The Walking Dead: Steven Yeun reflects on the 'Is Glenn dead?' controversy
'We went for it,' says the actor in his first extended comments. 'And even in the face of victory or failure, when you go for something, that’s all you can really hang your hat on'
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The Walking Dead proved it could still ignite passionate debate in its sixth season when it uncorked one of the biggest mysteries of 2015: the fate of Glenn Rhee. The AMC drama gave us an ambiguous shot of Steven Yeun’s Glenn on the ground surrounded by zombies feasting on guts — and then made viewers wait a month for the resolution as to whether one of the few remaining characters tracing back all the way to season 1 was, in fact, dead or alive.
Spoiler alert! He was alive (those were Nicholas’ guts). But that revelation came only after the show took dramatic measures — including removing Yeun’s name from the opening credits — to keep Glenn’s fate a mystery. Walking Dead creator Robert Kirkman defended that credits-removal, telling EW that “if your enjoyment of the story is dependent on what you read in the credits, well, then you’re kind of paying too much attention to all the outside stuff.” In fact, Kirkman reveals that at one point “we even discussed the possibility of having Steven come on Talking Dead, act like he had left the show, and actually do, in a sense, a performance on Talking Dead to solidify that story even more.”
What led to all these drastic measures is the fact that Walking Dead viewers have simply become too savvy, knowing that unless you see a character take their last breath that they’re not really deceased. This forced the producers to attempt such moves in the hopes of maintaining an air of mystery that has become increasingly difficult to achieve. “That is precisely and completely it,” confirms showrunner Scott M. Gimple. “This is a smart audience that has been through almost six years of this show now, and it’s very difficult. The audience are seasoned survivors now.”
And how does the man at the center of the controversy feel about all of this? We chatted with Steven Yeun to get his first extended comments on the quasi-fake death and everything surrounding it. (WARNING: comic book spoilers ahead.)
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: So obviously the big buzz over the first half of season 6 was the whole “Is Glenn dead?” thing. Some loved the ride, while others felt strung along. Looking back on it now, what do you make of the ambiguity and the whole plan of letting that cliffhanger play out for so long?
STEVEN YEUN: Well, for me, I always believe in [showunner Scott M. Gimple], and I think Scott has a great vision for the show, is actually the right person for this job, and is maybe one of the more genius minds that I do know. And the thing that he iterated to me when he first pitched the idea, I’d never really balked on it. I was like, “Cool. Let’s make sure that we do this right.” I was all gung-ho and in for it, and whatever anybody wants to say about the execution — people might be bummed about it or be fine with it, and I have my own personal opinions about it — but the core of it all is really that we went for something, that we tried something, in a time when we’re getting drudged-down, safe versions of everything.
We tried for something that could have been dangerous, and to some, it was. And to some, they didn’t like it, and things became polarizing to an extent for that move. But I never felt like our heart was at a place where we were trying to deceive the audience. Never were we like, “People are going to go crazy for this!” It was more just like, let’s tell this story and make it compelling and make it purposeful. Scott always brought up the point that he was trying to make the audience feel the same way as how people back in Alexandria must have felt not knowing where Glenn was. And whether the audience believes that we executed that well or not, we went for it, and even in the face of victory or failure, when you go for something, that’s all you can really hang your hat on.
For me, when I look back on something like that, I always have faith in Scott, and I have more respect for him because he has the balls to go somewhere. You look at the state of where we’re sitting right now, in terms of film and TV, and sometimes you are kind of taught, “Hey, don’t push it too much, because people won’t watch it then, or people won’t buy it then.” That’s not what we’re here to do as storytellers and TV-makers and filmmakers and stuff like that. We’re here to affect you, and if you saw to the degree that people were affected — I think even if it was negative — it did something. And I can’t really ask for much more than that, you know?
The fact that you still are getting this level of reaction in season 6 tells you something about your fan base and how invested they remain in this story and these characters. That’s certainly not the case with a lot of other programs.
Yeah, the fan base is very loyal, and they’re invested. It’s easy to look at something and say, “I didn’t like how that was executed,” or, “That didn’t do what it was intended to do for me.” And everybody’s entitled to that thought and opinion, but that’s not to say that it didn’t affect other people, or it’s not to say that the intent of it wasn’t sound. So, for me, I walk away knowing that we built a character good enough to the point where that it did make an impact when that happened, and when he came back, that people were glad that he was back too. So, I don’t know. It’s one of those take-it-or-leave-it kind of things, but we’re going to do what we do and we’re going to do it honestly.
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I had no problem whatsoever with the way it played out in the sense that the way the first half of season 6 was structured you were only checking in on many of the characters every few weeks, so that wait was in step with waiting for updates on other people and stories as well. So the wait didn’t bother me. I will say, however, that I personally didn’t like it when they took your name out of the opening credits because that felt like a move to purposefully mislead the audience. I understand how tricky it is to keep mysteries alive on this show because spoilers are out there everywhere, but I’m not sure feeding false clues is the way to go. What were your thoughts on that?
Right, right. You know, I think it was one of those things where I guess conflicting ideas maybe brought upon a middle ground, and when you’re talking about something that is as extreme as that, sometimes the middle ground isn’t the best place to operate from. And so some things that Scott was intending happened, and other things that Scott was intending didn’t happen, because other people didn’t want that to happen. So, you kind of get into a situation where, you know, I wonder what would’ve happened if we just went full-tilt on bringing me out there, doing the Talking Dead thing, and going for a full-on — I guess you could call it — deception. But in this day and age, when you have the Internet, and you have that show that follows our show, we’re having to deal with things that traditionally you don’t have to deal with in a storytelling structure.
You don’t have a giant information base for people to ruminate about what’s going on in real time, nor do you typically have a show that in some weird way can predict or doesn’t predict or has some patterns that you’re used to on how things are supposed to operate when someone dies. And so, with those elements in mind, people were thinking of best strategies to effectively tell the story.
That’s what the discussions were always about. It was, “How do we effectively tell this story, that it has the maximum weight of what we’re intending?” It was never “Let’s make them think that he’s gone for a second, just to screw with the audience.” It was always “What is the best method by which we can achieve this story to be at its purest way of digesting it for the audience?” because they have so many other resources to, in a weird way, taint it. So I understand where you’re coming from, but I think the intentions were always to just create the maximum digestion of the story, if that makes sense.
NEXT: Yeun on why he went silent when Glenn’s future was in doubt[pagebreak]
My whole thing was that Glenn couldn’t be dead because he’s such a huge character, and, to me, that felt a little more like Nicholas’ moment in that it was the culminating point of his arc. Had Glenn gone out that way, I think it would’ve upset fans because it wasn’t truly his moment. Would you have been okay if Glenn had gone out that way?
There’s two parts of me on that. I think there’s a part of me that says, “Man, I would have loved to have gotten a farewell where they have an episode for Glenn, and you get to recap in a weird way who he is, and then all of a sudden he’s taken away.” But there’s also something super-awesome about just getting ripped away from people, you know? And I don’t know if it’s right for that medium. Television is a different medium than the comic books are. And that’s why we operate differently than we do the comic books. But I remember when Glenn was taken away in the comic books, it was as if it was a regular issue, and you were just taken on a ride, and all of a sudden, he was there, and the next frame he was gone.
And there was no final heroic move. If anything, it was just incredibly sad, because it was so preventable, but it wasn’t. And so I don’t know. There’s a beauty to both sides, I could argue. And I think to some people who like that sort of thing, if Glenn had died by the dumpster, maybe they would have walked away being like, “That was the coolest death of all,” because it was so brutal. At this point, we’re dealing with so many different tastes that it’s just opinions, I guess.
To your point, one of the deaths I loved the most, because it was so brutally sudden, was Axel back in the prison. That’s sort of what you’re talking about. He’s just there talking, and then boom, he’s gone, just like that. Although that death also pissed me off because I loved that character and thought there was a lot more to see with him.
Yeah, and it sucks for the actor, Lew Temple. He’s brilliant. There was so much that he could’ve done and said in the show, and to be taken like that, that’s a bummer. But at the same time, that’s what it is, you know? That’s what it is. People don’t get to say final things in real life. You just get ripped out of existence. It’s horrifying. So, it’s kind of up to people’s tastes on how they want to consume this.
I noticed that while we were waiting to learn Glenn’s fate, you went off the grid. It was radio silence from you, with no tweeting or anything, and I was curious whether that was a solo decision you made or in conjunction with the producers so that you didn’t have to answer questions or say anything either way.
For me, I’ve always been on board with Scott’s idea of storytelling in general, and I realized that we live in a different era from M*A*S*H, or even ER when it first started. We live in a place where you can deduce what’s happening on a show based on whether the actor is present in a city or somewhere. And so, for me, again, it wasn’t coming from a place of, I’m going to deceive the audience. It was coming from a place of, I don’t want to spoil anything for anybody on how you’re going to consume or take in this storyline.
So the best way to do that is to literally say nothing, and just get off the accessible grid. So, for me, it was purposeful in that I stayed away, but it was from the standpoint of, I don’t want anybody to spoil anything for themselves, essentially. I hate spoilers. I don’t care about spoilers for me, personally. If someone spoiled something for me, I’m like, “Yeah, whatever. I don’t care.” But I just hate robbing that experience from people who do care. So, for me, it was like, I don’t want to put anything out there. Best form of doing that is to just not say anything.