When Steven Yeun meets fellow actors in social situations, he feels obligated to downplay his story, because anyone who’s struggled for years to make it would probably have to suppress the urge to take a swing at him. After performing for several years in Chicago as part of The Second City, Yeun (pronounced “yunn”) moved to Los Angeles in 2009, where he promptly landed his first gig, a television adaptation of the popular comic-book series The Walking Dead. In three seasons, The Walking Dead has become one of television’s most popular shows, escaping the gated community of basic cable to beat some of network TV’s highest rated series. (Even The Talking Dead, Chris Hardwick’s post-episode talk show, beats Game Of Thrones.) It has become a phenomenon, if an occasionally troubled one, as it brings on its third showrunner in four seasons. Viewers haven’t seemed to care, though, as Yeun tells The A.V. Club, the producers would do well to keep Norman Reedus’ Daryl Dixon alive. We chatted with him briefly ahead of the (kind of insane) DVD release of season three.
The A.V. Club: From the outside, the show hit a new level of hugeness this year, with ratings records, a cast Q&A tour, and the typical madness at Comic-Con. Did it feel that way from the inside as well?
Steven Yeun: Absolutely. When the show is on, it’s kind of crazy to walk around and have people care who you are. It’s pretty wild. And then to do Comic-Con, that’s the craziest to see that many people wait in line to hear you say that you can’t say anything.
AVC: Is there something that people typically say to you?
SY: Well, they’ll say, “Oh, you’re my second favorite character!” That’s cool.
AVC: Because the first is always Norman Reedus?
SY: It’s always Norman Reedus. [Laughs.] It’s nuts for Norman.
AVC: Is there an advantage to being people’s second favorite?
SY: No, there’s no advantage. [Laughs.] It’s second place; I’ll take second place if it’s next to Norman Reedus.
AVC: Maybe you don’t get the same craziness? That might be something good?
SY: I don’t get implants sent to me, but maybe I want an implant sent to me.
AVC: Was there any particular instance where you realized the show had become so huge?
SY: Every year you become more and more shocked, more and more shocked. But I kept on seeing that “If Daryl dies, we riot“ [merchandise], and it’s crazy because if you look at that, people are saying, declaratively, that, “We will go nuts if a fictional character that someone created dies.” That is how ingrained and how much people love that character that was fabricated out of nothing. It’s nuts. It’s not like saying, “If water goes away, we will die!” It’s saying, “If something that doesn’t really exist goes away, we will die, or we will riot!” It’s crazy.
AVC: When the show first started, there was obviously a larger ensemble, but as it has progressed, Glenn has become more of an integral character and less of a supporting player. How aware of it have you been?
SY: I think the joy of this show is that it is an ensemble show, and I think what’s great about this particular season is that we’re really going to delve into the world and really delve into people that you might not have seen, and open up things that have already been established. There is taking on more, there is a part of that, but then there’s also taking a step back and letting other characters breathe as well, so I’m excited for people to see this season, especially. I think this is going to be the “taste-making” year.
AVC: Your most memorable scene in season three is your fight with the walker after you were strapped to the chair. Didn’t you accidentally hurt the guy who was playing the zombie?
SY: Yeah, I feel bad. It was Russell [Towery], our stunt coordinator, and I smacked him in the head a couple of times really bad. He just got beat up. [Michael] Rooker, when he was holding him with that little choke, that choke pole, it’s like a pincher arm, so he would accidentally pinch Russell’s throat skin, so I can only imagine that hurts really bad. That’s why I’m in the chair and he’s doing the stunts.
AVC: Where did season three fall in terms of the physical demands compared to the last couple?
SY: Well, I think for Glenn, every year there’s been a call for some crazy stunt. Last year or season two, I was hanging on a seatbelt on my crotch for 12 hours being hung down a well; that was pretty painful. Then in season one, I was covered in guts, and had to jump over fences, so I think every year there’s some shit where they say to Glenn/Steven, “Let’s just throw him into the fire.” So we’ll see what happens this season. I’ll probably have to jump on or jump off of something, so I don’t know. It’s going to be nuts.
AVC: How far into season four are you at this point?
SY: We’re about halfway.
AVC: So there’s been a lot of summer shooting again?
SY: Yeah, I mean it’s so hot, but that’s the charm and the grace of it all. It’s gnarly, and it’s just gross. We’re all dying slow deaths. That’s what’s going to happen.
AVC: The physical demands are one thing, but the show has had a change in showrunner a couple of times at this point. How much of a challenge has that presented to the cast?
SY: It’s never a good thing when that happens. It’s never fun for us to see anyone go anywhere—character deaths or actor deaths or even showrunners leaving. But what remains is the integrity of the show and how hard everyone works, so it’s hard to really break down the structural, bare-bones spine of what the show is. At this point, we’re in great hands with Scott Gimple. He’s such a fantastic writer, and he’s such a visionary in that regard, and he already knows where exactly he wants to go with this show. I love Frank [Darabont], and I love Glen [Mazzara], and it’s always a weird situation, but I always tried to make sure what we’ve created here, at this point, is still intact. So we’re definitely good. I think this year is going to be fantastic.
AVC: The Walking Dead was your first gig after you moved to L.A. from Chicago. How has it affected your expectations when you go to work on other projects?
SY: It’s actually really great, and I’m really fortunate that this is my first gig just because of the people I’m surrounded by. All the horror stories I’ve heard of Hollywood, I could have ended up on a show where I just learned bad habit after bad habit because everyone is acting up, or they’re using their phones right before they go do a take, or they’re not checked in to doing someone else’s coverage, or all those horror stories you hear. With our show, down from Andy [Lincoln], Jon [Bernthal], Sarah [Wayne Callies], Jeff [DeMunn], Scott [Wilson], Norman, every single person that is involved in this show, I’m always just looking at and learning a lot from. People bust their ass on this show—people stay past when they’re let go just so they can help someone do their take because they need someone acting with them. It’s crazy how much love I think everyone has for everyone and how dedicated they are to making this show as good and real as possible. When I go to other shows, I haven’t really witnessed any real horror stories. I hope to God I don’t. But what I have had instilled in me is this way of showing up and doing the best job I can, because if we’re doing it on our show, it’d be stupid not to do it on another show.