[Interview] Yoo Yeon-seok with The Lady Miz Diva

Since his 2003 debut in "Old Boy", the most famous South Korean film of all time, the path of actor Yoo Yeon-seok has been a fascinating one. From dry spells, to "overnight success" in the TV drama, "Answer Me 1994"; Yoo has constantly reinvented himself in both character roles in films like "A Werewolf Boy", "Architecture 101", "The Royal Tailor" and "Whistle Blower", and romantic leads in "Beauty Inside" and "Love, Lies"

I'm very honoured to present my exclusive interview with Yoo Yeon-seok, his first to a US publication. We spoke days before the confirmation of his newest role in the upcoming TV drama, "Dr. Romantic" (About which I did ask, but was not allowed by his agency to receive an answer due to the upcoming announcement.).

Yoo and I chatted about the devotion to acting that kept him motivated through the tough times, his international fandom, and his hopes and expectations for the future.

The Lady Miz Diva: Thank you so much for speaking with me. I understand this is your first US interview, is that correct? 

Yoo Yeon-seok: Yes, that's right. It's a great honor that audiences in the world have good feelings about me and I'm so thankful for having a US journalist interested in me.

LMD:  I think many of our readers will know you from your role as Chilbong from "Answer Me 1994". At that point, you had already been working as an actor for a decade. Did you sense this was a breakthrough of some kind, or did it seem like a natural progression? 

Yoo Yeon-seok: I didn't know that the drama would be so big. I couldn't have known. I was sure that audiences would like the drama because the previous series was really cool, and when I first read the script, it was so interesting. So I knew that the audience would like it, but I didn't know that it would be a big hit.

LMD: What did that role do for you professionally?

Yoo Yeon-seok: That role gave me the great chance to be recognised in front of many audiences in Korea. Before the drama, I barely had any chances to do many acting roles, but after that, I was able to have many different chances to play different roles.

LMD: You easily traverse between feature films and television dramas. Is there a difference in preparation for the two mediums? Does it require a different way of thinking? 

Yoo Yeon-seok: There isn't a specific way to prepare for a movie or a drama. There is just one character. It doesn't really matter if it is a drama or a film, because I try to immerse myself in the role, in the acting. Whether it is a drama role or a movie role, I don't differently prepare for anything; I try to submerge into the role.

I majored in film arts at university, so I understand different circumstances in the movie industry. I debuted in the movie called "Old Boy", which was my first work. I understand the processes of the movie industry, as well, so it is not very hard to go back and forth between movies and dramas.

LMD:  You've played some pretty unsavoury characters in movies like "Hwayi : A Monster Boy", "Horror Stories" and "A Werewolf Boy". Do you have to find something redeeming or relatable about those types of characters before you are able to realise them? 

Yoo Yeon-seok: I always try to find the reason why those villains or darker characters should be like that. I don't really care what I do in the movie, but I do try to find out why they are like that and how they have become that way. They don't really realise that they are doing bad things, and like any individual person, they have their own reasons why they are like that; so I need to find out why they became like that.

LMD:  Do you go through the work of creating a backstory for those characters?

Yoo Yeon-seok: I try to communicate with the director a lot, and also, yes, I also try to think about their backgrounds that is not written in the script. Sometimes I even try to write letters and diaries as that person.

LMD:  When you invest so much time and energy playing some of these darker roles, are you able to leave that character on the set at the end of the day, or are you an actor that immerses himself in that persona for the duration of the shoot?

Yoo Yeon-seok: When I'm shooting, I really don't know whether I have the role inside me or not I cannot say that I really leave the character on the set after shooting, because, for example, when I'm acting a villain, all my friends around me say that my smile and the way I act is kind of different. So, I think I do try to have the roles in my life in reality, as well.

That's why when I finish my work, I try to go abroad and experience different things and travel. Whatever I do as Yoo Yeon-seok, the actor, I do the work, and then naturally, I just get back to me.

LMD:  If you could choose the perfect project or aspect of a character that you believe would allow you to best show your talents and abilities, what would it be?

Yoo Yeon-seok: I've been doing little action scenes in dramas in movies, but I haven't tried a real "man's man" character, yet. I'd like to have more roles where I could do more action scenes, or more like a "man's man". Whenever I get the chance to act in a big action sequence, I would always try to do it myself, unless it's extremely dangerous.

LMD:  In my interview with director Yim Soon-rye, she told me she felt so lucky that you took the title role of "Whistle Blower", because the part wasn't very big, but she revealed that your main motivation for taking it was because you wanted to work with actor Park Hae-il. That was interesting because not only was it a supporting role, but it was also your first time playing a father, which many young actors would hold off as long as possible, but you did it. Is the opportunity to work with talent you admire often a motivating factor to you?

Yoo Yeon-seok: Park Hae-il was my role model. That was one of the reasons why I chose the movie.  Working with someone like that could be one reason whenever I choose a movie. Also, the character was kind of interesting to me because the title of "Whistle Blower" in Korean is REPORTER. So, even though my character sacrificed himself, he fought for justice, so the character is very interesting to me, as well.

LMD:  I'm quite surprised because when I hear a story like that, because I think, this is an actor without ego in a business where everything is driven by ego. Is it possible to survive in this business without being calculating or ego-driven?

Yoo Yeon-seok: I do have a little bit of consideration as to whether a movie or a drama is a success in terms of business, but it could be risky because nobody is ever sure whether a project will succeed or not. So, as an actor, I first consider the art.

LMD: Director Lee Wonsuk mentioned in our interview for "The Royal Tailor", how on the set, the pair of you had to be told to be quiet because you were laughing too much and having too good a time. Is that the type of set you prefer to work on, or do you prefer for the set to reflect the mood of the film or character if it's a heavier or darker role? 

Yoo Yeon-seok: I prefer friendlier circumstances on the shooting set, because whenever you shoot, it takes a long period of time, and if it's too serious, it's hard to stay there. It's much better if we have "healing time". "Healing time" is like talking with the coworkers together. So, that is more relaxed and that helps me to get focused when I'm acting.

LMD:  Your career has an interesting trajectory. You debuted in an important small role in "Old Boy", which is arguably the best known Korean film, ever. Then it was hard to find follow-up pieces. It seems like you carried on with life and sort of bided your time until you found success with "Answer Me 1994". What kept you motivated during that dry period to keep acting?

Yoo Yeon-seok: I wished that there might be some movies to follow up "Old Boy", but it was hard to find, and it became a dry time back then. But I always found my excitement and happiness through acting; and all I thought about was acting forever, all the time; so it didn't matter if it was a dry season, or if I couldn't really find a movie like that. I was sure that if I kept on and continued acting, there is a good chance that I would find a follow-up to "Old Boy", too.

LMD:  You have been acting since you were in school. Now you are acting beside very young actors, occasionally, like Park Bo-young {"A Werewolf Boy"}, Yeo Jin-goo {"Hwayi : A Monster Boy"}, or Baro {"Answer Me 1994"}. From your point of experience, do you feel an obligation to help or guide them as their senior?

Yoo Yeon-seok: I try to share things for them to consider together, rather than teaching or guiding them, because they have their own career paths. So, it's more like coworkers discussing our thoughts together.

LMD:  The flip side of that question is do you still value or take advice from your seniors? Do you feel there's still more to learn as an actor?

Yoo Yeon-seok: I like to get advice from my seniors, of course. I'd been learning at school, but still, even as I'm acting more, I sometimes find difficulties. Sometimes I see that there's someone who hasn't {formally} learned anything, but shows their talents, and I learn from that, too. I think there's no finish line in acting, and I should try more and learn more.

LMD: Speaking of learning, you have worked with some of the most talented directors in Korea. Has that inspired you to write or direct your own film? Or have you considered setting up your own production company to acquire films you might want to appear in?

Yoo Yeon-seok: Not yet. I haven't thought about it yet. I had produced some school events - school plays, but I haven't thought about being a movie director, yet. I want to focus on the acting skills at the moment.

LMD: When I originally requested this interview, it was back when "Love, Lies" was being released. At that time, that was your fourth feature to come out in a period of a few months {"Perfect Proposal", "Beauty Inside", "Mood of the Day"}, one right after the other. That was after a drama {"Warm and Cozy"} where you were the lead. I get the sense you were working nonstop since 2013.  Was it time to take a break? 

Yoo Yeon-seok: Back in the day, I couldn't really get the roles that I wanted to play, so when I got those chances, I didn't want to have any breaks. I wanted to try to have many different varieties of characters to challenge me and gain experience. After all of those projects had finished, then I thought that I needed a little break.

LMD: So, what was it like for you to have time off after such a continuous schedule?

Yoo Yeon-seok: It was my first vacation after all of those projects, and I went traveling and doing my hobbies, and I was expecting that I would be so happy to have a holiday, but I just realised that I have more excitement when I'm acting. So, I don't think having a break for a long time was really better to me.

LMD: Workaholic!

Yoo Yeon-seok: {Laughs}

LMD:  One of your projects away from film was a stage musical {LE PASSE-MURAILLE / THE MAN WHO WALKED THROUGH WALLS}. What was that like and what perspective did it give you towards your film acting? 

Yoo Yeon-seok: I always wanted to act on the stage in a play. It was so pleasing doing that at the time. I was having so much happiness performing, so I don't really know how it might affect me in film, but I'm sure it will show in my next movie.

Frankly, when I was acting on the play stage, I could feel the air and the circumstances really changed when I'm really immersed into the role. So, I think it doesn't really matter wherever that is, if I'm acting and putting all of my effort into it, and all my heart into that role, then I think I could change the air and the audience's circumstances around.

LMD:  I've spoken with many film actors from the west who feel like no matter how many movies they do, at some point, they have to go back to the stage to recharge their creative batteries. Can you understand that perspective? Do you feel like that, at all?

Yoo Yeon-seok: I feel 100 percent sure it is a kind of different acting in front of the camera: There's a difference in how I spend my energy. Or like when I'm acting on the stage and I have to say very long lines from the script in one breath. So I feel pretty sure that could be very recharging when you're acting on the play stage.

LMD:  Are there characters in older films or plays that you would like to perform?

Yoo Yeon-seok: It's a really old one, BRAVEHEART, {with} Mel Gibson. So, if there is any movie in Korea that is kind of like that, in the same genre, and if it is historical, then I would like to try it. I'm looking forward to a movie like that that would be made in Korea, because BRAVEHEART is about the independence of Scotland, and I think that Korea has the same in common, and I think we should have that kind of film, too. I'm looking forward to that.

LMD: Well, now that you've brought that up…  We see so many movies lately depicting what Korea endured under the Japanese occupation. You even made "Love, Lies", where your character is arrested and beaten by Japanese policeman. You've just done a fan meeting in Japan that I understand went over very well. As an actor who has international fans, do you worry about the controversy in taking a role that might affect a particular fandom? Or perhaps your Japanese fans seeing that and saying, 'Oh, Yeon-seok doesn't like us'?

Yoo Yeon-seok: I don't want to worry about offending and I don't really care, because acting is just a role. So, I think a real fan of mine will follow my path, so I don't think that I have to have those worries in advance.

LMD: Can you tell us about this film called "A Quiet Dream" by Zhang Lu, who directed the movie, "Gyeongju"

Yoo Yeon-seok: The movie "A Quiet Dream" will be the opening movie in the Busan Film Festival soon. I just took a little cameo role, but I am really happy that it is the opening movie as a participant.

LMD:  When I first introduced myself to your staff as a journalist from New York City who wanted to interview you, the very cute receptionist said, "Really?" sounding quite surprised. How aware are you of your non-Asian fans? 

Yoo Yeon-seok: I didn't expect that non-Asian fans existed in America, or other places. I was so surprised, too, that you wanted to interview me. Also, when I went traveling to Seattle and some people wanted to take pictures of me. It is a great honour and I am very happy to have those fans around the world.

LMD: What is the best way that western fans can support you?

Yoo Yeon-seok: I would really appreciate if they love the work that I do. And further, if they could know more about Korea and visit here - that would be awesome. But it's not easy, so there might be some social network that we can use these days, so we can communicate there and I can share my thoughts with them.

LMD: Do you have a message for your western fans? They don't get to hear from you often.

Yoo Yeon-seok: Thank you so much for all the support and love from abroad from the western fans; for their constant love and interest in me. I'm so happy and grateful to have those fans. And I'm looking forward to doing more global work, so I can try to get those chances to meet those western fans, as well. So tell them that I'll do my best for that and I'm looking forward to it.


~ The Lady Miz Diva

September 9th, 2016


Yoo Yeon-seok's newest drama, "Dr. Romantic" airs November 7th in South Korea. It can be viewed internationally via DramaFever and Viki.

With special thanks to Mr. Yoo Yeon-seok for his generous participation in this interview. Our gratitude to Ms. Yeji Heo, the staff of King Kong Entertainment and interpreter Daisy for making it possible. Graces to Kay of the amazing YeoNiverse International Fan Site for their support. Extra special blessings to the excellent Mr. Lee Wonsuk for his indispensable assistance.


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