[UPDATED Nov 3, 2010-tinysunbl]
Are you an idol?
There is no need to ask this of domestic Korean stars, as the vast majority are easily identified as either idols or not, but in Japanese magazines or interview programs, as well as Hollywood’s entertainment programs, there are a large number of actors who hesitate before this question. Think of Narimiya Hiroki, who frowned and said “If I am called an idol, I feel wronged,” and Leonardo DiCaprio, who openly mocked that question during his <Basketball Diaries> days, or Aoi Yu, who instead replied by talking about her experiences of having been bullied in her student days. Strangely, these scenes of people unwilling to freely reply that they are idols makes the heart falter. Perhaps it is similar to the feeling of waking up one day and unexpectedly finding in the mirror a star staring back at you. Or perhaps it is the expression that if you want your heart and mind to avoid being trapped by the fixed mold of being labeled an idol, you must struggle and fight against it. The moment in which an “idol” demurs that title is one in which the star whom you had seen only as an inaccessibly cool star opens his or her heart. I thought he would obviously put on an excited and bright smile, but he is frowning. My heart is moved.
Around when <Boys of Tomorrow> was about to premiere, producer Kim Jo Kwang Soo said of actor Yoo Ah In, “As he is an idol, I didn’t think he would participate in an indie film,” to which Yoo Ah In replied, “I am not an idol.” People who saw him act in adolescent drama <Banolim> (2003) with Go Ara and Kim Shi Hoo labeled him an idol, but in truth, even in <Banolim> Yoo Ah In was a student who was cynical to the world. His was a character who buried his problems in his heart and easily gamed the school system with good grades. He is equally precocious in next year’s upcoming drama <April Kiss>, in which he will play Cho Han Sun’s child role. It begins with a scene of him reading a T.S. Eliot book, and his character is unable to confess his love because he was overly-conscious of a friend. The roles he has taken since, including those in Director Noh Dong Seok’s <Boys of Tomorrow> and Jung Yoon Chul’s <Shim’s Family> are creations that further deepen his identity as a non-idol star. Though his looks are as bright and lovely as ordinary idol stars, he is simultaneously critical, as if he is accustomed to being hurt. Like the languid and cynical Weezer song <Butterfly>, whose notes spilled out of the background of a Sunday drama targeted toward young people, behind the giftwrap of this actor’s sweet name lies a weighted, hidden darkness.
Yoo Ah In starred in <Antique Bakery> (hereafter <Antique>). He takes on the role of an injured former boxer-turned-pâttisière apprentice. Unlike his former roles, he overcomes his pain in a cheerful and straightforward way. He eats all the cake he can get his hands on and spits out whatever he feels like saying. Though in truth the star of the movie is not Yoo Ah In but rather Joo Ji Hoon, the character of Kibum, who bumps into this and that in his efforts to clumsily resolve his own problems, cannot help but draw one’s eyes from the movie’s start to its finish. Though he is still fighting, this time he laughs. This is how I met Yoo Ah In. The person who had gained 5kg for his role laughs more easily than I thought he would, and was also more cautious than I thought he would be. Though it was no longer necessary to come to this point and ask him, ‘are you an idol,’ to the different question of ‘Where are you, this non-idol, right now’ he would change his response so that each time it would be new. If his past was to prove the fact that he is not ordinary, it would seem that Yoo Ah In’s future is to confirm that this uniqueness is truly his. These are the questions I asked of Yoo Ah In within 100 minutes. And his answers.
Q. How do you feel upon watching the movie?
A. To begin with, I am satisfied with it. I think some people were successfully deceived by the marketing strategy and thought that it was simply a movie starring four pretty boys. (Laughs) I think the most important thing was how naturally the four men relate among one another, and on this point, I am satisfied.
Q. How was the role of Kibum?
A. I think he is just a young kid. If the roles I have done before are unique/uncommon kids, Kibum is clean-cut, healthy, simple young character. Just because you add the label of youth [to a character] doesn’t mean that you always need to establish something special [about him].
Q. Kibum has less scenes than I thought he would. I wondered if perhaps Kibum’s story was neglected a bit. Are there parts that were edited out?
A. It’s a movie that cut out quite a lot. (Laughs) Because [the directors] were focused on the conclusion of the movie as a whole, I don’t feel sad about it. I just think of it as a delicious movie in which I was a sufficiently-used ingredient.
A. (Laughs) I actually really don’t like exercising. This was the first time I’ve ever learned how to do an expert’s job for an acting role. Even though it was something I obviously had to do, it was quite hard. I basically just did as much as I needed to for the movie to flow well, but having to go to the action school and work out for an hour each time was hard.
Q. I saw an interview with Joo Ji Hoon-ssi where he said that you gave one another constructive criticism on your acting as you filmed. What kind of process was this?
A. Rather than showing independent characters, this movie has so many parts where the four of us would gather together, so we spent time talking about how each of us should act in order to combine harmoniously into one scene. It wasn’t like, ‘act this way,’ or ‘act that way;’ it was about what we could do to make a more delicious cake. I think [facial] reactions were important. And rather than telling me to do this or that, I think they left me in my space.
Q. But still, isn’t your personality one that can’t let go of the character of Kibum?
A. Yes, that’s true. I do regret not being able to express more of what Kibum had to show. But when I think of what I thought of Kibum’s character in the beginning [as compared to now], I am satisfied with the result. Just the health of a 21-year-old kid. I think I was able to show how a kid that age is.
Q. It seems that you think you are personally somewhat distant from the health, brightness, and energy of a kid in his young 20s.
A. Yes. (Laughter) I’m definitely not as healthy as Kibum. I’m not as healthy as people my own age. Of course, when I am with my friends I laugh and fool around and curse and play around, but there is a lot I lack in this dimension. The difference has nothing to do, I think, with the [lack of] my experiences, but rather the depth of my worries and thoughts. I am not a person who has had a wide variety of experiences, but I think about and reflect more deeply on the same experiences than others do, I think. The characters I have played are like this, too.
Q. I saw that you said that the character of Kibum was like a miracle drug for you. The reason was that you were afraid you would miss the healthiness of your young age and completely pass it by.
A. I just think that I fell too deeply into the ways in which I was different from other people. I thought it was really special and when I was younger, I thought it made me superior. But then I thought, what if the truth is just that I am not able to show what other kids my age can show? I am still afraid of each moment passing by. In the time we did the photo shoot earlier, I became older. People have said I’ve changed, but those aren’t words I welcome. Even though I don’t know why I’m like this (laughter). To be young means to fall into obsession even when you know nothing, when you can’t think. I guess it’s because I can’t be like that? (Laughter) So before it all passes by, I want to write about this moment in my journal. I want to leave a record of it in writing.
Q. Was there a moment that specially caused you to think this way?
A. To be honest, in the past I didn’t go out of my way to talk about how I was different, how I was different or special compared to other kids my age. Even if somebody would say that kind of thing to me, I just shyly let it go. But now I say it. I’m different. (Laughter) I began thinking that way as I started <Antique> and have continued to do so until now. People would ask me why I enjoy pain. But now I don’t enjoy it or find satisfaction from it. I want to be a bit healthier and I want to be more like other kids my age. (Laughter) I would also like to be able to see only what’s right before my eyes and only think about that, but I don’t know why I can’t do that. I don’t know why the things right in front of me don’t impact me whatsoever. I don’t like that I’m this way. It’s still hard to express it in words. It’s a process I’m fighting. (Laughter)
Q. From <Banolim> to <Boys of Tomorrow>; <Shim’s Family> to the drama <Strongest Chilwoo>, many of the characters you have taken on have the feeling of having had to mature quickly. They are characters that have many problems they must deal with and solve. When you see these scripts, what is the foremost thing that comes to your mind?
A. Right now, there are just two things. In <Boys of Tomorrow>, I wanted to tell my own story, and in <Shim’s Family>, I wanted to be a part of that movie. I think that the director’s name and which company is investing in it are factors you have to think about only later.
Q. Do you consider [the character’s] personality a lot?
A. Yes. One’s taste in movies is also centered in personality. My main matter of concern is people.
Q. Although your decision is of course the most important, when you are choosing projects, do you listen to the opinions of your company?
A. They do give me advice, but I don’t listen to it. Hahaha. I don’t think I’ve done anything I didn’t want to do because my company told me to do it. Though of course it is important to consider how I am perceived [by outsiders] as an actor from my company, I don’t think I have ever suffered any damage because of that. Of course, there are occasionally times when I have to do things I don’t really want to do. But whenever that happens, I think, ‘Ah, I really shouldn’t be doing this.’ (Laughter) It’s not just because I don’t want to do it, it’s because it hurts me deeply. It’s like I become ill.
Q. What kind of things hurt you?
A. Um…. Even when I do an interview that puts me in a bad mood, I really want to die. An interview is something that basically is supposed to be a conversation, you know? But when it’s not like that. When I am being dissected and analyzed by the other person. When I am doing my best not to be hurt and this system is pushing me helplessly into a corner.
Q. I’m nervous now. (Laughter) What kind of interview puts you in a bad mood?
A. (Laughter) It’s when the other person doesn’t listen to what I am saying and just tries to find [what they want to see] within my words. There are also reporters who want to assert their own authority. To be honest, I am not the type that easily gives the kinds of answers people are looking for. So one time, I suppose a certain reporter was getting frustrated, and he said, “If you want to look good to reporters, you shouldn’t say things like that.” But I didn’t come here to look good to you. I’m not asking you to please [package me nicely] and sell me.
Q. What did you reply?
A. I didn’t say anything. Would I would have gotten in a fight with that reporter right there? Honestly, it’s something that’s obviously worth fighting, and then I truly hate myself for not doing so. I can show as much of myself to them as they are willing to see, but they only care about seeing a small part. When all they can see is this small part, how can they ask me to show you anything? That’s the kind of feeling I get. It’s a shame. Isn’t an interview a simple means of publicity? Something that makes my name a bit more known. Something that pushes me forward? Ah. Let’s talk about the movie now. (Laughter)
Q. (Laughter) Okay. Let’s talk about something a little bit different. It’s not exactly about the movie, but you participated in a drama for the first time in 5 years this year. As Heuksan in <Strongest Chilwoo>.
A. It just seemed like a role I hadn’t been able to try before, so I took it. That drama was, to be honest, um…. I tried extremely hard not to regret my choice. That was the most important. The viewer ratings weren’t very high and it didn’t receive favorable critical reviews, but it was a personal experience. It was actually very difficult. It was more difficult than the suffering endured by the characters I played in movies. I don’t want to do it ever again, but I’m satisfied that I just tried something like that. It was so, so hard. Really.
Another translated version: I thought the character (Heuk San) wasn’t something I would ever have the opportunity to play. While filming, truthfully… Uhm… I did try my best not to regret my choice (decision). That was the most important thing. (The drama) did not do well in ratings or was thought highly by the critics but it was an experience for me on personal level. It was very difficult for me. It was more painful than any emotion I have ever felt while playing a movie character. I do not want to repeat (the experience) again but I am satisfied with the fact that I did try. (It was) very, very difficult. Really.
Q. Was it because of the physical challenges?
A. No, the physical parts didn’t matter. The environment was not a happy one. I couldn’t be myself. It was frustrating. Communication didn’t work well. And the director was authoritative. (Laughter) I had told myself to be careful of these kinds of stories, but why am I talking so comfortably today? Um…anyway, it is what it is. The feeling that an actor can be used as a tool and can become a machine is a very unpleasant one. It would been nice if we had been able to converse more and had listened to one another more in order to make a better product, but it wasn’t like that. To be honest, I had planned to wait a bit longer and try a drama later on. But then I thought I would just try it first and then discuss it later…. I wouldn’t want to go back and do it again.
Another translated version: No, I did not mind the physical part. The filming location was not a fun place to be. I could not be myself and that was frustrating. Poor communication and the director was authoritarian… *smile* I thought to myself that I should be careful about what I say but why do I feel so relaxed today? Uhm… Anyhow, what is not is not. As an actor, the feeling of being used as an instrument or a machine was not pleasant. To make a better product, it would have been nice if there were a lot of dialogue and listening (to each other) but it was not so. I actually thought about doing dramas much later. But, I thought let’s just do it first then think… Now, I don’t want to do it ever again.
Q. When you decided to do <Strongest Chilwoo>, I wonder what you were most worried about in taking on a historical drama? I thought that the actor Yoo Ah In still looked a bit young to be appearing in historical dramas.
A. Thinking and worrying about the character is actually never difficult. I can always manage to do it. I’m sorry to fans who saw <Strongest Chilwoo> and came to like me because of it, but it is not a happy memory for me.
Q. But didn’t you tan?
A. (Laughter) What? No, I didn’t purposefully get a tan [for the role]. I’m naturally dark.
Q. Your skin seems to have gotten darker compared to the past. I thought perhaps you had done it in order to obtain a stronger, more manly appearance.
A. (Laughter) No. I don’t want to become a manly man. I would like it if I could just naturally show my changing, growing self.
Q. It seems that your mini-hompy is a very important part of Yoo Ah In the actor. Unlike other celebrities, you write your own deep thoughts. And they are quite cynical.
A. Um…. I’m not actually always depressed and cynical and negative. (Laughter) I just want to take things that graze people by without them realizing, wrap them up prettily, and really reveal them. And I also don’t want to become a mannequin for the masses. At first [people would say] I was trying too hard to seem mature. That I was doing this to look cool–I heard that a lot. But now I think it has naturally become a part of me.
Another translated version:Uhm… I am not always melancholy, cynical, or negative. *smile* I just want to expose things that people never notice and pass by or things they want to dress up in pretty packages. I don’t want to be a public mannequin, either. At first, people said I was pretending to be mature or trying to appear cool. But now it feels like part of my nature.
Q. Are you conscious of the people who will read your writing?
A. Of course. My mini-hompy is just one of the ways I have to satisfy my urge to express myself. And of course, I’m also driven by the desire to have people see what I write. Right now, I just think of it as something good.
Q. This may be an embarrassing question, but a picture of you sitting on a purple sofa and applying lip balm made its rounds on the internet and was used as “evidence” that Yoo Ah In is gay. Netizens framed all kinds of guesses and comments as if they were testimonials and spread them around, but you wrote underneath the photo, ‘Try what you will.’
A. I wanted to make them ashamed of themselves. The actual person behind the distorted and misrepresented rumors going around is like this. Play with it if you want. It was that kind of feeling. I was hurt; I was frustrated. Not because they were talking about something that embarrassed me, but because I didn’t like that I had become a toy for anyone. I could have just deleted the photo to stop the rumors if I didn’t want them to spread, but I wanted them to look back on this after some time had passed and be ashamed of themselves.
Another translated version: I wanted them to feel ashamed. The creator of such overblown, false, and distorted rumor is really like this. Do what you will. That was my attitude. I was hurt. Frustrated. It wasn’t that they touched a sensitive issue but I hated the fact that I became a plaything (to them). If I didn’t want to be abused, I could have taken down the picture but I had hoped that when they revisit after awhile they would feel ashamed.
Q. Rumors from the internet and the media seem to persist in following actors the more that they use these things [i.e. the Internet, etc]. How do you take care of worries like this?
A. I’m not really sure about this. Senior actors say to just ignore it; that [responding] just draws more interest, but I can’t do that. I still get hurt and it’s still hard. On one side of it, I see that the disillusionment that the public has toward celebrities is severe. It’s not because the public likes to insult or curse at [celebrities] or because they are bad people; it’s because celebrities lie [to them] every day. Because they are wrapping themselves up in exaggerations [T/N: making themselves sound grander and more important then they are]. As a ridiculous example, everyone lies about having had or not having had plastic surgery.
Q. You’re not smoking today.
A. Isn’t this a no-smoking zone? I feel like I’m going crazy. (Laughter)
Q. When did you begin smoking?
A. (Laughter) Sixteen?
Q. You live alone now, right?
A. Yes. Ever since I was 17 years old.
Q. It’s known that you were scouted outside of your high school and came to Seoul. Did you drop out of school?
A. I transferred to a school in Seoul, and then I dropped out.
Q. What was the reason?
A. There are actually several reasons. Um…. (Laughter) They’re not big reasons. I just didn’t like [school]. I didn’t cause trouble in school, but I just think the school system didn’t match with me very well.
Q. So does that mean you took the high school equivalency exam and then went to university?
Q. I think I saw somewhere a comment you wrote that university life is fun for you.
A. I’ve never written a comment like that. (Laughter) I’ve never had the [typical] college student lifestyle. I went to class two or three times. Because I hadn’t been in school for a long time, I went with the thought that maybe college would be fun, but it wasn’t particularly different. When I first started going to college, a senior came to me and said this. Are you going to go to class. Or are you not. (Laughter) I should go, of course. I already paid the money. I went again, but this time a senior who was younger than me came and said ‘This is not how you should conduct your life out in society.’ (Laughter) Hahaha. I shouldn’t go. I am the same, but I think that other people see me with a certain prejudice and want me to be normal within [that prejudice].
Q. You participated in the (November 10th) broadcast of <Come To Play>, right? Weren’t you uncomfortable?
A. It was uncomfortable. I think I did it just because I had to. I think I was shown in a way that really isn’t who I am. It isn’t easy for me to adjust to any social system. (Laughter) If it’s laid out before me, I figure out some way to do it, but when I do it’s really unhealthy for me. I get sick. (Laughter)
Q. Actors are also celebrities, but I feel like you aren’t the type of celebrity who has a smooth and even life. Do you get advice from people in your company?
A. We don’t talk very much. A little while ago, I was talking with people in the office and it seemed like they know me less than the fans who like me. (Laughter) My fans help me see the road I should go down, or what I want, but I realized that the people I work with aren’t able to catch that. I told them that I don’t want to be an actor who shows just “okay” emotions, or who acts just “okay,” or who is just sort of molded or made. I want to make a world just my own when I receive a certain role. I don’t want Yoo Ah In to live a double life.
Q. This is the last question. It’s a bit cliché, but as an actor what dream do you have for yourself?
A. I’ve mentioned this a few times these days, but I would like the actor Yoo Ah In to show through [my roles], like in <The Truman Show>. Not everything is shown; just parts or spots here and there. But within that, you can see that Yoo Ah In lives, [that there is a genuine piece of Yoo Ah In behind the role]. I pay attention to those kinds of things when I act. That’s really the only thing that you have as your own.
Source: Written by Jeong Jae Hyuk. Photographs by Lee Hye Jung. Stylist: Ja Seong Eun. Hair/makeup: Choi Eun Jin. Clothes: General Idea, System Homme, Dr. Martin.