South Korean actor Lee Min-ho put a lot of thought into the role that would be his small-screen comeback since his discharge from mandatory military service last year. The 32-year-old eventually decided on fantasy romance drama The King: Eternal Monarch.
In a video call with media outlets from Singapore and the Philippines, he says through an interpreter: “I looked at a lot of scripts and the first thing that attracted me to this role is that he is an emperor. I don’t think I’ll get a chance to play that again.
“He’s a character with so much power in him and with this drama, I’ll also be working with screenwriter Kim Eun-sook again and there’s a mutual trust between us.”
The King: Eternal Monarch, which premiered last Friday (April 17) on streaming service Netflix, takes place in parallel worlds – one is a Korea ruled by a monarch and another where it is a modern democracy.
Some of the characters appear in both worlds as parallel versions of themselves. Lee stars as the monarch who crosses over to the other world, where he meets a detective played by actress Kim Go-eun. The screenwriter of the drama had previously worked with both leads: The Heirs (2013) starred Lee and Goblin (2016) starred Kim Go-eun.
The return of Lee has been hotly anticipated by his fans. Before his military enlistment, Lee was one of the most popular actors in South Korea, starring in one hit drama after another – Boys Over Flowers (2009), City Hunter (2011), The Heirs (2013) and Legend Of The Blue Sea (2016).
His star power alongside Kim Go-eun has sailed The King: Eternal Monarch to early success. Its first two episodes have shot to the top of Netflix’s charts in Singapore while its premiere in South Korea broke network records.
Returning to acting after three years, Lee says: “I felt like I was right at home again. I want to make this even better than what I’ve done previously and I’m both worried and excited as the drama is launching. There’s a lot on my mind right now.”
One thing he is glad for is acting partner Kim Go-eun, whom he calls charming. The 28-year-old actress worked hard for her latest role – her first television series since the wildly popular fantasy romance Goblin, in which she played female lead Ji Eun-tak, a high school student who can see ghosts.
“I took some taekwondo lessons and I watched interviews with female detectives because I wanted to know what kind of mentality they brought to their jobs and what their working environment was like. I want audiences to be convinced that I lived through these experiences,” she says.
The cast of the series also includes supporting characters played by actors Woo Do-Hwan and Kim Kyung-nam as well as actress Jung Eun-chae.
Kim Kyung-nam (Special Labour Inspector, 2019), 30, who plays Kim Go-eun’s colleague in the violent crimes unit, says with a laugh: “I made a lot of effort to look agile and be in good shape. I dieted too and I think that helped me to become mentally more prepared for the role.”
Jung (The Guest, 2018) plays the first female prime minister in democratic South Korea.
The 33-year-old actress says: “She’s the opposite of characters I’ve played in the past – she’s straightforward and expressive with her words and feelings whereas I used to have roles that were more reserved. I took this on as a new challenge.”
She also has a romantic arc with leading man Lee. “There is romance but it’s not always reciprocal. It’s fun to observe how her feelings evolve over time,” says Jung.
Meanwhile, Woo (Mad Dog, 2017), pulls double duty as an imperial guard to the emperor and a public service officer in the other world.
On the idea of parallel worlds, the 27-year-old says: “I think it’s terrifying to meet yourself. But if I had to go to a parallel world, I think I’d like to do the job my parallel self was doing. It could be a talent I’ve never discovered in myself.”
The King: Eternal Monarch is available on Netflix.
This article was first published in The Straits Times.