Steven Yeun’s Trailblazing Artistry of Feeling

Throughout a notably consistent career filled with risky experiments, Yeun demonstrates a mastery of depth and empathy that drives his cross-genre appeal.
Steven Yeun Sorry To Bother You

Welcome to Filmographies, a column for completists. Every edition brings a working actor’s resumé into focus as we learn about what makes them so compelling. In this entry, we spotlight the filmography of Steven Yeun.

Being a Steven Yeun fan means appreciating the slow-burn, in more ways than one. Ever since his six-year run playing one of the most beloved characters on AMC’s The Walking Dead, he has made incredibly tasteful and varied choices in his filmography.

As a personal long-time fan, there have been times when I watched Yeun’s onscreen trajectory and lamented his lack of lead roles. However, hindsight is valuable, because rarely has Yeun actually been relegated to the sidelines in his works. Although I much prefer seeing Yeun embody the protagonists of his own stories, his penchant for working extremely well amid ensembles should be honored as a treasured skill.

His résumé exhibits discernible mindfulness of exactly what he can bring to the table. When we watch Yeun, we appreciate his purposefulness in championing certain stories, particularly when they specifically dismantle Asian-American stereotypes in media.

His entertainment roots first bloomed in the wild world of improv. Among several theater credits in his home state of Michigan, he was notably part of the famed comedy troupe The Second City before officially making the jump to working in Hollywood.

As we see in our deep dive of his filmography below, Yeun’s application of his honed comedic expertise in his first roles would therefore seem like a no-brainer (without considering his clearly prolific role of “North Korean Soldier 2” in the Crysis video games of the late aughts). The way that levity intertwines with authentic emotion would go on to be the primary strength of his career.

My Name is Jerry (2009)

Steven Yeun’s first full-length feature was My Name is Jerry, a Doug Jones vehicle that follows an eponymous middle-aged door-to-door salesman. Jerry has lost his zest for life. A shy disposition combined with the trappings of a dead-end job leaves this leading man utterly desolate until he is reinvigorated by the local punk scene run by the promising youths in his community.

Yeun has a supporting role in the film as a record store employee named Chaz, a friendly liaison for the awkward Jerry to dip his toes into the aforementioned subculture. The character is the resident goofball slacker in the movie as well, lightly teasing its protagonist and encouraging him to partake in merry misdemeanors.

Given the film’s abundance of well-worn character and plot-related tropes, Yeun and the rest of the cast must craft some sense of realism and relatability to balance out any of the story’s melodrama. Fortunately, the actor’s impeccable comedic timing embellishes Chaz with dorky, delightful mischief. Yeun mines for an underlying vein of sweetness in Chaz, too, pointedly distinguishing him from everyone else.

The Walking Dead (2010-2016)

The Walking Dead will always be integral to Steven Yeun’s career since the series provided the actor with multiple seasons’ worth of time to create a character beyond gimmickry so early on. From the pilot onwards, Yeun’s Glenn Rhee — as part of the show’s original line-up — decidedly sets the tone of many narrative arcs and twists. Plus, Glenn’s sheer virtue ensures that audiences have something uplifting to hold onto as the show gets exponentially bleaker over time.

Adapted from the comic book of the same name, The Walking Dead creates life after a zombie apocalypse. Besides having to defend themselves against these blood-thirsty hordes of undead known as “walkers,” all remaining human survivors face the task of rebuilding civilization from scratch, attempting to tame outright lawlessness with beliefs about morality.

Glenn first meets the series protagonist, Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln), in a deserted Atlanta, Georgia. The boyish ex-delivery boy is quickly established as a go-to supply runner for a motley crew of strangers who’ve banded together against the walker-infested city. Shrewd, quick-footed, and highly resourceful, Glenn’s open heart and caring nature are his biggest assets. He remains extremely loyal to his newfound family as they escape the city limits in hopes of finding new ways to persevere.

Season after season, Glenn matures from a boisterous, slightly naive young man into a traditional hero archetype. His initial schtick as the group’s comic relief deepens and doesn’t even fully dissipate, with humor constituting a large portion of his humanity.

Regardless of the shock factor of The Walking Dead, Glenn never loses his footing as a grounding force of compassion, holding onto core humane values that are long-lost by others in his camp. Romantic in the most realistic ways, Yeun is pitch-perfect when tapping into a well of Glenn’s wounding rawness without leaning too much into hubristic sentimentality.

The Legend of Korra (2013)

Apart from Steven Yeun’s commitments to The Walking Dead, his small-screen work largely comprises guest spots in other popular TV shows. He makes single-episode appearances in series like Warehouse 13, Drunk History, and American Dad!, among others.

Yeun’s run in The Legend of Korra doubles as the heftiest of these ventures, as well as a significant introduction to the world of animation and voice-acting.

The Legend of Korra is a sequel to the beloved Nickelodeon anime-inspired series Avatar: The Last Airbender. The show carries on its precursor’s overall focus on individuals known as Avatars — humans who are charged to maintain the balance of spirit and humankind through the manipulation of the elements water, earth, fire, and air. 

Yeun plays Wan — the very first Avatar — in the show’s second season. The two-part flashback arc “Beginnings” recount the character’s humble beginnings as a streetsmart kid with a Robin Hood complex. Wan’s quick temper and impulsive tendencies make him infamous in the eyes of the elders of his hometown. But when he foolishly steals the sacred element of fire for himself, he is banished to the wilds and must learn to live in tandem with nature to survive.

As is, Wan is a fun, action-oriented young man. His significant growth across multiple episodes makes him memorable, though.

Yeun treads this balance delicately through an impression of personable warmth in his voice-acting. Wan’s humorous displays of overconfidence are frequently offset by moments of true empathy. The character’s qualities further complicate as he nurtures an understanding of the deep-seated conflicts between the physical and spiritual realms. Yeun tackles these incongruities with pure conviction, so much so that Wan’s fallibilities — and their far-reaching consequences — are deeply felt.

I Origins (2014)

Steven Yeun’s more conventional start in feature films soon gives way to a more curated big-screen résumé reflecting a particular artistic slant. He starts small in this regard, firstly in Mike Cahill’s 2014 sci-fi romance I Origins. Yeun doesn’t do much in the film — his role is incidentally functional to the plot and he breezes through it naturalistically. However, working with a director with such a special cinematic vision serves as a promising precursor to more enthralling feature projects to come.

Like a French Film (2015)

Shin Yeon-shick’s omnibus Like a French Film tells four different love stories using conventions commonly found in its titular cinematic tradition. The anthology marks Steven Yeun’s first foray into Korean-language media, with the actor appearing opposite South Korean actress Soy Kim in the heartrending third segment about an unraveling romantic relationship.

This portion of Like a French Film concerns itself with a culturally disparate young couple grappling with a roadside fortune teller’s scary prediction. This eerily accurate woman posits the idea that the two only have a hundred days left to live together. Yeun, who portrays an American man with little grasp of the Korean language, tries to get his girlfriend to treat their days spontaneously. Sadly, his lack of understanding towards her overwhelming fear of the unknown further drives a wedge between them.

Yeun is essentially a recklessly romantic lead in Like a French Film, his tone brimming with hope and his words full of vague promise. Notably, the character values personal independence and rejects the traditional family-centric structures in Asian families. Regrettably, this causes him to be rather ignorant to the expectations of piety that wrack his girlfriend with guilt.

The segment is all the more saddening for the fact that the couple’s priorities in life simply do not align. Potential supernatural happenings aside, there is something sorely real about the realization that love cannot heal all wounds. If Yeun and Kim seem like they’re arguing in circles, it is merely to avoid an inevitable breakdown in their union and both actors create a captivating tragedy.

Voltron: Legendary Defender (2016-2018)

Voltron: Legendary Defender is one of Steven Yeun’s first substantial commitments to voice-acting. DreamWorks’ eight-season reboot of the 1980s Voltron franchise tracks five young pilots selected to man the eponymous 300-foot robot to fight a long-standing intergalactic war against a tyrannical empire from outer space.

This choice of warrior — or Paladin — is mandated by each pilot’s traits and qualities that most closely align to the mystical quintessence of giant mechanical Lions that constitute Voltron. Yeun is Keith, the broody and calculative one of the lot who initially takes command of the unpredictable, stubborn Red Lion.

At first glance, the differences between Keith and Yeun’s The Walking Dead hero Glenn are pretty stark. While the latter is lauded for his generosity and empathy, the former’s strait-laced, reserved countenance combined with entrenched trust issues make him abrasive and isolated. Keith has the hardest time integrating himself with the rest of the Voltron Force. At times, he even initiates conflict within the group.

Nevertheless, the more Keith befriends his fellow Paladins and learns to work as a team, the more he proves himself as a strategic asset. While equipped with some ability to compartmentalize his emotions and think for the betterment of the Voltron Force, his volatility adds depth to his devotion to justice nonetheless. Keith easily joins the ranks of other beloved, fleshed-out characters in Yeun’s filmography — those that allow the actor space and time to cultivate multifaceted ingenuity.

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Sheryl Oh: Sheryl Oh often finds herself fascinated (and let's be real, a little obsessed) with actors and their onscreen accomplishments, developing Film School Rejects' Filmographies column as a passion project. She's not very good at Twitter but find her at @sherhorowitz anyway. (She/Her)