Who would have thought that a minor part as a lead character’s younger self (in 2003’s Oldboy) would lead to an accoladed career spanning almost two decades, 21 films and 16 television series, not to mention a healthy splattering of music videos and theatrical productions? If there’s one thing that can be said about boyish South Korean actor Yoo Yeon-seok, it’s that he’s a hard-working man who is intensely dedicated to his craft— with a seemingly longer day than the rest of us mere mortals.
Even more exciting is the fact that this year sees the popular 36-year-old thespian in a project that many South Korean actors can only dream about: He plays the male lead in Matin Calme, an international film directed by acclaimed French director Denis Dercourt, alongside actress Olga Kurylenko—better known to moviegoers as the Bond girl in Quantum of Solace (2008).
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It’s a glorious far cry from his humble start in the industry and if all goes well with this detective thriller (in which he plays a Korean detective who teams up with Kurylenko’s French forensic professor character), one could say that Yoo is at the cusp of a new era in his acting career—and it’s about time too. Yoo has more than paid his dues with an extensive portfolio across mediums, and he has to show for it numerous awards from industry ceremonies such as the MBC Drama Awards, the SBS Drama Awards, the Korea Film Actor’s Association Awards and the Asia Artist Awards.
Yet, as the actor tells it, it hasn’t always been the bed of roses that it is for him today. Looking back at his 18-year career, he recounts having to persevere through adversities, never giving up on his dream and, more recently, educating his French co-star on the intricacies of luxury seaweed from South Korea.
Matin Calme is a Hollywood movie filmed in South Korea by a French director. Tell us more about it.
The tone and manner of Matin Calme are different from other films. Except for Olga [Kurylenko], all the actors are South Koreans and the film was shot on location in South Korea, but it’s not like typical South Korean movies, as the main crew is French. The storytelling, too, is quite different from typical French films, where there’s a focus on depicting subtle psychological changes with little visual spectacle elements. I got to work with a foreign crew—which has been an invaluable experience. I’m grateful to Olga and everyone else who came to South Korea and endured the quarantine period to make Matin Calme possible.
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Olga had good things to say about you, not least about your fluent English.
I’m not fluent in English, but I can communicate with simple words (laughs). I’ve been studying English in my spare time and I’ve been practising my pronunciation to be more prepared for Matin Calme. Most of the script was in English and simple French.
It’s said that you took care of Olga and the other actors on set as well.
Every actor has a different personality and while I can’t sync 100 percent with every actor’s style, I’ve tried my best to build rapport and get acquainted with them by conversing with each of them. I’ll often head out to grab a meal with them if I can as well. This is my style of working.
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Is that why you gifted Olga South Korean seaweed on the last day of filming?
Yes, for similar reasons. I asked her what kind of South Korean food she likes and she told me that she loves the seaweed here. I guessed she meant the common one found in the lunch boxes we had on the film site and I wanted her to try more luxurious seaweed. The seaweed that we South Koreans recognise as being of high quality is pretty different from that (laughs). So I gave her the seaweed as a gift and it made me very happy that she liked my present a lot.
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What was working with Denis Dercourt like?
Denis is very energetic. He never directed from the chair; he was running around with a small monitor in his hands and giving directions while next to me. So the film’s progress was prompt and the atmosphere was energetic. That’s how I could finish filming my scenes for a two-hour movie with only 20 shoot sessions. Also, there was no specific storyline, so I had to focus on improvisation while discussing movements with other actors. It was very exciting.
I had a chance to watch Oldboy again recently. You could have
continued your career as an actor with that role under your belt.
Why did you choose to focus on your studies first?
When Oldboy was released (in 2003), I was a freshman in university. Although the film proved popular with the public, it didn’t give me great opportunities as an actor. More importantly, I was not under any agency contract and I didn’t have the desire to move on to the next big project based on that work. Back then, it was fun to just work on that film while taking acting classes at school. I don’t think I would have experienced life as a student otherwise and I enjoyed living the life I had then. Also, I had planned on deciding on an agency and start acting as a professional only after my military service.
After Oldboy, it took 10 years before you rose to mainstream popularity with the role of Chilbong in Reply 1994. What are your thoughts on that?
I’ve never thought of doing anything other than be an actor. If you think of a profession as a lifelong dream, then 10 years would be the minimum period of time to stick with it. That said, for that decade, the results weren’t as good as I had hoped. But I persevered and focused on small achievements; I tried my hand at various roles. Then, Reply 1994 came along and the public finally knew my name.
In addition to acting in movies and TV dramas, you’ve been consistently performing in musicals and plays. You must have a very hectic schedule.
I take great pleasure in seeing the synthesised results of a movie or TV drama after my work is done. And it’s fun to be able to try new things and meet different audiences at the musicals and plays—they’re two different experiences in parallel. I may lose stamina when I get older, so I should do this now while I still can.
You’ve hardly taken a break in the past two years.
These few weeks have been a break for me. If I had been doing this just for the money, I’d have tired quite soon. But being an actor has been a childhood dream and I still enjoy what I do. These days, the process of filming a drama is not as intense as it was in the past, so I can take a day or two off in a week. And when I don’t get enough sleep, I tend to fall asleep immediately when I put my head on anything, so there’s no problem on that front (laughs). I’ve fallen in love with camping recently, so whenever I have a break, I spend it camping, which I think is better than any staycation in a hotel. Some people don’t understand the challenge of leaving the comforts of one’s home or wanting to forgo eating at fancy restaurants. However, for me, it’s rejuvenating to set up a tent with friends, share food prepared by each person and sleep in a tent even if it’s a bit less comfortable.
Your manager told me earlier that you have twice the energy of ordinary people.
Sometimes, people ask me when I’m going to rest. I wonder about that question (laughs). As you can see, I’m resting very well.
Photographer: Jang Dukhwa
Translation: Vicky Jiyun Lyoo
Stylist: Yoon Ji-bin
Makeup: Lee Na-keom
Hair: Beak Hong-kwon
Assistant: Kim Hyung-wook