Gong Yoo talks life, death and 20 years in the business
If you were given a chance to become immortal, would you take it? When the Korea JoongAng Daily asked actor Gong Yoo this very question during an online interview last week his answer was “No.”
“I still don’t know how to define or answer what is the meaning behind life and death,” he said. “And I don’t think I will be able to define them in the future either. It’s difficult. What I can do, is to live my life, which is only given to me once, without regret until it runs its course. That’s I think the best I can do, at the present.”
What prompted the press to ask the actor about immortality was his film “Seobok,” which hit local theaters nationwide on April 15 and was simultaneously made available via local streaming platform Tving. In the film Gong Yoo features as Gi-heon, an ex-agent of the intelligence bureau given his last mission to transport Seobok, the world’s first-ever immortal human clone, to safety. Gi-heon is terminally ill so makes a deal with the bureau that if he completes the mission successfully, he will be given the chance to participate in a clinical test that will use Seobok's bone marrow to cure him.
"Seobok" is director Lee Yong-joo’s first film in eight years since his last hit “Architecture 101” featuring actors Bae Suzy and Lee Je-hoon in 2012. When Lee first proposed the role to Gong Yoo, he declined, because he thought it was “too big of a role" for him to take on.
“But I think [the film] stayed with me despite my refusal,” he said. “Lee insisted that we should meet up [to discuss the film] and when we did, we talked in earnest about what direction the film should go and I sensed that Lee deliberated long and hard about this story. I told him how I interpreted the film, and we were basically on the same page. That’s when I realized that it was a project I should take part in.”
However, the director and actor did have one difference in opinions. While Gong Yoo imagined his character to be antisocial to the point where he could barely communicate with others, Lee imagined him to still retain a shadow of the vibrancy of his life prior to falling ill, when he used to laugh and joke around with his co-workers.
“I wanted to lose an extreme amount of weight because Gi-heon’s narrative isn’t fully explained in the film,” he said. “So when the audience first see Gi-heon, I wanted to implant his torment and the despair that he’s been through. But Lee said I should stop [losing weight]. I did control my diet, and since I couldn’t freely eat, I didn’t spend as much time with the crew as I normally would. I spent most of my time alone in my room. I guess my alone time helped me to bring out the darker side of Gi-heon, and when I think back on it now, I think I was harsher on my friends and acquaintances than usual.”
During his mission to transport Seobok to safety, Gi-heon begins to sympathize with the clone who’s spent his entire life cooped up inside a lab, and whose entire purpose is to sacrifice himself to cure others.
“I think he [Gi-heon] always saw him [Seobok] as a child,” Gong Yoo said. “He hears about what kind of life Seobok has led and he pities him. In contrast to other groups who saw Seobok for their own profits and interests, Gi-heon’s perception was more innocent: A child who’s a lot stronger than him, but a child nonetheless.
“But I think it’s different from a third person perspective,” he continued. “I think Lee wanted to portray Seobok as a deified presence, or is at least what I think it was from my interpretation of the script. But Gi-heon didn’t see Seobok that way. They had a special bond. [The entire story] basically revolved around this godlike entity with a special power who continues to probe a mortal facing death with questions."
While Gi-heon wants to escape death and Seobok wants to live to shape his own dreams and purpose, Gong Yoo says he wants a world where people are free from prejudices and narrow-mindedness.
“I don’t really have a lot of desires, or that’s what I think of myself,” the actor said. “But if I were to pick one, I would want for people to live peacefully. I don’t understand why some people harass or hurt others, or why they do these things because they envy others — we fight and wound each other and it might be a natural phenomenon that arises among weak humans, but I still hurt thinking about social issues such as Asian hate.”
The actor quoted a speech from Denzel Washington as he accepted the AFI Life Achievement Award at the Golden Globes ceremony in 2019.
“I’m a person who doesn’t like to gossip about others,” he continued. “And maybe that’s because of my job, but there’s a saying that really speaks to me from Denzel Washington [...] He said ‘Small minds discuss other people, gossip. Good minds discuss events. Great minds discuss ideas, [Originally said by Eleanor Roosevelt].” That is the world I dream of. I know that I’m not perfect, but as Washington said, I don’t want to be a narrow-minded person, and I try not to be one. That is my desire.”
The actor celebrates his 20th anniversary in the film industry after debuting in 2001. The actor congratulates himself on steadily pursuing his career without a break.
“I think I was pretty much constant, unvarying, for 20 years,” he said. “So I do want to give myself a pat on the back for focusing on one career without any dramatic slumps for the last 20 years. But [personally] I don’t want a son like me. I don’t think that highly of myself.”
BY LEE JAE-LIM [email@example.com]