Frank Ockenfels 3/AMC
March 28, 2015 at 07:00 PM EDT

It’s been quite a journey for Glenn Rhee over five seasons on The Walking Dead. The character has gone from scrappy pizza delivery guy to romantic figure to, most recently, a full-fledged leader. The character’s evolution also mirrors that of the man who plays him, Steven Yeun. As one of just five original cast members still on the show, the 31-year-old now serves as one of the elder statesmen on set. We spoke with Yeun to get his take on Glenn’s recent dramatic developments, as well as what’s to come in the March 29 finale.

EW: Tell me what it’s like for you working on this Alexandria set since it’s a real community with real houses and real people living in some of them while you film.

STEVEN YEUN: Alexandria is great because it’s definitely real. It’s real as in, us as actors don’t feel comfortable in a place like that because we are used to pulling up to a side of a street or a road and just filming in a random highway. But filming in that place was comfortable but also uncomfortable. It’s weird to have us not worry about sound as much, or it’s weird having a cup in our hands with liquid in it that we have to make sure we drink the right way or have filled up the right way. It was great to have because the characters are juxtaposed to that place and so were the actors. In any scene that’s typically surrounding just a normal version of Alexandria, Glenn is highly uncomfortable. The party scene a few weeks ago, he was just looking around like it was a weird Hollywood party he’s never been to, like “What is this? I need to get out of here.” And when Noah says he wants to get out, I’m like no, “You’re not getting out—you’re only getting out if I’m getting out. We’re all doing this together if we’re gonna suffer.” It’s a lot of fun to have that, that’s for sure.

When you have such a big cast there are going to be spells when you’re not as much in the forefront and I was a feeling for a while until these last two episodes like we’re weren’t getting enough Glenn. What’s it like when you go through those lighter periods?

Scott does a great job of letting us know. He’ll say, “You’re a little light in the front half but you’ll be heavier in the back half” or “You’ll have these things to work with.” Obviously, we would all love as much screen time as we could get—not just because we’re actors and we all want screen time. But more along the lines of, we all want to be able to tell the stories of each character as a show. We want to tell every single person’s character if we could, but there’s just limited time. I think, because of that, it brings an extra challenge, but it keeps you on your toes to make sure that you track your character well because it’s not going to be necessarily done on screen over time.

I think what’s really fun is that you make choices of where your character is at, even if he’s sitting in the back. What is he doing? How is what’s happening evolving him? And then you get to a place where they do kind of show what the character is up to and you can bring all that backstory with you. If you are sidelined for a bit, in my philosophy you make it interesting for yourself as well. Throw some things in there, ask Scott if these are cool, and go for it. The most fun I have, to be quite honest, is watching takes and watching people that aren’t talking. They’ll determine whether the place is tense or not, or if we’re supposed to be relaxed or having fun as the characters. It’s always fun to catch that as well.

We’ve talked about how Glenn has become more of a leader as the series has progressed. But this is really the first time I feel we’ve seen Glenn not as more of a leader but as the leader and the one guy to tell everyone else how to get things done.

Yeah, it was good to catch a glimpse of what he probably has been doing for a while. Not in any of the context we’ve seen, but you look at the hierarchy and I don’t know if it’s necessarily like, they all determine this is a general, this is a lieutenant, this is a colonel—I think it’s more just everyone lends their own expertise in a way and everyone’s opinion is valid. I think for Glenn, at this point, they trust his opinion because he has been around and been with them for so long. It was nice to show his workspace and I’m happy that Glenn gets to push himself—that he gets to show his mettle and what he’s made of.

How difficult was it to get to a place where you need to be and the headspace you need to be in to watch a guy get his face ripped off two feet in front of you and while you can see him clear as day, and yet there’s nothing you can do to save him?

That was a long day. That was in that thing the entire time. What was cool was the great lead up to it. You had everybody commit so hard. We did single takes where we went him entering the revolving door to him getting pulled out. So we ran the entire scene. You know, you get people to kind of keep an eye out for you to tell you if things are going well. And Jennifer Lynch, our director, she’s so fantastic and so supportive, she gave such great notes to align us that way. You look at David Galbraith, who is one of our focus pullers, and if he says something, he’s like, “Hey good job boys,” then we’re like “Yes, we did it.”

That scene, we ran like three or four times in a row and I remember all of us just putting it all on the floor. Michael, who plays Nicholas, was fantastic, Tyler was fantastic. It was fun to live those moments out, to not be put into a position where you’re just kind of piecemealing things and shooting things out of sequence, but getting to do an entire thing like a play all in one fell swoop—it helps you get into it. I think following that when you get to that gnarly scene where he does get ripped apart ˆthe connection that had been made from before kind of just lingered around that space and that day. It was a long day, but it was well worth it.

Where did that scene stack up in terms of the most difficult ones you’ve had to do emotionally?

It’s up there. I would say this is up there. I felt like a lot of the other situations were very cathartic to kind of lead into that place that there was a loss and it was a reminiscing or a remembrance of somebody, which you can kind of maybe focus in on—whereas this one, there were so many things to process. The shock and horror of physically seeing someone being torn apart, the sadness of losing an actual friend, the anger that comes over him as he realizes why, and who, and how this happened. And then coming to also a piece of realizing that this is the world and that is the world they inhabit and these are things that can happen. There’s a lot of things to process.

What’s it like for you to start off on this show as someone with hardly any credits under his belt to now really, one of the leaders not just of the group on screen, but on set as well in terms of one of the few original cast members and someone who sets the tone for everyone else.

I’ve learned from really great people. I’m learned a lot from a lot of people who have graced our show and have come through as directors or camera operators or actors or writers—everybody that’s come through has left a pretty good, positive influence on me. This show, you realize, it’s not easy punching your ticket and then clocking out at the same time. You kind of have to show up and realize that we’re going to shoot a massive set piece movie in eight days and we might not get as many takes as we need or we might not have the liberty of having a comfortable place to work in.

Once people get here and they realize how much fun we’re having and how much we want to make it good, I think people get on board pretty quickly. It’s not that I have to set some sort of tone for people to understand per se. I guess it’s just do it and hopefully they get it and every single time they do. I mean, everybody that I’ve talked to so far that comes to the show and then ends up having to leave is always pretty bummed to leave. They love their time here on the show. I can’t even imagine what it’s like to be on the other side of that.

I’ve been on your set a lot and I see what you’re talking about.

It’s its own beast. We have a great president, that’s for sure.

Yeah, that final scene in 515 with Andy rolling around on the street, just watching him in rehearsal blew my mind.

What’s great is that everybody has their own techniques—everybody can get into a moment in their own way and they use their own way. For me, I kind of take bits and pieces from other people, wherever they work. But you understand, when you watch Andy perform, just how much commitment is needed on our show that you literally need to be committed every single moment that you’re on screen because they’re always something going on. There’s rarely nothing going on. And if there’s always something going on, there’s always something to react to or to listen to or to be aware of, and I think Andy sets a great example in that way. The guy is checked in minutes before they start rolling or say action. You see when he’s dialed in and it’s time to either, as a fellow actor, 1) Leave him alone or 2) Just watch him and be in awe of how much commitment he has. He goes for it. When you see someone do something like that, how can you bring anything short of the same? Or try to? So that’s a great influence.

What can you tease as far as what’s coming up in the finale for Glenn?

I think we’re going to see a ripple effect—see how this affects everybody. In terms of Glenn, if we track back, you realize that he’s kind of having a crisis of conscience at this point. He’s wavering up and down between whether he wants to accept the world as it is and say that in order to function and live in this world you need to be on the far end of the spectrum and say, “I’m going to do whatever it takes to survive, regardless of whether it is killing somebody or sacrificing somebody.” Or you’re going to have a heart and try to lead people to a place where society and humanity still exist. And I think Glenn is wrestling with that. Even in episode 514, you see him wrestle with leaving Nicholas there. He doesn’t necessarily want to take him with him—he’s so angry—he realizes that’s part of who he is: He doesn’t leave people behind or tries not to at all costs. That’s the thing he’s warring with. We’re going to see more of how that part of him is tested and where he lies on that spectrum and where he chooses to lie.

For more ‘Walking Dead’ scoop, follow Dalton on Twitter @DaltonRoss.

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