Congrats, You’re a Break-out Star. Now What?

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.

Lee Min Ho

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.

lmh bofHe 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.

lee min ho rolesTracing 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.

Next page: Kim Bum, Song Hye Kyo, Kim Soo Hyun, and Yoon Eun Hye

Kim Bum

kim bumAnother card carrying F4 member, Kim Bum had his break-out role as the dimpled potter So Yi Jeong, and while his career post “Boys Over Flowers” has been less dynamic than his more famous counter part, he shows us a different path for these break-out stars. His immediate follow-up project was a generally unknown drama called “Dream,” where he played the main character: a troubled youth seeking redemption as a fighter. While “Dream” was not the best choice for his follow-up project, it would set the precedent of the kinds of projects Kim Bum would gravitate towards. In the wake of his new found fame, Kim Bum seemed to purposefully avoid the kinds of dramas that contributed to his popularity.

He followed up “Dream,” with the drama that should have been his immediate follow-up project, 2010’s “The Woman Who Still Wants to Marry,” where he played a young man who romances an older woman. 2012 was an even better year for Kim Bum, who was acted as an guardian angel in one of the best melodramas of the year, “Padam Padam.” 2013 continued to be busy for the young actor, who turned out supporting roles in “The Winter the Wind Blows” and “Jung Yi, Goddess of Fire.”

Instead of playing it safe and taking advantage of what was then his boyish and winning charm, Kim decided against roles that would certainly capitalize on his “Boys Over Flowers”demand, but would certainly typecast him. It could be said that his popularity has waned, but Kim Bum has made a respectable career of choosing smaller, more varied supporting roles instead of leading ones, and was even able to transition to doing movies earlier than Lee Min Ho. Kim Bum shows us how to an actor can sustain a career by playing opposite his break-out role.

Song Hye Kyo

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One of the biggest stars leading the interest in Korean dramas and movies, and has been for quite some time, is actress-turned-icon Song Hye Kyo. Young and relatively unknown, Song achieved break-out status in 2000 with the widely popular, landmark drama, “Autumn in My Heart,” also known as the most melodrama-est melodrama of all time. I mean, you could say, as many do, that it was this drama that sparked the “Korean Wave.” To put the popularity of the drama in some more modern perspective, “Autumn in My Heart” surpasses the ratings of “Boys Over Flowers” (around 35%-30%) and is comparable to “The Moon that Embraces the Sun,” hovering around 40% for ratings. Although ratings isn’t everything, they provide a useful tool in helping us gauge just how much Korea was taken with the drama.

Song Hye Kyo’s follow up project was the equally popular “Hotelier,” which further cemented her as an actress that was one to watch, even if she wasn’t the main character. And if a break-out star is lucky enough to have an iconic drama once in their lives, Song is just that much special for having (at least) 3, acting in these little dramas you might have heard of, “All In” and “Full House” in addition to “Autumn in My Heart.” In “All In” she played that star-crossed romantic lead to Lee Byun Hun‘s character, in a twisted tale of gambling, revenge, and redemption. And what to say about “Full House”? It was the drama that launched Rain‘s acting career, and turned a simple house into an international pilgrimage site. Song was hilarious and charming as Han Ji Eun, an aspiring screenwriter who ends up as a maid in her own home. With the trifecta of “Autumn in My Heart,” “All In,” and “Full House,” there could be no mistake that Song Hye Kyo was orbiting in her own galaxy and no one could touch her.

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But Song Hye Kyo is a success story for more than her acting credentials. At such a young age (she was only 18 during “Autumn of My Heart”) she hit mega fame almost instantly and could have easily been crushed by the weight of expectation, the pressure to deliver. Unlike Kim Bum, she chose to embrace the roles that brought her fame, picking dramas that helped diversify her resume but at the same time stayed true to her audience. This doesn’t mean that Song didn’t grow as an actress or that she always played the same character, and the evidence of this is the maturity of her acting in such dramas like “Worlds Within.

A significant and contributing factor to Song Hye Kyo’s success as a break-out star is that she has played to her strengths, and the importance of carefully selecting of projects, I think, can’t be emphasized enough. Song Hye Kyo’s career has been distinguished through her acting skills, of course, but also by her discerning eye for roles that can only propel her ever forward.

Kim Soo Hyun

kim soo hyunGoing back to the point that choosing projects is of utmost importance for break-out stars, let’s turn our attention to that alien that wormed his way into Cheon Song Yi’s world in last year’s “My Love From the Stars,” Kim Soo Hyun. This is a guy who knows what is good for him. When he first popped up on my radar in 2009’s “Will it Snow for Christmas?” I thought he was perfectly cast as the younger version of Go Soo‘s character. I thought he was winning in his break-out role as an idol trainee in “Dream High,” convincing as a love-torn prince in “The Moon that Embraces the Sun,” and downright delightful as a grumpy 400 year-old alien in “My Love From the Stars.” Kim Soo Hyun’s acting credentials vary widely, in both his dramas and movies, and it seems that he has that golden touch.

Without taking anything from Kim, who I do think is a gifted actor, I also think he has another gift: that of choosing the right projects for his strengths. This isn’t a bad thing. He’s incredibly self-aware, knows what works for him, and subsequently chooses the projects that highlight what he knows he does best, and the result is a sweet success where everyone benefits. Kim Soo Hyun makes good on his break-out potential, keeps knocking them out of the park, and we get to benefit from satisfying dramas and movies. It’s a win-win, folks.

Yoon Eun Hye

yoon 1There are worse things than picking great projects that cater to your strengths. Like, the opposite, for example. There’s nothing more frustrating than a talented break-out star, ripe with potential, who just can’t seem to pick them. I’m talking to you, Yoon Eun Hye, as much as it hurts me to say so. Already an idol, Yoon reinvented herself in 2006’s smash hit, “Princess Hours,” playing a regular girl who suddenly finds herself engaged to the crown prince of Korea. She followed up her break-out role with a respectable turn in the romantic comedy “The Vineyard Man.” Then, in 2007 came “Coffee Prince.” If “Princess Hours” introduced us to Yoon Eun Hye as an actress, her role in “Coffee Prince” captured hearts as the lovable barista, Go Eun Chan, and firmly placed her on the country’s list of best, most loved actresses.

But unlike Song Hye Kyo or Kim Soo Hyun, Yoon Eun Hye has struggled to find the perfect projects. “My Fair Lady” was a decent role for her, but “Lie to Me,” “I Miss You,” and “Marry Him if You Dare” not only failed to captivate audiences, but at times these dramas worked against what Yoon does so well as an actress. That is, there is something about her that is approachable, vulnerable, and disarming in her acting, even when she doesn’t play a “nice” role, that makes you feel for her character. But these dramas fell apart, leaving her with very little to do anything with, let alone make you feel empathy.

yoon 2To be fair, I think that Yoon picked these dramas thinking they would be something other than what they were. As in, I can see why, on paper, she would choose “Lie to Me” or “I Miss You,” and I think the attempt was to pick projects a la Lee Min Ho and Song Hye Kyo, just met with much less success. In Yoon Eun Hye’s case, while we all might be waiting for the perfect project to come along so that she can actually act in a worthwhile drama, I don’t think anyone is more eager or anxious for this than Yoon Eun Hye herself. She comes to us as a break-out star who’s trajectory is still high due to how beloved she is, but I’m not sure we would still be talking about her acting projects if it were anyone else but her.

So where does this leave us?

Obviously, every break-out actor and actress will have to deal with the fallout becoming the next best thing in their own way, and there is not one set path for success. There are some things to be weary of, clearly, and they would do well to look at the careers of the others who came before them to best figure out how to make the most of of their new status. It will be interesting to see what paths the break-out stars of 2014 will take in the upcoming years. Will Im Siwan become the next Lee Min Ho? Will he succumb to expectation and grapple with projects like Yoon Eun Hye? Will Ahn Jae Hyun follow along the trajectory of Kim Bum? Or will he be the next Kim Soo Hyun? Will Han Groo charm the pants of Korea and Asia, following in the footsteps of Song Hye Kyo?

Only time will tell, but in the meantime, let us know your predictions in the comment section below!

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