Gong Yoo: His Private Life, Acting Skills, And Iconic Roles

There’s reason why he’s the biggest leading man in Asia.
PHOTO: (LEFT) GOBLIN/TVN, (RIGHT) WENN.com

Like most K-drama fans, I admittedly don't have enough information to write credibly and extensively about Gong Yoo, one of the top Korean actors of our time. I've seen half of Train to Busan and Coffee Prince, which are both considered his career-defining projects. I've also ~*endlessly*~ obsessed about Goblin, and have forced several people—my boyfriend included—to watch and analyze every freaking scene with me.

In all his years as an actor, even the truest fans have nothing much to say about the superstar apart from the little bits of information he's shared about himself. The public knows that he was born from an affluent family in Busan. Fans know that Gong Yoo isn't his real name (his real name is Gong Ji Cheol); he has two cats; he loves to play basketball; knows a bit of English; does not have any official social media accounts; and has a real penchant for coffee. But no one has heard of scandals about him, no news about where he lives or who he's currently in a relationship with. 

In an interview with CNN Talk Asia in August 2017, Gong Yoo revealed that the reason behind this aloofness is that he wants to draw the line between the actor and the person that he is. He said: "As an actor, you have to face the public all the time. It's a job that gives people fantasies but also creates prejudices. These prejudices are the scariest things, people judge a personal life or your image and it can affect the characters I play. Therefore, I try not to showcase my personal life too much." He also mentioned that he's not on Twitter or Instagram because it's gotten very hard to see things as they were when magnified on social media.

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So if Gong Yoo isn't like most celebrities, and if the public doesn't know much about his life anyway, why is he so popular?

Gong Yoo's humble beginnings

Gong Yoo started off doing a bit of modeling in his youth but he actually didn't train as an actor, as opposed to what's customary in the South Korean entertainment industry. He has also been quoted multiple times saying he didn't plan on becoming an actor at all. His love for the craft started when he entered at Kyung Hee University (KHU) where he graduated with a Theater Arts degree. As a K-drama fan, you may be wondering why he didn't go through intense training. That's because KHU is a private, co-ed university that's ranked eighth in South Korea and the admissions are so stringent that only less than 10 percent of applicants are selected every year. In past interviews, Gong Yoo explained that he didn't major in Theater to become an actor, but as he went on with his studies, he met a few friends who made him realize that he could take on the challenge of bringing characters to life.

Although he wasn't really confident at first, Gong Yoo worked his way into the industry by starting as a VJ and host for Mnet and MBC from 2000 to 2004. He also starred in small supporting roles in various K-dramas like School 4, Hard Love, and Screen—two of which earned him nominations (and wins) for new actor awards by prominent Korean award-giving bodies. With his steady rise to popularity, the TV and movie projects also came in one after the other. But from the very start, Gong Yoo has been known for being very picky about his projects, focusing less on the characters he needed to play and choosing dramas and movies that have promising stories instead. 

Gong Yoo has been known for being very picky about his projects, focusing less on the characters he needed to play and choosing dramas and movies that have promising stories instead. 

One of these dramas is Hello My Teacher, which he co-starred with veteran actress Gong Hyo Jin in 2005. Gong Yoo played Park Tae In, the haughty 20-year-old son of the school's chairman who falls in love with a 25-year-old substitute teacher. The drama not only attracted Korean audiences because of the controversial topics presented in the storyline (i.e., younger male and older female relationships or "Noona Romance;" student-teacher romance; and school violence), it also began Gong Yoo and Gong Hyo Jin's real-life friendship, which a lot of fans thought was adorable.

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Gong Yoo's big break

Perhaps the biggest proof of Gong Yoo's discerning mind is Coffee Prince, his breakthrough drama. ICYMI, Coffee Prince is well-loved not only for the chemistry between him and Yoon Eun Hye (Princess Hours and My Fair Lady) but also because it tackled homophobia in a country where same-sex relationships are still considered taboo. Gong Yoo received high praise for his believable portrayal of rich playboy Choi Han Kyul, who mistakes Go Eun Chan, a tomboy, for a man. They eventually fall for each other, making Han Kyul question his sexuality. 

After the success of Coffee Prince, Gong Yoo left the entertainment scene to fulfill his mandatory military enlistment. During those two years, he said he gained valuable lessons as a man and as an actor as he bonded with younger, non-showbiz guys. He also mentioned that he had no regrets leaving at the height of his career because though he entered as a celebrity, he left the army as a friend and a brother.

Gong Yoo made a huge comeback after his enlistment with Finding Mr. Destiny, a rom-com film where he plays a character with OCD. The project that truly marked his comeback phase, however, is the 2011 film adaptation of The Crucible, a novel based on real-life events that transpired in a school for hearing-impaired children in Gwangu, South Korea.

Gong Yoo plays a newly appointed art teacher who discovers that the deaf students in the school were sexually abused by fellow teachers and the principal of the school. Titled Dogani (Silenced), the film grossed a total of KRW35 million in 10 weeks and had opened the doors for the legislation of human rights bills for people with disabilities. When asked about his reaction to Dogani's success and his involvement in sparking public outrage for human rights, Gong Yoo said he merely played a character in a compelling story and that change was set forth by the public. It did, however, change his views about his craft immensely. "After Dogani, I feel now I have a bigger responsibility as an actor," he said in a CNN interview.

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This massive success was followed by various other projects that solidified Gong Yoo's credibility as a high caliber actor. These projects included Big, whose controversial ending got a lot of K-drama fans confused and questioning, and a Korean spy film called The Suspect. The film garnered great reviews from international publications including Screen Daily, which compared it to the James Bond movie 007. He won Top Excellence Award by an Actor in Film during the 2014 Korea Culture Awards for his portrayal of a North Korean spy. 

He came back three years later to fulfill majestic roles in critically acclaimed movies such as A Man And A Woman, Train To Busan, and The Age Of Shadows. As you probably already know, Train To Busan projected Gong Yoo into the international scene not only for its box office performance, but also because of its nominations and awards including Asian Film Awards, Blue Dragon Film Awards, Korean Association of Film Critics Awards, Baeksang Arts Awards, and Chunsa Film Awards. His last film in 2016, The Age Of Shadows, also got selected as South Korea's entry to the 89th Academy Award and, at the moment, has a 100 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes. It was also around this time that famous South Korean drama writer Kim Eun Sook and director Lee Eung Bok (i.e., the tandem that brought K-drama hit Descendants Of The Sun to life) confirmed that Gong Yoo will be starring in his first drama series after his three-year hiatus. This drama, as we would all come to know, is the top-rated tvN drama Guardian: The Lonely and Great God, also known intrnationally as Goblin.

The impact of Gong Yoo as Kim Shin in Goblin

From its cinematography to the heart-stopping action scenes, each episode left K-drama fans in awe and had converted non-fans into Gong Yoo followers. The drama also scored Gong Yoo a Best Actor Award at the Baeksang Arts Awards and cemented his leading man image. It's not a secret that Gong Yoo had initially turned down the role of the almighty Goblin.

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In his interview with Esquire Korea, the actor said that what convinced him the most was writer Kim Eun Sook's determination in earning his trust. "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 out all her long-held desires into Guardian, for sure. I felt that while shooting."

Goblin scored Gong Yoo a Best Actor Award at the Baeksang Arts Awards and cemented his leading man image.

What struck me the most about Goblin isn't just the high production value or the emotional plot line. It's the craftmanship with which every single detail was executed in the drama, including Gong Yoo's stellar acting as an immortal being. The way he portrayed a character with such a robust history and deep emotional nuances made the series all the more believable and relatable despite the fact that it's a fantasy. I think this can be attributed to Gong Yoo's deep respect for his craft. "I'm someone who likes creativity," he said. "When I first started, the projects I chose were for my own satisfaction, my own sense of achievement. I didn't know Goblin or Train to Busan would receive so much attention from the world. I feel proud in that aspect."

Every interview he does shows a bit of his passion and his depth as a person. You'd think that a man of such credibility would be confident in his acting but every time I get to read his responses to common interview questions, he would often talk about the things he lacked as well as his regrets as an actor. The combination of silent diligence, humility, and social awareness definitely makes Gong Yoo the leading man we never thought we needed.

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