Steven Yeun's Inspiring Career in Photos
From landing his first major role on the TV megahit The Walking Dead to earning an Oscar nod for Minari, Yeun's impressive résumé is only growing
Steven Yeun was born on Dec. 21, 1983, in Seoul, South Korea, and was raised in Troy, Michigan, where he graduated high school. He began his career in improv and sketch comedy in Chicago, where he trained at the prestigious Second City.
Once he felt he had hit a ceiling with the opportunities he was getting, Yeun took his talents to Hollywood and landed his first big role as Glenn Rhee in the highly successful AMC horror series The Walking Dead (2010 to 2016). After spending seven seasons on the show and becoming a household name in television, Yeun was still only just beginning what's become a promising career path — one that he has thought out with intention as he learns to find his voice in the industry.
“Leaving [The Walking Dead], 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 told Variety in December 2020. “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.”
Yeun went from major side character to bonafide lead in the 2017 horror-comedy Mayhem. The star plays Derek Cho, a lawyer who starts to lose himself in his corporate job and gets trapped in quarantine with his colleagues as a vicious virus rips through the building and causes everyone to act on their darkest impulses.
Next up was Yeun's role as K in director Bong Joon-ho's Okja (2017), which was written specifically with him in mind. The star told Vulture's E. Alex Jung that he received an email from Bong that said, "I wrote something for you." Without hesitation, Yeun accepted and found that his part as the film's Korean American radical animal rights activist allowed him to experience a kinship with his character in a way he hadn't before in other roles.
"Director Bong is a Korean native, and he’s gracious and intelligent enough to know there is a Korean-American struggle and put light to it," Yeun explained to Jung, who is also Korean American. "But the nuances are still specific to me and you in a way they’re not to him, and we got to explore it to his extent."
"I’d love to see something more, but it is interesting to have an experience as a Korean-American that nobody else is going to be able to do," he added. "That’s awesome."
As his on-screen acting credits began to grow, Yeun was also becoming a sought-after voice actor. He'd lent his voice to a few commercials and video games before landing the role of Keith in the TV series Voltron: Legendary Defender (2017). Yeun told Collider that the opportunity to get into voice acting sort of fell into his lap.
"Somehow, some way, someone let me in the door and I’ve been really lucky to do these things," he said. "For me, the enjoyment is also being able to play something I would never be cast in, so it’s been really fun to do that."
The same year, he also voiced Bo the donkey in the holiday animated film, The Star, alongside actors Keegan-Michael Key, Aidy Bryant and Gina Rodriguez.
In 2018, Yeun appeared in Boots Riley's wildly original, dark sci-fi comedy Sorry to Bother You, as union organizer Squeeze. The film follows Cassius "Cash" Green (LaKeith Stanfield) as he uses his "white voice" to become more successful at his telemarketing job and decide if he wants to continue to get rich or fight the powers that be with his union-forming colleagues.
Yeun was chosen to play Ben in Lee Chang-dong's 2018 psychological thriller Burning. The adaptation of Haruki Murakami’s 1983 short story allowed the star to shed his Asian American identity as he acted alongside Korean actors Yoo Ah-in and Jeon Jong-seo, and allowed him to take on a different type of lead role without adding that extra pressure of representing an Asian person in Hollywood.
“It’s been like, ‘Here’s what an Asian person looks like to a majority white audience,’ ” he said in an interview with the Independent in 2019. “But if you go to Korea, the characters are just humans because they’re not thinking about it like that. That’s something that I was made aware of [with Burning], which was really wonderful for me to know. I didn’t have to represent all Asians. I could just represent myself.”
During this time, throughout 2017 and 2018, Yeun also voiced several characters in the TV series short Stretch Armstrong & the Flex Fighters.
Yeun also voiced Speckle in the adult animated sitcom Tuca & Bertie. The show follows the friendship between two 30-year-old birds who live in the same building, and stars comedians Tiffany Haddish and Ali Wong.
Yeun also plays Steve in Guillermo del Toro's animated action series 3Below: Tales of Arcadia, which co-stars actors Glenn Close, Nick Offerman and Diego Luna.
Yeun's latest film Minari follows the Korean American Yi family, who try to live out the American dream through farming in rural Arkansas in the 1980s. The drama is based on director Lee Isaac Chung's real-life upbringing and debuted with high remarks at Sundance in 2020, winning both the Audience Award and the Grand Jury Prize.
It's up for six Oscars this year, including Best Picture, Best Supporting Actress (Youn Yuh-jung), Best Director, Best Original Score, Best Original Screenplay and Best Actor for Yeun. Yeun is the first Asian-American actor nominated for Best Actor while Yuh-jung is the first South Korean actress nominated for Best Supporting Actress.
The film took home best motion picture in a foreign language at this year's Golden Globes. Although the Globes received backlash for placing the film in the foreign language category even though it is an American film, with an American lead and director, Yeun simply directed his attention to the release of the film, posting the movie poster on Instagram and writing the caption, "this one is for everybody."
Yeun opened up about the intention behind the story in an interview with the Washington Post this month, saying, “We weren’t seeking to define this family’s existence through their oppression by the majority, but rather the confidence to speak from their own point of view, intrinsically.”
“Their existence is valid, and they can just be," he continued. "In some ways, what that is, is just an exercise in humanity.”