Every year K-dramas produce a cluster of fresh-faced actors and actresses that make a bang in the K-drama universe. These are the newly arrived stars, the nobodies suddenly turned somebodies whose faces no one can escape, appearing on every kind of commercial and magazine advertising the latest brands of outerwear and soju, and everything in between. These newcomers are bestowed the charming and sometimes perfunctory title of “break-out star.”
Not all break-out stars’s careers, however, are created equal.
Some of them shine brightly in a drama or in a role, only to fade quickly from the scene, never quite being able to re-capture the magic that launched them into the K-drama stratosphere. Others, burdened by the pressure to perform, go to the opposite extreme shunning the character for which they are so well-known. Being known as a “break-out star” is both a blessing and a curse for many, and it is interesting to note just how these select few deal with the fame, the burden, and, ultimately, how it affects their projects post-breakout.
When I think of “break-out stars,” the actor who comes immediately to mind is none other than Lee Min Ho, whose career, I think, provides an interesting case study for one of the most successful actors to ever navigate the waters with the title of “break-out star.” The guy practically came out of nowhere as the perfectly coiffed Goo Jun Pyo in 2009’s “Boys Over Flowers” and subsequently swept Korea up in a dizzying frenzy that spread well beyond the country’s borders. It would be difficult to overstate just how big the “Boys Over Flowers” phenomenon was, how important the drama was for the spread of Hallyu, or how this drama about a girl out of her element and an infamous group of 4 friends catapulted a young cast into levels of popularity usually reserved for more seasoned actors. And there was no bigger star than Lee Min Ho.
He was a perfect combination of physical attributes (tall, dominating, handsome, with a memorable perm to boot), endearing awkwardness (on the red carpet and in interviews you can practically see the deer-in-the-headlights look in his eyes), and overwhelming, captivating talent. I recently re-visited “Boys Over Flowers” and while I still find it ridiculous and…shrill, in many ways Lee Min Ho saved that drama. He gave Goo Jun Pyo a level of sensitivity and vulnerability that made us sympathize with his character, even a character as difficult as Goo Jun Pyo. It is the case where he was able to capture the attention of audiences by making the character his own, by making the character more than what the script maybe initially called for. He so completely defined that drama to the point where, today, “Boys Over Flowers” is distinguished by its association with Lee Min Ho (and not the other way around).
With that much attention and instafame, everyone, and I mean everyone, was waiting for his next project after the completion of “Boys Over Flowers.” We all wondered if Lee Min Ho was the real deal, if he was worth all the endorsements, the attention. Needless to say, the expectations and speculations were high. This is often the most fragile time for break-out stars because the follow-up project is, in some cases, more important to a career than the “break-out drama.” To his credit, Lee Min Ho took quite some time to select his next project, and his choice was… conservative. I remember thinking at the time that “Personal Taste” was not the drama that I wanted to see him in, but in hindsight it was probably the smarter choice since he was able to show that he could play a breadth of roles without completely alienating his target audience.
Tracing Lee Min Ho’s drama career reveals something interesting. In 2009 he had his break-out role in “Boys Over Flowers.” In 2010 he had a respectable but unmemorable turn as an aspiring-architect-assumed-gay roommate in “Personal Taste.” But, in 2011 he came back with one of that year’s best dramas, “City Hunter,” playing a reluctant vigilante and reaffirming his role as one of Korea’s top stars. Only to come back in 2012 with the lackluster historical time-traveling drama, “Faith.” Then in 2013 he swept us all up, again, in the immensely popular “Heirs,” playing that rich and privileged Kim Tan.
When we look at Lee Min Ho’s career, he is the most commercially successful with every other drama that he does. Yet the roles where he is the most daring, the roles that seem to challenge him more as an actor, are the dramas between his hits. If we take Lee Min Ho as, arguably, the most successful of these “break-out stars” in terms of creating a sustained career, he has done so through a careful selection of roles that allow him to develop as an actor, and thus avoid being typecast, while also never losing sight of his large and demanding audience and the kinds of dramas that best appeal to them.
Lee Min Ho wasn’t just a face, he wasn’t just boyishly charming, and he wasn’t just the latest hottest issue. If that were the case, I don’t think we would still be talking about Lee Min Ho today, never mind still so interested in him. No, because at the end of the day, even as the F4 demand was at its most obsessive and widespread, Lee Min Ho was able to deliver on all the hype surrounding him. And through some smart career moves, has been able to make the most of his “break-out star” status.