Steven Yeun is currently making the press rounds for Lee Chang-dong’s “Burning,” in which he gives a searing supporting performance that demands Oscar attention, and he recently joined Entertainment Weekly for a candid conversation about his history as a Korean-American actor. Yeun got his breakout role in the states playing Glenn on AMC’s blockbuster series “The Walking Dead,” and the actor revealed the show originally intended to dress the character based on Asian stereotypes.
“I look at things like Glenn, and I’m still grateful that I actually got a chance to make him human, because if we’re gonna be honest…In the beginning, the first couple episodes, Glenn was human, but he was also very expected,” Yeun said. “There’s a reason why the first costume designer had me wear Short Round clothes, you know? That’s not maybe on purpose because she was like, ‘I want you to be Short Round.’ But she was relying on the systems that she knew, and the images and ideas that she knew of what Asian people are to her.”
When Yeun mentions Short Round, he is referring to the fictional character played by Jonathan Ke Quan in “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.” As Yeun said, “[The costume designer] was like, ‘Here’s a thing that I picked out, and it looks just like Short Round. Here’s a Japanese flag that we want you to wear.’ And in my head, I’m like, ‘Why would I choose that?’ I could choose that, but why would I choose that? And it’s just that type of pervasive starting point.”
Yeun played Glenn for six seasons, with the character’s death being confirmed in the seventh season premiere, “The Day Will Come When You Won’t Be.” The actor recently told IndieWire’s Eric Kohn the series gave him an “existential crisis” about his career and that he wouldn’t be interested in reprising the character for an origin story. Yeun also spoke about how he approaches every character by asking why the choice was made to cast an Asian-American actor.
“It’s become its own nuanced trap, sometimes, when it’s an ethnically ambiguous role,” he said. “But they’re also thinking about people who fit that role, even if you’re not putting it on the page that it’s an Asian person, there’s a reason why someone might conclude that this person should be an Asian person. Maybe it’s because they fit the parameters of what this person is, based on what preconceived notions that they have of Asian people.”
In addition to “Burning,” Yeun also starred in Boots Riley’s Sundance hit “Sorry to Bother You,” which opened over the summer from Annapurna. “Burning” opens in select theaters October 26. Head over to Entertainment Weekly to read Yeun’s interview in its entirety.