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‘It’s Okay to Have a Bad Day’: Seo In-guk

The South Korean superstar opens up to us about how real artists are ‘true in the dark and humble in the spotlight’

Debashree Dutta Jul 07, 2022

Photo: Courtesy of KBS2

You know you’re in for a treat when Seo In-guk appears on screen (literally speaking) – whether it’s a stellar performance as an actor, a song in which his musicianship stands out, or a candid conversation with him on Zoom. As a South Korean superstar, Seo is undeniably one of a kind. His acting skills? We don’t even need to go there; he’s a prodigy. His immaculate satoori dialect struck me when I first met him in Reply 1997 and began to pay attention to his work, which includes a roster of super hits like Master’s Sun (2013), High School King of Savvy (2014), Hello Monster (2015), Squad 38 (2016), Shopping King Louie (2016), The Smile Has Left Your Eyes (2018), Doom At Your Service (2021) and the ongoing Café Minamdang. I believe that Seo became a star long before the Korean wave happened.

Trust me on this: when I started watching Café Minamdang (Minamdang in Korean) a week ago, I had no idea I’d end up interviewing him in the next few days. I struck up a conversation with him at 11.30 am IST on the day of the interview. Seo In-guk, mark my words, is the sweetest, most humble, and soft-spoken person I’ve ever come across. Meeting him left me with only one question: “Like how?” Apparently, that’s what real artists are – “true in the dark and humble in the spotlight.” I initiated the discussion in Korean as an icebreaker, and there he was, with the most incredulous expression, marvelling at how an Indian journalist could be proficient in Korean.

Much to my surprise, given how huge a superstar he is, we were interacting comfortably in no time. He reveals that his MBTI (Myers-Briggs Type Indicator) personality type is ‘I’ (introvert). Is that even possible? I mean, on screen, this man can be anyone – a complicated individual, a strange person, a fervent lover, a death messenger, a conman, or even a shaman. Give him any part and he will bring it to life. I ask him about his favorite character and he mentions Nam Han-jun from Café Minamdang. “I could use my acting expertise acquired through playing various characters throughout the years in this role, and I believe I could express myself more effectively as an actor through Nam,” he says, adding, “If you observe him, you will notice that he is strong and certainly feels a lot, so much so that I guess it could be my all-time favorite character.”

Two sides of the same coin, Seo is a singer-cum-actor, or more precisely, a singer-songwriter-cum-actor. His vocal aptitude is exceptional enough to give others a run for their money. Listen to his songs – impressive in all capacities, a veritable collection of OSTs, albums and singles that highlight his passion for music. It’s something that introduced him to the celebrity world after winning the first season of Mnet’s singing competition show Superstar K. Seo’s latest album, Love and Love, combines love and music with thoughts and sentiments that soothe a broken heart. “It generates empathy, like, it’s okay to have a bad day rather than feeling like you have to keep strong,” Seo explains about the single “My Love” from the album.  And I suppose what the artist has attempted to represent here is preserving unique moments from memory and combining them with music – sort of like blending the music with the moment.

Seo’s interest in art isn’t surprising. He is a star performer who is continually honing his craft. Although objectives and desires change and goalposts shift at a quick pace, this person is focused on what he wants. “I want to concentrate on being a better actor and singer and express myself better. I want to exhibit my stronger sides by selecting good scripts, characters, and genres,” he says.

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In a candid chat with Rolling Stone India, Seo talks about his recent projects, objectives, and much more. Read the edited excerpts.

The trailer for Café Minamdang looks outstanding. The characters look so fashionable and gorgeous. What kind of feedback are you receiving?

To begin with, the character Nam Han-jun in the drama is quite colorful and has various shades. A lot of people are saying that because the show includes comedy as an element, Nam appears to be both funny and interesting. So, I’m getting positive feedback actually.

You are playing the character of Nam Han-jun, a criminal profiler who becomes a con man and shaman. So, what is it about this character that triggered your interest in this project?

I had a lot of fun playing the role of a shaman who dupes people. It was enjoyable.

Is there any point of similarity or dissimilarity between the real you and the character of Nam Han-jun?

Firstly, in terms of similarity, Nam Han-jun and I, we share the same face [laughs]. By the way, you know about MBTI, right? My MBTI personality type is ‘I’ (introvert) while Nam’s type is ‘E’ (extrovert). So that is the main difference between the two of us. Due to this difference, I was a bit tense while playing the character. However, it was interesting at the same time.

According to you, what is the USP of Café Minamdang?

To begin with, Nam Han-jun is a difficult character. There is a term called ‘shamanism,’ the concept of which varies from one country to another. In our country, it means to be possessed by a spirit. So, to act like a shaman and do all kinds of strange actions, I mean even if it was all fake, I had a lot of fun playing the role. That’s the best part.

Let’s now talk about your latest album Love and Love. As far as I know, you’ve released it after a prolonged period of five years. What took you so long to come back to the music scene in terms of releasing an album? Why such a big gap?

To be honest, the thought of taking a break was not really intentional. It just happened naturally while focusing on music. Working on OSTs was already keeping me busy, so the thought of making an album seemed difficult during that period. But considering how my fans congratulate me for my albums, how they like my music, and patiently wait for it, I feel that I need to produce more albums moving forward.

What went into the making of this album considering that this is your comeback one? I want to know the details with regards to the sound design and the way the music works in it.

As far as the sound and tone are concerned, I wanted to express my maturity through my voice – the maturity that comes with age. So, I wanted to demonstrate that through my voice while recording the songs for this album. “My Love” is a romantic song. But now that it’s raining in our country, I created this song that in a way suits the ambience of having a cup of coffee when it rains. It generates empathy, like, it’s okay to have a bad day rather than feeling like you have to keep strong. “Be My Melody,” on the other hand, exudes an old pop vibe. I integrated guitar sounds into the tune to make it sound trendy.

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How did the collab between you and RAVI in “My Love” happen?

Actually, RAVI and I are close friends. So, while initially making this song, I thought that since it’s a soft, soulful track, some people would like it the way it is. But then I felt there are some listeners who prefer a catchy soundtrack. That led me to RAVI, who could add a rap part to it. When he shared the first source file, his rap style characterized by powerplay did not sync well with the mood or soft tone of the song, so I called him again. I told him it sounds awesome and I like the lyrics too, but I also asked him if he could send me a softer version. He understood my concern and shared a second cut, which was great, and we recorded the song without further ado.

Who is closer to your heart? The singer in you or the actor that you are?

Both are me, I would say. I research a lot about a character before portraying them. While acting, I try to think that I’m in the situation for real and try to show my emotions on camera accordingly. So, the reel me is another side of the real me. Similarly, when I receive a new song or write one, I try to relate the lyrics to a situation from my past. In the song, I try to connect the two to express the emotions I felt at that time. Therefore, the singer in me is also the other side of me.

What is the big thing that you are looking forward to? The bigger picture, I mean. Do you have a dream project on your mind?

I want to concentrate on being an actor and singer, and keep expressing myself better. I want to display greater skills in acting and choose good scripts, characters and genres. As a singer, I aim to show what I’ve got – my diverse musicality in concerts. So, I hope to get such opportunities in the future through international tours and fan meets.

How do you feel about this Korean wave that is taking the world by storm? People are going bonkers about all things Korean. How do you feel about it?

It is an honor. It feels incredible to be recognized globally, to be appreciated and loved. It feels great. It’s also fantastic that people can watch our shows as well as other shows of their chosen genre on OTT platforms and other mediums. It motivates me as an artist, as an actor, to explore new disciplines

What is your favorite drama apart from the ones that you have done?

I recently saw Sweet Home and realized how our country is producing brilliant content about creatures and monsters. Although it isn’t a new subject, I’d like to do more of these enjoyable and intriguing projects in the years to come. There are other distinct genres, such as space, zombies and so on, and the magnitude of these initiatives is unquestionably enormous. The concept details, visualization and every component that goes into creating them make me very optimistic about the future of our industry. As a result, I’m looking forward to more shows like Sweet Home.

Please say a few words for all the people in India who love you so much.

I’ve heard that many people in India like me. I am grateful and would thank everyone from the bottom of my heart. If an opportunity comes up in the coming years, I’d like to visit India and meet my fans in person. I’d like to sing songs and create countless beautiful memories. So, I’ll do my best to make this happen as soon as possible.

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