Upon her return to the small screen in the drama The King: Eternal Monarch, 28-year-old South Korean actress Kim Go-Eun sat down with ELLE before its highly anticipated premiere in April this year. In a stunningly honest interview with ELLE, Kim reflects on her breakthroughs as an actress, the meaning of happiness, and how she wants to live her life.
ELLE: Today on the set of this shoot, your Chanel playlist was on loop (available on Melon and Apple Music). The genres and musicians were all different — how did you pick them?
Kim: I enjoy listening to music on a daily basis; they are all songs that I really like. As it’s a playlist to be shared with many people, I thought it should be filled with a variety of music.
Rock band Sinawe and artist Kim Soo-Cheol were a surprise. Are you very versatile when it comes to things you like?
Nowadays I’m into Chunhyangga pansori Parting Song (laughs). It’s the same with food, I’m not one who draws a line in any direction, and I believe there is a reason for the existence [of all things].
There were multiple movie OSTs too. Between Calm and Passion, Brokeback Mountain, A Star Is Born, and so on. Are these movies that you particularly like?
I used to watch Between Calm and Passion when I was young and I first dreamt of acting. I watched it alone while practising acting and writing reflections. I loved the OST so much that I even uploaded it onto my CyWorld mini homepage.
You’re well known for singing, such that you even appeared in music programmes. You were also cast in a musical movie about the life of a doctor, An Joong-Geun, in Hero (to be released this summer). What was it like acting and singing?
I don’t sing professionally so I felt a lot of pressure. Singing at a karaoke session is totally different, so I took singing lessons. My character is the Korean Independence activist Seol-Hee, and she has to express extreme emotions. The singing comes out in tiresome and difficult situations, so I really had to be acting aggressively yet be able to digest the song, while maintaining my act — that was extremely difficult.
As you — and Chanel — are both classic yet contemporary and refined, we think being an ambassador of the brand really suits you. Do you have any styling tips?
I usually go for just accentuating one aspect of my style. If I want to emphasise my jewellery, I’ll keep my outfit as simple as possible. If I want to emphasise my jacket, then my jewellery will be the bare minimum.
You’re waiting for the drama The King: Eternal Monarch’s to premiere. Following Goblin, this is your second production with writer Kim Eun Sook. Do you feel good about this drama?
I really do hope many will like this drama so I am waiting [eagerly]. I’m also very nervous as it’s been awhile since I appeared on TV. I’m also excited at the same time. Firstly, the story was something I’ve never seen in Korean drama history before. I’m still dealing with the tough concept of parallel worlds, and besides myself, you’ll see many others taking on dual roles, so I hope viewers will find that refreshing.
Jung Tae-Eul is a violent crime detective, and she also seems like a brave woman. Was there anything in particular that you did to prepare for this role?
She’s good in taekwondo and has several fighting scenes, so I prepared for them because I wanted to be able to pull off those scenes naturally. I visited the taekwondo studio in front of my house. I even have my own uniform (laughs).
It has been three years since Goblin. During this time, you filmed two movies, Sunset In My Hometown and Tune In For Love. Compared to your previous filmography, it seems like a more relaxed pace. Did you deliberately slow down the tempo?
That’s not entirely wrong. In the past four to five years, I’d been working every day without any rest. I thought to myself that I needed to make that move. After Goblin, I decided [that I would] work, while still not forgetting to have fun.
After working hard through your 20s, what is the greatest thing you’ve learnt?
It’s that this too shall pass. The choices I made in my 20s were not always safe choices. It’s not that I wasn’t aware, but I wanted to go against the grain, and every moment was tough and scary. “When will this end?”, “Will I be able to settle this emotion?” — all these moments eventually passed. Of course, if tough times come again, it will still be the same. The toughness remains the same but with the thought that “this too will pass”, you can get through it.
In Tune In To Love, your character Misoo has a line where she says, “I feel like a total loser. I hate myself. I don’t even want people looking at me too. I’m sad. I made all these choices myself. So why do I feel this way?” A lot of reviews showed that many were able to relate to this line. Was there ever a period where you personally felt like this too?
Yes, of course. While doing this line of work, I often got hurt easily and found myself getting weaker. I became wary of others, and I also felt worried because I no longer felt I was the same. Then I had this thought: The bar I set for myself could have been too high and specific, so when I couldn’t meet those standards, I wasn’t happy with myself and the end result. Based on different situations, people could feel inferior even though the fault doesn’t lie with them. I think it is easier if you just acknowledge that there will be times like that.
Last year you were in America alone for three months to learn English. How was it to go back to the “ordinary” you in a foreign place?
I felt like a fool [laughs]. Compared to other kids, I learnt how to file documents [for administrative purposes] at a slightly later age. Doing all that overseas was tougher. The most difficult part was finding accommodation, but other than the language barrier, there wasn’t anything outstandingly difficult. It’s important to experience various cultures, [similar to] how I don’t draw a limit when it comes to the things I enjoy. I had a strong desire to feel and live within a new culture. Not long after, I managed to blend in well I think.
Who am I? Why do I exist? How should I live? Do you ask yourself these questions?
Yes, thoughts like those always come around at least once. I often ponder about what the driving force in my life is, and what happiness is. It happens more often when I’m going through something or when I’m really exhausted.
At the moment, what is the driving force in Kim Go Eun’s life and what is happiness?
If you set the standard of happiness too high, it’ll bring about more unhappiness, so I try to find happiness in the smallest things. Most importantly, the times that I spend with my loved ones and family and friends are the happiest. It’s meaningful when you have people who are happy for you when you celebrate work-related achievements, or people who look after you together. Being able to be with them is another driving force too.
A version of this story was first published in ELLE Singapore’s June 2020 issue.