How Steven Yeun Is Showing a New Side with 'Mayhem'

Mayhem Still Steven Yeun - Publicity - H 2017
Courtesy of Sydney Film Festival
The horror film starring the 'Walking Dead' grad has something to say about society at large: "I know so many Asian-Americans who are just in the grind, and they’re not moving up."

You’d think that after exiting the show that gave him his breakout role, Steven Yeun might be a bit bummed out (especially given the nature of his exit). But with The Walking Dead firmly in his rearview, Yeun maintains he's downright positive, excited even, about trying out new roles and dipping his feet into other waters after saying goodbye to Glenn on the AMC drama.

In his latest project, Mayhem, he plays Derek, a worker in a corporate law office infected with a virus capable of making people act out their wildest impulses. The Joe Lynch film is horror-adjacent, but marries its gore quotient with a healthy dose of social commentary and pitch black humor. Mayhem  has earned stellar reviews and opens in theaters, VOD and Digital HD Friday. 

While the role might not seem like much of a stretch for Yeun at first blush considering his years of experience on The Walking Dead, the film lets audiences see him through a whole different lens. In a conversation with Heat Vision, Yeun discusses expanding his voice, representation in the industry, and why tweaking a well-tread formula by casting Asian-American leads helps freshen up a project.

You've had such an expansive 2017. Whether you’re working on a movie like Okja or working on a movie like Mayhem, you’ve really gotten to try out a lot of different things. It’s exciting.

Having seven years of a really wonderful experience, I think the beauty of it was that I got to find versions of who I was. What was even more wonderful was having the cast and crew be so cool about knowing when it was time to, you know, graduate, to go do your own thing. I think on the heels of that, I could have maybe fallen into a similar line of work and just kind of worked, but I’ve been very fortunate that it feels like I haven’t been working. I’ve just been really having a great time doing interesting things.

I liked seeing you in Mayhem because Derek is kind of an opportunity for you to cut loose. It really lives up to its name. Is that on paper what attracted you to it? It’s carnage!

I’m sure I have things I wish I explored more in my daily life. But either they don’t allow me to, because I need to be a normal citizen of this society and not freak out, but then also you sometimes just fall in line with what the world says that you are. What’s really been wonderful for me as an actor is, even if it’s not me at all, it’s really fun to go explore certain aspects of my life. You know, I have an angry side. I want to see what that’s like. I want to see what it’s like in a healthy way, where there’s a very comedic take to it, and see how far and crazy we can take it. Yeah. I’m just curious.

Yeah. It sounds like you have a kinship with Derek. The whole thing is about wishing he could just walk away from the corporate bustle and paint more. That’s where his journey takes him. It feels lucky, or like kismet, to find a character that you identify with so much.

Yeah! I think some people could brush off some of the scenes and ideas as maybe a little bit more obvious, you know? I don’t think the movie, for us, was trying to say anything necessarily brand new. I think we were just trying to tell a classic idea as straightforward, and grounded and realistic as possible, in a non-realistic situation. Even Derek being an Asian-American person says a lot. We never harped on it. We never focused on it to a point where it needed to be addressed as anything more than the character just not being a traditional person you’d see in that context.

I think there are little truths here and there that make this film much more full, and make it more poignant, even though people could brush it off by saying that we’re treading similar territory. Those are things that I really enjoy, experiencing what it’s like to have that cathartic moment. I know so many Asian-Americans who are just in the grind, and they’re not moving up. They’re just caught somewhere in the middle. While that’s applicable to everyone, there’s something, I feel, societally true about how Asian-Americans are perceived, too, and again, that wasn’t the sole focus for anything beyond just being another layer added onto this that I feel makes it more honest.  

It’s cool how the movie makes this point about what you’re talking about, in regards to Asian-American casting without  ever having to address it. For me, if I hear about this movie on paper — and there was a movie similar to this earlier this year! — the default hero will be a generic white guy. It’s great to see the movie just cast an Asian-American actor without an agenda. It’s there. That says a lot on its own.

Yeah. I think you hit it dead on. You know, sometimes it’s nice to change the view a little bit, then you get a deeper perspective of a singular thing. We’ve been seeing the same things over and over and over, and there’s nothing wrong with retreading themes and retreading ideas, but let’s tell it more fully. Let’s tell it more complexly. That’s essentially what our actual world looks like. I think that’s the direction I feel, and I hope, we’re all headed toward in society.

I hope so too. And yeah, you can tell a story differently, a slightly different way, or you can just overlay it with lots of ultra-violence.

[laughs] You could do that too!

The frosted side of me appreciates the extent to which the movie takes its violence, and the whole wheat side of me likes that the default is overridden. I guess what I’m wondering is, do you feel at home working in a movie where there is so much action, where there is so much violence, or do you want to get into less genre-oriented stuff, too?

This is about as genre as I’ve been getting. I did this movie right before I finished the show, and from there I just started to explore many different other things. Again, I don’t have a personal agenda or strategy; I’ve just been going with the flow and finding what interests me, and saying what I want to say, and that helps me explore something about me that I want to know. I’ve just been kind of following along. This film is definitely part of that journey, so I feel it’s very appropriate that I got to play something like this right as I’m about to experience another thing coming to a full close. It was its own catharsis, that I could exercise these types of things before I even finished it. It’s been really great. No complaints.


Mayhem is out now.