South Korean actor Gong Yoo could be forgiven for feeling invincible. He has fought off zombie hordes in the film Train To Busan, and lived to be 939 years old in the drama Goblin, to become his country’s No. 1 actor after both those projects emerged tops in the past year.
In real life, armies of female Goblin fans behave as if he shares the qualities of the titular character he plays – an immortal being blessed with good looks, immense wealth and super powers.
Gong’s suave Goblin character has even charmed celebrities such as Hong Kong actress Carol Cheng and Taiwanese singers Christine Fan and Jolin Tsai.
At the height of such lofty fame and acclaim, what does he do? Put a pin to the balloon.
“They have been fooled by my character in the drama. Tell them, I’m sorry,” he says of the many smitten fans of Goblin, oozing the self-confidence of a truly strong man who is unafraid to reveal his vulnerabilities.
Speaking via a translator in an interview with The Straits Times last Friday, ahead of his sold-out fan meet in Hong Kong, Gong, 37, sounds level-headed about being labelled Korean entertainment’s biggest star.
“Although I am sensing the popularity I have gained from Train To Busan and Goblin, in actual fact, my mood or feelings have not changed greatly due to that. I am just thankful for the support.
“Due to the existing popularity of Korean dramas within the Asian region, such popularity was something I was familiar with,” he says, referring to the TV series such as The Coffee Prince, which brought him fame in 2007.
“However, in the case of Train To Busan, it was a new experience for me. I know I have mentioned this earlier, but I think the power that a movie holds was something fresh for me.”
Gong’s real power may be his ability to pick scripts with potential.
The bachelor’s popularity surged in the region after the successes of Goblin (2016 & 2017) and Train To Busan (2016).
The former is the ratings champion on South Korean cable channel tvN after it recorded an average rating of 20.5 per cent to edge out Reply 1988 (2015). The latter had an average rating of 18.8 per cent.
Outside South Korea, Goblin has remained among the top five most-watched shows on streaming site Viu since it premiered last December in Singapore, Hong Kong, Malaysia and Indonesia.
Referring to Goblin screenwriter Kim Eun Sook, who also penned another hit last year, Descendants Of The Sun, Gong says: “The writer does good love stories, so I was curious as to how the unique story of a goblin and a damsel in distress would unfold.”
Last week, the Goblin role won him the Best Actor prize at the 53rd Baeksang Art Awards, an annual ceremony that celebrates the best in South Korean film and television.
Despite a successful acting career, he has mentioned in several interviews his doubts about how long he could remain an actor – he knows an actor’s popularity is as fickle as the wind.
“Although acting is something I adore, I think it is evident that people’s interest in me will not be everlasting,” he says, sounding somewhat less than immortal.
“Also, if I feel a dip in my passion towards acting, I think it will be difficult for me to keep acting in front of the camera. Therefore, I don’t think I will be able to know how long more I will keep on acting.”
His fans will hope he has the endurance of the leading man he played in the zombie thriller, Train To Busan, which debuted at last year’s Cannes Film Festival to much fanfare and received the thumbs- up from critics around the world.
The apocalyptic thriller was also a commercial success in the region. In Singapore, Train To Busan raked in $5.4 million and was crowned the top Asian film last year.
“I never expected that a zombie movie made by Koreans on a modest budget would be so well received,” Gong said at an earlier interview in Taipei.
“There is the perception that a good film can be made only on a big Hollywood budget. It goes to show you don’t need a big budget to make a good film.”
While he admits that “there are definitely popular and profitable genres” that he as an actor cannot ignore, he has demonstrated an inclination to use what limited real-life powers he has to influence changes for the greater good.
He chose to do Train To Busan because its zombie theme is a satire of South Korean society. His character is among the self-serving passengers fighting for survival on a train packed with zombies.
In 2011, he led the cast in a movie called The Crucible, which was based on a novel recounting the true events of sexual abuse against hearing-impaired students.
He says: “After reading the book, I wanted to adapt it into a movie to raise awareness, to let people know that such an incident happened.”
The public outrage sparked after the movie’s release led to South Korean lawmakers effecting tougher punishments against sexual offenders.
Midway through his Hong Kong press conference last Friday, he highlighted the need to review the long working hours of K-drama filming crews.
“A lot of the staff cannot sleep or rest well. They film from morning to night and, if some voices and sounds cannot be captured, they have to go back to the recording studio. They can rest only after the recording is done,” he says.
Amazing feeling for the nominations. 응원해 주셔서 감사합니다. pic.twitter.com/MYHCMlB4cR
— GONG YOO 공지철 (@ActorGongYoo) April 8, 2017
He, too, needs a rest – after all, he is no immortal.
“Since I became an actor and got famous, sometimes I would feel stressed. Deep inside, I want more freedom. I want to relax more and relieve my pressure,” he says.
“I’ve been living the same routine for the past 16 or 17 years. I either exercise or listen to music.
Otherwise, I catch an early morning movie alone or watch a movie alone at home. Oh, I also clean up my cats’ poop.”
Gong Yoo’s dramas – Goblin, The Coffee Prince and Big – are available for free viewing on viu.com or the Viu mobile app, which can be downloaded from the Apple App Store and Google Play Store.
This story first appeared on The Straits Times on May 10, 2017.