Steven Yeun has zombies to thank for his runaway career. For six seasons, on the mega-hit "The Walking Dead," Yeun played fan favorite Glenn Rhee, pizza delivery guy-turned-zombie slayer.
Correspondent Tracy Smith asked, "Did you have any idea what you were getting into when you read for that part?"
"No. I was just trying to work, you know what I mean? Like, I was just trying to work," he laughed.
For Yeun, Glenn represented someone not seen on television before: "An Asian American character that wasn't explicitly defined by his race, or talked about in that way."
Still, Glenn had limits. "He's always a good guy," Yeun said. "He has to do the right thing at all times. And it almost then felt like, in order for this Asian American character to exist, he has to be useful."
"So then, when you left 'Walking Dead,' was it good guy role after good guy role?" asked Smith.
"Yeah. It's not that there's anything wrong with those things. But it's that we can only be those things. And I think that's the battle."
But choosing his latest complicated role in a film called "Minari" was relatively easy. "I read the script and I was blown away," he said. "I was in tears. Seeing the words of how a life similar to mine could be put on a page was very liberating."
"And it left you in tears?"
"Oh yeah. This thing continues to leave me in many, many tears. I've been crying throughout this whole process," he laughed.
Yeun plays Jacob, a Korean immigrant who moves his family from California to an Arkansas farm in pursuit of his American Dream.
Writer-director Lee Isaac Chung based the film (which was shot in Oklahoma over 25 days) on his own family's story: "Jacob, he's an interesting man. He decided once he got to America that he doesn't want to be around other Korean Americans. And he wants to strike out on his own into the wild west in a way, to Arkansas.
"For me, this film is about a family, first and foremost, that moves to a brand-new place in a whole new situation that they've never been in, and they only have each other," said Chung.
Yeun saw his family's own American Dream in the movie, too: "My dad, he was an architect in Korea. He was doing well for himself. And he took a business trip over to Minnesota, and he told me that he saw the land, and he was like, 'I need to move here.' And then my dad had to restart from scratch."
The Yeuns left South Korea when Steven was four, and ended up in Michigan, with hopes that their son might someday go to med school.
"I really broke my parents down from an early age," said Yeun. "I didn't give 'em any false hope that I was gonna be a doctor. I think it was just, like, let me take a bio class, and then I'll show you the grade that I get so you know that this is not for me."
Yeun went to college to study psychology. But when he joined an improv group, everything changed: "It kinda just, like, clicked in for me. And I was, like, 'That is fascinating.'"
"Why do you think it clicked?" asked Smith.
"Maybe it was freedom."
After graduation, he earned a coveted spot with the Second City improv group in Chicago. His parents were supportive of his career choice, to a point: "My parents and my worried uncles and aunts told my cousin Mikey to call me to persuade me away from doing this. And then Mike calls and he's, like, 'Hey man, look, my mom and dad told me to call you to, like, tell you to stop doing this. But, like, just do whatever you want. Just, like, just do it!'"
So, Yeun took a huge leap. He left the Midwest and headed to Hollywood.
Smith asked, "How scary was that?"
"It wasn't that scary, if i'm gonna be honest with you. I just woke up one day and I was, like, 'I gotta go.' I told everybody I was moving. So, I couldn't back out."
And at the tender age of 26, Yeun won what was essentially the casting lottery – that part on "The Walking Dead."
"How soon after you got to L.A. were you able to find work?" Smith asked.
"I botched a bunch of auditions 'cause I was so nervous. And then six months after I had gotten there – which is not a popular thing to tell, I apologize …"
"And you apologize for that?"
"Yeah. I'm sorry. My bad!"
"It happened too fast?"
"Yeah. I just, you know, that's usually not the traditional journey," Yeun laughed. "So, I'm very grateful."
Now his non-traditional journey has earned the 37-year-old a bunch of Oscar predictions. If they're right, he would be the first Asian American nominated for Best Actor. But to Steven Yeun, married father of two, the film itself is a gift.
"To have kind of understood my parents in such an immersive and profound way that I don't think anyone else has ever experienced in this way – to, like, act it out in a movie – that's crazy!" he said.
And he got to watch it with his parents at Sundance. "After the movie was done, I looked over at my dad. And then he put his hand on my shoulder, and then I put, you know, I reciprocated. And then we just, like, sobbed."
Smith asked, "What do you think gets to you talking about this?"
"It's a reconnection. I think generations miss each other right now. So, it's connection that's making me emotional. 'Cause I don't know if I've had it in a way that I thought I did until now."
To watch a trailer for "Minari" click on the video player below:
For more info:
- "Minari" (Official Site)
- Virtual screenings for "Minari" begin February 12; for tickets and to sign up for alerts click here
Story produced by Kay Lim and John D'Amelio. Editor: Steven Tyler.