Namgoong Min: The introspective actor with a gift for comedy
It’s been two weeks since KBS’s Chief Kim ended its unexpectedly successful run, and its stars have been busy doing the rounds on the media circuit since. I love an underdog story, and Chief Kim was not only a story about underdogs, but also an underdog itself in the primetime miniseries competition. Going up against a highly anticipated drama like Saimdang, Light’s Diary, expectations for Chief Kim weren’t high; however, it managed to lead in the primetime ratings for most of its run, making it a runaway hit for the producers and its stars.
In Chief Kim, Namgoong Min played the titular Kim Sung-ryong, a small-time crook accountant working for gangsters, who gets hired by a large conglomerate to embezzle a large sum of money. As those who tuned in know, through a series of fateful accidents, Kim Sung-ryong becomes an unlikely, initially reluctant hero who stands up for the little employees against the corrupt higher-ups, and saves the company along the way.
Namgoong Min’s debut was 18 years ago, and yet, it wasn’t until his villainous turn in 2015’s Girl Who Sees Smells that he managed to raise his profile as an actor. Asked about his unfortunately long period outside of the limelight, Namgoong Min was straightforward: “If I had had better luck, I might have become a bigger star earlier on, but I believe that the main reason it took so long for me to find success was because of myself. I had to find what I lacked, and what I couldn’t do, before blaming something like luck for my failures. I busied myself with acting, and doing more research into what acting was. I also believe that I was able to present myself as an improved actor because of my past efforts.”
For an actor who has been in the business for nearly two decades, Namgoong Min has a surprisingly short filmography, and when asked about it, he pointed to himself as the reason behind the dearth of roles he’s played. He blamed his own stubbornness about only taking characters he liked as an obstacle to his career, saying, “Because I was only responding to offers with characters I wanted to play, I was actually blocking the flow of opportunities coming my way. When I received offers to play the second lead in certain dramas, I should have better developed the characters, and through that, improved my own acting skills. That way, I would have improved step by step as an actor. Instead, I made a big mistake by being stubborn about only playing characters that I wanted to play, and rejecting opportunities. As an actor, you should never be so proud that you give up those kinds of opportunities.”
He came to this realization when he was forced to take a hiatus because of his own choices: “I once took a two-year hiatus from acting after I was in Can You Hear My Heart? (in 2011) on MBC, because I was being too picky with the offers I was receiving, whether it was because of the genre or the character. That was when I started changing my views on taking projects. I decided that I shouldn’t just look for characters I wanted to play, but really take a deeper look into the characters that were offered to me and become them. After that, I started to take on a lot of projects, regardless of the genre or character type.”
That newfound determination certainly paid off when he revived his career with a string of successful, varied performances in Girl Who Sees Smells, Remember–Son’s War, Beautiful Gong Shim, and Chief Kim. But to Namgoong Min, his focus seems to remain on his self-improvement as an actor, and when asked about his thoughts on Chief Kim, he answered, “I will always treasure Chief Kim, because it made me reflect on myself. This drama was a chance for me to think about acting as my craft, which I enjoyed. I liked it more that I could see my limitations and faults, without having someone else point it out for me. There was a real danger that I could become content with my own abilities, and when I was filming Chief Kim, the more compliments I received, the more I realized what I lacked. Now, I’m as full of passion for acting as when I first started out as an actor.”
Although Chief Kim ended up being a success, at the outset, expectations must have been low when going up against a drama with a lot of early hype like Saimdang, Light’s Diary. Namgoong Min acknowledged that some did feel that pressure, saying that even certain crew members revealed at the wrap party that they had been really worried at the beginning. However, he clarified that that was the exception, and not the norm, saying that, “Whenever I go into a project, I always believe it will do well. I’m just glad that Chief Kim was well received by viewers, which was a project that made me reflect back on myself and grow as an actor.”
He added that, “In general, people who make dramas try not to think about beating the competition. The moment we become too aware of other shows, it becomes difficult to really bring to life the project we are working on. In our case, Saimdang, Light’s Diary was an entirely different genre anyway, and I think our success stems from not being too conscious of it, and having fun filming on our own set.”
I can certainly imagine that the cast and crew of Chief Kim had a lot of fun on set, especially with the notorious ad libbing in the scenes. It was to an extent that people wondered whether Chief Kim even had a proper script, and Nam Sang-mi (who played Ha-kyung) revealed in her own interviews that she ruined a lot of takes and generally had a really hard time not bursting into laughter at Namgoong Min and Junho’s (who played Yul) constant ad libbing. Namgoong Min clarified, though, that, “There were certainly scenes where the ad libs made up more than half of the lines, but there were also others where the ad libs were only sprinkled in to accentuate the existing dialogue. I think that ad libbing was used to great effect in this drama, because it served to enhance the script, that was of course well-written already.”
Asked which ad lib was the most memorable for him, Namgoong Min said that although there were too many to count, “If I had to pick the most memorable ad lib, I would say that my kiss with Junho left the deepest impression.” The bromance game between Sung-ryong and Yul was certainly strong in Chief Kim, and both Namgoong Min and Junho said in separate interviews that they were hoping for a best couple award at the year-end KBS ceremony. I will third that motion, thank you.
Although Namgoong Min brought the comedy in Chief Kim in what seemed like an effortless way, in reality it was anything but effortless for him. He even said (to my horror) that, “I might take a break from comedy for a while, because I’ve found making people laugh is really difficult.” Nam Sang-mi also said that Namgoong Min went through a hard time portraying such a constantly comic role because his own personality runs more towards being gentle and introspective.
I was surprised to hear that Namgoong Min ran into difficulties because of the comedy, especially because prior to Chief Kim, he was a similarly quirky, comic character in Beautiful Gong Shim. Asked about his two consecutive comedic roles, Namgoong Min replied, “Rather than think about differentiating Kim Sung-ryong from Ahn Dan-tae (in Beautiful Gong Shim), I wanted to get to know Sung-ryong better as a character.”
As expected from Namgoong Min, whose approach to his roles seems to center around the details, he said, “As soon as I got the role, I started to build Sung-ryong’s persona, from his look to the way he speaks. I colored my hair with a shade I found was most unsuited for me, and cut my hair short to show all of the wrinkles on my forehead. I also raised my voice register, because my natural tone is much lower. I even went to thrift stores to buy clothes for the character myself, and that’s where I found Sung-ryong’s signature yellow jacket. The only problem was that many of the clothes I bought were suede and slightly moldy, so my dry cleaning bill came out to a lot.”
I’m just really happy that Namgoong Min’s many efforts paid off, and he’s pretty much been flooded with CF and follow-up drama offers. When asked when we can expect to see him next on the small screen, he replied, “Since last year, I’ve acted as five or so different characters, so I’m pretty exhausted. Also, since last December, in between Chief Kim shoots and CFs, I haven’t been able sleep for more than 3 hours a night. Because my screen time in Chief Kim was proportionately quite large, I didn’t really have much time to rest. I practically lived with the script in my hand, and on days where I had lots of dialogue, no matter how much I ate, I would lose 1.5 kilograms.”
However, it seems that Namgoong Min isn’t going to rest on his laurels for long. He’s naturally a forward thinker, and said, “Doing Chief Kim made me really reflect on my acting and choices, so I don’t know what my next project will be, but I do know that I will show an improved side to me.”
And, finally, when asked if he thinks his career is now in its prime, he laughed and replied, “I don’t think that’s the case at all. I still have much more to show.”
- Chief Kim: Episode 1
- Making rock music with office supplies in new Chief Kim teaser
- Hilarious first trailer and teasers for Chief Kim
- Namgoong Min courted to become quirky boss Chief Kim
- Namgoong Min offered drama lead as Rebel Hong Gil-dong
- Namgoong Min joins action comedy Temporary Special Agent
- Beautiful Gong Shim: Episode 1
- Remember—Son’s War: Episode 1
- Girl Who Sees Smells: Episode 1