By now, you've probably heard about Netflix's Squid Game. The viral Korean drama features a mix of rising stars and longtime actors who have earned international recognition over their careers. One cast member who has fans buzzing, even with his relatively short screen time, is Gong Yoo. As the handsome recruiter for the Game, Yoo sets the show in motion (as well as its possible second season).
Yoo is a familiar face to fans of Korean content. The 41-year-old actor has starred in some of the biggest k-dramas and films of the past 20 years, all while maintaining a private life off of social media. If this is your first time seeing Yoo, here's what we know about him and which of his projects to watch next.
He's a descendant of Confucius.
Yoo, real name Gong Ji-cheol, was born in July 1979 near Busan, South Korea. His stage name is a combination of his father's (Gong) and his mother's (Yoo) last names. According to his parents, he's a descendant of Confucius between the Chinese philosopher's Korean extended family.
He's starred in several smash-hit k-dramas.
After debuting in 2001, Yoo won his breakout role in the romantic drama Coffee Prince (2007), where he played a café owner who falls in love with an employee. He recently reunited with the cast of the classic k-drama in the special My Dear Youth – Coffee Prince (2020).
The busiest year of his career was 2016, when he starred in the fantasy-romance drama Guardian: The Great and Lonely God, also known by the nickname Goblin after Yoo's immortal character. He won a Baeksang Arts Award for Best Actor for playing the immortal Goblin, who searches for a human bride to turn him mortal.
Over his two decades of acting, Yoo has gone for unique roles. He told CNN, “I tend to pick projects that give me a sense of freshness. So my filmography, especially after hitting my 30s, has become a lot more diverse.”
He gained international fame with his starring role in Train to Busan.
Yoo also starred in the zombie film Train to Busan (2016), which premiered at the Cannes Film Festival. The heartfelt thriller broke the opening week record in Korea with five million tickets sold, and it also gained him international recognition.
The actor's performance was probably helped by the fact that he was scared in real life. He told Anthem Magazine that he steered clear of the actors who played the zombies even when they weren't filming. "This is obviously fictional, but there were times when I was genuinely scared. When you’re operating on fear while in character, in this narrow space of the train, and one of the zombies grab you by accident, it’s scary. That’s for the blooper real, but the expression on my face is real."
His first collaboration with Hwang Dong-hyuk spared societal change in Korea.
Squid Game creator Hwang Dong-hyuk first worked with Yoo on the film Silenced (2011). The film was based on the real-life scandal at a school for the hearing-impaired, where at least eight students were abused by staff. The film sparked an outrage in Korea, and led to the passing of the "Dogani Law," which imposed tougher punishments on those convicted of sex crimes against children and the disabled.
Yoo told CNN that the role was game-changing. "This was one of the first times when I thought, if I really have some sort of influence … isn’t this something I should be using it for? Rather than taking to the streets to protest, the most effective thing I could do as an actor would be (to use my popularity to) push for funding … so this film could be made."
He's a homebody who's not on social media.
Despite being a household name, Yoo is protective of his personal life. He has said in interviews that he doesn't enjoy being recognized on the street, and spends most of his time at home. Yoo even went on a two-year acting hiatus after his run of hit projects in 2016.
When asked about media intruding on his private life, Yoo told CNN, "The camera, I hate it. That’s something I need to endure while working as an actor. In the end, because of fame, ‘Gong Yoo’ exists. It’s the driving force that keeps me going. But if there’s something you gain, there’s also something you can lose. Therefore, I try not to showcase my personal life.”
Yoo also stays off social media. "Twitter, Instagram, I don’t do it at all. This [interview] is better than social media," he said.
He's best friends with his Goblin co-star Lee Dong-wook.
Yoo's close with several of his Goblin co-stars. He was friends with Lee Dong-wook, who played the Grim Reaper, before they did the show together, meeting while serving in the military in 2008. Since the show ended in 2016, he has sent coffee trucks to support Lee and actor Kim Go Eun while they film other shows.
He donated 100 million Korean won to COVID relief.
Last year, Yoo joined several Korean celebrities, including Parasite director Bong Joon-ho, in making huge donations to COVID-19 relief measures. According to South China Morning Post, he made the donation (about $84,000) under his real name and asked for it to be used "for medical staff and to support low income and underprivileged people."