javabeans: I’m a little scared to write this list.
girlfriday: Because this is the list that will have people crying, “BUT YOU FORGOT MY OPPA!”?
javabeans: Mostly because anything involving idol fandoms erupts into war, even when it’s a post about why they’re good. *braces for impact*
girlfriday: Yup, landmines all.
javabeans: But hey, like we’ve ever turned down a challenge! Let’s list some idols!
girlfriday: And make war! Really though, there shouldn’t be war, because we picked the good ones.
javabeans: I actually think the stigma against idol-actors is lessening these days—not gone, but there’s definitely less vitriol about idols in dramas than there used to be in ye olden days.
girlfriday: Part of that is because it’s so common now that you can’t avoid it in dramas anymore.
javabeans: The stigma was rightly earned back in the day, because I do recall a lot of truly awful acting performances in leading or prominent roles, and it seemed a lot more unfair then to waste roles on them. But it has to help that the idols are technically better actors now.
girlfriday: Yes, I think the biggest reason the stigma has lessened is because there have been enough successful cases of idols doing well and rising above expectation.
javabeans: When initially discussing candidates, we also had to figure out what “idol-turned-actor” even meant in terms of this list, because there were a lot of actors who started out in the music industry, but never got famous as singers and then found success as actors. We didn’t count those people, because we needed to draw lines somewhere. (Examples include Kim Kang-woo, Seo Hyun-jin, and Jo Hyun-jae.)
girlfriday: We also didn’t count solo singers like Seo In-gook and Lee Seung-gi, because they’re more like multi-entertainers, not idols in the traditional sense.
javabeans: Somehow I don’t count ballad singers as idols in my mind, either. The term “idols” has a certain manufactured/visual/style component to it (say, boy bands or girl groups with a carefully crafted image), and ballad singers are more about pure vocal talent. Oh, and we didn’t count super-old-school idols, I’m not sure why, maybe because we have nostalgia for them and our list would just be ‘90s singers like Eugene and Eric?
girlfriday: And then we would be the only people who even remembered them as idols, and felt old.
javabeans: Although really, I think the more accurate rationale was that “idol-actors” as a concept (and yes, sometimes with that faint pejorative tinge attached) seems to indicate something discrete and distinct in today’s industry, and being a young idol now is a different thing entirely from how old-school K-pop used to be. The internationalization of Hallyu in the early and mid-2000s definitely created a new beast.
girlfriday: And that beast is only growing, so we might as well embrace it.
javabeans: With that, here’s our list! *hides*
1. Im Shi-wan
javabeans: Im Shi-wan’s place on this list is mostly thanks to the massive success that was Misaeng, and his place as the heart of that show. He did put in decent showings in his previous roles (child parts in The Moon That Embraces the Sun and Equator Man, as well as supporting roles in Standby and Triangle), but those projects aren’t why he’s at the top of this list.
There were multiple factors that contributed to Misaeng’s overall excellence—directing, writing, casting—but as the central character, it fell to Im Shi-wan to become our entry point into the cutthroat corporate world that seemed like it would eat him alive. As an inexperienced, sensitive young rookie navigating that minefield for the first time, feeling constantly inadequate and bearing the brunt of everybody’s frustrations, his Jang Geu-rae pierced my heart on a daily basis and turned watching Misaeng into a harrowing experience for me; it was just so harsh and real. I could never parse Im Shi-wan’s performance into individual elements to praise or pick out, but perhaps that’s exactly why it worked: It didn’t feel like he was working to inhabit a role, or that he was figuring out a performance. He became Jang Geu-rae, and we all saw ourselves in him. Im Shi-wan’s portrayal was so pure and naive that Jang Geu-rae wasn’t just a character I cared about—he became Korea’s everyman and a perhaps-unexpected avatar of hope for every ordinary, beleaguered office drone who felt like the system had drowned out his voice. I am Jang Geu-rae, and Jang Geu-rae is me.
2. Jung Eun-ji
girlfriday: You could probably argue that Jung Eun-ji just hit the jackpot in her debut role as the leading character of Answer Me 1997, the drama that spawned a whole syndrome and its own franchise of nostalgic youth dramas. Nobody expected anything of the show or its unproven actors, but Jung Eun-ji made that central character someone who wore her heart on her sleeve at all times, even when she wasn’t saying a word, making me feel so emotionally connected to that teenage girl. She embodied everything from the manic highs of an idol fangirl who would burst into tears at a concert, to the confusion of first love, to the raw emotion of familial angst, making me sit up and take notice from the very start. She followed up her debut project with less noteworthy dramas—That Winter, The Wind Blows and Trot Lovers (though I did really enjoy her musical performances in Trot Lovers)—but then she carried the upbeat youth drama Sassy Go Go and made me care about a group of underdog cheerleaders, and I was reminded of the reason I loved her so much to begin with. She’s just no frills, no affectation, but pure positive energy and earnestness, which is why her youthful characters hit me straight in the heart.
3. Yoon Eun-hye
javabeans: Yoon Eun-hye is the quintessential example of an idol making the acting transition successfully despite early doubts: As a super-popular K-pop starlet before getting her big acting break in Goong (Princess Hours), she weathered her share of criticism for daring to make the crossover, but quieted critics with a solid performance in her debut and then drew widespread praise for her breakthrough performance in Coffee Prince.
One of Yoon Eun-hye’s greatest assets as an actor is her willingness to settle into a role and fully inhabit a character, and she did that so wholly with Coffee Prince that you can hardly distinguish where actor ends and character begins. She traded a sense of vanity for emotional vulnerability and sincerity, which drew us in and enabled us to feel what she felt. If she has a flaw, it’s not that she has lost that willingness to dive into a character but that she has followed up her early-career successes with questionable choices; all the commitment in the world can’t overcome subpar dramas (My Fair Lady, Lie to Me, I Miss You, Mi-rae’s Choice)—although to give her credit, she never gave up on any of those shows, even when they were tanking. I suppose there’s a silver lining in that, in that all it takes is one solid project to give her a chance to show her stuff and move our hearts again. You know, just that. Easy-peasy.
girlfriday: Yoon Doo-joon started out in sitcoms, but I didn’t see him acting until spy drama IRIS 2, where I didn’t think twice about him—he was fine in the role, but not at all memorable. But then he took on the quirky foodie character of the Let’s Eat franchise and my opinion of him changed drastically, because it turned out that his strength wasn’t in cool action thrillers—it was in comedy. He’s naturally gifted as a comic actor, with spot-on timing and funny expressive faces, and I found him hysterical as the smooth-talking cheesy insurance salesman who’s obsessed with food and always falling in love with his next-door neighbor. And then 2-episode drama short Splish Splash Love came along and added swoony romance and fusion sageuk to the list of things Yoon Doo-joon could do. He shined in the role because the drama suited his comedic acting perfectly, but I was just as surprised to see that he could play a Joseon king (albeit a cheeky one) so well and carry the thoughtful, romantic sides of the character too. He really made me believe that he’d fallen in love with Kim Seul-gi’s crossdressing eunuch, fantastical circumstances and all; it was the best I’ve ever seen him be, and it made me anxious to see his next project. If he knows what’s good for him, it’ll be a romantic comedy with an emphasis on the comedy.
5. Lee Joon
javabeans: There’s a small class of idols who I think are even better as actors than they were in their original careers—maybe they weren’t all that memorable in their idol guise, or maybe it’s that acting brought out a heretofore hidden appeal. Lee Joon falls into that category for me, which is why it seemed completely fitting when he officially retired from MBLAQ to pursue his acting career.
Lee Joon’s turning point came in the 2013 film Rough Cut, a dark and gritty piece that netted him praise for his charged performance, and he upped the ante the next year by going sociopathic and murderous in crime drama Gap-dong. I was impressed with that performance not because he was wild and crazy, but because he showed a certain restraint playing a cold, frequently dead-eyed character who occasionally showed flashes of frightening violence. Heard It Through the Grapevine further solidified his status as a rising dramatic actor, although yes, he has also taken on lighter, more approachable characters in dramas like Woman With a Suitcase. He’s more memorable going dark than going cute, but considering that a lot of his colleagues aren’t able to cover both extremes, I’d say he’s well-poised to spread his wings and continue widening his range.
girlfriday: UEE is a case where you could follow her career trajectory and see right before your eyes how she steadily honed her acting skills one small step at a time, until she shed the idol label and became a dependable leading actress. She started out as young Mishil in Queen Seon-deok and the bratty second lead in You’re Beautiful, and then headlined Birdie Buddy (aka the drama that no one saw), but it wasn’t until hit weekend drama Ojakkyo Brothers that I connected with her on an emotional level. She was still green in that role, but she showed a natural warmth that I wasn’t expecting, and her chemistry with co-star Joo-won made me really invested in their emotional romance. By the time she got to Ho-gu’s Love and High Society, she began to show more depth and emotional range, and then in Marriage Contract she surprised everyone with the performance of her career. I never would’ve expected a young idol actress to make a single mother dying of cancer believable, but she tore my heart out in this role, seeming suddenly so mature and vulnerable in all the right ways. It was a breakthrough that she earned with every tear; considering how many tears she had to shed, it’s not a surprise how much well-deserved praise she got in return.
HeadsNo2: SNSD’s Sooyoung has proven herself to be a versatile actress capable of taking a multitude of different roles, whether as the object of a complicated love square in the little-watched Third Ward (and even as the second lead, her performance was surprisingly more grounded than most of her costars), a romanticist working as a professional cupid in Dating Agency Cyrano, a recipient of a heart transplant with a second chance at life in My Spring Days (arguably her best role to date), or a determined tax collector in Police Unit 38.
The improvement she showed between each project was what really put her on my radar, and it was commendable that she was never just “the pretty girl” in her later dramas—you can see where her projects have been strategically picked to add variety to her repertoire. There’s a kind of warmth and approachability she brings to her characters, which was never more on display than in My Spring Days, where she stole the show when her feelings began to inexplicably change due to the new heart she’d been given. While her character may have had no idea why she felt the need to cry when she saw the children of the mother’s heart beating inside her, that moment of raw emotion instantly sold the melodramatic premise and made it feel genuine. Not only could she sell the youthful vibe of her character, she was also able to display the emotional maturity of someone who knew that time was precious—though it doesn’t hurt that she can be spot-on in her comedic timing as well. If that’s not well-rounded, I’m not sure what is.
8. Choi Siwon
javabeans: He’s probably got the longest credits list of the idols named here, and I’ve followed Siwon through quite a number of dramas (even the bad ones—man, were there some bad ones) and found him likable and charming enough to consider him a decent example of our idol-to-actor transitions. But while I saw a knack for comic timing in Story of Hyang Dan (a cheeky fusion sageuk romp), Oh My Lady (where he played a foot-actor trying to learn to act), and the satirical King of Dramas (where he essentially played a spoof of himself), I had always considered him a serviceable actor who was strongly buoyed by his personal charisma… Until, that is, ten years into his acting career, when She Was Pretty rolled around and he took things to a whole new plane. The drama was light and fluffy and he was playing “only” a second lead, but Siwon tapped into an emotional groundedness that I thought surpassed the leads, and proceeded to steal every scene with his energy and commitment. The character’s sense of humor was broad and wacky, but because he played him with such a constant undercurrent of real feeling, it never felt forced or awkward, and I found that mix to be electric. He didn’t play a prank just to play a prank; there was always a deeper reason behind his character’s seemingly random behaviors, many times motivated by caring and concern. I still get teary-eyed thinking of all the times he acted so breezy and yet felt so intense, and how every time his cheerful facade slipped, my heart pinched. I don’t know what changed for him with this drama, but seeing how far he can go with that kind of heartfelt commitment makes me excited for what comes next.
HeadsNo2: Maybe it says something that I didn’t know Park Hyung-shik was an idol until he showed up on this list—I’d pegged him for another rising young actor, working his way up from child (Nine), supporting (What’s With This Family), and now adult roles (High Society, Hwarang). High Society was where I took note of him, as he took to his privileged yet oh-so-tortured chaebol character like a duck to water. He took what could have been a cookie-cutter rich boy and turned him into someone constantly struggling with his inferiority complex, his chaebol family’s expectations, and his conflicted feelings toward his best friend and the girl he loved. He was able to portray both the warm and sweet side of the character, as well as the cold and calculating monster he could be, which isn’t too different from the conflicted character he’s portraying in the currently airing Hwarang. Perhaps it’s because he can play that fine line between two extremes so well that he’s in another role that requires him to hide his true nature, though when it shows, it shows. Watching him switch from looking pitifully in love to commanding the room with his presence certainly had me sitting up to listen, and wanting to see him in more sageuk—though maybe as the leading man next time.
10. Yook Sung-jae
girlfriday: Yook Sung-jae is one of the greenest actors on this list, but for such a short and recent filmography, he’s managed to make an impression as an idol actor with a lot of potential. His characters are colorful and bounding with energy, and he seems to have a knack for comedy, as well as an earnest emotional delivery that comes through. He didn’t have much to do in his tiny role in Answer Me 1994, but in Plus Nine Boys, he carried a really cute secondary romance that was the perfect amount of naive and sweet. His breakout came in Who Are You—School 2015, and for good reason—he got to play the brooding high school rebel from a broken home, who masked his vulnerability and pain by lashing out at others. But he also brought a sunny puppy-dog quality to the character that only came out when he was around the heroine, turning him into a really compelling second lead. He takes supporting roles and does a lot with them—in The Lonely Shining Goblin he made an immature chaebol heir seem like a lovable scamp, and for such a minor character, I was pretty invested in his loveline with his credit card and his (baby) steps toward maturity.
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