Glenn Rhee from “The Walking Dead” is known for his clever and resourceful zombie fighting talents. Turns out Steven Yeun, the actor behind one of the shows most popular characters, is just as clever, though maybe in a different way than you’d expect. Sure, fans love the romance between him and Maggie, not to mention the show’s great dramatic action, but you might be surprised to learn that Steven’s roots actually began in comedy. Just watch him being interviewed on a late-night talk show and you’ll see his hilarious charm shining through. I talked to him about his comedy background, and how he uses the improv training he got in Chicago every single day.
Serial Optimist: Hi! Tell me, are you surrounded by zombies right now, because that would be awesome!
Steven Yeun: Haha..no. Unfortunately, I’m surrounded only by my random splattering of clothes that I’ve left on my living room floor. I’m a slob.
SO: I don’t think your fans mind a little messiness. Anyway, I wanted to talk to you about your comedy background. You started out doing improv and sketch in Chicago, right?
SO: I’m sure you deserved it. What were you expecting or hoping to do with the comedy training? Are you surprised that you broke out in a dramatic action role?
Steven: Well, when I first moved out to LA, I was auditioning mostly if not only for comedy stuff. I think my first audition was a “Scrubs” audition. Then I went on to test for this ABC sitcom. I ended up not getting it, which bummed me out, but it ended up being the best thing that could have happened, because I booked “Walking Dead” a few months after that.
SO: It’s great how you never know why something fell through in the moment, but often there’s a good reason and then something better comes along.
Steven: Absolutely. I think that might be the actors toughest journey, seeing what’s meant for you and what’s meant for someone else, and being ok with that.
SO: Are you a pretty optimistic person in general?
Steven: Haha! Hell no. I will say I am resilient.
SO: That’s a pretty optimistic way of putting it.
Steven: Things don’t get me down for too long, but when I eat it, I eat it.
Steven: I would say I can sulk, but I pick myself up pretty quickly too. Either that or I have early stage Alzheimer’s.
SO: Oh geez, I hope not. I sometimes imagine what I would do if I booked something super huge. Like trust me, I’ve done my fair share of interviews with Barbara Walters in the mirror. What did you do immediately after finding out you booked “The Walking Dead?”
Steven: Haha! I called my parents and made my dad cry. It was crazy, because I was driving to another audition at the time, and I ended up pulling over and getting the call that I got it, called my parents, freaked out. Then turned the car around to go home, because I couldn’t go out for that audition anymore.
SO: Awesome! And awww… Steven’s dad. I don’t know if this is in general or more for you specifically, but they say improv helps in every aspect, every day life, etc… do you find that those skills get put to use on “Walking Dead?”
Steven: Absolutely. Improv to me is my foundation, my base for most of my work. Yes, learn your lines, be creative, know your character, but when you’re on the day, just let it go and play. It’s the most fun when you find things that you didn’t even imagine come through in a scene. We are all pretty comfortable with each other, so we throw each other curve balls and just feed off each other pretty great.
SO: Meaning more on the acting side or are you allowed to go off book a bit?
Steven: We don’t necessarily mess with the lines, but sometimes we fill stuff in like yells and screams. Especially those big scenes where everyone is doing something, you can really play and make up lines sometimes.
SO: Moments that spontaneously come up, because you’ve got that improv background.
Steven: But it’s more about moving and flowing with intentions, people can deliver a line a million different ways and I think improv helps in being able to flow with that, instead of just saying your line the same way over and over.
SO: How about between takes? Do you joke around, make the cast and crew laugh, that sort of thing?
Steven: I think everyone has a pretty good sense of humor. I don’t know if I’m the resident joker. I think everyone has their moments and the atmosphere of the set has taught me focus as well. It’s actually interesting because sometimes a comedy set is more intense and serious than a drama set, probably because comedy is a bit more meticulous and you’re also playing for laughs, so there is more pressure.
SO: Oh, that’s interesting. I never thought of that. You did an episode (a few?) of “The Big Bang Theory,” right?
Steven: Just one. For about two seconds.
SO: Was it like that there? More serious than say on #TheWalkingDead?
Steven: That one was scary for me because it was my first TV role and it was live and you really only get two shots. The live part was what made it fun, but I only really had two lines, so all I could think of was, “How do I not fuck this up?” And of course the first take, I switched the lines around. Idiot.
SO: Ha! I’m sure it happens all the time and was adorable. I’m sure that’s exactly what you want to hear too, that you were adorable.
Steven: Hahaha! I love that word….
SO: Really? Have you been told it a lot or something?
Steven: Haha, no.
SO: Oh, you were just being adorable. I get it. You said you aren’t the resident joker on set. First off, who is? And second, were you the resident joker as a kid? What or who made you interested in comedy in the first place?
Steven: I would say the torch is passed around to everyone. The crew and the cast are pretty tight, so we all kind of just mess around. To be honest, we all take it pretty seriously on set, because we have such a small amount of time to make what is basically a movie every week.
As a kid, I was more the story guy. I loved telling funny stories. I also liked being heard. As for comedy, I think that’s natural for most kids of my upbringing and type. Being an Asian kid with a bowl cut and suspenders, I think I needed to develop a comedy routine pretty quick so I didn’t get beat up…
Steven: Then also when I got to high school I realized that to be funny is to be intelligent and that gets reaffirmed over time. At least in my opinion. Intelligent not necessarily being book smart, but rather, self aware.
SO: So who are your comedy idols?
Steven: Oh man. I think for me to say the old school folks would be kind of a lie, because I wasn’t aware enough of them to be heavily influenced by them. If you asked me as a kid what I was watching, I was probably watching Ernest from those insane “Ernest fill in the blank movies,” but I remember John Candy, Rick Moranis. Those are the guys that help you develop your timing, because you’re just mimicking them and you understand how it works. Then you get to a place where you become a comedy nerd, especially when I got to Chicago and I ended up idolizing my peers. The Cook County (Social Club) guys, The Reckoning, TJ and Dave, all so hilarious. Doing stuff that pushes. I love that.
SO: Right. I used to reenact Gilda Radner sketches for my family. Then eventually you start realizing you can do you own stuff and try new things.
Steven: Yeah for sure. If you want to go broader, I love stand up and right now I’m really into Hannibal Buress and Anthony Jeselnik, Chappelle (Dave) and Rock (Chris) would kill me. The best part I think is when you go full on comedy nerd and you start back tracking.
Steven: You realize all the stuff you’ve missed out on, like Steve Martin.
SO: Ok, so back to zombies, which aren’t as funny… You killed me (no pun intended) on “Conan” the other night, talking about how you’d actually just let the zombies kill you. As you said, who knows, maybe being a zombie is awesome.
Steven: Haha! Thanks.
SO: Is there any kind of monster you’re scared of? Also, were you into zombies or The Walking Dead comic before you were cast?
Steven: I’m not really into zombies, I think for me The Walking Dead as a comic was more of a great story of survival and drama, which was why it was great in terms of monsters. I hate ghosts, like mega hate ghosts.
SO: Ha! Sorry, not to laugh at your fear and pain. Why?
Steven: Ha! No problem. I think with my Korean, Christian upbringing, I definitely lean more towards the camp of there being real ghosts and spirits, etc. When it comes to those movies that showcase demonic possession and ghosts, I can’t handle it.
SO: Ahh… yes, I get it. Are you typically a squeamish person? Because wow, you have bashed in some zombie heads, all pumpkin like!
Steven: Haha…at this point I think I’m pretty good with guts. I say that now, but one of my best friends, Salam, is an oral surgeon and he has the craziest stories of things he’s had to do. If I ever had to do that I imagine I would probably lose it.
SO: Sure, because also, that’s… dental work, you know? That automatically makes it worse. On both ends!
Steven: Yeah it’s crazy.
SO: Ok, last thing and then I’ll let you get back to cleaning your room… which I know you won’t do. Those Glenn and Maggie make out scenes. Were those your first on screen kiss or on stage kiss scenes and was it weird?
Steven: Actually no, I’ve done a few before that, some through sketch, which were hilarious, and I did a couple of projects where I had to do an onscreen kiss. I think the great thing about a professional set is that everyone is there to support you. They know what is about to happen and what you’re asked to do, so basically they WANT you to feel fine doing it. Because of that it makes those scenes much more comfortable. Also Lauren and I are pretty tight. We’ve definitely become close friends and I think we have that trust built in. Especially when in agreement about trying to service this love story as best as we can.
SO: …until you fart on purpose during a kiss to make the set laugh, you know as the resident joker.
Steven: I wish I could command my farts with that much timing and accuracy.
SO: And you call yourself an improviser.
SO: Well thank you again so much for chatting with me.
Steven: My pleasure!