Overnight sensations are rarely ever that. At least not when it comes to the world of entertainment. That’s why Jin Goo wants you to know that while the scorching success of the TV drama Descendants of the Sun has all of Asia – and beyond – heralding him as Korea’s hottest new talent, this “sudden” arrival has actually been a lifetime in the making.
“I’ve been out there working hard,” explains the 35-year-old. “So I’m happy to make the most of the attention now.”
Jin steals the show in Descendants, playing a taciturn solider whose struggles to express himself hide the fact that, deep down, he is fiercely loyal to both family and friends. The character’s struggles to be understood and appreciated (as fashioned by Jin, of course) have helped the series attract a fan base that can be tallied now by the tens of millions, and Jin has been in constant motion since it was first screened in February, meeting and greeting fans across the region and – he readily admits – revelling in the spotlight.
The Seoul-born Jin grew up mesmerised by what he saw actors doing both on stage and on film, and since deciding on leaving college that he would follow the same path he has charted a course through theatre (he was in a Korean run of Guys and Dolls), and screens large and small. He won acclaim in his homeland for his role as the creepy loner in the Bong Joon Ho-directed hit Mother (2009), and for roles in previous smash TV series such as Swallow the Sun (2009). But Descendants of the Sun has raised the man’s profile to a whole new level.
Not that you’d know it on meeting him. Jin seems at once thoroughly unaffected by his current place in the firmament. He’s in town to attend, among other things, an event for the jewellery house Bulgari and has been brought to the The Mira Hong Kong for our shoot, where he immediately charms those inside the sprawling Grand Mira Suite by introducing himself, with a handshake, to everyone there.
Jin says he’s enjoying the trappings of fame – you wouldn’t become an actor if you didn’t, he says – and that friends and a family (wife and young son) he keeps well clear of the spotlight are helping him make the most of every moment.
Descendants of the Sun has been an incredible success. How are you handling all this attention?
I think sudden popularity is a really good thing. All actors would think the same. It’s what we want. It makes me happy to have that attention.
What attracted you to the character of Seo Dae Young, and to this series?
Every male actor wants to have this kind of a role. He’s a soldier. He looks so cool. And inside this character he really loves his woman – he’s passionate. I was attracted to that part of him. He’s really manly and I like to think that is similar to me. But what’s different is that [my character] Seo can’t express himself and I never stop expressing myself. He’s cold and I’m not. I’m always expressing my love, so I had to hold all that back. As for its success, Kim Eun Sook – the writer – is really famous in Korea, but it wasn’t just the fact that she’s famous that attracted me to this series. The script she produced was just really good. Every time people work with her it’s the same – for the actors and the crew and everybody. She knows about drama and about how to create characters that are interesting.
Why do you think Korean TV series are hugely successful everywhere?
I don’t really know the real reason behind that. But people have worked really hard to make Korean dramas over the years and to create our own unique style of drama. We’re really proud of this. I think it comes down to hard work. It’s not just about talent. Acting can be a difficult thing to do, day after day. When you start you have no confidence and you have to find that. It took me a while – and a lot of hard work. And I think an audience responds to that. Maybe I shouldn’t admit it but I prefer overseas dramas more, things like 24. I suppose it’s because they’re different to what we have at home in Korea, just like people overseas like Korean dramas because they’re different to what they have at home. Another world. I watched every series of 24 but I also love Japanese dramas, too.
Can we talk a bit about what got you in to acting – and when you first started thinking about it as a career?
I think from when I was about nine years old I’ve been going to any event (theatre or film) that I can. I just love hearing the applause that comes from an audience. I think the first time I heard that applause I thought this would be the life for me – acting. I’ve always been the one to get my friends together to go to any fringe festival, any drama that’s on. By the time I was 20 years old and it was time to make the decision about what I wanted to do with my life, the first thing that came into my mind was being an actor.
What sort on impact did seeing and hearing about your father’s work have on you?
Well my father [cinematographer Jin Yeong Ho] has been a great influence on me. He’s been retired for more than 20 years but he made more than 100 films. Seeing how he worked and learning about the industry from him had a big impact on me. I grew up watching films with him and hearing him talk about films and other filmmakers, so I guess film has always been a part of my life.
What sort of films did you grow up watching and what actors have left an impression on you?
Actually I’m a huge fan of Hong Kong movies. John Woo has always been a hero of mine. I’d love to meet him and even work with him. A Better Tomorrow is one of my all-time favourite films. Koreans love his movies and Chow Yun-fat is a big hero of ours. I’ve been hoping I might bump into him on the MTR here in Hong Kong as I was told he likes to travel around the city taking photos! Lee Byung Hun has always been an inspiration and I played opposite him when I was much younger (in 2005’s A Bittersweet Life). He has showed me what can be achieved and over the past 14 years or so I’ve tried to become as skilled and as famous as him.
What led to your association with Bulgari?
I love simple things, a simple lifestyle. That’s what attracted me to working with Bulgari – they’re cool and simple. They’re stylish in that way, and even unique. You can see the work that’s gone into Bulgari’s design and the meaning behind the work they do and how they can appeal to everyone. I think that’s important. You have to find your own way, and the things that suit you as an individual. Bulgari allow you to do that.
Can you talk a little about working on Mother, how that role came about, and the experience of working with Bong Joon Ho and with Kim Hye Ja?
They were great, very kind and friendly to me. Miss Kim was like a mother to me. She was always giving me advice. And director Bong is perhaps Korea’s best now. He was always taking time to talk to me and help me – like an elder brother. I learned a lot from this film. We all got on so well, the comfortable atmosphere helped me learn and we could tell when we were making Mother that it would be successful. Those two have so much talent.
The spotlight has been on you ever since.
When there’s pressure, the important thing is that you keep yourself happy. That means sleeping well, eating well, living well. Then you can make the most of your success and really enjoy it. Be healthy and you’ll be happy. The best way for me to escape is just to be around the people I love. Even when I’m busy travelling, if the people I love are around me – family and friends – I’m relaxed and happy.
You mention your diet. There’s a rumour that you like to cook. Any kitchen secrets you’d like to share with us, and what’s your best dish?
Working on the film Le Grand Chef 2 gave me a chance to learn about cooking. But the biggest skill I learned was how to cut and how to peel! Since I got married I’ve only really had the time to cook on special days, like birthdays. So I can spoil my wife. I’m good at jjampong [Korean seafood noodles] but my wife loves soba [Japanese noodles] so I’ve become good at that too. What I learned is that the secret to cooking is all about the preparation. You have to take your time.
You’ve worked on TV, film and on stage, and in drama, action, musicals. What’s next – or where do you want the focus of your career to be from here on in?
I’m just always thankful to be working. Movies, drama, theatre – if I’m working I’m happy. I want to try everything. I think the important thing is to focus on what you’re doing at that moment and not be distracted by other things, other possibilities or by what you might be able to do. If you stay focused things will work out.