Interview: Steven Yeun makes jump from Second City to 'Walking Dead'

Steven Yeun

Actor Steven Yeun poses for a portrait at Quimby's Bookstore in Bucktown Nov. 20, 2010. (Chris Salata/for the Chicago Tribune)

It was a little more than a year ago that Steven Yeun was preparing to leave his gig at the Second City and the apartment he shared with his brother in Lincoln Square for Hollywood. Yeun told his friends and family about his plans immediately to prevent himself from backing out on them.

The move didn’t pay off right away. It rarely does. Yeun unsuccessfully auditioned for roles on “Scrubs” and “NCIS: Los Angeles” — he said the latter went so poorly that they had him read only one of the two scheduled scenes — and he was forced to work at a nearby restaurant to support himself.

In March, Yeun was eating waffles at Denny’s in L.A. when he found out he didn’t get the role in the ABC pilot he tried out for an hour earlier. He remembered thinking he nailed his audition for “Awkward Situations For Men” — it was the only time he’d ever fist-pumped after an audition — but ABC executives opted to go with someone else.

“I can’t chalk that up to anything else but divine intervention,” said Yeun over dinner and Pabst Blue Ribbon at Lillie’s Q in Bucktown on Saturday.

Yeun can currently be seen on AMC’s new zombie drama “The Walking Dead,” which was watched by 5.3 million viewers when it debuted on Halloween, the highest-rated premiere for an original series in AMC history. Had Yeun landed a role on “Awkward Situations,” which was never picked up, he wouldn’t have auditioned for “Walking Dead” a month later.

“The Walking Dead” revolves around the survivors of a zombie apocalypse and their fight to stay alive. And while Yeun, who plays Glenn, a former pizza delivery boy, is a fan of the Robert Kirkman comics the show is based on, “What I love about the show is it isn’t just about zombies. You’re more scared of the people than the zombies.”

Because “Walking Dead” is just four episodes into its first season, the 26-year-old actor, who was born in South Korea and raised in Troy, Mich., hasn’t seen his homebody lifestyle in L.A. change all that much. But he did get recognized at a Best Buy in Westwood, Calif. two weeks ago — an experience he called terrifying.

“It was weird,” said Yeun, who took part in the improv group Stir Friday Night’s 15th anniversary show later that night at the Chicago Center for the Performing Arts. “I got heart complications. I wasn’t prepared for it.”

“Walking Dead” pulled in 4.7 million viewers for its second episode and 5.1 million for its third episode and has been picked up for a second season. To put those numbers in perspective, 2.4 million people watched the season finale of fellow AMC drama “Mad Men” last month. Still, Yeun wanted to hold off before calling the young series a hit.

“I don’t know if we’re a hit yet,” Yeun said. “This is my first time leaving Los Angeles since the show premiered. I have no grasp of what’s going on. I wish I did.”

lgomez@tribune.com | Twitter @TribLuis

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