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EXCLUSIVE: Korean Superstar Lee Min-ho On Playing Unlikeable Characters On Screen And The Pressures Of Global Stardom

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Puja Talwar

Lee Min-ho is nothing short of a global sensation. The poster boy for ‘Hallyu’ — the so-called Korean wave that’s taken over the globe — his name alone can evoke powerful emotions among fans who transcend geographies and time zones. Bound by their devotion to the actor whom they fondly address as their OG ‘oppa’, a term of endearment used for an older man. Charming and easy-going, Lee greets us with a friendly ‘HELLO!’ — for his first ever interview with Indian media.

His breakout role as Gu Jun-pyo in the classic teen drama Boys Over Flowers catapulted him to instant stardom in 2009 and made him a household name across South Korean shores. He played a man seeking revenge in City Hunter, a young heir in the coming-of-age-drama The Heirs, a bodyguard in Bounty Hunters and an emperor in the fantasy time-travel series The King: Eternal Monarch.

Lee Min-ho has been the ‘Prince Charming’ of the silver screen most of his career, but we’ll see him add to his image of a romantic lead in his next, Pachinko.

In this Apple TV adaptation of the eponymous Min Jin Lee bestseller, Lee portrays the role of Hansu Koh, a yakuza (member of a crime syndicate) who falls in love with the protagonist, setting in motion a chain of far-reaching consequences. “I hope my fans don’t see Hansu as ‘Prince Charming’. But then again, I want people to see the tragic story of how each one of the characters survives their circumstances and also relate to Hansu for what he is,” says Lee. “Rather than trying to break away from my image, I’d say I’m almost thirsty for new characters and new stories. That’s the reason I was drawn to playing Hansu. Yes, he’s not a likeable character, but for me, he’s a heartbreaking character who’s conditioned by his times.”

Lee is, indeed, perfectly cast as Hansu in the taut screen adaptation, his dangerous sophisticated charm clashing with his unrequited desire for a woman he cherishes.

One of the highest paid South Korean actors, Lee is no stranger to life in the spotlight and is among the most-followed K-drama idols on social media (he has nearly 30 million followers on Instagram). Although notoriously private about his personal life, he does admit that he likes to run a search on his name at least once a day. But does he feel bogged down by the constant scrutiny and expectations of him?

“Yes, I do feel pressured, but in a good way. It pushes me to try harder and live up to the standards expected of me,” he answers, after giving it some thought.

Not only is Lee among the most popular K-stars of the big screen, he’s also one of the most sought-after faces for luxury fashion brands, his uncomplicated sense of style a reflection of the man himself. The likes of Boss and Fendi have tapped into Lee’s appeal, both appointing him as their brand ambassador.

Monochromatic tones are his go-to, be it for casual loungewear or uber stylish luxe ensembles. And to look as good as he does, Lee follows a simple philosophy: “I like my clothes to fit well. I like it to be effortless.”

Not one to restrict himself to just acting, Lee recently launched his YouTube channel, for which he serves as executive producer and creative director. With this move, he left fans wondering whether he was planning to diversify.

“As I spend more time as an actor, I feel stories are of the essence, and I’d like to tell stories that are neglected, narratives that are ignored. I’d definitely want to expand my repertoire beyond acting and get into production. But nothing is confirmed,” he says, his trademark enigmatic smile firmly in place.

This story has been adapted for the website from a story that was originally published in Hello! India’s April 2022 issue. Get your hands on the latest issue right here!