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Steven Yeun Reflects on His ‘Walking Dead’ Demise: ‘I Was Always in Service to This Larger Narrative’

Walking Dead
Courtesy of AMC

The zombie apocalypse that took hold of TV in 2010 was very, very good for Steven Yeun.

To say that “The Walking Dead” was Yeun’s breakout role would be an understatement so powerful it could reanimate a corpse.

Yeun had a handful of onscreen credits to his name before he was cast in the AMC series in the role of Glenn Rhee. The character immediately proved to be pivotal to the series, as he was the one who initially rescued Andrew Lincoln’s Rick Grimes from zombies in the show’s second episode, which made the character part of the group that formed the core of the series.

Though Glenn was just a pizza delivery guy prior to the events of the series, he quickly became a fan favorite after he demonstrated a willingness to risk his life to protect others. It also did not hurt he got to star in an iconic Season 1 scene in which he speeds out of a ruined Atlanta in a fire-red Dodge Challenger to distract the zombies and cover the group’s escape.

“I think for me it was a massive blessing to get ‘Walking Dead’ because not only did I meet incredible people that taught me some incredible ways to navigate life — to be a professional, to be an actor, to take a job seriously — but also just submit to a beast such as ‘Walking Dead,’” Yeun told Variety.

READ MORE: Steven Yeun on the Honesty of ‘Minari’ and His Eclectic Career: ‘I Never Want to Lose That Sense of Wonder’

“The Walking Dead’s” popularity soared from the outset, growing to become the highest-rated show on television for multiple seasons. Although the show features a large ensemble cast, Yeun was a major part of that success, with the character Glenn morphing from a plucky young member of the show’s central group to a bona fide action hero and sex symbol.

To wit, fans of “Walking Dead” would be hard-pressed to name a more intense scene than the one in the Season 3 episode “When the Dead Come Knocking” in which Glenn is tied to a chair and locked in a room where a zombie is turned loose. The scene ends with Glenn somehow managing to kill it and letting out a very real and raw primal scream.

Moreover, fans got a look at Glenn’s tender side too, after Yeun and costar Lauren Cohan, who plays Maggie Greene, became the first couple of the zombie apocalypse. The two characters made a love connection in Season 2 and managed to stick together through any number of life and death situations.

All the fan affection and admiration came the incredibly strong backlash when Glenn was killed off in grisly fashion (it involved a baseball bat wrapped in barbed wire) in the Season 7 premiere in October 2016.

The death was not altogether unexpected, given that the character dies at the identical moment in the comic series that inspired “Walking Dead.” But fans of the show were still none too happy about it, with some even swearing off watching the show from that moment forward. Yet Yeun has no hard feelings. Seven seasons on a top-rated primetime series left him more confident about his skills and more determined to speak up on the job.

“Leaving [the show], if I had any weird feelings about it, was mostly that I hadn’t taken the time for myself to understand who I was and maybe my voice and what I wanted to say,” Yeun says. “I was always kind of in service to this larger narrative. And in some ways that reflects kind of how I was raised in my early years. I think I’m done. I think I want to try the other side.”

(Pictured: Steven Yeun and Lauren Cohen in “The Walking Dead.”)

Matt Donnelly contributed to this report.