expounded upon. But the second seasonhad a lot of character moments and people wanted more action. So you can't please everyone.