[Herald Interview] Im Si-wan didn’t know how dark he could go

By Rumy Doo

The K-pop singer-turned-actor says his uncanny talent and remarkable filmography are not results of calculation

  • Published : May 14, 2017 - 15:32
  • Updated : May 15, 2017 - 15:41

Im Si-wan is among the few Korean entertainers who have completed their transition from K-pop singer into actor, but the 28-year-old is careful not to overestimate himself or his sensibilities.

The fact that his latest film, the upcoming crime flick “The Merciless (Bul Han Dang),” is set to screen at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival still feels surreal to him, the actor said in an interview at a cafe in Samcheong-dong, Seoul last Thursday.

“I’m not sure what to expect,” said Im, whose attendance at the festival, taking place from May 17-28, is still undecided due to his yet unfulfilled military obligations.

“If I were to go, I’d like to soak in the atmosphere of (Cannes) while drinking a glass of beer at a terrace cafe,” said Im. “I’ll make sure to follow around (Seol Kyung-gu) everywhere,” he said, referring to his castmate in “The Merciless” who has had four films screened at Cannes throughout his 24-year career.

Im had not occupied a strong presence during his prior activities as a member of the K-pop band Z:EA, though he still harbors a fondness for singing – ballads in particular.

But when Im first began acting in a supporting role in the 2012 period series “Moon Embracing the Sun,” he gained a following of fans and widespread approval for his talent. After more supporting roles in series such as “Man from the Equator” and “Waiting for Love,” and films such as “The Attorney,” Im came into explosive popularity with the 2014 hit office drama “Misaeng.”

Through his quiet, moving portrayal of the newbie office worker Jang Geu-rae, Im was cemented in viewers’ minds as an actor. The character soon became the symbol of the struggling modern Korean youth in the workplace, up against discrimination and hierarchy.

Recently, it seems the actor has been veering away from such wholesome roles into more roguish territory, marked by last year’s crime flick “One Line,” in which Im portrayed a near-genius bank scammer.

Im Si-wan poses for a photo before an interview at a cafe in Samcheong-dong, Seoul, Thursday. (Hohoho Beach)

In “The Merciless,” Im becomes almost recognizable as a delinquent-slash-undercover cop who digs deep into a drug smuggling operation. Im’s new character Jo Hyun-soo is fearless -- he gleefully engages in prison fights and holds a gun up to a gangster’s forehead -- but also naïve and vulnerable. The film traces Hyun-soo as he evolves through a voyage into darkness and cruelty.

“I didn’t know if I had the emotional sensibility to take on the role,” said Im. “When I first read the script, I thought it was so entertaining, the kind of film I would go see at the movies even if I weren’t in it. But I didn’t know if I had the capacity to take it on.”

Not having suffered through devastating hardships in life, Im did not know if he could effectively follow Hyun-soo’s dark transformation, he said.

“I kept wondering, maybe if I could get this role when I’m a few years older, I could do a better job.

“But (director Byun Sung-hyun) told me not to force myself to appear darker or more tortured. He told me to show a lighter, happier Hyun-soo at the beginning. That helped a lot, and filming (“The Merciless”) offered one of the most fun releases I’ve experienced on set.”

The pivot from his upright image to the criminal underworld in his latest films was not planned, Im said. “It’s not calculated. I really wanted to portray this character well and that led to a new type of image.

“When I’m acting, I’m busy enough trying to follow the scenario. I don’t consciously think, ‘I’m going to pull out these sides of myself in this character.’”

Im Si-wan poses for a photo before an interview at a cafe in Samcheong-dong, Seoul, Thursday. (Hohoho Beach)
Im’s decision to play Hyun-soo was based on an attraction to the dialogue, rather than the image of the character, he said. “It wasn’t because he was a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ character. I liked his lines. They aren’t charged with meaning. They’re everyday phrases that he just throws out. It felt liberating.”

The instinctive actor also says he researches few references when it comes to embodying a character. “I become very absorbed in the character at hand,” he said, recalling his numerous late-night phone calls to director Byun to discuss the scenario.

Im Si-wan poses for a photo before an interview at a cafe in Samcheong-dong, Seoul, Thursday. (Hohoho Beach)

Im is still anxious that viewers see him as much more capable than he really is. “In order for all of (this success) to be meaningful, I think I still have to wait and mature a few years,” he said. “I used to worry about how the real Im Si-wan could live up to the fantasy (that people have created) of Im Si-wan.”

The past few years have been a process of overcoming the pressure and learning to enjoy the film set, he said.

“I’ve decided to enjoy the good responses for the moment,” he said. “And that’s what I will do if I am able to go to Cannes this year. But I still worry that I might have exhausted all of my luck during the early part of (my life). I hope there is some left for later.”

By Rumy Doo (doo@heraldcorp.com)