What happens after watching Korean dramas for over 15 years? You develop first lead syndrome or second lead syndrome. Of course, this sounds absurd, but it does happen. Throughout the years, a few actors and actresses have really stuck in my head thanks to their acting, and that includes Lee Tae-sung.
Although Lee Tae-sung was an aspiring baseball player in his youth, life planned a different path for him. He began his acting career in 2005 when he portrayed Lee Suk in Blossom Again. His performance didn’t go unnoticed as Lee Tae-sung was nominated for Best New Actor at the Blue Dragon Film Awards and Baeksang Arts Awards. After Blossom Again, he starred in various other dramas, including Playful Kiss, in which he played the character of Bong Joon-gu. Even though the drama itself wasn’t popular in South Korea, the show has become a cult series overseas with over 70 million streams on Viki. And we are still rewatching it!
In 2012, Lee Tae-sung portrayed the smart and ruthless Yong Tae-mu in Rooftop Prince, a fantasy comedy series. It was not only successful in Europe, but also in China. According to Scoopi, the drama “has over 77,000,000 views and a 9.4 rating” on the Chinese video-sharing site, YouKu. Thereafter, Lee Tae-sung starred in Pots of Gold, My Golden Life, When My Love Blooms, and Three Bold Siblings, his latest drama.
Apart from being an actor, Lee Tae-sung is also a very gifted singer and painter. Although he didn’t pursue a singing career, you can see him performing, for instance, in Immortal Song: Singing the Legend (also known as Immortal Song 2), a television music competition program presented by Shin Dong-yup. And what about painting? Recently, he was able to display his art at various exhibitions, including in South Korea (2021 and 2022), Taiwan (2022), and at the New York Art Fair (2022). But what drove Lee Tae-sung to acting and painting? And does he see himself as a singer? A few days ago, we had the pleasure to interview the actor and discuss his work, passion, and hobbies.
You started your acting career in 2003 and you are still going strong. But before discussing it, what made you become an actor?
Lee Tae-sung: In my last year (third year) of high school, I sustained a shoulder injury during a game and had to give up my dream of becoming a baseball player. I was at a crossroads of either getting surgery and keep playing or choosing a different career path and taking on a new challenge, and I chose the latter. It wasn’t me deciding to just become an actor. I spent a lot of time contemplating on what I should study and what I should do, since I had quit baseball.
My first thought was to get into the Theatre Department of the Korea School of Arts, which was very close to my home, and start studying a new field, so I began going to an acting academy to study theatre and prepare for the entrance exam. While I was attending classes at a private academy, I came across a notice about auditions for the baseball film Mr. Gam’s Victory. It mentioned that people with experience playing baseball were preferred, so I tried out for the auditions. I was able to get a small part in this baseball film and it was a fantastic way to debut.
In your latest drama, Three Bold Siblings, you portray the character of Cha Yun-ho, a man with a cool personality, who is also blunt and brave in some ways. What attracted you to the role of Cha Yun-ho?
Lee Tae-sung: Before Three Bold Siblings, I was in Ghost Doctor, which was a genre drama. I played a cold-hearted villain who showed no mercy, so I really wanted to play a cheerful and healthy character after that. Being an actor is like that. I think it’s a job that keeps you striving endlessly to find and play a character that’s different from what you’ve done before, makes you feel things you never felt before, and can be a good influence on yourself.
You have over two dozen K-dramas under your belt. What is your acting process in general? How do you feel minutes prior to playing a character on camera?
Lee Tae-sung: I try to take an objective and rational approach to ‘analysing’, which needs to be done before building up my character and acting. Then, when we start shooting, I turn up the heat on the objective rationality and get things going instinctively.
After I gain objectivity and rationality, I try to be honest with myself so I can feel and express the spontaneous energy and chemistry with other cast members on set in a direct and instinctive manner.
The moment when the lines and the acting I had imagined prior to going to bed the night before become a reality is the most exhilarating thing. I think that you can evolve as an actor by repeating the process of previewing what needs to be done and then reviewing what errors you made as well as thinking of what else there was that you hadn’t expected.
Looking at your career as an actor, how do you keep plot twists and other changes in television shows under wraps until they air?
Lee Tae-sung: Unless all the episodes are shot 100% in advance, long-running drama series in Korea are aired as they are shot. The script constantly changes, so even the actors don’t know what the ending will be in many cases. Sometimes, filming is done on such a tight schedule that we only find out about the ending when we’re actually on the last episode. There have been times when I got calls from people who were dying to know what the twist would be or what was going to happen, but I only told my mom once what was going to happen next [laughs].
As I mentioned before, you have acted in over 20 K-dramas, and with that in mind, which of all the roles you have done thus far is your favourite one?
Lee Tae-sung: All the characters from my past have a special place in my heart as a fond memory, but since I focus on living in the present as an actor, I try to love the character that I’m playing in the moment the most. That one will also become another one of my past characters years from now, but for now, I tell myself that the character of “Cha Yun-ho” is the most similar to the actual “me” and I look forward to seeing how this character will change and grow over the next 4 to 5 months.
Is there a particular role you would love to portray in the future?
Lee Tae-sung: I would love to play a police officer, a villain, or a hero in an action piece. Melodramas are great, but your thirties and forties are when you can be the most active physically and pour all your energy into acting, so I’d also like to play a tough character that can show off some manly attributes.
What do you think makes a performance more believable?
Lee Tae-sung: Acting for the video medium gets captured on camera. Unlike a play or a musical where the acting happens right in front of the audience, acting in a drama or movie goes through the process of editing, so the end result is polished. Viewers can watch it as many times as they like, wherever and whenever they want, and even watch it on their mobile phones. This is why I believe expression in a video medium needs to have a good balance of technique and sincerity. You can’t deliver technique with only sincerity or convey sincerity only through technique. In order to do that, it’s important for an actor to have intense discipline in taking good care of themselves and training themselves. Therefore, an actor needs to continue to improve and put in effort.
There are many actors who have ventured into directing and screenwriting. But you ventured into painting. How did it all start?
Lee Tae-sung: For me, painting is an extension of my feelings. It’s a movie or a drama that I’m painting myself. Acting is done along with a script, a director, and many crew members, but I oversee everything when I’m painting. Consequently, painting is my story only and my self-portrait. I first started painting when I was doing my military service 9 years ago. I had to find my desire to act, to create, and express within the limited 21 months of my life in the military, so I read a lot of books, wrote things, and drew pictures which all became the foundation for my current activities as an artist.
And before discussing the art of painting, it’s worth mentioning that you are also a very talented singer. Have you ever thought of expanding your musical career as well?
Lee Tae-sung: During my twenties, I spent over 2 years preparing to work as a singer in Japan. It overlapped with me having to carry out my military duties, so it was put on hold and then later dismissed. After that, I was able to sing for my fans in TV dramas and entertainment programs, and I’d love to have the opportunity to sing at an event with my younger brother Sung Yu Bin.
Now, let’s talk about your paintings. To those who are not familiar with you being an artist, could you describe the style of your paintings? And what is the main subject of your work?
Lee Tae-sung: The main theme of my paintings are “emotions”. I pursue abstract art with free expression – the colours and touches are determined according to my emotional state at the time. The biggest reason for doing art is because I place the most important philosophy on the extension of emotions that I couldn’t show or use while being an actor.
Recently, I’ve been focusing on a particular piece titled “Relationship” where I apply more than 200 to 300 layers. Colours that don’t go together are mixed together and rubbed against each other to form layers that produce new light, and I contemplate on that labour intensive act and the attitude of expression as I work. That is directly linked to my attitude to life, and that work could be seen as my self-portrait.
Colours that don’t go together could be construed as ‘flaws’. Through my work, I want to show that just as these ‘flaws’ or different colours complement each other and create new colours, people and life can also become more beautiful by meeting other existences that can balance out their flaws. Simply put, I’d say it’s the power of positivity.
What, in your opinion, are the most important aspects of your work as an artist? And is there a deliberate message present from the beginning (in relation to your paintings)?
Lee Tae-sung: I believe that the actions of an artist and the time they spend thinking need to be layered onto a painting. I think that’s what sets painting apart from media art or digital works produced by a computer. The time spent on labour as well as the emotions and concerns of the artist need to be captured on the canvas. I would say I try to breathe in my energy and spirit more than the message I intended. It could be hung in a space that’s important to someone, so I don’t work on it when I’m sick, or struggling, or tired. I think those kinds of emotions and sentimentality spill onto the canvas. So, I always try to paint with a healthy, happy, joyful, and light-hearted mind. I strive to capture that kind of energy on the canvas.
Looking at your art, which is more important to you: the subject of your art or the way it is executed?
Lee Tae-sung: The theme or what I want to say is bound to change all the time. So, I believe the latter is more important. I think that the method of execution is essentially the artist’s attitude. I consider all my paintings as self-portraits. I should never be ashamed of them and they should stay that way in the far future, too. Just like how you can see the artist’s life and attitude in the great art pieces that have stood the test of time.
To what extent do you think your surroundings shaped you, creatively speaking, and in what way?
Lee Tae-sung: My current state has the biggest influence on my work. What I’m interested in, what I’m feeling, what stimulates me these days, and what stories I want to tell are things that I feel and experience through working as an actor and they have a strong impact on me.
There was a series called Breath that I worked on last year which had to do with breathing. I was riding the subway to an art supply store to buy some painting materials. I think it was the time when COVID regulations (in South Korea) were very strict. When someone coughed in the subway car, everyone stared at them. That person felt so uncomfortable that they slipped into the next car as if they were running away to hide. That came as a huge shock to me. This is a world where we can’t even breathe the way we want!
The idea for the Breath series was inspired by the thought that the precious, invaluable act of breathing cannot be done without being self-conscious and that we’re also in a world where our breath can make someone else sick.
You displayed your art at various art fairs, including one in Taiwan and the U.S. You had your solo exhibition in Busan a few months ago as well. How does it feel for you to have your own art judged by the public?
Lee Tae-sung: I’ve had a lot of exhibitions this year. I counted the paintings that I did and numbered for over a year and it was about 120 pieces. When I first started holding exhibitions, there was some prejudice about my work because I was mainly known as an actor. But I continued to work as an artist and now I’m grateful for the acknowledgement and applause I received as an artist. I believe that only consistency will prove sincerity. I spend most of my time in the studio when I’m not shooting scenes these days, too. I’m constantly working to find better expressions and materials. I think meeting the audience through acting and meeting the audience through an exhibition of my paintings each have distinctly different merits.
The definition of art is open, subjective, and debatable. The concept itself has changed over centuries. How would you define art yourself? What does art mean to you?
Lee Tae-sung: I see art as the process of asking endless questions about an object, questioning those questions, and then overturning, subverting, and dissolving them before projecting myself onto them to recreate them. Numerous contemporary artists have grown with the countless works of art that have persisted through centuries, and I think that this will continue into infinity like the Mobius strip. When you keep in mind that the passageway of reflection is yourself, and you face that with an attitude that is sincere, that’s when you sense a moment of light. And that is art.
What’s your most important artistic tool? Is there something you can’t live without in your studio or while creating your art project?
Lee Tae-sung: What I consider the most important is ‘the time I face myself’. It could be a time of meditation. Whatever action I carry out or whatever choice I make, it all starts with letting things be. A start that is initiated purely from myself is what determines everything and not an expression that comes from any kind of intervention or interference. This is why the process of painting sometimes comes to me as a form of meditation or self-reflection. It’s a time when I get to know myself even better and I converse with myself. A canvas and paints are what connects them and the result comes out as a painting.
As it’s almost the end of 2022, what’s next for you when it comes to acting and painting? Any new works in the pipeline?
Three Bold Siblings wraps up around April 2023, so I think I’ll be spending my time playing/showing the character of Cha Yun-ho over the winter period and into the spring of next year. I’m currently reviewing my next project which will air the following year, and I also have plans for numerous exhibitions.
I have a solo exhibit scheduled in Tokyo next year and I would love to have the opportunity to display my work in the U.K. as well. And I hope people will continue to show support and encouragement for my activities.
Written and interviewed by Maggie Gogler
View of the Arts is a British online publication that chiefly deals with films, music, arts, and fashion, with an emphasis on the Asian entertainment industry. We are hoping our audience will grow with us as we begin to explore new platforms such as K-pop / K-music, and Asian music in general, and continue to dive into the talented and ever-growing scene of film, music, and arts, worldwide.