Steven Yeun Says Glenn “Never Got His Fair Due” on The Walking Dead – Vanity Fair
Steven Yeun is doing just fine. In his post-Walking Dead life, the erstwhile Glenn Rhee has already lined up several projects—including, most prominently, Okja, in which the actor plays a radical animal-rights activist. As the film—and Yeun—have gathered acclaim, the actor sat down with Vulture’s E. Alex Jung for a deep, fascinating interview in which he offered his take on issues facing Asian actors in Hollywood—and Asian Americans more broadly. The conversation is particularly gripping when the two turn their attention to last year’s Walking Dead Season 7 premiere, in which Yeun’s character was brutally killed off. As far as Yeun is concerned, the backlash AMC faced over his character’s bloody demise made perfect sense.
“I don’t feel like it was too much,” Yeun said. “I’ll be honest with you and put a full disclaimer here: I might not be objective, but I truly feel like people didn’t know what to do with Glenn. They liked him, they had no problems with him, and people enjoyed him. But they didn’t acknowledge the connection people had with the character until he was gone. I look at what happened and I think, That wasn’t any more gory than what we’ve done before, per se. No one got their face ripped in half! People got their guts smashed out and their heads caved in. But this one felt gratuitous because one, it kept going, and two, I think they took away someone that I didn’t realize I had made such a connection with until they took him away.”
In the wake of the premiere, which resolved a frustrating cliffhanger from Season 6’s finale, many critics asked if the premiere’s gory reveal was worth the massive build-up that preceded Glenn’s murder. In the weeks to follow, as Walking Dead ratings dropped, the question only grew more stark. Yeun said he loved his time on the show, but added a caveat: “Internally, it was incredible,” he said. “Externally, it was tough sometimes because I never felt like he got his fair due. I never felt like he got it from an outward perception. I don’t say this as a knock on anything. He always had to be part of something else to legitimize himself. He was rarely alone. And when he was alone, it took several years to convince people to be on his own.”
That secondary status applies to media coverage as well: as Yeun observed, Entertainment Weekly ran its first cover story featuring Glenn on his own in response to his death. (Other actors, including Andrew Lincoln, __Norman Reedus,__ and Danai Gurira have enjoyed cover stories of their own in the past; their characters remain alive on the show.)
“I didn’t think of it as racism, where it’s like, Oh, this is racist,” Yeun added. “I caught it in a way of Oh, this is how we’re viewed all the time—as part of some glob, some amorphous, non-individualistic collective. We’re like a Borg, and so because of that, they’re like, ‘Well, we don’t need to give the shine to that character. There’s all these other characters who are so cool!’ I’d always hear people go, ‘I love Glenn, he’s my favorite character.’ But the merchandise would go one way. That really might be the market, so I’m not going to sit here and be like, ‘Why didn’t they make Glenn merchandise?’ But there was a disparity. They didn’t know what Glenn was, and only in his death did they realize, ‘Oh, that’s what he was. That’s the connection I had, and that’s why it hurts me so much to see him die.’ A lot of the other characters are awesome characters, but they’re exactly that—they’re awesome and they’re to be in awe of: I wish I was that guy or that girl. With Glenn it was, I think I’m like that guy. You take that guy out of the equation and you do it in such a brutal fashion, there’s got to be some gut reaction to that.”
As far as Yeun is concerned, there could have been a fate worse than death for Glenn: a more quiet write-off, in which Glenn slowly fell further and further into the background. “I think the cruelest thing is that if Glenn had continued on, knowing how things usually shake out, I could totally foresee a situation where he just slowly, quietly disappears into the background and is kind of remembered but not really,” the actor said. “But in this way, it was like holding up a battered skull to the world to be like, ‘Don’t forget, this Asian person existed in this medium and now he’s fucking dead.’ Like, he is fucking dead. That’s super cool! I’m cool with that.”