It has been almost three years since we last spoke to Teo Yoo, and looking at his fast-growing list of projects, he has kept himself very busy. Among his most recent projects that the audience was able to enjoy was his phenomenal portrayal of Viktor Tsoy (one of the Soviet rock pioneers) in Leto (Summer) by Kirill Serebrennikov, a film that was selected to compete for the Palme d’Or at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival. Leto was also nominated for the Art Cinema Award at this year’s Hamburg Film Festival and won the Audience Award at the Ulaanbaatar International Film Festival in Mongolia.

Currently, Teo Yoo has three other projects in the pipeline: two K-dramas and a feature film, which we are patiently waiting to see. We managed to talk to the actor despite his busy schedule during the promotion of Leto. During the interview, he discussed his characterisation of Viktor Tsoy, what it was like to work with Kirill Serebrennikov and his first Cannes experience.

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Teo Yoo (Photo © C-JeS Entertainment

The last time we spoke was almost three years ago when you were promoting Benson Lee’s Seoul Searching; since then, it seems like you have kept yourself very busy! How have you been? 

The world has kept me busy. Thankfully, there were a lot of interesting projects and opportunities that I could put my head and heart into. I am enjoying my process.

You recently attended the prestigious Cannes Film Festival as one of the main three cast members of Kirill Serebrennikov’s film Leto. How was that experience for you?

It was exciting and devastating. A rollercoaster ride. Knowing that Kirill couldn’t attend the Festival, I prepared as much as I could to answer the curiosity of the journalists, not only representing the film but also Kirill.

But I enjoyed it a lot. Cannes is the highest league of achievement in the cinema arts and getting invited to their Competition is a stamp of approval I don’t carry with a light heart, but proudly.

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Teo Yoo as Viktor Tsoy (Photo © Hype Film)

Let’s talk about your journey to become Viktor Tsoy. What was the process like? 

I only had 3 weeks of preparation. First, the production helped me by providing a mime coach and a language coach. I had to learn Russian by osmosis and phonetically, by breaking down the script from sentences to words, to syllables, to vowels and consonants. I managed a strict timetable to fit the breakdown of the sounds into 3 weeks (spending a certain amount of hours on a certain syllable etc.).

Secondly, I tried to read and watch everything that I could get my hands on about Viktor Tsoy. I analyzed his speech pattern, trying to mimic his breathing pattern from the interview footage, copying how he holds his cigarette when smoking, understanding his famous posture to recreate a glimpse of his future silhouette, which he is known for, listening to real accounts about him from people who knew him.

Lastly, I investigated his emotional being, by analysing the lyrics from his music up until his first album, trying to figure out the focus and stresses of his vowels in the sounds of his speech. Also, the similarities in our Korean-European backgrounds were an anchor that made me understand a certain unique sensibility.

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Teo Yoo in Cannes 2018 (Photo © C-JeS Entertainment

Since Viktor Tsoy was Russian of Korean descendant, were you required to speak Russian from the start? 

Though I knew I was being dubbed, Kirill insisted that the lips had to match the language. I found out that I had to do it in Russian after I arrived for pre-production.

Was there anything that particularly spoke to you in terms of Viktor’s character? If you could meet him today, what sort of conversation would you have? 

I learned and was inspired by his passion and discipline as a performing artist. If I could meet him today, there wouldn’t be any conversation. We would just share a cigarette in silence, with a smile.

How was it like to work with Kirill Serebrennikov? How much of an artistic freedom were you given with your portrayal of Viktor? 

Besides the obvious physical constraints of the character, I was free to throw in as many suggestions as possible. Kirill enjoys the collaborative process of the community. We both share a background in theatre, so even though I was a nervous wreck, I loved the rehearsals and the organic process on set. I never felt as stressed and vulnerable, but it was appropriate for the project and for Kirill’s group dynamic.

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Teo Yoo in Cannes 2018 (Photo © C-JeS Entertainment

You as Viktor, along with Irina Starshenbaum as Natasha and Roman Bilyk as Mikhail, not only managed to create great chemistry between your characters but you also perfectly channelled each persona – it was impossible for the audience to remain indifferent to any of them. How did you guys manage to build such an interesting picture of the three?

All of us felt pressure to portray our 3 historical figures believably. Kirill helped us by recreating the feeling of a youthful community reminiscent of the 1980’s. We had a house party like in the 80’s and were really close with each other during the entire production. Irina put us at ease and was always loving and caring towards both of us. I had tremendous respect for Roman as a musician and I used that feeling of seniority as a guide for my character’s attitude towards Mike. I, on the other hand, was the most experienced actor amongst them and I let that feeling be my emotional tent pole of confidence, similar to that of Viktor’s talent in their triangular relationship.

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Teo Yoo (Photo © C-JeS Entertainment

What was the experience of filming in Russian like? 

I enjoyed the experience a lot. I had no prior experience with Russia and Russian culture other than Stanislavsky and Chekhov. I frequently gain access to a culture through their food because I am a serious foodie. You learn a lot about Russia by sitting down with them and making an effort to hear their side of the story over a warm meal and some alcohol. Nothing was certain and everything was beautiful.

As far as the language is concerned, everyone on set was very considerate because they understood the wall I had to climb. I had to shoot all the Leningrad Rock Club performances on the second day of shooting, in front of three hundred extras. I lost many nights of sleep over the language. I was constantly fighting my inner tension with my obsessive preparation and relaxation.

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Teo Yoo as Viktor Tsoy (Photo © Hype Film)

You have recently filmed for a top-notch Korean drama, somewhere in Morocco. Could you tell us more about it? 

Actually, two K-Dramas. The one I am shooting in Morocco is called Vagabond and is an action-thriller. I am playing a mercenary soldier opposite Lee Seung-gi. Another one that I am shooting is called Chronicles of Asdal and it is a Korean version of GoT. I am playing a member of a tribe similar to that of the Dothraki. I will be shooting both until winter.

Are you already working on your next film project?

I will be shooting my first lead role in a Korean film this November. The title is Vertigo and it is a melodrama (my favourite genre), opposite Chun Woo-hee. The production is aiming for a release in the late spring of 2019.

We would like to thank Teo Yoo for taking the time to answer the questions and to C-JeS Entertainment for their assistance. 

Written and interviewed by Maggie Gogler

Edited by Sanja Struna


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Asian Cinema, BFI London Film Festival, Film, Film events and festivals, In Conversation with, Korean Cinema, London Film Festival


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