Steven Yeun turned down lead roles after The Walking Dead that felt too much like Glenn
"I hadn’t realized how much of that experience seeped into my reality and my identity. When I left, I had to take some time to figure out who I was," the actor said at TIFF.
The brutal, bloodied images of Glenn's final appearance on The Walking Dead still haunt fans of the beloved AMC zombie series, and the spirit of the character lingered on in actor Steven Yeun's heart, mind, and career long after he departed the show, too.
"When I was leaving The Walking Dead, I had just gotten married, I was about to have my first child, and we just bought a house, and we did it all within the context of one year. God bless my wife, Jo, but we went on quite a ride," the 37-year-old said Sunday during a virtual discussion in support of his latest film The Humans at the Toronto International Film Festival. "I spent seven years post-college doing this incredible journey and ride of The Walking Dead, I hadn't realized how much of that experience seeped into my reality and my identity. When I left, I had to take some time to figure out who I was, especially now that I needed to be a little bit more solid and concrete for an incoming life that I needed to support."
Part of that process involved appearing in a diverse slate of movie projects from respected directors — including Boots Riley's black comedy Sorry to Bother You and Bong Joon Ho's 2017 Netflix action-drama Okja, which Yeun said he was offered a part in via email six months after meeting with the Oscar-winning Parasite filmmaker during a promotional trip for The Walking Dead.
"These two opportunities presented themselves and I just jumped at it, because it felt like things that didn't want to put me in a box," Yeun remembered. "The things that came for me after Walking Dead were actually great projects that were asking me to be the lead, they were asking me to lead a television show, but for some reason, when I would read the synopsis, it still felt adjacent to Glenn, the character that I played, and I don't like staying in one place for too long."
After joining The Walking Dead for the hit series' first season in 2010, Yeun portrayed Glenn Rhee — a former pizza delivery boy who later becomes a vital member of the story's central band of survivors led by Andrew Lincoln's Rick Grimes — through the first episode of season 7, in which the character was brutally beaten to death by the villainous Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan).
"I've had so many wonderful experiences with everybody. I think what's cool is that I didn't watch this episode until about a week before. And going in, you're like 'Yeah, I know what happens. I've seen it. I lived it. I did. It's going to do what it's going to do.' But watching it you realize the way [Scott M. Gimple] constructed this episode, the way [Greg Nicotero] directed this episode, the way that every single person crushed it. Every single person crushed it," Yeun told EW of the episode back in 2016. "You look at the whole of that and you realize all of those memories just imbue every look part of that episode. You get that whole full rush of like seven seasons of watching this show and it was really gnarly to see that. And so for me, the lasting memory is that, this whole experience."
In addition to The Walking Dead, Okja and Sorry to Bother You, Yeun amassed an impressive filmography of features in recent years. He received global acclaim for his performance in Lee Chang Dong's 2018 Korean drama Burning, and later scored his first Oscar nomination at the lead of Lee Isaac Chung's Minari at the top of 2021.
In The Humans, which world-premiered Sunday at TIFF to positive reviews, Yeun plays the significant other to a struggling musician (Beanie Feldstein), whose overbearing parents visit the couple's New York City apartment for Thanksgiving dinner. The film is the first feature adaptation of director Stephen Karam's Tony Award-winning play of the same name.
See EW's picks for the best films at the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival on our TIFF Must List.
Subscribe to EW's BINGE podcast for full recaps of RuPaul's Drag Race, including our new season diving into all five All Stars seasons, featuring exclusive interviews with Jujubee, Alexis Mateo, Shea Couleé, Alaska, Detox, BenDeLaCreme, Kennedy Davenport, and more. And be sure to catch up on our BINGE recaps of RuPaul's Drag Race seasons 1-13 with Symone, Jaida Essence Hall, Trixie Mattel, Katya, Peppermint, Bianca Del Rio, Bob the Drag Queen, Sasha Velour, and more!