It's A Little Lonely to Be Gong Yoo Right Now

The Goblin and Train to Busan actor contemplates his overthinking methods, the meaning of being an actor, and turning 40.
IMAGE Hong Janghyun

SHIN KIJU: What could have happened if you didn't do the Guardian: The Lonely and Great God (also known as Goblin)? I heard you turned down the role many times. I can’t imagine what could have happened. We all might have ended up living in a world without a guardian.

GONG YOO: Yes, it might have been a huge deal looking from the outside.

S: Guardian was written by screenwriter Eun Sook Kim after Descendants of the Sun, A Gentleman’s Dignity, and Secret Garden. What do you mean by ‘it might have been’ a big deal? Why did you turn down the role for so many times?

G: If I had really wanted the role then missed the opportunity, as a result like you said, it might have been a big deal to me as well.

S: It’s not uncommon for an actor to miss a great work I guess. And if you are an actor, you must accept the fact.

G: I can’t list them one by one, but I have also missed many great works of opportunity.

S: But, it’s also very common for these projects to be extremely successful because other actors have appeared from them.

G: Right. I believe it’s sort of a destiny—when that particular actor did the role instead of me and it comes out successful.

S: So it's not meant to be your?

G: Maybe it’s self-consolation. Self-justification afterwards. But as I continue to work, it’s most beautiful and also comforting to think in that way.


I am not a possessive person. It’s both my strength and weakness. Now that I'm almost 40, I realize that’s the way I am.

G: I am not a possessive person. It’s both my strength and weakness. Now that I'm almost 40, I realize that’s the way I am.

S: Why is that a strength and a weakness?

G: Not being so possessive has helped me to continue the long life of an actor, but it's a weakeness for me to justify myself and my self-consolation at every moment. When it comes to things I don’t want to acknowledge, I just regard them not as mine from the beginning.

S: You have gathered an audience of ten million in Korean alone with Train To Busan and The Age of Shadows, and you have shaken Asia with Guardian. And, you still say that you’re not possessive?

G: I say that I am not greedy, but I think I appear greedy in other people’s eyes. There was one interview that defined me as a ‘very greedy person.’ 

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S: Possessiveness is when you want something that is not yours, but you're saying that something that you didn't get wasn't meant for you. 

G: Of course, [but] my agency would have regretted much.

S: (Laughs) I can imagine your management, CEO Jang Kyun Kim crying and regretting.

G: Guardian is already so successful and it’s easy to speak since you know the result. Some might say that I sound high-and-mighty, and I’m always cautious about my words not to hear such comments, but very honestly, it really wouldn’t have become a big deal to me.

I am just that type of person. Not much obsession, not much regret, not that regretful.

G: Eun Sook Kim said that she waited for me for five years. I couldn’t work with her because when she first suggested me for the drama role, it was right after I was discharged from the military service.

S: When you were back from the military, did you not worry about recovering your popularity?

G: I am just that type of person. My mind always stay the same. Not much obsession, not much regret, not that regretful.

G: When there is an opportunity but I cannot accomplish it, I think it's something I lack, and I like that. It’s a motivation for me. Because I know exactly how I could have expressed and why I could not express in such way. I can only blame myself.

S: Those who blame others can’t grow. Those who blame themselves mature.

G: I was always in a position to be judged. I have to hear those viewpoints whether I wish or not. If I am able to blame only myself, I can react more maturely in front of those judgements. And able to accept them.


S: Do compliments matter?

G: When I know that I’m not concentrating and acting through the self-monitoring, and that the acting is fake, I return home feeling painful. Because it’s fake, it’s not a matter of going through twenty more times until the take.

S: How do you solve that at home?

G: I just can’t. I reproach myself and I sometimes blame myself. In a way, I harass myself. I feel pained when I question whether I was real or not. It’s so important to me. For me, I can’t lie to myself. Even if everyone said it was great, but when the notion that the moment was not real to me.

I was always in position to be judged. I have to hear those viewpoints whether I wish or not. If I am able to blame only myself, I can react more maturely in front of those judgements. And able to accept them.

G: The work is joyful when the actor’s uniqueness and the screen writer’s uniqueness make synergies that no one would have thought of. They say that a movie is the director’s art, drama is the screen writer’s art, and plays are the actor’s art, but I think there are many different levels. It’s really important for me how each of those integrate with each other and create something that no one has expected.


S: Guardian’s lines are so interesting, but it’s such a sad story. So funny, but so sad. When you first read the script, you probably felt the deep sadness, and perhaps that sadness pulled you in.

G: She once explained Guardian in one single sentence: “The unusual, beautiful, and sad love story” She first mentioned it that way when we had a drink. The ending was decided since the beginning.

S: That’s even more sad that the ending was already finalized. Is the sad destiny inevitable? Out of all her dramas by Kim, Guardian seems to be the saddest drama. Everything was sad.

G: I agree. The most, loneliest drama. “Lonely and Radiant God.” The one copy line inside the script explains this drama most completely. The sentence doesn’t look like anything special, but inside it, there is a whole series of a drama within. The start of the drama seems to be all started from this sentence.

G: When I think about Shin Kim, the first feeling I feel is loneliness. When I first took the role, I regarded him from head to toe, lonely. At first he was a human, and now became a godly figure. I wanted people to feel that loneliness when they saw Shin Kim’s facial expression or even just through his eyes. When they first meet Shin Kim, they must feel that loneliness at least. That was the attitude I had towards Shin Kim.

S: What does it mean by being lonely? It’s different from being unsocial. I thought it’s about living and enduring the loneliness because there is hope. I thought that’s what it means.


G: (Smile) Yes, I like that statement, I thought the same.

When I think about Shin Kim, the first feeling I feel is loneliness. When I first took the role, I regarded him from head to toe, lonely.

S: The more I watch the scenes, more I can feel the loneliness of Shin Kim.

G: Kim has said about the bromance between the guardian and the grim reaper. The humor that creates all sorts of episodes inside the house when the two lonely gods meet. The story is so sad, but it’s so funny. In a way Guardian is like a sad comedy.

S: Funny and sad at the same time?

G: Exactly. Her script is not easy at all. It feels like a roller-coaster. There is so many things in one sequence. It starts seriously but end ends up in a comedy. So many scenes where you repeat laughing and crying. It’s not easy for the director and actor to take the scene inside the camera. Eung-bok is a very sensitive person. I have pondered many times on how to express crying, laughing, and crying again.

S: Maybe that was the reason. I can feel the loneliness even from the humor between guardian and grim reaper. I think they do such things because they are lonely.

G: That was their own way of communication. That’s why they look even lonlier. It’s Kim’s unique way of expression. I tell the grim reaper who can’t remember the past, “It doesn’t matter what you were in the before-life,” The grim reaper asks, “Really?” And I said, “Why? Because whatever you were in the before-life, I would have hated you anyway.” That’s their own way of communication. To comfort each other. They loved each other more than any one. And therefore, the one and only friend to each other.


S: At the same time, one and only enemy they have. And Shin Kim is even lonelier. He has to leave his loved one. He has to dislike his only friend.

G: That’s the special part about Guardian’s bromance. Dong-wook Lee and Gong Yoo are not simply trying to act funny or cute. There is a reason why there are so many humorous scenes shown repeatedly.

G: One of my worst qualities is that before the matter is on the table, I worry a lot, but once the task is given in a situation, I don’t like harming other people, such as making them wait or ruining the mood. Those thoughts become a big thing to me, and I just do, even if it’s hard.

S: Doing all things, and then going back all lonely.

G: (Sigh) There are many thoughts at this moment. There seems to me many leftovers inside me. I had the similar victim’s mentality before I met the drama The 1st Shop of Coffee Prince. At age 39, I still feel the same. Not necessarily because it’s the age of ending with 9, but something similar. When I make self-judgement, it’s about time to cleanse those leftovers. These days, I think about that.


S: Maybe it’s the time. If 2016 with Train to Busan and The Age of Shadows was the year to absorb everything, 2017 might be the year to cleanse the leftovers. Gong Yoo resembles Shin Kim a lot. Shin Kim acts as if he is the strongest on earth, but he is the weakest at heart.

G: The weak side of me has probably helped in acting Shin Kim.

S: You know that type of personality of yours, so that’s why you wanted to run away from the rejecting meeting in the first place.

G: (Laugh) Right, and Jang Kyun Kim CEO was really smart in that point. He knew me for a long time, so he probably knew what kind of person I was. Because he really wanted me to take this role, he convinced me to be in that meeting, and finally lead me to make a choice.

S: Good manager, and a good friend.

G: When I talked about this story several times in the beginning, Eun-sook Kim has told me, “I’m not the type who writes monologues or any written orders, so don’t worry. I will let you play as you wish.” And most conclusively, she said something that is far from being true. She said like a girl, like a baby. “I am not going to mess around just because my previous works were successful. I will work really really hard. So trust me.” She wasn’t the star screenwriter that I had imagined.


G: Even if Guardian wasn’t somehow successful, I would have never blamed Kim for that.

S: She stayed true to her promise of “not messing around because the previous works were successful.’

G: I was more amazed by the power behind the drama after having to experience Kim’s drama. The power that makes the audience crazy and fall into the drama. That’s when I felt her words and trusted her. Because, she can’t predict the outcome either. But, she has let our all her long-held desires into Guardian, for sure. I felt that while shooting.

S: Although I do not know much, that was probably only possible because of the actor Gong Yoo.

G: I told her that I had hard time acting the monologue scene, but there was inevitably a scene where I talk to myself. We were shooting at a designed set. There was a scene where you roll all over the bed by yourself by saying, “Curiosity wins over class” I didn’t know Kim was at the set. But she was monitoring me from the outside. Suddenly, someone laughed out loud really hard. When I went outside, she said, “Hi, I came in” She waved hands. She saw everything.

S: That must have been hard.

G: But then she said, “Sorry, that was a hard scene, huh? I had no choice, I’m sorry for giving you that line. But hey, you do so well.” When Kim sees an actor acting out funny and well, she re-uses it.


S: There is a sudden death scene of Eun-tak faced by Shin Kim in the ending. Shin Kim pulls out the sword from his heart to slay the villain and save Eun-tak. It’s tragic but brave. Goeun Kim’s crying scene is very emotional and sad. But Shin Kim was brilliant. The important part of Guardian is the death of Eun-Tak. Shn Kim has to accept that. There is also the loneliness of the drama stored in that scene. Such break ups without a warning come in life like that. And you hae to take that in, and god can’t do anything about that destiny either. I wonder what kind of feelings and thoughts Gong Yoo would have had during that scene.

G: To tell you honestly, it’s sadder at the moment right now. When I was taking the scene, the pressure was so big. I was so tired the whole day because of the emotion. And the grim reaper is watching over Shin Kim and Eun-tak. On that day, Goeun and Dongwook helped me a lot around me. They were reading the lines before me. I wasn’t beside them, I was staying in a dark corner with an earphone plugged in. On normal days, I joke around with Goeun and Dongwook, but they knew that the scene was important to me and that it was also very hard. So, they isolated me more on purpose.


S: That moment, as you said, was the time you concentrated on yourself, and the moment of putting only your own blame about the result.

G: Despite my effort, although it’s embarrassing, it’s the scene that I think I lack. The pressure was so strong that I can’t remember if I was feeling sad or not. The reason I feel sadder and more painful is because now I remembered. It was the scene that I regretted a lot.

S: You do really feel painful.

G: Because I know myself. I can’t deny, and I can’t hide my answer when I’m asked.

S: When you don’t say, it’s a lie, and that becomes a false.

G: In the last scene when I depart from my daughter Soowan from Train to Busan. In the interviews, many people say that ‘they were extremely’ sad in that scene. I am allowed to answer shamelessly, “I am satisfied.” And that would be written in the interview. But that’s difficult for me. Because I don’t like that scene. Even though it was the scene that moved people and made many cry, I did it so bad in that scene. After the take, I go to the director and confess. I really did. I didn’t do it to receive comfort from him, I told him because I was sorry.

G: But will I be able to do better if I were given another chance? And that thought disturbs me again. It’s most difficult when you are fighting against yourself with your mind. During the take, I go to the director and say sorry because I did so bad. And he says, “What is? It was good! But if it disturbs you, we can re-take it the next day.” When I get that answer, it’s really difficult for me. On the fear and pressure to do a lot better than the scenes that others have already scene when I’m faced with the opportunistic situation again.


It’s a duty and fate as a public artist to deliver acting to the masses, at the same time, I need to increase the number of people who know me well. That motivates me to act and play.

S: Leading to Train To Busan, The Age of Shadows, and Guardian, can it be said that it is the heyday of Gong Yoo? 

G: I think it's appropriate to express it like that. That is why everyone does that.

S: How about you?

G: I don’t like the expression. Expressions like rediscovery. There was a drinking session with senior actor Kang-ho Song, who had been working with The Age of Shadows. Since, he is also from Gyeongsang province, he can’t really talk in his heart. If my guess is right, we are from same province, there are times when I can feel what is his feelings are even if he don’t speak. There are moments when I can feel his heart in jokes. Train To Busan and Guardian was successful that I treated The Age of Shadows filming team on the last meeting for DVD commentary. In the drinking session, I told to Kang-ho Song that "This year I was so lucky. I do not know why my works are doing well and again I think I'm very lucky.” While Kang-ho Song was drinking all of a sudden, he said that while seriously making a face, “Why do you think it's luck?”, and he reproved me. “Why do you think it's luck? I can see what you have built up. Modesty is good, but you do not have to talk about it too much.” I did not express it, but I had a lump in my throat.


S: Your The Age of Shadows director Jiwoon Kim also directed A Bittersweet Life and The Good, the Bad, the Weird, and even filmed The Last Stand with Arnold Schwarzenegger?

G' I was rather worried about it. Why does this guy want me to play this role? I simply can get an investment and I have a lot of recognition and popularity? I think director Kim is a person who never don't choose actors like that. After I have done work with him, I can tell so much more. He didn’t work with me, but when he saw my other works, he felt what I had. Only the director Kim knows what it was or how it was.

S: You must have been worried about what it was. Since you are Gong Yoo.

G: If this person believed me to have some value, he knew why he chose me and I thought he should at least be responsible for that choice. I’m not such an actor who, when it compared to music, makes gorgeous ad libs and frees the treble freely, making the audience hair-raised? Honestly, I don’t think I'm such an actor when I think about it. The humane personality that I have has been affecting me ever since I first started acting. I did not give a lot of impact to people, I think it's great to last until now. I'm glad.

S: Rather, you are an actor who is so worried, modest and humble, that it was suitable for Woojin Kim’s role.


G: To be slightly greedy, I feel great, when I listen to words that praise me while drinking or interviewing. It's okay even if I’m not that known to a lot of people. When I was young, I feel bad for not being known by a lot of people. But now I know, all the actors can’t be the same and there is no right answer in acting. There is a difference in the spectra between dignity and experience. It's hard to talk about who is a character actor or not by numerically. I am against saying that someone who sings well in high tones is good singer. Of course, the majority believe that going up to three octaves, is the qualification of good singer. But I'm not an actor like that.

S: Not superfluous and fascinating acting, which is Gong Yoo’s acting...

G: There are now a handful of people who catch and look at it, but it's growing a little bit. I know that I have to persuade more people because I am a public arts person. But people want to set universal standards and standardize everything in them.

G: It’s a duty and fate as a public artist to deliver acting to the masses, at the same time, I need to increase the number of people who know me well. That motivates me to act and play.

When I think over on my own, I lack many qualities that a celebrity’s role should have.

S: You are at an age ending in 9, facing 40 right in front of you. You often say that you have no plan to force yourself to stay as an actor even after you become old.


G: It’s kind of a self-defense. And maybe I’m just saying this repeatedly because I am nervous. I’m actually cautious about these things because it’s an unexperienced part. The fear of going down. I understand in my head that you can’t stay in youth forever when you age, and that stage will also come to me too. Maybe it’s a self-defense that over-prepare for that stage of time.

S: Fearful but acknowledging that you must accept. Like a destiny.

G: Acting job is a job, but you can’t regard it only as a job. This is the part that’s really hard to explain to other people. Because of this job, I was able to enjoy all the wealth and fame, and I am thankful indeed.

S: But to Gong Yoo, acting isn’t the tool for reaching wealth and fame as its purpose.


G: It’s cautious to say this to those who work to live their lives on a daily basis, but defining an actor’s job as a means to living a life will instantly turn itself as boring and uninteresting. It feels like it’s closing me. Of course, it’s a means to a living for me as well. But, because I had this mind since the beginning, I can talk this way. If I had first felt this way after earning a lot of money and becoming famous, I might be seen as haughty. But, this was the attitude I had in the beginning. I didn’t start by thinking that I should earn a lot of money and succeed, to give the luxury lives to my mom and dad. No, I didn’t think that way since the start.

S:Then, what is the meaning of actor as a job to Gong Yoo?

G: I wish it to be an art form. When I was young, I didn’t even want to use the term commercial art, because I was more arrogant. I wanted to put myself into the category of art. I didn’t want to be categorized by commercial art. So, I acted all classy by myself. Of course, the public eyes or the norm of perspective were very uncomfortable. It seemed like they were regarding me, the actors, the acting all too lightly. Of course, they can just laugh and chat, watch TV to fill up time, go to the movies and eat some popcorn, they can do that as the public. Because, they go to distress themselves, and watching a movie is sort of an entertainment. But, from the actor’s point of view, that mindset is not enough. At least I am that person acting the character. So, I still speak this way and work in this way. Considering how cocky I am by myself and how much success I had achieved up to this level, I have to thank God. Whole-heartedly.


When I was young, I didn’t even want to use the term commercial art, because I was more arrogant. I wanted to put myself into the category of art. I didn’t want to be categorized by commercial art. So, I acted all classy by myself.

G: When I think over on my own, I lack many qualities that a celebrity’s role should have.

S: Because you have no such desire, but because of that, Gong Yoo is Gong Yoo.

G: In terms of the world’s attention, the exceeding point seems to have come already. I feel like I have been running feeling the pressure. Break time is needed more than ever. Physical pain is bearable. You can just sleep deeply after taking the ringer shot. But, mentally, I felt that I was very exhausted when I was shooting Train to Busan and The Age of Shadows. And that continued while shooting Guardian. I urgently feel that I need the time to live solely for myself.

S: Time to break.

G It’s true that I sometimes want to go back to the shooting scene again. Never knew I would feel this way again after shooting Guardian.  I thought I was now used to the feeling and more flexible after working for a long time, but it felt like a hit from the back? I worked on all the due-tasks for two months without a break right after Guardian. So, I didn’t realize it right after Guardian. Was it a month and a half after Guardian? I was having all sorts of mixed feelings. Since then, one feeling after feeling is continuing one another. And now, it truly feels like the age ending in 9.

S: Everyone will say Gong Yoo...

G: Right. Everyone will say Gong Yoo will be feeling as if he's walking on the clouds. Whatever he does, he will be happy. That’s why it’s harder to speak about myself infront of other people. Because I might say my true feelings, the feelings that don’t match with people’s expectations. That’s what I’m fearful about.


I don’t like people who are hard on the weak people...If I weren’t well known, I would do more. That sometimes upset me. When I cannot interfere.

S: When do you feel like a real man, instead of a boy?

G: I don’t like people who are hard on the weak people. Those people are actually weak against the strong people. That doesn’t mean that I can’t just go up there and fight against that person, but I simply cannot stay and stare doing nothing. At least I squirm. If I weren’t well known, I would do more. That sometimes upset me. When I cannot interfere. It’s definitely the moment that someone has to stand up and move, but nobody actually does while everyone just looks at one another wondering what they might think of themselves. There are many moments like that when you are living in the eyes of the society. That’s when I feel against the job of being a celebrity. That’s why it’s hard for me to meet those people who are hard against the weak. It shows through me. When I meet them, it simply shows despite my effort to hide them because of my role as a celebrity. People who are unreasonably stubborn, those who scold when they are the ones who did the wrong, impolite people, the moment when the majority attack the minority. There are all sorts of people in the world. Although it is the world and life itself with all sorts of people mixed together, I sometimes cannot stand such situation. That moment when I decide to say something, that’s when I feel that I am a man. And of course, in front of a woman who I am attracted to, I feel and want to become a man. That’s an instinct.


S Last question. After discussing with you, it seems like a sword is still inside Gong Yoo’s heart. I think it’s really the time to find the person who can take out the sword.

G If you phrase it as the sword still slaying the heart, I don’t think there is anyone. I don’t think it was the question about a relationship. The interview with Esquire was the first real interview I had after the Guardian shoot. Really, it went deeply inside me. Right now, I am left feeling deep and deep inside me. But through this interview, I first thought that I wanted to tell people around me more about myself. About the weight of the life’s weight that is pressuring me. Maybe I can cry infront of them. Right now, I feel like I am in the desert myself. Thirsty, and windy, but I can’t see anything. Unbearable that I want to reach out to people, but it’s not always easy. Isolated feeling. Sword inside my heart, so it hurts, but I can’t take it out. Someone has to take it out, but it was the situation where I couldn’t ask anyone to take out from me. Even now, I honestly think that nobody can. Even now. But, now I think I shall ask people to do so.

S: Nobody can see that sword inside Gong Yoo’s heart. And that’s why Gong Yoo is radiant but lonely. There must be the person who can see the sword.


G That’s right. It’s a little scary that the analogy matches with me too perfectly. Although I still don’t think anyone can take the sword out from my heart, I still believe that someone will come and do, so I shall tell people about me. I think I need to.

Gong Yoo is also featured wearing LV x Supreme in the June 2017 issue of Esquire Philippines. This story is an abridged version of Esquire Korea's June 2017 cover feature.


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