LOS ANGELES — On a sidewalk across Wilshire Boulevard from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Steven Yeun, one of the stars of “The Walking Dead,” was handing out refreshments to passersby just before lunchtime. The gourmet street food came courtesy of the Bun Truck, which Yeun’s younger brother Brian co-owns and operates, serving Korean-Mediterranean fusion cuisine to hungry Angelenos.
The actor stood by, helping visitors puzzle over the menu, strongly recommending the spicy pig “sammich” with a side of the duck fat fries. When it comes to potatoes, glistening and golden, studded with garlic and rosemary, he noted, it’s hard to go wrong.
Yeun’s amiable nature is familiar to fans of AMC’s hit zombie series. As Glenn Rhee, he functions as a likable everyman, the closest thing to a romantic hero in an unrelentingly brutal apocalyptic world.
“Steven is the heart of the show,” said Glen Mazzara, the “Walking Dead” executive producer who’s set to leave the series at the end of this season. “Everybody loves that character; everybody’s rooting for that character. He may be tortured and sensitive, but he’s always a hero.”
With “The Walking Dead” back for the latter half of its third season, heroes are in short supply. The show’s core ensemble of survivors led by Andrew Lincoln’s Rick Grimes has run afoul of the lethal, manipulative Governor (English actor David Morrissey), the self-appointed guardian of a walled Southern enclave called Woodbury.
It’s there that Yeun’s character was beaten and his girlfriend Maggie (Lauren Cohan) sexually assaulted after being abducted while scavenging for supplies. Having escaped with their lives, Glenn is primed to exact revenge on the Governor for his crimes.
“It’s a heavy season for everyone,” Yeun said. “But for Glenn, I love that they’re continuing to grow a character. They’re continuing to have him complete his arc, to keep that trajectory. He starts being self-aware and realizing that it’s not just about living for yourself, it’s also about living for the people you love, and when you love somebody, that really opens you up.”
With a story line designed to explore the ways in which human cruelty can be scarier than the actions of hungry hordes of zombies, Glenn’s presence keeps the narrative from teetering into despair. He’s a relatable good guy who doesn’t carry the same maddening burden of grief as most of the other characters.
The darkness of the series has only served to inspire a passionate and growing fan base. Sunday’s return, opposite the Grammy Awards, drew 12.3 million viewers and set a basic-cable record in the key demographic of adults ages 18 to 49. That beat the series’ previous record of 10.9 million for its third season debut last October, according to Nielsen.
It’s made for quite the calling card for the 29-year-old Yeun, the son of South Korean immigrants. His father gave up a career in architecture to move his family from Seoul to Troy, Mich., in search of opportunity for his boys. Growing up, Yeun played guitar and sang in church and was heading toward a career in medicine when he became involved with an improv group during his freshman year at Kalamazoo College.
“I was like, ‘Look how cool everyone looks up there, how much fun they’re having,’” Yeun recalled. “Something in my body changed in that moment to be like, ‘I think I want to do this.’”
He hatched a plan to move to Chicago to pursue acting after graduation, though he made a point to seek his parents’ blessing.
“I felt like I’ve needed to ask my parents up until about four years ago about everything,” Yeun said. “They have helped me tremendously, I came out of college with no debt. Everything they made, they just poured into my education. The least I could do was ask their permission.”
Chicago turned out to be an important launching pad, with Yeun finding success at legendary improv comedy hot spot Second City. In October 2009, he moved to Los Angeles to try to make it as an actor.
Five months later, he landed the role of Glenn, a sweet-natured former pizza delivery driver who is faced with difficult choices and strained loyalties in an unforgiving world — and that’s before he falls in love with a resourceful Southern belle.
An actor with an improv comedy background might not have been an obvious choice for the role, but “Walking Dead” executive producer Robert Kirkman, who created the popular comic book on which the show is based, said the lightness of Yeun’s spirit does inform the character of the show.
“His character is essential in keeping (the series) from being the unrelenting depressing thing that it definitely has the potential to be,” he said. “Anything upbeat or uplifting usually comes from that character. I also think that Glenn’s relationship with Maggie is one of the clearest senses of hope that you get from the story.”
Glenn’s romance with Maggie has made him a heartthrob among a certain set — at Comic-Con International in San Diego in July last year, more than one middle-school-age girl nervously professed her affection for Yeun during the panel devoted to the series.
“It’s flattering and it’s cool,” Yeun said. “It’s also cool to represent that as an Asian male too. I embrace that.”
Although the series shoots just outside of Atlanta, Yeun considers Los Angeles his adopted home, and when he’s not working, he still does improv, writes and spends time with Agnes, his goldendoodle.
Yeun’s continuing to make his peace with fame — being recognized by fans makes him somewhat uncomfortable — but he’s optimistic that “The Walking Dead” will serve as a stepping stone.
“I’m very lucky to be on the show,” Yeun said. “We have a chance and an opportunity — especially with the numbers we’ve been drawing lately — to leave a lasting impression on the permanent zeitgeist of the world. Years from now they’ll be like, did you watch that show? If you can be a lasting part of that legacy, that’s awesome.”
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