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Lee Dong Wook Is the Portrait of a Gentleman

By Renée Batchelor

Lee Dong Wook in Chanel tweed jacket, trousers and J12 watch.
Hong Jang Hyun
Lee Dong Wook in Chanel tweed jacket, trousers and J12 watch.

We don’t have a lot of time to spend with the actor Lee Dong Wook for our interview in Seoul, South Korea. But when you’re working with one of Korea’s A-list stars, it’s the quality of time that matters. The 37-year-old is a consummate professional, and shooting him is not exactly a difficult exercise. After all, anyone who has watched him in TV series like the popular “Goblin” or in the medical drama “Life” would be aware of his serene, almost otherworldly beauty. The telegenic quality translates easily to photos and Lee moves smoothly and elegantly in the clothes on set. 

In person, Lee is strikingly tall and has a gentle manner. He appears exactly as he does on screen, with flawless, alabaster complexion and graceful, subtly expressive features. Reserved and self-contained in person, the Lee you see is pretty similar to the persona that he has portrayed on chat shows in South Korea. Down to earth and thoughtful, he is polite almost to a fault, and not prone to fits of exuberance. He possesses the swoon-inducing reticence of old-school movie stars, before Instagram and social media ruined celebrity mystique. 

Hong Jang HyunFrom left: Lee in Berluti coat and shoes; in Prada shirt.
From left: Lee in Berluti coat and shoes; in Prada shirt.

Lee harboured ambitions of being an actor from a relatively young age, thanks to the suggestions from those around him. It was an unusual choice to say the least, in a society obsessed with status and success, but one that proved to be canny on the part of the young Lee. “After watching a movie and seeing the actors’ faces on the big screen, I thought, ‘I wonder what it would be like if that were me?’” he says simply. There is no mention of South Korea’s notoriously difficult entertainment scene, which can be tricky to navigate between the intrusive press, immense pressure and the adoring fans. Instead, Lee says that he has been happy to just move from project to project. “I enjoy working well with other people, from one acting project to another — which is what has kept me doing what I do till now,” shares Lee. 

A question on how he prepares for his roles elicits the standard response of preparedness but also reveals a perfectionist attention to detail. “Of course, when I take on a role that requires certain professional skills, such as that of a doctor or a lawyer, I make sure to prepare and study those skills beforehand,” he says. It is the unseen traits, like the character’s personality or behavioural tics that he finds important to nail down as these quirks have to be fleshed out and believably expressed in different scenes. “I try to focus on those elements in my acting,” says Lee. 

Hong Jang HyunLee in Chanel sweater, rings and J12 watches.
Lee in Chanel sweater, rings and J12 watches.

Lee made his debut in 1999, as a teenager, in a single episode of a drama on Munhwa Broadcasting Corporation, a leading Korean television network. It was that role that led to bigger things, namely a role in the anthology series “School” (he starred in “School 2” and “School 3”). Lee acknowledges that the industry has changed since his debut. “Because the Korean entertainment business is receiving so much worldwide attention while it is growing, I think that the industry is adjusting to what matches their growth and how they are viewed,” says Lee. He knows that the explosion of the South Korean entertainment scene, and particularly K-drama and K-Pop, has led to bigger exposure to an overseas fan base. “When I see this happening it makes my heart feel full and proud. I think one of the big reasons is because of the energy that only Koreans have. They do not stay in one place and are not complacent. They are always experimenting and those experiments with change have naturally become a phenomenon,” says Lee. 

He does think that Korean drama displays a particular blend that attracts the fans. “There are certain expressions that can’t be mimicked out of Korea. And I think that the specific type of emotions that only Koreans can express is being recognised more now, which is why I think they are receiving so much love from abroad,” says Lee. 

Hong Jang HyunLee in Balenciaga sweater, trousers, boots; Chanel J12 watch and rings.
Lee in Balenciaga sweater, trousers, boots; Chanel J12 watch and rings.

When choosing a project, Lee first looks at the script, and then the actors and directors he will be working with. “I give the project a lot of thought and consider all these factors before I make my decision,” he shares. 

Lee, who has acted in numerous romantic comedies and melodramas in his career, says there are still many roles which he would like to play. He is not averse to taking on a role in an international project, in a language other than Korean, but it would have to be a very considered decision. “To express my feelings, I feel like I would have to change my entire approach to acting that I have brought with me till now into this project. It would be something I would have to be very careful with, and something that is very difficult,” says Lee. This is clearly something he has ruminated on, as he feels that the language difference would be one of the main challenges. “If I have the chance to take on that type of challenge, I think it is important that I work hard to learn the language (the project is set in) as much and as fast as possible,” he says. 

Hong Jang HyunLee in CK Calvin Klein shirt.
Lee in CK Calvin Klein shirt.

The directors he wants to work with include Park Chan-Wook and Bong Joon-Ho’s whose films he has been following since he was young. “I have so much respect for the two directors that I would love to work with them on a project someday. Additionally, I would also love to work with (the actor) Song Kang-Ho,” he says. 

In addition to gracing screens both small and large, Lee is also the face of Boy de Chanel, Chanel’s first range of makeup for men. He was very surprised when he was approached by the brand, but nonetheless felt it was a priceless opportunity he had to take on — after all, it’s not every day a luxury French fashion house calls on an Asian actor to be the face of a whole line. It was also a way for him to gain even more global exposure. When it comes to maintaining his appearance, a burden that is shared by the men perhaps more equally in the Korean context, Lee is truthful. “Well, I would be lying if I said there was no pressure. But now, I feel that it is important to gradually show the more real and natural Lee Dong Wook,” he says. He acknowledges that since he likes to eat and drink alcohol, he does need to exercise every chance he gets. “I also don’t get to sleep as much when things get busy... so working out continuously is the best way to maintain myself overall, in my opinion,” he says. 

Hong Jang HyunLee in Bottega Veneta sweater, trousers, and rings; stylist’s own shoes.
Lee in Bottega Veneta sweater, trousers, and rings; stylist’s own shoes.

If he hadn’t fallen into acting, Lee has said in past interviews that he might have chosen to be a teacher, since he enjoys Korean literature. He has also openly entertained the prospect of hosting on television, and if given the chance would happily do both acting and hosting. “Currently, I am hosting the Korean television programme called ‘Produce X 101’ and I feel ‘greedy’ to do well in both [acting and hosting],” says Lee. He feels that the main difference between the two is the unexpected situations that may pop up. “Even in situations where you are not doing a live programme, as the host, when you ask any question you never know what the person you’ve asked will say in return. On the other hand, I enjoy those type of situations because there are fun elements that come out of it,” he says. 

Hong Jang HyunFrom left: Lee in Wooyoungmi coat; Givenchy sweater, trousers and boots.
From left: Lee in Wooyoungmi coat; Givenchy sweater, trousers and boots.

As for dealing with fans, Lee is likely to sign an autograph if asked, but may not necessarily take a photo if he is working out or having drinks with friends. He has nothing but praise for his fans though. “My fans have been very considerate towards me,” he says. Perhaps because of the hectic life he leads — think shoots, travel and press meets — it is not surprising that Lee enjoys a little relaxation in his downtime. “Oh, I enjoy not doing anything — meaning I keep the TV off and maybe have music playing. At most, [I’d] lie down and clear my head. I think this is the best kind of rest,” says Lee. As we wrap up the shoot and he takes his leave, Lee makes it a point to shake everyone’s hand, looking each person in the eye as he does so. It seems good manners maketh the man and, as he quietly demonstrates, it never quite goes out of style. 

Hong Jang HyunLee in Chanel tweed jacket, cuffs, rings and J12 watch.
Lee in Chanel tweed jacket, cuffs, rings and J12 watch.

Related story: On Set | Lee Dong Wook on the Charms of the K-Wave

Photographs by Hong Jang Hyun
Creative direction by Tok Wei Lun
Styled by Nam Joo Hee
Makeup by Kim Ji Young
Hair by Im Jung Ho
Photography assisting by Lee Yong Hee and Yang Joong San
Production by Kim Lee Kyung