The Walking Dead star Steven Yeun on Glenn’s changing role as the prison and Woodbury collide

When Glenn Rhee first appeared on The Walking Dead, he was a ball-cap-wearing smartass who put the encyclopedic knowledge of a city that only a pizza-delivery guy can claim to good use in getting his fellow survivors out of tough spots. Not that it earned him much respect.

As the AMC hit drama’s third season returns Feb. 10, Glenn has evolved from a flaky kid into a purposeful, mentally and physically adept warrior thanks to the love of a good woman and the realization that he’s capable of so much more than scrambling through sewers.

“I think it’s been an organic, kind of natural expression of the growth of the character and my growth in the show,” Yeun says. “In the first season, for me as Steven, it was, ‘How do I not mess this amazing gig up?’ For Glenn, it was kind of the same. You’re there for a reason, Glenn is there for a reason, but what is it exactly? He was still trying to find that identity. And then the second season was a lot of him realizing what his true purpose was and what it means to survive in that type of situation, which is mainly to live for another person or other people. Even as Steven the actor, I found more understanding of what my purpose was an actor and how to play this character. And then third season is both us kind of actualizing it.”

Here’s what else the neuroscience grad turned actor/comedian had to say about his character’s fate and the future of the prison crew now that The Governor (David Morrissey) has them in his sights.

CGM: Was the roar you let loose after freeing yourself and killing the zombie Merle [Michael Rooker] sicced on you at Woodbury a thesis statement for who Glenn has become this season?
Steven Yeun: You know, that scream actually wasn’t scripted — that just came out of the scene. Dan Sackheim, who was our director for that episode, gave me free rein in that moment to just play. I was kicking stuff over and falling and picking myself back up and it was so crazy and intense. And finally, once that actual hit happened, my only reaction was to just let it out. So, yeah, you could call it a thesis statement, but I don’t think Glenn is done growing. Glenn is still very much a young man — and when traumatic things like that happen, sometimes with youth you kind of overstep your boundaries, as well. I think people will be interested to see how far he takes this.

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CGM: You’ve said that you and Lauren Cohan, who plays your love interest Maggie Greene, have become friends. Can you talk about how that colors the relationship that we see onscreen?
SY:  
I’m sure this isn’t the first time that something like this has happened — I don’t know — but it’s very much life imitating art. With Lauren and I getting to know each other last year, that process played out onscreen as it did in real life, because when people kind of show up on our show, it seems like they’re new to the group as well. So that whole of learning them in the show and then learning them as an actor plays out together. It’s really interesting to see how that works, especially with Lauren. It even comes down to a kind of serendipity, too. This season we all moved to the same apartment complex and I remember I moved into my apartment and I called her and said, “Which unit are you in?” and she said four-something-something. I was like, “Mine’s 433. She said, “Open your door.” I opened my door and she’s directly across the hall.

CGM: I’m hopeless fascinated by the idea that Robert Kirkman can continue to craft two separate Walking Dead worlds — one for the comic and one for the show. You were a fan of the comic before joining the cast, so what’s it like to have a front-row seat to that?
SY: 
First of all, I think Robert Kirkman is two things. One, he is an amazing mind. And also, he should be dead. I don’t know how he is doing everything that he is doing! He has, like, 18 comic books and 20 kids and he’s probably playing Wall Street and he might be managing some secret hedge fund. He’s crazy. But it’s really great to be part of it. To be part of the medium that tells its own tale and tells its own version of the story and have it be from the mind of the person who created the original version be part of the writing staff is a true testament to the boundaries to which they’re trying to go.

CGM: In the promos, we see you say to Michonne [Danai Gurira], “You and I could end this tonight.” Might we start seeing some splinter groups no longer reliant on group survival — especially since Daryl [Norman Reedus] and Merle have been reunited, too?
SY: Obviously, I can’t spoil anything — but it’s going to be pretty intense. For a lot of people, this season is a realization of the whole idea of “You can’t live with ’em, can’t live without ’em.” That theme will permeate through the rest of the season.

CGM: Speaking of that, the existing groups are both led by unhinged fathers — one who’d created the utopian Woodbury for a daughter who would never see it and another whose children do survive. Does that give the prison group an advantage, because they still do have familial connections and emotions to contend with — or The Governor, because he doesn’t?
SY: It’s a great question. It seems like in this world you need people to survive and yet people are also your biggest downfall and opposition. Again, it’s that basic premise of “You can’t live with ’em and you can’t live without ’em.” What’s really interesting to me about the difference between Rick and The Governor is you can argue that it’s just two different ways of surviving in this situation. Who’s to say what’s right and wrong? I know that being morally upstanding and trying to preserve society is the altruistic ideal, but there were people last year who were like, ‘Shane is right, Shane is doing it the right way’ — which is survival of the fittest. As far as The Governor, you don’t know what direction he is going to go. What was the point of Woodbury? And who’s to say what’s right? It’s just where you identify. What’s interesting now is to see two different modes of survival clash. And two minds clash. It’s going to make for some interesting television.

CGM: Can I admit that it made me nuts to watch Andrea morph into a lovesick damsel with perfect hair, a lace thong and a drink in her hand? Will I get my girl-warrior back?
SY: Woodbury is intoxicating. Look at how pristine and well-kept the whole place is. And if you’ve been out in the woods running away from rotting dead people and trying to survive for a whole year, I can’t even imagine what it would be like to find an oasis like that. It’s pretty easy to drink the Kool-Aid, because that’s all you have to drink. And you need it. But the veneer can wear off and your mind can come back to normal. [Laughs.]

CGM: The prison group has killing walkers down to a science. Appease the zombie fans who fear that they might become irrelevant.
SY: The group has become very adept at keeping walkers away and dealing with them. However, I think the people that live in this world have yet to see what they are actually capable of. I think there are much more surprises to be had. They’re not going to suddenly learn to drive cars or anything like that, but it’s that idea that the herds can get that much bigger and that much more threatening. This season is pinning down the fact that yes, these walkers are terrible and that is the world that they live in — but the worst thing that happens is when all the rules are stripped away from society and you see what people are really capable of.

New episodes of The Walking Dead Season 3 air Sundays beginning Feb. 10 at 9/8 CT on AMC

Photos/video: AMC

About Lori Acken

Lori just hasn't been the same since "thirtysomething" and "Northern Exposure" went off the air.
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