This article is taken from the Autumn/Winter 2023 issue of AnOther Magazine:
At 6ft 3in, the 28-year-old multi-award-winning South Korean actor and K-pop star Rowoon – real name Kim Seok-woo – towers over most. That includes many of his co-stars, who stand on boxes for close-ups. Described as “perfect boyfriend material” by fans and media alike, he’s renowned for his legion of dedicated followers, who have shown up religiously at live performances of idol group SF9. The band’s name is an acronym of Sensational Feeling Nine, after its nine members, and Rowoon is lead vocalist and the ‘visual’: a controversial but universal label in K-pop, defined by most as the member who best fits South Korea’s notoriously rigid beauty standards. When it comes to being genetically predisposed to seduce millions, the K-pop idol (a term used for all members of K-pop groups) ticks every box. Rowoon is manly without any red-flag machismo: take him off topic in conversation and a rapid-fire banter ensues – when he laughs, it’s with his whole body and a resounding clap of his hands. He’s also reassuringly down to earth – at a public appearance in Japan in June, he ventured out into the pouring rain to sign autographs for fans and, rather sweetly, brought his own pen and paper in case anyone didn’t have their own.
If by some chance your only exposure to the stratospheric western rise of South Korean culture in recent years has been Parasite and Squid Games, or the artists Blackpink and BTS, you’re just standing at the edge of a cultural behemoth. Long before Psy horse-danced into the history books in 2012, K-pop’s first-generation idols, such as the boy band HOT, and Korean dramas and films, like Shiri, What Is Love, My Sassy Girl, First Love and Winter Sonata, were captivating audiences across east Asia in the late Nineties and early Noughties. In 1999, Chinese media coined the term hallyu – which translates as ‘Korean wave’ – to encompass the unprecedented success of Korean entertainment.
With the advent of social media, beginning with Myspace in 2003, K-pop’s reach broadened significantly in the West thanks to existing fans translating and adding subtitles to interviews, video content and lyrics in various languages, as well as setting up community forums on Reddit and LiveJournal. In 2021, according to South Korea’s Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism, the export of the country’s cultural content was worth £9.8 billion. In April, Netflix announced its plans to invest £2 billion into Korean productions. On Spotify, K-pop currently receives about 8 billion monthly streams, with the US making up a large part of its primary audience. The booming business of K-culture is bigger than ever, and Rowoon, who is starring in two new series this year – JTBC/Netflix’s Destined with You, and the historical drama The Battle of Marriage – has become one of its most lucrative stars.
The idea of this status – the immense popularity, his edging up the ladder in a frenetic and competitive industry (the film/drama site AsianWiki lists 137 new K-dramas for 2022 alone) – gives Rowoon pause. He doesn’t entirely feel like he’s earned his stripes. “I have a way to go, I feel very uncertain,” he says in Korean over Zoom, his interpreter sitting close by. “I try to be a little harsh on myself so I can keep on track and not fall back. Acting is very humbling.”
Rowoon branched out into the industry just one year after joining SF9 – his first, albeit minor, part was in the coming-of-age comedy School 2017, where, in a textbook example of art imitating life, he played a K-pop idol. He then starred in another high-school series, the fantastical Extraordinary You (2019), in which the heart rate of the female lead character, Eun Dan-oh, increases every time she encounters Rowoon’s character, Ha-ru. That was his breakout role, landing him best new actor at the MBC Drama Awards that year: The King’s Affection (2021), in which he plays the male lead, is the first South Korean television series to have won an Emmy. To date he’s made nine, mostly romantic, drama shows, and they have turned him into a global heartthrob – his Instagram following is just shy of five and a half million, each post’s comment section an avalanche of compliments in a dozen languages.
Despite that, Rowoon describes his first day on each set as “still nerve-racking. I always ask myself, ‘Why do I feel this way? Why am I so nervous?’ And it’s the thought that someone is going to be judging my acting.” He’s trained himself to embrace that uncertainty, to use it as motivation to continue doing something he loves. He considers himself a “tool of the director”, but like all instruments, he needs to be perfectly tuned to perform at his best. “I always go on set thinking I may know the right answer and I try to persuade a director that a certain scene is acted a certain way,” Rowoon says. “But if the director was to give me an order afterwards, I’d take it on board because there’s never a correct answer. That’s why it’s so fun. It’s like walking blindfolded.”
When he was growing up, film and music weren’t prevalent in his Seoul-based family home, though his mother took a young Rowoon to church, where he would sing hymns with the rest of the congregation. He laughs: “Really, none of them have inspired me in the arts.” His father worked in real estate and his mother ran a hagwon (a private cram school). Aged 14, Rowoon joined FNC Entertainment as an idol trainee, where he spent six years in dance and vocal training. At the same time, he studied acting at high school, hoping to continue that at the university he ultimately wouldn’t end up attending. The way Rowoon tells it, he never had a preference – music or acting – so when the chance arose to debut as a fully fledged, multifaceted idol, he took it.
He was nominated as 2018’s best new actor by South Korea’s SBS Drama Awards for his supporting role in the series Where Stars Land, which follows the lives of young airline staff. When he didn’t win (it went to his close friend Ahn Hyo-seop), Rowoon was relieved and unsurprised. “Not with that acting,” he says, with a grimace. The nomination itself didn’t reassure him, either, that he was cut out for the profession: his first inkling that he was on the right path came when he worked on Extraordinary You. “There was a lot of pressure in being a main character, and my script almost fell apart because I’d read it so many times. I was so scared. But I was doing everything I could to prepare, so I was actually very liberated on set. By being so in touch with myself and the character, I felt a kind of catharsis.”
“I want to appeal to producers and directors – not just as a pretty face but able to show the full spectrum of emotions inside me, to portray the different types of people that exist in the world” – Rowoon
In interviews at the time, Rowoon described Ha-ru as puppyish but also someone who “hoards” his feelings. Similarly, his character in The King’s Affection, Ji-un, operates at opposing ends of the spectrum. “He’s one of my favourites. The way he was written was inspiring, the juxtaposition of his bright and dark sides, and their coexistence, was what really appealed to me,” Rowoon says. The motivations and moral compasses of his characters (office intern, royal tutor, student) diverge, but there is a common base point: a seemingly worldly and steadfast young man whose true form – capricious and sometimes endearingly bumbling – must undergo a steep learning curve.
One such arc belongs to Tomorrow’s (2022) Jun-woong, who accidentally finds himself working with grim reapers on special missions. “There was one particular scene that made me choose this character,” Rowoon says. “There’s someone on a bridge trying to kill themselves and Jun-woong initially looks away. There’s usually a stereotype for the main character to be a good person, but if you look deeper into people, in general, we’re all living in harsh realities, so do we really have the mental capability to look after others in those situations? Those kinds of fundamental questions are what made the character so appealing and made Jun-woong develop a more serious perspective on life.”
In the real world, Rowoon finds little in common with the men he plays on-screen, and that disconnect works fine for him. He’s drawn to his characters’ stand-out traits and works to express them by envisioning them in a range of mundane settings, imagining how they would move, think and react. “I want to appeal to producers and directors – not just as a pretty face but able to show the full spectrum of emotions inside me, to portray the different types of people that exist in the world. But I also feel like it’s my role to open those kinds of doors to release those emotions. If you wish for something so greatly, you start acting on it. If you want it, you can get it.”
And so he immerses himself in finding interesting divisions and differences between characters he’s already played and those he might play next. This is understandable – K-drama series have an average of 16 episodes and require considerable time and emotional investment from the cast, and the viewer. But for the millions who love them, these slow-burn plots are all part of their charm.
In recent years, the popularity of K-content among non-Koreans has drawn increased focus from both the media and academics. Several major UK universities now offer degrees in Korean studies, with modules covering music, film and television. Speaking to the news outlet Al Jazeera, Arizona State University’s Dr Areum Jeong attributed K-drama’s explo- sion in its global standing to: “Sociocultural issues packaged in an entertaining story, skilful acting and design, an accessible platform that allows millions to view, and a message that resonates with the audience.”
Korean is now one of the fastest-growing languages in the world, according to the Duolingo app. “This is something I feel proud of,” Rowoon says. “I think the Korean alphabet, Hangul, is beautiful, and I’m grateful that other people perceive it that way too.” He questions what drives people to become superfans of South Korean actors and idols, to disappear into the fantasy fed to them. “This may be a little dangerous to say,” he says, “but I think it’s about loneliness. That’s how I feel, honestly. I think it’s a contradiction, because at the end of the day, it’s a form of consumption. Once you try to find a reason for it, it turns into loneliness.”
“It’s not because of me that I feel depressed, it’s because I’m a human and I recognise that I’m a human, an animal” – Rowoon
Like many celebrities, he’s had his share of unhinged levels of stan-dom, a no-win zone of obsessive love, and hate. The former has given rise to stalkers – a commonplace problem for most K-pop idols. But it’s the latter (which has included endless, depressing dogpiling about everything from his appearance to his acting skills) that has most affected him. “It used to be very hurtful,” he says, “so now I just treat it as more attention. It keeps me on edge, alert and hard-working.” For the most part, he sees his fans find comfort in what he does as a singer and actor, and “there’s a sense of a mission and responsibility knowing this. I always ask myself, ‘Would there be meaning to what I do if these people didn’t exist?’ For them, I feel like I need to live my own life to the fullest. I used to feel a lot of pressure from fame but now I just try to enjoy it.”
Rowoon is paradoxical. Effusive – his hands shape the air as he talks – yet grounded and direct, he says he sometimes finds himself “trapped” inside sadness. He deals with it in an almost painfully pragmatic manner: “I just leave it be as it is. It’s not because of me that I feel depressed, it’s because I’m a human and I recognise that I’m a human, an animal, who feels things, so I try not to delve too much into it.”
He’s learnt to respond that way to emotionally low periods. “That process is hard,” he says. “I really like Fight Club. I must have watched it, like, 20 times, and my favourite line is, ‘It’s only after we’ve lost everything that we’re free to do anything.’ I like that it’s not just talking about gaining everything but having the courage to do so after losing it all. That’s really stuck with me.”
Did it stick because he’s been there, at rock bottom, before? “Yes, about a year ago. But I never expressed it to others around me because life is just hard in general. I didn’t want to be recognised through my suffering, so I didn’t want to talk about it.”
Rowoon still doesn’t want to talk about it. He’s worried that people might perceive it entirely differently from the truth of the situation but, having come out the other side, he’s feeling the importance of staying in the moment and living simply. “I eat because I’m hungry,” he says. “I do things just because they’re fun.”
Rowoon keeps his dating life private. I ask if he’s a romantic in real life. “I don’t know what to say,” he replies, crumpling into laughter before composing himself. “Thinking about what might be romantic ... Maybe it’s remembering things and being aware and alert. In that way, I could be [described as] romantic.”
It might not sound like the biggest overture from a man who has been sweeping co-stars and viewers off their feet for half a decade but, for him, it’s a step up, having previously struggled to express his own feelings. “It’s much better now,” Rowoon says. “Some things are negative, so I try to contain them, but if there’s something positive within me, I feel it’s my role as an actor to share it.”
One of Rowoon’s own triumphs – his own learning curve, if you like – has been in creating a balance between the public and the private, a peaceful, healthy coexistence of persona and person. Sometimes they blur into one simply because they’re fed into by the same source but, equally, that’s part of his evolution, in being able to control and command his many facets. It’s made easier through the respect that the bulk of his fans show him when he’s out and about off-schedule. By respecting his boundaries, they give him the space and time needed to work on himself. “I’m successfully managing to keep Seok-woo at the same time as developing Rowoon,” he says. “That’s why I feel very free now. Instead of being too overconscious about how I’m portrayed, I try to trust myself that I’m a good person and that’s how I’m going to keep going along.”
Hair: Hyunwoo Lee at CO-OP using AMOS and L’ORÉAL PROFESSIONNEL. Make-up: Sunghee An at CO-OP using NARS, CHANEL and GLOSSIER. Prop stylist: Minkyu Jeon. Lighting: Ari Sadok. Photographic assistant: Kundo Song. Styling assistant: Jinee Jung. Hair assistants: Hanbin Kwak and Jeong Her. Make-up assistant: Hyeme Jo. Prop assistants: Inseo Hwang and Kyungil Seol. Production: Starch Haus. Executive producer: Min Kim. Line producer: Donhyeok Choi. On-set production assistant: Minhyuk Ahn. Post-production: Two Three Two
This story features in the Autumn/Winter 2023 issue of AnOther Magazine, which is on sale internationally on 14 September 2023. Pre-order here.