The Walking Dead fans were crushed when their beloved Glenn got his skull brutally bashed in during the season 6 opener of the hit AMC series. While his character might be dead, Steven Yeun is very much alive—and quite busy. Ever since his on-screen swan song, the 33-year-old actor has quietly added a few more credits to his growing resume.
Earlier this year, Yeun played alongside Tilda Swinton, Jake Gyllenhaal, and Giancarlo Esposito in the acclaimed action-adventure film Okja, about a young girl and her beloved pet pig. In addition, he’s put in voiceover work on Voltron, Troll Hunters, and Robot Chicken. With several films on the horizon for 2018—including Sorry to Bother You, which co-stars Danny Glover, Tessa Thompson, Terry Crews, and Lakeith Stanfield—Yeun’s latest project, Mayhem (available on VOD/Digital HD and in theaters now), finds him stepping back into the role of a blood-stained hero.
Directed by Joe Lynch, Mayhem is a thriller that Yeun describes as a “crazy, office-action-nutty-comedy-thriller; everything in one.” The film focuses on a young lawyer named Derek Cho (Yeun), who is dissatisfied with his company’s manipulative business practices and his own complicity. But when a nasty virus outbreak causes the office to be quarantined, Derek, along with a vengeful client, Melanie (Samara Weaving), finds the opportunity to make things right—by any means necessary. “Some people beat the crap out of each other. But there’s a heart there,” explains Yeun, who shows off his slaying skills as well as his Second City comedy training in the film. We chatted with the South Korean-born star about tapping into his anger, badassery, and what it means playing the hero as an Asian man.
What was it about Mayhem that drew you to the project?
For me, it was an interesting exploration—originally, this movie was actually called Rage. I remember reading the script and thinking that it was really fun, and meeting Joe [Lynch], the director, and thinking that he was great. I just looked at it and said, "This seems like a really fun time, and way to look at anger." I don't know why, maybe it's the Korean blood in my veins [laughs], but it's fun to explore anger. That's kind of how I got into it.
Word of mouth for the film is pretty positive, including an over 90% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes; do you think the reason why it's resonating with people is because of that concept of tapping into anger or something else?
Maybe it's the Korean blood in my veins, but it's fun to explore anger.
I think it's a lot of things. I think it's a classic feeling; the everyman against the machine or the haves and have-nots, and it's much more stark and apparent these days. Another factor is, there's some heart put into this film... Joe was really great at making sure he took all the care to think about why [the characters] would do these things. Even if you can justify it as, like, this is a shoot-'em-up or beat-the-crap-out-of-each-other situation, there's gotta be some reason as to why. And I think some of the homework that we did in that regard helped.
In what way?
Part of that homework, to be quite honest, is the fact that you've probably never seen an Asian guy being able to tell a story in that capacity, in that type of way. I don't mean to make it a bigger thing than it is, but I think there's some truth and honesty to how audiences watch it. There's something real and affecting about it.
In American cinema and television, we often see Asian men portrayed as weaker or asexual. Your work on The Walking Dead and again here in Mayhem go against that idea. What does it mean to you to be playing these more heroic, badass characters?
We're at an interesting time these days. Not just because I think the world is ready to see a lot of different things, and things that weren't typically told to them before. But I think people are just getting generally more aware of the fact that every single person is a unique individual. So I'm happy that I, personally, am not boxed into a stereotypical understanding of the things that I can be. And for that, I am very grateful to be able to have played Glenn. To even play this movie and the [other] movies that I've been making; it's been really fun to explore that.
Do you feel any extra pressure to represent the diversity of Asian people on screen?
I'm happy that I, personally, am not boxed into a stereotypical understanding of the things that I can be.
I don't personally put too much weight in how it might be affecting things; not because I don't think about it, but because I think the biggest lesson that I've learned is if I just do what interests me. Personally, it will just do what it does [laughs]. I wanna explore every single part of who I am, and if that comes out as aggressive, if that comes out as sensitive, if that comes out as nuanced, comedic, whatever it is, I just wanna explore that. And I think the uniqueness just comes through the fact that my face doesn't look like what people are normally used to seeing. And for that I'm grateful.
As your career continues to evolve, do you have a specific strategy for what kind of roles you’ll tackle in the future?
I think what's been really fun for me, and how lucky and fortunate I've been in the last couple years, is that I got to do something as big as The Walking Dead and got to experience what that's like. I've gotten to do something like Mayhem, which is a little bit more on the fun side, where we're just stringing together whatever small budget we can to make a movie in Serbia and that was a really wonderful experience. Then I got to experience what it's like to make an art house movie... I don't know if I have any specific strategy. It's more just like, if it comes through and it seems like that's something that I wanna do or say or experience, then that's cool.