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After 7 Seasons of 'The Walking Dead,' Steven Yeun Picks His Roles One Message at a Time

Steven Yeun plays an unjustly terminated lawyer fighting to get his job back while wading through a building full of virus-infected employees in "Mayhem."

by Tiffany Hu /
Samara Weaving as Melanie Cross and Steven Yeun as Derek Cho in the horror-action film "Mayhem," an RLJE Films releaseCourtesy of Sanja Bucko

While Steven Yeun has made a name for himself fighting zombies, his career since leaving “The Walking Dead” has been thriving.

Since leaving the TV show, Yeun has been eager to show his versatility: working in both television and film in the U.S. and South Korea and taking on unconventional roles.

“I’m just trying to understand who I am,” Yeun told NBC News. “So while this is available to me, I’ll keep doing as many different things as I can.”

“With ‘Mayhem,’ there’s a thing I want to say. Every kind of film that I’ve been a part of, I’ve been lucky that it says what I kind of want to say — and that is lot of different things.”

“With ‘Mayhem,’ there’s a thing I want to say. Every kind of film that I’ve been a part of, I’ve been lucky that it says what I kind of want to say — and that is lot of different things.”

Yeun can next be seen in the upcoming film “Mayhem,” which is scheduled to open in select theaters and online on Nov. 10. The horror-action follows a corporate attorney (Yeun) who, after being unjustly terminated, fights to get his job back while wading through a quarantined building full of virus-infected employees. The production was a change of pace for Yeun after seven seasons of "The Walking Dead."

“I wanted to experience what it was like to film a horror movie,” Yeun said. “Doing a TV show for seven years is wonderful, it brings you the beauty of structure that I love, but it was fun to just jump into something I had no idea how it was going to be.”

He said his character, Derek Cho, was the most “real” part of the film, responding like a real person would when newly fired and fighting through an office building. Yeun added that those kinds of real Asian-American characters probably wouldn’t have existed a few years ago.

 Steven Yeun as Derek Cho in the horror, action film "Mayhem," an RLJE Films release. Courtesy of Sanja Bucko

“I’m glad that Derek Cho gets to exist,” he said. “In all of his ugliness, all of his beauty, all of his weakness, and all of his best moments — I wanted to render a full character who was equally good as he was sh*t.”

After “The Walking Dead,” Yeun appeared in 2017 Netflix film “Okja” as the bilingual K, who acts as the translator between a young Korean girl and a team of animal rights activists. He is currently in South Korea filming “Burning,” an adaptation of the Haruki Murakami short story “Barn Burning.” Directed by Lee Chang-dong, the movie centers around a mystery surrounding a missing woman and a man who claims to be an arsonist.

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“I think inherently, I won’t want to do something that isn’t true to me,” Yeun said about his choice of roles. “If it seems like it’s a clichéd role that has me being the model minority or a weak character, then I might look at that and think, ‘is it even saying something that I want to say?’ If not, then I don’t feel like doing it, ‘cause I would not want to live as that character for a while.”

Yeun can also soon be heard as the lead in two animated films. In "Chew," which does not yet have a release date, he is slated to voice Tony Chu, an investigator who gets psychic visions from the food — including human — he eats. In "The Star," scheduled to be released Nov. 17, he is slated to voice "Bo the Donkey."

While “Chew” with its flesh-eating protagonist might be within the realm of what Yeun has done in the past, “The Star,” which depicts the first Christmas from the point of view of animals, might strike some as unexpected.

 Steven Yeun as Derek Cho in the horror, action film "Mayhem," an RLJE Films release. Courtesy of Sanja Bucko

Yeun said that he knew that there were going to be “broad strokes painted” on the film because of its Christian themes, adding that he enjoyed participating in the film because it encouraged kids to be themselves and do things other told them they couldn't.

“For me, that’s the thing I want to say,” Yeun said. “With ‘Mayhem,’ there’s a thing I want to say. Every kind of film that I’ve been a part of, I’ve been lucky that it says what I kind of want to say — and that is lot of different things.”

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