AMC's The Walking Dead holds the record for the most-watched cable television drama. If you've never seen it, it's about the zombie apocalypse and follows a group survivors trying to stay alive in Atlanta, Ga. If you're a fan — and there are millions upon millions of us out there — you know that no character is safe, and you've got a favorite character that you don't want to die.
Mine is Glenn Rhee. He's the Korean pizza-delivery-guy-turned-zombie-killing ladies' man who's managed to stay alive since the beginning.
The show is back this Sunday after a brief hiatus to wrap up its fifth season and I'm very anxious. If my TV boo gets eaten or meets some other terrible fate, I'm honestly not sure I can keep watching. And most of us agree that if you're going to off a character, that character should be Carl. (Can I get a cosign?)
In the interest of full disclosure: I did a couple of Google searches to find out more about the actor who plays Glenn (just out of curiosity, not stalker-ish). I found out that Steven Yeun happens to have a great personal story of his own.
But before we rewind all the way back to Yeun's early life, we should talk about how the character he's playing is bucking stereotypes and preconceived notions about Asian-American men. Glenn Rhee has evolved over the past four and a half seasons on Dead: the formerly smart-mouthed supply runner has become a zombie-slaying leading man. It's a big departure from the Asian-American guy who rarely gets the girl because he's the tech-geek sidekick — if he's on TV at all.
That's decidedly not Glenn. He not only gets the girl — that romantic interest is, "a hot white chick on the most watched cable drama in the history of TV," according to Harrison Pak, Yeun's friend and fellow Stir-Friday Night! alumnus.
That's not gone unnoticed: Randall Park and Eddie Huang, from the new ABC comedy, Fresh Off The Boat, laughed in an interview on the Joe Rogan Experience saying Jet Li never even got to shake Aaliyah's hand in the 2000 film Romeo Must Die and that it took the end of the world for the Asian dude to finally get some. "Maybe it takes the zombie apocalypse to transcend racial politics," Pak jokes.
Yeun says that if he was just sitting on his couch watching TV, he'd be thrilled to see a character like Glenn and he loves playing him because there are so many layers to the role. "I get to be the funny guy with the one-liners, I get to be the romantic male in the group, and I've been able to be a bad-ass on occasion," Yeun says. "Actors only dream of an opportunity like this."
His dream became real not long after he left Chicago's improv scene, where he performed with Stir-Friday Night! and The Second City troupe. When Yeun moved to Los Angeles, he figured he might land something on a comedy because that's where his roots lie. The Walking Dead was only his second audition after relocating, and a handful of years later, he's not only one of the longest-surviving (and popular) characters on a hit drama, but a sex symbol to teenagers as well as grown women who swoon over him on social media.
The way Yeun tells it, none of this would have happened without his parents' sacrifices. When he was around 5, they left Seoul, South Korea, (where his father was a successful architect) to come to North America. They settled in Regina, Saskatchewan.
"My cousins told me the first job we all collectively did was putting chopsticks in those paper sleeves," Yeun says. His parents moved from chopstick sorting to denim jean stocking at his uncle's store in Michigan. They eventually saved enough to open a couple of beauty supply stores in Detroit, where they still work on their feet for 10 to 12 hours a day.
Yeun says that not too long ago he asked his dad if he ever wanted to give up and go back to Korea. "My dad told me the first year he was in Michigan, he was stocking jeans at my uncle's store and he assessed what was going on and got super pissed off," he said. "He kicked a box that he thought was filled with jeans, but it was filled with concrete cinder blocks and he almost broke his foot."
Yeun comes from a very religious family; his father took the cinder block injury as a sign from God. Stick with the plan. Keep working.
But Yeun says that for years, his father questioned whether coming to the U.S. was the right move for the family. And Yeun's decision to become an actor didn't ease his father's anxieties.
"I didn't do the prestigious things they expected of me," he says. "I didn't go to med school, I didn't go to law school, I instead asked them if I could be an actor. That was, to them, like, 'Oh man, should we have come to America?"
Yeun says his father would answer that question very differently today. "Without a doubt he's very happy that he came here," Yeun says. And between work and church, his parents always manage to watch him on The Walking Dead. "They don't understand it completely, so they get some bootlegged version with subtitles," he says.
Yeun hopes between acting and the restaurant ventures he has cooking up with his brother, he can entice his parents to retire from the beauty supply business and relax. "But they'll never retire," he says. "Korean parents never retire."
Let's hope the same is true for Glenn, Yeun's Dead character. I, for one, am hoping that when The Walking Dead's fifth season resumes, Glenn Rhee will keep slaying zombies, lovin' on Maggie, and never, ever "retire." Ever.
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Oh, yeah, music to the ears for millions of "Walking Dead" fans. AMC's "The Walking Dead" holds the record for most-watched cable drama, and it's back this Sunday after a short hiatus.
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
For those of you who have yet to be bitten, here's a quick synopsis. It's about the zombie apocalypse and a group of survivors trying to stay alive in Atlanta, Ga.
GREENE: So pleasant. Well, ahead of the show's return, Shereen Marisol Meraji, from our Code Switch team, profiles an actor who's been slaying zombies for five seasons.
STEVEN YEUN: My name is Steven Yeun. I'm an actor, and currently I play Glenn on "The Walking Dead."
SHEREEN MARISOL MERAJI, BYLINE: Glenn's the Korean pizza delivery guy turned zombie-killing ladies' man. And Yeun made up this back story to help him get in character.
YEUN: Obviously, Glenn's from Michigan, which is awesome.
MERAJI: Yeun couldn't shake his own Michigan accent, so that's why Glenn's from there, too, and they're both from traditional Korean immigrant families. The character Glenn ended up in Atlanta for college. His parents wanted him to be a doctor or lawyer, but he rebelled by playing video games and delivering pizzas, failing to reconnect with his family before the zombie apocalypse.
YEUN: I think he still harbors some guilt about that. But this is all my thoughts. None of this has been cleared by AMC (laughter).
MERAJI: Not long after you meet Glenn on "The Walking Dead, you do find out he's Korean-American. One of the characters, Daryl, impressed by his bravery, says...
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE WALKING DEAD")
NORMAN REEDUS: (As Daryl Dixon) You've got some [bleep] for a Chinaman.
YEUN: (As Glenn Rhee) I'm Korean.
REEDUS: (As Daryl Dixon) Whatever.
MERAJI: And then in later episodes, it's no longer Glenn correcting his fellow zombie apocalypse survivors.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE WALKING DEAD")
MICHAEL ROOKER: (As Merle Dixon) Damn near killed the Chinese kid.
REEDUS: (As Daryl Dixon) He's Korean.
ROOKER: (As Merle Dixon) Whatever.
YEUN: He's Asian. You have not seen this before, America. So let's address it and then let it go.
MERAJI: Yeun loves that Glenn is able to own his heritage without it defining him as a character. Besides couple of references to his Koreanness, he's just like everybody else on the show, doing his best not to get devoured by the undead. And his Asian-American fans are eating it up.
HARRISON PAK: It's just great to see someone who's of Asian-American descent playing an Asian-American character. And he's - you know, to be frank, he's...
MERAJI: I'm going to stop Harrison Pak right there because some of his frankness won't fly on family-friendly radio. Pak was in a sketch comedy group with Yeun called Stir-Friday Night! in Chicago before he got his big break on "The Walking Dead." And what Pak is trying to say is that it's great to finally see the Asian guy get the girl. Her name's Maggie by the way.
PAK: A hot white chick on the most-watched cable drama in the history of TV. So - and the funny thing is, like, no one's saying anything about it, you know? Like, maybe it takes the zombie apocalypse to transcend racial politics.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE WALKING DEAD")
YEUN: (As Glenn Rhee) Maggie, I love you. I should've said it a long time ago and it's been true for a long time.
MERAJI: Steven Yeun is now something of a sex symbol, with teenagers to grown women of every race and ethnicity swooning on social media. But the way he tells it, he wouldn't be anything without his parents' sacrifices. When he was around 5, they left Seoul, South Korea, where his dad was a successful architect, to come to North America. Their first stop - Regina, Saskatchewan.
YEUN: My cousins had told me that the first job we all collectively did was putting chopsticks in those paper sleeves.
MERAJI: From chopstick sorting came a denim jean stacking at his uncle's store in Michigan. His parents eventually saved enough to open up a couple of beauty supply stores in Detroit, where Yeun says they still work on their feet for 10 to 12 hours a day. But between church and work, he says his parents always make time to watch him on "The Walking Dead."
YEUN: They do. They don't understand it completely (laughter). So they get, like, some bootlegged version with subtitles. My dad one time called me and said, please tell Melissa thank you for saving you guys. And I'm like you know it's not real? He said just thank her. And I was like all right.
MERAJI: After being saved and doing some saving of his own on "The Walking Dead" for five seasons, fans are wondering if it's Steven Yeun's character, Glenn's, turn to meet his maker. And - I'm just going to use this national radio platform that broadcasts to millions of people to beg AMC not to do it. Please, please, please do not kill Glenn. Shereen Marisol Meraji, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.