BEING GONG YOO
It’s lonely at the top.
GONG YOO’S STAR SHOT UP TO THE HEAVENS WITH THE INTERNATIONAL SUCCESS OF TRAIN TO BUSAN, WHILE HIS NEW KOREANOVELA FANTASY, GOBLIN, HAS KEPT NEARLY ALL OF SOUTHEAST ASIA IN THRALL. BUT IT’S LONELY AT THE TOP. IN AN EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW WITH ESQUIRE KOREA, HE SHARES THE UPS AND DOWNS OF FAME, THE ART OF BEING AN ACTOR, AND HOW TO BE A MAN IN TIMES OF TROUBLE.
ESQUIRE: I heard that when you met Eun Sook Kim of Goblin, it was to reject her. After hours of conversation, you were convinced. What changed your mind?
GONG YOO: I kept on running away from that meeting, because that itself was a burden. She’s a star screenwriter and I’ve already rejected her twice. I wanted to meet and thank her for thinking highly of me, but I worried that it might not be polite to reject her after hearing all the details about the drama (laughs). Now it hits me, it was [my manager] Jang Kyun Kim who told me to meet Eun Sook Kim one more time. I think he wanted me to first listen to what they thought of me as an actor. Kim knew exactly what I was afraid of. He knew that I can let go of my own fear a bit through the conversations.
ESQ: And that worked?
GY: Yes, because I shot Goblin after about four months since the first meeting.
ESQ: Considering your run of successes—Train To Busan, The Age of Shadows, and Goblin—can it be said that it is the heyday of Gong Yoo?
GY: I don’t like that expression. I went out for drinks with [actor] Kang-ho Song, whom I had worked with in The Age of Shadows, and I told him, “This year I was so lucky. I do not know why my works are doing well and again I think I’m very lucky.” All of a sudden, he said in all seriousness, “Why do you think it’s luck?” He reproved me. “I can see what you have built up. Modesty is good, but you can only say it so much.”
ESQ: Right. It’s not luck. You worked hard to make it happen. I also know you’re worried that if you say this, people will say you’re putting on airs.
GY: Maybe it’s partly because of the values I learned from my parents, and partly due to the training and exposure to the public as an actor. I hate not being sincere, but I’m [also] afraid of opening up.
ESQ: You’re turning 40 soon. You often say that you have no plan to force yourself to stay as an actor as you get older.
GY: Maybe I’m just saying it repeatedly because I am nervous. It’s kind of self-defense… I understand that I can’t stay young forever, and maybe there is something in me that is preparing for that stage of my life. Acting is a job, but you can’t regard it only as a job. This is the part that’s really hard to explain to other people. Because of this job, I was able to enjoy all the wealth and fame, and I am thankful indeed.
ESQ: But wealth and fame aren’t the main reasons you are an actor. What does it mean to be an actor?
GY: If I had first felt this way after earning a lot of money and becoming famous, I might have been seen as haughty. But, this was the attitude I had from the beginning. I didn’t start by thinking that I should earn a lot of money and succeed. I wished it to be an art form. When I was young, I didn’t even want to use the term “commercial art,” because I was more arrogant. Of course, being in the public eye or or dealing with public opinion was very uncomfortable. It seemed like they were regarding me—the actor, the acting—all too lightly. Of course, they can just laugh and chat, watch TV to fill up time, go to the movies and eat some popcorn—they can do that as the public. They go to de-stress themselves, and watching a movie is sort of an entertainment. But, from the actor’s point of view, that mindset is not enough.
ESQ: How does it feel to have worldwide attention?
GY: In terms of the world’s attention, the breaking point seems to have already come. I feel like I’ve been running. I’m feeling the pressure. I need a break now more than ever. Physical pain is bearable. You can sleep that off after the last take of the day. But, mentally, I felt that I was very exhausted when I was shooting Train to Busan and The Age of Shadows. And that continued while shooting Goblin. I really feel that I need the time to live solely for myself. I worked for two months without a break right after Goblin. So, I didn’t realize it right away. Was it a month and a half after Goblin? I was having all sorts of mixed feelings. Everyone will say Gong Yoo will be feeling as if he’s walking on air. Whatever he does, he will be happy. That’s why it’s harder to speak about myself in front of other people. Because I might say my true feelings, the feelings that don’t match with people’s expectations. That’s what I’m fearful about.
ESQ: When do you feel like a real man, instead of a boy?
GY: I don’t like people who are hard on the weak. [It’s the bullies who] are actually weak. That doesn’t mean that I’ll just go up there and fight that person, but I simply cannot stay and stare doing nothing. At the very least, I squirm. If I weren’t well known, I would probably do more. It’s definitely the moment that someone has to stand up and move, but nobody actually does while everyone just looks at one another wondering what the other might be thinking. That sometimes upsets me… when I cannot interfere. There are all sorts of people in the world. Although this is the world we live in, with all sorts of people mixed together, I sometimes cannot stand this kind of situation. That moment when I decide to say something, that’s when I feel that I am a man. And of course, in front of a woman who I am attracted to, I feel and want to become a man. That’s an instinct.