Man at His Best

Gong Yoo Bares His Soul and Reveals a Vulnerable Side to Esquire

Probably his most intimate interview ever.

BY Shin Kiju | Jul 26, 2017 | Film & TV

Edited by Baik Jinhee, Addtional edits by Zul Andra, Photographs by Hong Janghyun, Styling by Lee Hyeyoung

Fending off the undead handed him his first international breakthrough, but Gong Yoo’s ride on the Korean Wave wasn’t as charming as the princely roles he has been dying to shed. In this exclusive interview, the Train to Busan leading man examines his struggles with acting and living—in preservation of his art and in defiance of the unnatural.

Esquire: What would have happened if you had not been cast in Guardian: The Lonely and Great God? I heard that you turned down the role many times.

Gong Yoo: Yes, it might seem like a big deal looking in from the outside.

Esquire: Guardian was the next big hit after Descendants of the Sun, A Gentleman’s Dignity and Secret Garden—all written by Kim Eun-sook. What do you mean by it might seem like a big deal? You kept turning down the role.

Gong Yoo: I can’t list the reasons why, but I have missed many opportunities to do great work. I am not a possessive person when it comes to other people or material objects. It’s both a strength and a weakness. I’m turning 40 soon, and I’ve accepted this as an inalienable truth.

Esquire: Why does that gulf exist?

Gong Yoo: Not being possessive has helped me continue this long road as an actor. At the same time, I need to console and justify to myself every moment that I lose something—this weakens me. On things that I refuse to acknowledge, I regard them as not mine to own in the first place.

Esquire: Possessiveness is a state of owning something that is not yours. “If I had not been cast in Guardian, it was not meant to be mine” would be hard for a possessive person to say.

Gong Yoo: Of course, my agency would have regretted it just as much.

Esquire: I can imagine Kim Jang-kyun [CEO of Management Soop] crying in regret. Maybe this was exactly why Eun-sook waited five years for you. For a screenwriter who can turn anyone into a star by playing a role in her dramas, that’s a rather big deal.

Gong Yoo: Eun-sook said that she waited for me for five years? I didn’t count the years. But in a way, it’s true, I couldn’t commit to it when she first suggested the role [for Guardian] because I was just discharged from military service at that time.

Esquire: Since you had just left the army, wouldn’t that be the best time to get back into the industry—a project with the revered Eun-sook no less?

Gong Yoo: I am just that type of person. My mind always stays the same. Not obsessed, not many regrets, not sentimental. I still recall the conversation with Jang-kyun when Eun-sook first pitched the role to us.

Wool and cashmere jacket, cotton shirt, wool trousers and leather shoes, all by Louis Vuitton.

Esquire: What was the conversation like?

Gong Yoo: He gave me the script and said, “I know that you won’t be in it, but I just want to show it to you because I know that this will be successful.”

Esquire: Why did he think that you won’t be in it?

Gong Yoo: Jang-kyun knows me very well.

Esquire: That you are not the type of person to choose a role based on how popular you might end up being or how much attention you will receive?

Gong Yoo: Also, I was more interested in films than dramas. I am not trying to compare drama work with film work because both are attractive in their own way. But at that time, working in films was a priority for me.

Esquire: [In 2011] you accepted roles in the films Finding Mr Destiny and Silenced.

Gong Yoo: Silenced should have been first. I read the book during my military service, and I wanted to see if it was possible to adapt the story into a movie while I was off-duty during the holidays.

Esquire: The fact that you selected Silenced as your first choice explains why Eun-sook couldn’t cast you in her drama.

Gong Yoo: At that time, I wasn’t the kind of person who would jump straight into a script, especially one as big as Eun-sook’s. I had more than 10 years of experience by then and knew what would be successful or not. I remember saying this when I handed the script back to Jang-kyun and told him that Guardian would be successful.

Cotton twill coat, wool cardigan, poplin shirt, wool trousers and canvas sneakers, all by Louis Vuitton.

Esquire: And you still rejected it. Didn’t he ask you for a reason?

Gong Yoo: He did not. That’s why we’ve worked together for a long time.

Esquire: In the end, you met Eun-sook and chose to do Guardian. What I heard was that you initially decided to meet her to reject the role once and for all, but after hours of conversation, you changed your mind.

Gong Yoo: To explain that, I must elaborate on my thought process. When I know that I can’t accomplish a project, I won’t take it on. That motivates me because I’m clear about what I can or cannot do. It’s something that I take responsibility for. It was the same thing when I was working on The Age of Shadows and Train to Busan. Even when the director praised me for the scenes that I’d done, it was hard for me to accept it if I felt that I wasn’t being authentic that day.

Esquire: How do you process that?

Gong Yoo: I just can’t. I internalise it and blame myself. In a way, I beat myself up for it. The pain intensifies the more I question the authenticity of my acting. Being true to myself is very important to me. I can’t lie to myself. Even if everyone said that my acting is great, I can’t shrug off the knowledge that it wasn’t true for me at that time. That’s why being an actor is a very lonely job.

Esquire: And that same actor chose Eun-sook’s Guardian. How did the conversation pan out?

Gong Yoo: I kept trying to avoid that meeting because it was a burden to me. She’s a star screenwriter. I had already rejected her offer twice. I wanted to meet and thank her for thinking highly of me, but I was worried that it might not be polite to reject her. She might be upset. So maybe it’s best to not meet her in the first place.

Esquire: That’s what you’re really like.

Gong Yoo: [Laughs] Come to think of it, Jang-kyun could have intentionally made it happen. He told me to meet Eun-sook and Lee Eung-bok [director of Guardians] that one time. I think he wanted me to listen to what they thought of me as an actor first. Jangkyun knew what I was concerned about.

Esquire: And that worked.

Gong Yoo: Yes, because I shot Guardian four months after the first meeting.

Esquire: Why did you change your mind?

Linen shirt by Louis Vuitton.

Gong Yoo: A work is joyful when there is synergy between the actor and the scriptwriter. They say that a movie is the director’s art, a drama is the screenwriter’s art, and a play is the actor’s art, but I think there are many different layers to that. It’s important to me how each of those layers work with each other to create something no one would expect.

Esquire: This is the kind of stubbornness that makes you a special actor. Some actors would beg to work with Eun-sook.

Gong Yoo: I was nervous when I met her. She wasn’t the person that I expected. Here’s a woman who cares and I could see that by how she looked at me. It was exactly the same with Eung-bok who sat next to her. I actually wished he wasn’t there, but then, it’d have been even harder to reject the role. Throughout our conversation, we didn’t even discuss Guardian much.

Esquire: When you first read the script, you might have realised the deep sadness that your character had to endure. Maybe that pulled you in. Out of all her dramas, Guardian seems to be the saddest one Eun-sook has ever written.

Gong Yoo: I agree. Look at the title. Guardian: The Lonely and Great God. It doesn’t seem like anything special, but it explains what the story is about in its entirety. Eun-sook is suddenly regarded as a genius. The beginning of the TV series is encapsulated in the title.

Esquire: What does being lonely mean to you? It’s different from being an introvert. I always thought that it’s about enduring loneliness out of faith for hope.

Gong Yoo: [Smiles] Yes, I do see it that way, but I’ve many thoughts now. I’d like to confront the many loose ends in my life. I had the same victim’s mentality when working on The 1st Shop of Coffee Prince. Now, at age 37, I still feel the same. It’s about time that I tied up those loose ends.

Esquire: You are like Kim Shin [his character in Guardian] in a lot of ways. Kim Shin behaves like he’s the strongest man on Earth but he is insecure.

Gong Yoo: My weak side probably empowered me to play the role.

Esquire: Was that why you wanted to avoid meeting Eun-sook in the first place?

Gong Yoo: When I spoke to Eun-sook, she told me that she’s not the type who’d write a script in stone for actors to abide by. She told me that she would let me play the character in the best way that I know how. But what sealed the deal for me was when she said, with unquestionable honesty, that “I am not going to mess around just because my previous works were successful. I will work hard so trust me.” She wasn’t the star screenwriter that I had imagined, and she wasn’t kidding. She was authentic and reassuring.

Cotton shirt by Louis Vuitton.

Esquire: If someone opens up like that, there’s no reason not to reciprocate.

Gong Yoo: Even if Guardian wasn’t successful, I would’ve never blamed her for that. I was more amazed by the power behind the storytelling. The power that makes the audience fall for her work. That’s when I started to trust her. She couldn’t predict the success of the series either, but she kept her faith for so long before Guardian was even in production

Esquire: You see it that way because of the kind of actor that you are.

Gong Yoo: She also monitors everything from the editing room. She watches every scene and focuses on the performances. She will introduce subtle details into the script, throw in lines and if an actor performs well, she throws in even more.

Esquire: One of the most important scenes in Guardian was the death of Ji Eun-tak [a joyful high school student played by Kim Go-eun]. Kim Shin had to accept that with a magnitude of quiet sadness in him. What did you have to go through for that scene?

Gong Yoo: It’s sadder to think of it right now. When I was doing that scene, the pressure was immense. I was exhausted for an entire day because of it. On that day, Go-eun and [Lee] Dongwook helped me a lot. They read their lines before me. I wasn’t with them, I stayed in a dark corner with an earphone plugged in. On a normal day, I’d joke around with them, but they knew that the scene was important to me, and that it was also very hard. So, they left me to my own devices. Despite my best efforts, I don’t think I did well for that scene. The pressure was so great that I can’t remember if I was feeling sad or not. I’m feeling the pain now because it was a scene that I regretted not doing better in. There’s a scene in Train to Busan when I abandon my daughter. In interviews, many have said that it was an extremely sad scene. I am asked to shamelessly say that I’m proud of that scene, but that’s difficult for me to do because I don’t like that scene. Even though it was the scene that moved many to tears, I don’t think it was a good enough performance on my part. After the take, I went up to the director to confess and apologise.

Esquire: The importance of being authentic is perhaps your greatest strength. That’s the lonely life of an actor.

Gong Yoo: I talked a lot today.

Esquire: Should we talk about something else? I watched The Suspect again yesterday because I consider it to be your breakout role.

Gong Yoo: If you spend three to four months dieting and shaping your body for action scenes, you become mentally exhausted. Those who have never gone through that won’t understand it. Not sleeping, not eating, that’s torture.

Esquire: If Guardian was about loneliness, The Suspect is all about pain. But still, people thought that you took on that role because you wanted to regain your female audience. Once you’ve shaped your public image, you can either choose to break it or stay in it.

Gong Yoo: In fact, I knew what kind of misunderstanding it will bring. It’s stereotypical of an actor to want to do a one-man action movie after their military service. I didn’t want to do that. But even if I didn’t care what other people thought, they’d already made up their minds. I didn’t want them to think that I was out to break away from my image in Coffee Prince, but rather the role in The Suspect interested me.

Esquire: People talk a lot.

Gong Yoo: After a preview of The Suspect, the audience commented that it was too chaotic or the running time was too long. What can I do? I gave it my all.

Esquire: What about the TV series, Big?

Gong Yoo: People said that Big was the main reason why I did not want to do a drama again.

Esquire: Is that true?

Cotton shirt, knitted tank top, wool trousers and canvas sneakers, all by Louis Vuitton.

Gong Yoo: Does perfect work exist? The cinematographer of Big [Kim Sihyeong] also worked on Love in the Moonlight. The same guy also worked on Descendants of the Sun and is close to the director of Guardian. The director of Big [Ji Byung-hyun] thought that I wanted to leave the drama industry because of him. I told him not to think like that.

Esquire: Why so?

Gong Yoo: Actually, I have never blamed the directors or the writers. How does one continue to maintain success? 2016 and 2017 were special to me. If I had always wanted to do good, I would not have chosen the projects that I did. I should have weighed the pros and the cons more. But if I approached it that way, I would not be able to withstand the hardship. Even now, it’s hard for me to choose the projects that I want to do—it’s all a business and that’s the producer’s responsibility. I can’t keep doing it the way that I’ve been doing it. I want to do something that makes sense to me, the ups and downs of work is a secondary issue.

Esquire: With Train to Busan, The Age of Shadows and Guardian, you are at the peak of your career. It’s your heyday. To be honest, I don’t like that expression, I don’t want to define a time in life within a word.

Gong Yoo: I had a drinking session with Song Kang-ho [The Age of Shadows, Snowpiercer, The Host]. Since he is also from Gyeongsang, he finds it hard to open up to people. I guessed that we are from the same province and there are times when I can feel him even if he doesn’t say a word. During the drinking session, I told Kang-ho that I don’t know why my work has been well-received, and that I might have just been lucky. Kang-ho turned to me all serious and asked, “Why do you think that it’s luck? You’ve built it. Modesty is good, but you do not have to talk about it too much.” I had a lump in my throat when he said that.

Esquire: Right. It’s not luck. You built it, but you are also worried that people might think you’re being boastful.

Gong Yoo: Maybe it’s because my parents brought me up to be modest, and it’s also partly due to the training that I’ve received as a public figure. I hate not being sincere, but I’m afraid of opening up to anyone. It’s suffocating.

Esquire: You are facing the big 4-0 right in front of you. You often say that you have no plans to force yourself to continue acting.

Gong Yoo: Maybe I only say that because I’m nervous of what the future might bring—the fear of disappearing into oblivion. I do acknowledge that you can’t stay young forever and the time will come. Maybe it’s a sort of defensive mechanism, I’m preparing myself for that moment.

Esquire: Then, what is the meaning of acting to you?

Gong Yoo: I wish it could be an art form. When I was younger, I was arrogant about this and refused to consider my work as commercial. I wanted to be doing artistic work, not commercial work. So, I behaved all classy. Of course, this wasn’t received well in the public eye. It seemed to me that people regard the work of an actor too lightly. People can have a laugh, watch TV to pass the time or kick back with some popcorn and enjoy a movie. Destress. But to me, to an actor, that laidback mindset is not enough. Imagine how cocky I’d have been if I didn’t care about what I should or shouldn’t say as a public figure. I do think that I lack many qualities that a celebrity should have.

Esquire: Well, that’s who you are.

Gong Yoo: I feel like I’ve had enough of being in the public eye. I feel like I have been running away from the pressure. I need a break more than ever. The physical pain is bearable. Shooting Train to Busan and The Age of Shadows, and Guardian right after that left me exhausted. There’s a desperate need to live a life for myself.

Esquire: Time to take a break.

Gong Yoo: I wasn’t recovering after working on Guardian and there were all these loose ends from it that came at once that left me without much time for myself. I need to let everything go.

Esquire: How?

Gong Yoo: I should have another new character to escape from my lonely character in Guardian. Maybe I should make myself busy again. Maybe giving myself a new character will ease the pain of loneliness. I have never thought of it that way. Maybe I need another kind of work to forget.

Esquire: Well, you have interpreted the Louis Vuitton Fall/Winter 2017 collection really well. Are you usually into fashion?

Gong Yoo: I like the fact that I get to work on this fashion spread. My knowledge of fashion is bound by common sense. I don’t know much, really. I’m a T-shirt, jeans and sneakers kind of guy. That is why I appreciate this Louis Vuitton collection. It’s my kind of taste.

Esquire: Last question. Throughout our conversation, it seems like there’s a sword protruding from your heart. Perhaps it’s time to find a person who can take it out.

Silk shirt by Louis Vuitton.

Gong Yoo: If you phrase it that way, I don’t think there is anyone who could do that. I don’t think that it’s a question about a relationship. This interview is the first authentic interview that I’ve done since Guardian wrapped, and it has reached deep within me. I just wanted to open up and share the weight on my shoulders. Maybe I can just break down right now. I feel like I’m in a desert, thirsty, and I can’t see anything in front of me. It’s so unbearable that I just want to reach out to someone, anyone. But that’s not easy. The feeling of isolation. The sword in my heart. It hurts. I can’t take it out. Someone might be able to, but I’m in a position where I can’t ask anyone to do that. Even now, I don’t think that anyone can. Maybe I should ask.

Esquire: There must be that one person who can see the sword.

Gong Yoo: That’s right. It’s a little scary that the analogy matches me too perfectly. Although I don’t think anyone can take the sword out from my heart, I still believe that someone might. I’d like to share my story. I think I need to.

This article was first published in Esquire Singapore, June/July 2017.