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"One minute I was an unemployed actor and the next minute I'm getting a phone call telling me that I'm on the show," the actor tells PEOPLE of joining the AMC series

By Dana Rose Falcone and Mary Green
March 04, 2021 04:35 PM
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steven yeun
Credit: Dia Dipasupil/Getty

Filming family drama Minari during a hot Oklahoma summer didn't faze star and executive producer Steven Yeun.

"I'm from Michigan, so we had some hot summers. It wasn't like the South, but we had some hot summers," the Korean-American actor, 37, tells PEOPLE in this week's issue. "Also, I spent seven years on a show called Walking Dead."

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Yeun and his family moved to Canada from Seoul and they settled in Michigan when he was five. "It was a loving household, but there was a lot of inability to communicate," Yeun says of his relationship with his parents, who opened beauty supply stores in Detroit.

steven yeun in the walking dead
Credit: Gene Page/AMC

Yeun's parents wanted him to go into medicine, so he followed the pre-med track at Michigan's Kalamazoo College and graduated with a psychology degree. But he also discovered a love for acting and comedy while in school.

The star's parents gave him two years to pursue acting after graduation, so Yeun moved to Chicago and toured with improv troupe Second City. In 2009, Yeun relocated to Los Angeles and on just his second audition there, he scored his role on The Walking Dead.

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"One minute I was an unemployed actor and the next minute I'm getting a phone call telling me that I'm on the show," he recalls. "It was literally life-changing."

Yeun spent seven seasons on the hit AMC series as fan-favorite Glenn Rhee — and even after bad guy Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) beat Glenn to death in 2016 and Yeun exited the show, his life continued to change in positive ways. He married photographer Joana Pak, whom he'd met in Chicago, later that year. "I am so lucky to be married to her," Yeun says, adding that 34-year-old Pak "keeps it real."

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The couple welcomed their first child, son Jude, in 2017, and a daughter in April 2019.

The father of two credits his family with keeping him grounded as his career continued to take off with roles in Sorry to Bother You and Netflix's Okja. "I'm the product of a lot of really wonderful people who didn't buy into whatever falsehoods [being a celebrity] would bring," Yeun says. "We kept our network pretty small."

Now he's earning the best reviews of his career — along with Oscar buzz — for Minari, which explores a Korean-American immigrant family's challenges and tensions. The deeply emotional role required Yeun, who plays a father who moves to Arkansas with his wife and two children in pursuit of the elusive American dream, to reflect on his own relationships.

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"I had to contend with how I ultimately viewed my parents," he says. "Were they real people to me? Or were they just kind of constructs? That was painful and difficult."

Minari won best foreign language film at Sunday's Golden Globe Awards after receiving criticism for being categorized as "foreign" when the movie takes place in the U.S. and features dialogue in both Korean and English. (The Hollywood Foreign Press Association specifies that contenders for best drama or comedy/musical must feature at least 50 percent English dialogue). The movie also picked up three nominations at the upcoming Screen Actors Guild Awards, including recognition in the outstanding performance by a cast in a motion picture category and an outstanding performance by a male actor in a leading role nod for Yeun.

steven yeun in Minari
Credit: Josh Ethan Johnson

Yeun instantly connected with the movie making him an awards season frontrunner. "It didn't require an explanation," he says. "It just was dropping you into the story of this family."

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Though Minari follows a Korean-American family, Yeun makes an effort to ensure he doesn't fall into "other people's assumptions about me" as an Asian-American actor.

"I've realized that the only active measure we can take is really defining ourselves," the SAG Award nominee says. "And that's kind of been my own trajectory: making sure that I try to define my own reality."

Minari is out now.