Vulture’s E. Alex Jung has conducted a comprehensive and enlightening Q&A with OKJA and THE WALKING DEAD star Steven Yeun where the two talk about everything from Glenn’s WALKING DEAD legacy, the controversy over Yeun’s OKJA co-star Tilda Swinton’s DR. STRANGE role, and being an Asian American actor in Hollywood circa 2017. Here are some highlights:
ON ‘OKJA’ DIRECTOR BONG JOON-HO WRITING HIS CHARACTER SPECIFICALLY WITH STEVEN IN MIND:
I’d met (Director Bong) two years prior to filming. We had coffee and he was super-relaxed and chill. Two years later, he just hit me up via email and was like, “I wrote a part for you.” First of all, to get an email from Director Bong, period, is awesome, and for him to say “I wrote something for you” is crazy! I was like, “Whatever it is, I’m in.” Then it came to a point where I almost couldn’t do it because Walking Dead was butting right up against the scheduling of the thing. But Director Bong was really great about advocating for me. I think they switched around weeks to accommodate me, which I am so thankful for. When they tell me, “You’re the only actor who could’ve played this,” I believe them. A Korean-American actor is very specific. I think if you got a native Korean who spoke English the comedy wouldn’t have worked. If you got a Korean-American who didn’t have a better understanding of Korean, it wouldn’t have worked. As an Asian-American person, K feels ostracized from the community on both sides and no one will really let him in, so he’s kind of at the mercy of what they decide.
ON THE IMPACT OF GLENN AND HIS DEATH ON ‘THE WALKING DEAD’:
I don’t feel like it was too much. 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. I loved being on that show. Internally, it was incredible. 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…
I didn’t think of it as racism, where it’s like, Oh, this is racist. 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.”
ON BEING AN ASIAN AMERICAN ACTOR IN HOLLYWOOD:
I think a lot of the narrative these days has been about how much it’s skewed against us because the system and the people are biased against us, and that’s very true. But I think one narrative that’s always missing is, “Where have we contributed to that?” Where are we as Asian-Americans right now and how have we contributed either to that perception or the solution? I think we’re at a great, healthy place right now where people are calling out BS when they see it. We also have to be realistic about ourselves and say, are we, as an entire sub-section of America, representing ourselves in the best way we thought we were? Sometimes you can rely on the problem, as if to say, “This is why I’m not getting something,” and not look at the part that’s like, “Are you ready to get that thing? Are you prepared to get that? Have you been working hard to get that?” Because yes, do some white actors or other actors just show up without any prior experience and get the part? Yeah, it happens. Does it happen for us? No, very rarely, if at all.
ON STEVEN’S ‘OKJA’ CO-STAR TILDA SWINTON PLAYING THE ANCIENT ONE IN ‘DR. STRANGE’ TO CRITICISMS OF WHITEWASHING:
I mean, my interactions with (Swinton) have been pretty awesome. She’s great. She’s a one-of-a-kind person, so on that end, you understand where she’s coming from in her one-of-a-kind-ness. But does she have privilege? Sure. That’s what that is. I didn’t jump into it with her. It never became a topic to discuss…
That’s the problem with this problem. It’s so nuanced, and it’s so specific, and it’s so subtle that you can’t talk about it in such broad strokes. Even what’s being publicized is just broad strokes anyway. That’s how this stuff works. You’ve got to get it in with the broader stroke first and then you can talk about specifics, but people are going to read what they’re going to read. I think in that situation, probably both parties wanted the best out of it, wanted the best intentions from it, but headlines took it for its ride and it became what it became.
To read the full interview, go to Vulture: Steven Yeun Finds Life After Glenn