Lee Min-ho has returned. He made a comeback through SBS’s drama “The Inheritors” which hit air this Wednesday. And that too with scriptwriter Kim Eun-sook who with her Midas touch had turned actors Jang Dong-gun and Hyun Bin into the most attractive drama characters possible. Having witnessed the explosive synergy created by the star writer and star actors, it is impossible not to look forward to Lee Min-ho’s Kim Tan (name of his character). TenAsia got to sit down with Lee for a brief chitchat ahead of his shoot for “Inheritors” in Los Angeles, so with the Lee who was in the process of becoming Kim Tan.
The Lee that TenAsia met with had a straight and sharp nose between his eyes that were so clear they made him look softhearted. And the heavy angles to his face were those of a young man’s. It was a beauty that seemed to explain the reason he is loved in all of Asia. But there was more to him that was discovered through the interview: his seriousness regarding acting, his sturdy attitude, and the right amount of confidence that comes from those who do their jobs properly, made him attractive beyond his beautiful looks. When the interview was over, Lee said he enjoyed getting to talk so excitedly about acting for the first time in a while. So below is the dialogue. Enjoy!
Lee Min-ho finally meets writer Kim Eun-sook. I’m curious to know what sort of things a star actor and star writer talked about on their first encounter.
Lee Min-ho: It actually felt uncomfortable having to play the role of a high school student since I’m turning 27 next year. But the writer told me to just act the way I do right now.
You played the role of a student many times in the beginning of your acting career but hadn’t at all since “Boys Over Flowers.” So what’s the reason you decided to do the drama when it makes you feel uncomfortable?
Lee: I tried to shed myself of the image of being young after “Boys Over Flowers.” But over time, and with my life revolving solely around work, I realized I was becoming an adult and poised. So I wanted to play a cheerful character before I get any older, and this is the choice I decided go to with.
Actors of teenage dramas these days, including the recent tvN series “Monstar,” said they referred to your character Goo Joon-pyo from “Boys Over Flowers” to play their characters. What about you? Did you refer to Goo Joon-pyo to play Kim Tan?
Lee: I tried not to think about Goo Joon-pyo but he had multiple characteristics that were typical of male romantic drama characters so I think that inevitably, there’ll be some scenes where the two seem similar. But I’m very different from then. I’ve changed a lot. So I’m trying not to think about it. When I take on a role, I try to become my character by leaving myself behind and thinking about what my character is like but this time, I emptied myself of all such thoughts and have been acting him out based on what I thought of him when I was first given the role.
It sounds like you’re saying that you’ve changed in the way you approach acting.
Lee: In the past, I usually made myself fit the character I’d play after ridding myself of who I am. So I also usually had a hard time at the beginning of dramas. And I also felt awkward playing my character until I became him completely. But this time, I felt at ease when I did my first shoot.
What do you think is the reason you were able to go into the shoot with such ease? Is it because there are many similarities between you and Kim Tan?
Lee: Not really but I’m similar to him in many ways because the writer was considerate in terms of the way he speaks or the tone at which my acting had to be at. I think that’s why there were fewer parts that I felt were awkward or difficult compared to before.
All actors have their own methods for becoming their characters. What sort of efforts do you put in to become your characters?
Lee: To start with I ask about 50 questions that are important to my character. And I start forming the structure to my character with those. But I try to go with what I feel when I’m on set rather than thinking about all of it too much. I try to go with the flow on set also because I think practicing too much can make my character become awkward. Having good chemistry with your scene partner is important as well.
It sounds like you tried to be as natural as you could this time.
Lee: I tried to be as natural as possible. For example, like actress Kong Hyo-jin is with her acting. And it just so happened that I had wanted to try out such acting anyway. Another thing is that because I’m playing a high school student this time, I told myself that if I think too much while I’m acting, it might backfire. I decided that I’d try to draw out the cheerfulness that’s within me rather than trying to become the high school student I’m supposed to be.
But I heard there’s a dark side to Kim Tan as well.
Lee: I’m not too sure exactly what sort of darkness it’s going to be, but yes. He holds a pain. And the drama will start by presenting it. That’s why there’ll be certain setups that’ll make me look sad although I’m smiling. And therefore, I won’t have to try too hard to act out those emotions.
That’s your strength: you don’t go overboard with your acting. You know how to show that you’re sad without saying that you’re sad. I think your natural acting is why although you’re definitely a star, we don’t see you as one once you take on a role.
Lee: That’s also because when I act, I try to become my character fully by paying a lot of attention to the things on the outside as well. Not once have I had the same hairstyle for my roles and the moment I decide to take on a character, I constantly wonder, ‘What would my character think in this situation?’
And when those thoughts accumulate within you, there’s a moment that you become that character.
Lee: That’s right. Like how you can express a change a character goes through with just a different gaze. In “The Faith” I did a scene where my character Choi Young reminisces on the past and I was able to look young by just giving off a different gaze with my eyes. That was that sort of moment.
I still remember Choi Young’s ending scene very clearly.
Lee: I still remember the beard (laughs). Well, yest, that ending scene was very emotional.
Didn’t you like it because you got to show the truly manly side to you?
Lee: People were split on it. But yes, it truly was a moving ending scene.
It seems like you constantly want to discover your masculinity. It even shows in your photo shoots because you mostly do the ones where you can be masculine.
Lee: I think it’s because I seem more mature than actors my age, which also means I look old (laughs). And that’s probably both the advantage and disadvantage to looking old. But I do want to try playing a really strong character after I’m done with this drama.
Going back to acting, the small and big screen are different in that on the small screen, your acting needs to be more noticeable because you need to show your emotions clearly while on the big screen, it’s better to be natural. But your acting is natural for both so I wonder whether you’re better fit for the big screen.
Lee: I cringe when I have to act out, “I’m sad. Please notice it.” Of course, sometimes you just need to and these days, I think it’s probably better to show my emotions more for such scenes. But I still prefer to hold myself back than be excessive. So I’ve been offered a lot of movie roles since “Boys Over Flowers” but I have yet to find a movie that seems to be ‘it.’ I think that’s why there’s even rumor that I don’t do movies. But that’s not the case. I’d like to do a movie if possible after I’m done with this drama.
What’s the atmosphere like on set? You’re now one of the older cast members.
Lee: You’re right. I’m the oldest among the actors that are playing students so I feel the pressure. Just one project (“The Faith”) ago, Kim Hee-sun was ten years older than me but everyone is younger than me this time.
Well it all goes down to how you see it but it may also be proof of how much you’ve achieved since “Boys Over Flowers.”
Lee: I feel that when I see how good I’ve become when a shoot starts, how I exchange dialogue with the cinematographer or director, and when I just see myself blend in naturally. But I can’t tell if it’s a good or bad thing. A part of me wants to stay a boy that is still on his way to becoming an adult.
What sort of student were you actually in high school?
Lee: I was carefree.
That’s nice to hear because we haven’t had that many chances to see the carefree Lee Min-ho. It’s not like you appear on variety shows or pursue activities outside of acting.
Lee: I’m not gifted in any way artistically. I have no confidence in anything outside of acting. I’m not the type that easily summons up courage. I want to just do what I’m confident of and good at. I did start singing at my fan meetings because I have many chances to meet my fans but it took me a whole four years to get there. And that is, for me to decide that I should do something for my fans, although I now sing for my fans quite well (laughs).
But I still don’t think you’d sing on television.
Lee: I can’t because I know I’m not good enough to (laughs). It’s embarrassing.
Let’s talk about when you were a rookie actor. The truth is that you never had to face controversy over your acting. I heard that you’d been complimented since day one on your job.
Lee: Not at all. Directors scolded me so much when I was young.
But actor Kim Soo-ro is said to have complimented you as someone that could become ‘a national star in six months.’
Lee: Well, it wasn’t because of my acting (laughs).
Then have you ever thought of where you’d be right now if you hadn’t done “Boys Over Flowers”?
Lee: I did in the past. If I hadn’t [been in “Boys Over Flowers”], I would’ve been in a few more productions as a supporting actor and maybe around now, I may have gotten a lead role… That sort of thought.
You did gain quite a strong star image through “Boys Over Flowers.”
Lee: And I don’t try to rid myself of it. I’m sure there are certain things expected of me and I think it’s my first and foremost job to satisfy those. Plus I’m going to be acting for a while so I think that image of me will gradually change without me having to try to shed myself of it right now. I’d like to change naturally as I age.
Shall we talk about your experiences with deviation? Something that everyone is curious about although I’m sure it’s become much more difficult to do so in Korea these days… Maybe because of the rapid developments of social networking services? (laugh)
Lee: That’s right. But it’s the same even when I go overseas (laughs).
Then how do you relieve your stress?
Lee: Fortunately, I don’t get that stressed. So I don’t really need to relieve it. Back in the past, I was once talking with my older sister about this and that and she asked, “Have you never talked about this sort of thing?” And when I answered that I hadn’t, she thought it was weird and said, “How can you live like that?” That’s how little I show my emotions or vent. But I’ve been like this since I was young. (An official with his agency who was sitting next to Lee quips in, “It’s true. He’s not the type that holds grudges either so he never explodes.”)
So it means you have a good personality as well!
Lee: (Laughs) I do think I relieve my stress when I do scenes where I show my anger and such. And I get to date women [in the dramas] as well which is something I don’t get to do openly.
And you don’t drink either.
Lee: I don’t drink soju (Korean liquor). And I’m not a good drinker. My manager gave me something to drink in the past but I just couldn’t. It’s surprising right? I know I look like I’d be a good drinker.
Then what do you usually do when you’re on a break? Exercise?
Lee: I watch the first couple of episodes of all the dramas that are on and I watch movies as well but not a lot of romance or comedies. I like action films and thrillers. Thrillers with twists in particular. And I actually start working out just three months before I start working on a production. I’m on the lazy side. I’m not good at self-management. I work out less and don’t go to the dermatologist either.
You really are a guy (laugh).
Lee: Am I? (Laughs)
And you truly are like a Prince Charming. Ahead of this interview, I thought hard and long about why women like you. And I figured that it’s because like in “City Hunter” or “The Faith” or “Boys Over Flowers,” you have the image of being the Prince Charming that’ll always end up appearing in front of us. You must both like and cringe over the fact that such is the reason you’re loved.
Lee: It’s not like I want to be Prince Charming when I do dramas. But I think I’ve always shown such an image because that’s just the way Korean dramas work. I actually hadn’t thought of myself in that way but I think you’re right. Still, I’ve chosen my projects well so far and I have no regrets. I’ve always learned a lot, I’ve always played different roles, and I will continue to do so.