I stopped watching The Walking Dead years ago. I’d like to think it’s because I was simply burnt out on zombie apocalypses – that I had truly invested in all the characters and storylines of the show’s wild first few seasons – but the truth is, I checked out after Glenn Rhee met the end of that barbed bat. Comic book canon aside, Steven Yeun deserved better than that gruesome, shock-value ending, which is why it’s high time he’s getting the attention he deserves.
Before I officially launch Yeun’s 2021 Oscar campaign for his upcoming A24 drama, Minari, I want to offer a proviso for this headline-making argument. Obviously, everyone on The Walking Dead is/was talented, and Danai Gurira became a damn Dora Milaje in the Marvel Universe, so she clearly has nothing to prove to anyone. But Yeun’s final moments on the dystopian series were so brutal, so cruel, it makes his post-AMC success so much sweeter – and worth celebrating.
Yeun, a South Korean American actor, spent six years crafting a well-rounded Asian lead on TV. Glenn Rhee may have been introduced to fans of the show as a bumbling kid who struggled to romance the ladies and barely managed to survive hordes of the undead, but he grew to become a leader, a different representation of what masculinity could look like on TV. Glenn was strong, and emotional, fiercely loyal, and driven by an unwavering set of morals that formed the heart of the show for legions of fans. And because this show was adapted from comic book lore, we appreciated those traits because we knew his time on the show was limited.
In the end, Yeun did what he could to dignify the end of Glenn’s character arc, one that toyed with audiences by teasing his death a few episodes earlier and then letting the character live – only to be beaten in front of his wife and closest friends. But getting killed off of the then-hit AMC series might’ve been the best thing for Yeun’s career. That’s because the actor, who just signed a producing deal with Amazon, has found new paths to further Asian representation – on TV and in film – since he said goodbye to the show that introduced him to American audiences.
He starred opposite Samara Weaving in Joe Lynch’s Mayhem right after his TWD tenure ended. It’s a stylized sci-fi action flick about a virus that infects a high-profile law firm and causes employees, including Yeun’s Derek, to go on a blood-soaked rampage. A darkly-twisted social satire, the film gave Yeun the chance to play a deranged action hero, a Tarantino-like renegade whose quest for revenge ultimately leaves us with a message about taking control over our lives and our actions.
He then went on to work with Oscar-winning auteur Bong-Joon Ho on his Netflix-backed sci-fi drama Okja. A surprisingly heartbreaking action-adventure flick about a young girl’s connection to a genetically modified super pig, Okja harnessed a diverse cast to deliver a timely allegory on consumerism and climate change. And though it’s most eccentric characters – Jake Gyllenhaal’s neurotic zoologist and Tilda Swinton’s dual role as a pair of CEO twin sisters out to make a profit – took up most of the spotlight, it’s Yeun’s K, an activist and rebel, who fuels much of the action. Serving as both a translator and instigator of a larger plot to take down a seedy corporation, Yeun’s character represents the idea of resistance and all the problems that can entail and the actor brings him to life with a bit of charm and a sincerity that matches Ho’s tone and gives fans a hopeful ending.
Just as surreal, though not as neatly ended as Ho’s drama is the Boots Riley film Sorry To Bother You, another Yeun-starring vehicle that trades heavily in symbolism and sports a promising young cast doing thought-provoking work. Lakeith Stanfield is the star of this thing, playing a down-on-his-luck telemarketer manipulating his “white voice” to get ahead, but even when Yeun is only supporting the action, by instigating a rebellion at the workplace or posing as the third corner of a romantic love triangle between Stanfield’s Cash and Tessa Thompson’s Detroit, he’s still stealing screen-time. While Cash is hesitant, unsure, and often unwilling to challenge the status quo, Yeun’s revolutionary, a guy named Squeeze, clings obsessively to the cause. He’s seen as one of the villains throughout much of the film (a man trying to force his beliefs on others) but his radical nature is justified in the end, which makes Yeun’s quieter performance here feel even more pronounced.
But, possibly the best example of Yeun’s growing on-screen charisma since his Walking Dead days is his 2018 psychological thriller, Burning. In it, Yeun plays Ben, a wealthy, mysterious young man who, once again, becomes part of a love triangle. He’s not the main character. That role goes to Yoo Ah-in who plays Lee Jong-su, a poor kid obsessed with his own manic pixie dream girl, Hae-mi (Jeon Jong-su). But Ben’s arrival is what speeds up this twisted slow burn, transforming it from a tragic story of unrequited love and commentary on the class divide to something darker.
Ben is the guy she tells you not to worry about. Rich, good-looking, affable, and unknowable, he meets Hae-mi under strange circumstances and quickly becomes an intractable part of her life. And we don’t notice or choose not to notice, his odd quirks, his behavioral red flags, because Yeun plays him as an easy-going drifter (a kid with too much money and not enough real-world experience). He’s the ignorant, well-meaning elite, and Jong-su’s increasing jealousy towards him only manages to put him on more of a pedestal. Until Hae-mi goes missing, and suddenly every mannerism and allusion Yeun’s quietly played up for the camera comes into focus. It’s a sinister switch-up, one that adds a wholly different meaning to the film, and it wouldn’t have landed quite the same if Yeun wasn’t so damn suave on screen.
Which brings us to his latest film, Minari. (Well, technically we’ve slid past his voiceover work on shows like Tuca & Bertie and Final Space but just know, he’s good at that too.) A film written and directed by Lee Isaac Chung, Minari follows a Korean-American family that moves to a tiny town in Arkansas in pursuit of the American Dream. Yeun plays Jacob, the patriarch who leads his family on this adventure, one that soon becomes a struggle plagued by poverty and racism and the side effects of culture shock. It’s a moving portrait of the immigrant experience and Yeun’s already received praise for his performance in it, which means the curse may finally be lifted.
I’m talking about the curse we’ve all been suffering under that’s apparently blinded us to just how talented Steven Yeun actually is. I’ve only seen the trailer for Minari. I honestly have no idea if the Oscars will even happen this year. And yet I know one thing with absolute certainty: if Steven Yeun doesn’t take home a gold statue, at least over Zoom, then the culture is doomed and the asteroid can just hit now.