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Archie Madekwe doesn’t get enough sleep. A self-professed night owl, he will get up at dawn if work dictates. Like today, for this interview. “Also,” Madekwe adds, “if I do wake up late, I’d feel gross [for wasting the day]. I often don’t but I’m working on getting better at it.”

We caught up with him at his London home, in his bedroom, possibly. He’s attired in a long-sleeved sweater and light blue denim jeans. A five o’clock shadow does little to weather his boyish looks.

His parents named him “Archie” after Archie Bell & The Drells. “My mom and dad are big Motown fans,” Madekwe says. “My mom got really set on that name. If not ‘Archie’, it would have been ‘Art’, and I’m glad that wasn’t the case.

“‘Archie’ is more subtle.”

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Subtlety seems to be the theme of Archie Madekwe’s acting career. His roles, at least the ones that matter, seem to be carefully curated. He may not be a household name but he’s slowly becoming a familiar face on the screens, big and small.

In the early days, his UK agents, Olivia Woodward and Alex Sedgley, worked with Madekwe to be deliberate about the roles he took on. “Our aim was to make sure I’d be considered for the everyman part.

“I’ve been really lucky in that a lot of those initial jobs I took fell under that last category,” Madekwe says. “They could have easily cast a white actor for [Edward Albee’s play, The Goat, or Who is Sylvia?], I was in Les Misérables, which could have had an all-white cast.”

It was The Secret Life of Bees that informed him that it was possible for a person of colour to grace the screen. More specifically, Sophie Okonedo. “[She] was so unbelievable in it,” Madekwe had said in a conversation with fellow thespian Josh O’Connor, “I remember looking her up, seeing that she was from London and that she was mixed race—she was a North Star for me. In my mind, she was the validation that I could do it, that there were people like me doing it.”

Years later, Madekwe would join the cast of Albee’s The Goat. Okonedo was in it as well and she played his mom. He told her about how inspirational she was in his formative years. “Sophie remains a really good friend and we actually just worked together again so I remind her about that a lot,” Madekwe says with a smile on his face. “It’s important to remind people of the impact they’ve had on you. Especially in this industry, where it is so easy to feel dismissed. And that happens to some of the biggest actors I’ve worked with.”

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His West End tenure was also where Madekwe cut his teeth. It was an education that years at the BRIT School or The London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art could not impart. What drama schools taught him was confidence, especially when auditioning in a room full of strangers. But does that assurance spill over into other aspects of his life? “It’s not a one-size-fits-all,” he says, “but I do try to apply it to most situations. It’s definitely something that I had to learn throughout my career and try to appear confident even in situations where I don’t feel it. You kinda need to trick yourself into feeling that courage.”

He still finds it hard to watch himself in films. By the time we spoke, he’d only recently watched the finished version of Saltburn at a premiere. “I think there was maybe 2,000 in attendance and it was one of the most painful things I’ve ever had to put myself through,” Madekwe says, cringing at the memory. “You become so attuned to the audience’s reaction. ‘Why didn’t they laugh at that? Was that bit not funny? Well, I thought it was funny.’ You become hypercritical and now you’re contesting with your own thoughts as opposed to just watching it with the audience.”

Madekwe is jealous of any actor who can watch something of theirs without feeling judgmental. “Must be a lovely feeling.” He did, however, come close to that. He was privy to an early cut of Saltburn and he lost himself, carried away by the story. “At least for a little bit. There were still a couple of clips of myself that I couldn’t get past, but it was the closest I’d come to feeling like an outsider watching my own work.”


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Madekwe and Ari Aster became friends during the making of Midsommar. In this horror-in-the-daylight film, Madewke plays Simon, one of the unwitting victims of a Scandinavian folk ritual. Madewke subsequently made an appearance in Aster’s follow-up, Beau is Afraid.

“[Ari and I] became really good friends after Midsommar and we’d been talking about working together again in some capacity. I was filming in Canada and Ari was shooting Beau. I’d asked to meet so we could discuss a potential project. That’s when Ari said, ‘Dude, we should just get you into one of these scenes’.”

That scene is something of a chef’s kiss, an Aster egg (sorry, not sorry). Context is needed: In Midsommar, Madekwe’s Simon was frantically screaming for an elderly couple not to leap off a cliff but in Beau is Afraid, Madekwe’s character (the credit lists him simply as “Laughing Man”) is encouraging a man to jump to his death. Other than having fun on the set with Aster and his producers Tyler Campellone and Lars Knudsen, Madekwe even got to watch Joaquin Phoenix act. “Even if it was for a short moment. I mean, it was so cool.”

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Social media is a love-hate affair for him. On one hand, it’s a way to connect with his friends and family; it’s an exposure to other cultures, fashion and art. On the other, he doesn’t like the hold it has on him.

“I hate that I’m not in control of when and how I use it. It’s like muscle memory. I’ve deleted the app before and I’ve found myself tapping my finger on the space where the app used to be.”

Madekwe wishes he had spent less time on it but confesses to enjoying a “weird validation” when people send messages and like his posts. These little interactions become a serotonin boost. “I wish I didn’t rely on that so much. I’m trying to strike a healthy balance with it.”

Being memed is another thing that Madekwe is trying to get used to. The recent one was a Tik-Tok clip of his character, Farleigh Smart, singing Pet Shop Boys’ “Rent” during a karaoke session. It was only six seconds long but it took social media by storm; with fans wanting to see Madekwe sing a cover of it (there won’t be one, Madekwe has confirmed in a separate interview).

“It’s the character Farleigh singing it, so it feels strange when people ask me to sing it again, because I can’t see a context in which recording that would make sense,” Madekwe explains. “I’m still working out my feelings with going viral. There’s something really fun about it and I love that film can have a life of its own, but the exposure is on another level on social media. I’ve really felt that. You feel more eyes on you or people coming over asking for pictures. That’s something that comes with the job, I suppose. No one really teaches you on how to deal with that. It’s something that you had to learn very quickly on your own.”

But Madekwe does have some pipes on him. He loves singing and will be doing so in his next project. “I’m not Ben Platt or an actor that can carry a Broadway show… but singing is something that I’ve always enjoyed.”

Art is another endeavour that Madekwe enjoys as well. Other than the ceramics classes he is taking, Madekwe showcases artists and their work on his Instagram account.

“I have an immense appreciation for art. I love the stories that jump out at me; I love the craft. Over the years, I’ve grown to love it more and I’m excited for it to occupy a larger part of my time.”

He’ll be curating an art show in Atlanta, a project that he’s excited about. As acting can be an all-encompassing force, it sometimes leads Madekwe to neglect and forget about the things that inspire him. “At the end of the day, all those things will feed into the work to make you a better actor, let alone human being.”

There is one particular artwork that left a mark on the actor: Arthur Jafa’s “Love Is The Message, The Message Is Death”. Created in 2016, the seven-minute video essay depicts scenes of the Black Experience. From the elation of Obama singing “Amazing Grace” to the low of police brutality; it’s a kaleidoscope of emotions felt as Kanye West’s “Ultralight Beam” plays.

“After I first saw it, I went back, maybe 20 more times,” Madekwe says. “I’d constantly bring friends and force them to watch. It’s one of the most impactful pieces of art I’ve ever seen.”

To hammer the point home, he takes out a slim black hardback book that a friend gifted him recently. He opens to the front cover and points to the inscription on it: it’s addressed to Madekwe and signed by Arthur Jafa.


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Madekwe's 1.95cm height has become an identifying trait for the actor in articles and interviews. “[My height] has always been an anxiety for me,” Madekwe says. “When I was younger, somebody warned me that my height would get in the way of my acting career and I thought, ‘How the hell can I control how tall I grow?’” His disquietude ballooned until he was consumed with Googling ways to stunt his growth, including but not limited to height reduction surgery.

There have been one or two instances in his life where a casting director explained a lead actor didn’t want to be captured with someone as tall as him. “But overall, I’ve never found a lack of work because of my height.”

However, a lack of work did occur during the SAG-AFTRA (Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists) strike. When the SAG-AFTRA and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP) couldn’t agree on labour, IP rights and compensation, actors working on American productions were asked to refrain from working on or promoting any finished films or TV shows.

“With every kind of fibre of my being, I was in support of the strike,” Madekwe says. “And yet… personally and selfishly, [Gran Turismo] was supposed to be one of the most exciting moments of my career and I was unable to talk about the project at all.”

It was frustrating as this was his first leading role. “If I’m honest, the worst part of it was not being able to laude the crew and cast that worked so hard on the film,” Madekwe says. “But, in the end, it’s a small sacrifice to pay when you’re working towards fair compensation.”


In 2023, Perri Nemiroff, a senior producer for the online entertainment site, Collider, remarked that Madekwe was having the best year with Gran Turismo and Saltburn. And she’s right. To lead a major studio film and be part of an exceptional ensemble, all within the span of a year, that is no small feat.

He’s in the zone now; a flow state. With a slate of projects in development, a new film in the pipeline and exciting forays into fashion and art, it seems that the actor has “miles to go before [he sleeps again]”.

He stands at the threshold, between the past and what-will-happen; a place of possibilities.

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Fashion Direction: Asri Jasman
Art Direction: Joan Tai
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Grooming: Maya Man at STELLA CREATIVE ARTISTS using CURLSMITH and 111SKIN
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There was something I didn't tell Tom Blyth during our chat. I did, of course, mention how I had caught the film and could honestly say that it was pretty good, which was the utter truth. And I know I'm not the only one who thought so.

Over opening weekend, reviews of The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes have turned up generally positive. As proof, the latest movie taking the box office top reaping at USD243.9 million globally at the point of writing. No small deal for any film in these times of entertainment saturation, let alone a prequel in an era of prequel/sequel/spinoff overload.

What I didn't say was how I was never planning to watch it in the first place. Not that I wasn't a fan of the original franchise. I, along with Blyth, were among the many teens who were swept up in the wave of dystopian films of the early 2010s. (Just think—how many among the audience of the latest prequel are possibly pre-teens named Katniss!)

Perhaps it was splitting a highly anticipated finale into two segments released a year apart (a regret director Francis Lawrence has admitted to, but to his credit, a practice now fairly common). Or perhaps it was the idea that this new tale takes place 64 years before JLaw's iconic volunteering, without any of the former films' quintessential characters except Coriolanus Snow himself.

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Fortunately, the deterrence to what I regarded as a plausible cash grab gave way to relief, and quickly, respect for the actor who filled those big shoes with ingenuity. It's not an easy feat. Names—that we shall not name—immediately spring to mind where movies fell flat because its leading man did. To convincingly embody a character that fans not only have to root for but carry certain expectations of from previous portrayals, sounds like an incredibly daunting task.

PART I: THE MENTOR

Interestingly, when the breakout star first auditioned for the role, he was not privy to what it was for. He thought it was a well-written script, but it was only when he got to subsequent rounds that he and his agent figured it could potentially be the new Hunger Games. The word "Gamemaker" was what gave it away.

"I was like, hang on a sec; I know that term from the original films! That started to give me clues but I had no idea there was a prequel floating around out there that Suzanne Collins had written," Blyth recounted.

The book soon became Bible to the 28-year-old actor as he never got to meet Donald Sutherland, who played the elder statesman in the preceding instalments. It was somewhat by design, from initial discussions with Lawrence, to acquaint with the character through fresh eyes and give this version of Snow an unbiased chance to share his narrative.

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This process of mentally erasing existing impressions extended to his approach to the franchise. "I actually chose not to rewatch [the past films] because I knew this was going to be different tonally and visually," Blyth reveals. "It felt like a standalone film. And I think the actors' performances in those movies were such gold that the temptation is to try and recreate it."

The first time you see Blyth as Snow is also how the first chapter of the book begins, and that very opening sequence was what he found massively indicative of the 18-year-old's psyche. "His cousin and grandmother are pretty much starving, they're about to be evicted, and yet his biggest priority was how he was going to be perceived by his classmates.

"He wanted to avoid losing status at any cost. He buys into the spectacle of the Capitol and upholds it through the façade with the ornate shirt Tigris makes him. That was fascinating to me. For someone to do that when living in a war-torn, foodless society probably means they are capable of doing all sorts of mind tricks on themselves and others."

Blyth did, however, return to Sutherland's major scenes (specifically the one in the rose garden with Wes Bentley's Seneca Crane) to capture the dictator's mannerisms towards the end.

"Coryo comes back to the Capitol changed and I wanted to reflect that and leave viewers feeling like he was on the path now to becoming President Snow," he explains, "So I slowed down his speech, used his consonants a little more precisely, and made his cadence a bit more calculated."

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It's hard to determine Coryo's turning point in the 157-minute runtime. Could it be in the forest when he seemingly cycles through all five stages of grief, where something breaks inside and he promises never to trust anyone again? Or even earlier while rescuing Sejanus in the arena, where he goes for that extra swing at an already motionless tribute?

The third blow was in fact, Blyth's own addition. Despite being a welcomed decision creatively, caution towards adhering to the PG-13 rating meant doing takes without it. Which is why he was surprised it eventually made the final cut.

"It resonates so much better story-wise," he muses, "I saw the movie with my family in London and all of them in the back row winced when that happened because it was not about self-defence any more. It was callous, violent and intentional."

"I ACTUALLY CHOSE NOT OT REWATCH THE PAST FILMS BECAUSE I KNEW THIS WAS GOING TO BE DIFFERENT TONALLY AND VISUALLY."

PART II: THE PRIZE

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This gradual descent into madness is joined by a great cast, most notably EGOT-winning Viola Davis. Though naturally intimidated, the young thespian now only has praises for the acting titan's brilliant choices for Dr Volumnia Gaul on-screen and lovely, grounded persona off-screen.

One that surprised him, though, was Lucky Flickerman's Jason Schwartzman. "Oh man, I mean I know he's funny but to be quite so comedically brilliant. Like, this man will spend all his spare time writing hundreds of extra pages of dialogue, workshopping with writer Michael Lesslie, just so he's got this treasure trove of zingers up his sleeve when he has to improvise.

"That's the definition of an actor working his [butt] off to be prepared but showing up and making it look seamless," said Blyth. "That was a real reminder of the work that needs to go in to make these things look smooth, easy and quick."

This is not the Birmingham-born, Brooklyn-based actor's first time as a "tribute" in the Hunger Games that is the acting industry. There may not be a physical death but ego death is certainly part of it.

"Before getting this and Billy the Kid, I must have auditioned hundreds of times since I was 14. Most of them, I didn't get. So yeah, it can be pretty brutal... and when you're not working, it can get hungry," he chuckles at the pun.

Growing up watching the career of his late father, journalist-turned-producer Gavin Blyth, led him to realise that entertainment was viable work. There is also his love for older movies (A Place in the SunCasablancaGiant; for the curious). "They're not muddied by CGI or over-the-top wardrobe, or sometimes even colour. You can really focus on the performance more."

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It would ultimately be the performances of Oscar Isaac (Inside Llewyn Davis) and Adam Driver (Girls) that spurred his resolve to enrol in their alma mater Juilliard—undeterred by the fact that he had never been across the pond before.

So Blyth's first big press tour (compressed from months on average to two weeks, thanks to the interim agreement secured amid the SAG-AFTRA strike) was evidently a full-circle-pinch-me moment.

"It's so strange when I zoom out and think of myself as part of this Hunger Games universe. I've seen the film a few times and almost disassociate when watching." It was most surreal when introducing the film during the world premiere, and then looking up to see his family in the crowd waving at him.

It is when things get big and flashy that truly important things are put into perspective. "I feel like I've shaken so many hands, smiled and waved at so many people—wonderful people, each have been amazing—"he said, "but I got home and just craved for that deeper connection with my nearest and dearest."

"But I'd be lying if I said I wasn't enjoying it as well." Blyth acknowledges the trap of getting wrapped up in the whirlwind and tries not to take it all too seriously, "First of all, there are bigger things in the world than my film, and also; what I get to do is both an honour and really fun. 'Cause if you lose that, then what's the point?"

"I LIKE THE IDEA OF DOING SOMETHING THAT SCARES ME 'CAUSE THAT'S WHERE YOU LEARN THE MOST."

PART III: THE PEACEKEEPER

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For Tom Blyth, acting used to be a form of escape. "I love accents, costumes, anything that takes me further from myself because I used to just want to be anything but me," he smiled, fully aware of how it sounded. "It was a way for me to lose myself in pretending to be someone else. The most rewarding thing was when I could get away with it."

Thankfully, the mix of teen angst, self-hatred and mischief have been processed in therapy. Now that he has proficient knowledge, confidence and expertise, acting has become more about what he can experiment with, glean from and expand on.

For now, he's excited to do more in his own British accent. Voice is often the integral inception for a character and the vulnerability that comes with acting in his own voice is a frightening challenge he anticipates in upcoming projects. Alongside having to study and speak Italian for approximately half of the next film; another hush-hush American novel adaptation.

Fear may be a powerful tool that Dr Gaul or President Snow exploit to perpetuate control in the movies but in reality, it's a test that draws him. I" like the idea of doing something that scares me 'cause that's where you learn the most," he confessed.

Blyth has always dealt with fear the same way since childhood. His adolescent (and ironic) fear of snakes derived from Indiana Jones, and unknown terrors that lurk in deep waters were both conquered through exposure therapy.

"I just remember having this thought: If you don't hold the snake now, you'd be afraid of them forever, and that's no way to live," he described how he had forced himself to interact with the serpent during a visit to the petting zoo in his youth. "And you realise it's not as scary as you thought it was. I did the same with surfing six years ago; paddling without knowing what was under freaked me out but again, the same thought came."

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Between living with a crippling fear for the rest of his life and confronting it head-on, Blyth will always pick the latter. He feels the same way about comedy, which likely stems from his love for When Harry Met Sally ("It has the perfect script"). He has attempted the genre onstage and its difficulty petrifies him. In Blyth Logic: all the more reason to try.

Still, he is at peace that he will probably never get to try or be good at every single thing out there in the world. Headbutting fear may be a bit of a running theme but it's not like he has a desire to throw himself out of a plane with a parachute.

Besides surfing and tinkering with his recently bought motorcycle, tricky acting schedules do not grant much leeway in picking up new skills. Since he used to sketch, learning to be adept with oil colours and mixing paint would be one feasible pastime to accommodate between gigs.

"I just think it's interesting to experience as much as possible in life. There's so much out there to explore," Blyth paused at this point to consider and with a slight glint, went, "I guess I should throw myself out of a plane. If it scares me, I should try it, right?"

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P
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ESQUIRE: I watched you in the original musical Let Me Fly. I was surprised. I had thought it would be a science fiction drama after reading the synopsis about a time-travelling female lead, who dreams of becoming a NASA scientist, and a male lead, who wanted to be a fashion designer. Other than that, I didn’t go in with a lot of expectations since I’m not a sci-fi fan. But 40 minutes in, I found myself sobbing.

PARK BO-GUM: (laughs) Thank you so much. I still remember the first time I watched this musical. I personally know Shin Jaebum, who was playing the same Namwon role as I am this season. We were classmates majoring in musical theatre at school. When this musical was playing for the first time last year, he invited me to come see the show. I did, and I was surprised because the production was great. I too wondered if it was a story about space, or about the fashion-designer-wannabe male lead. But it was actually a story about time and love. “It was our journey through time together. Even if I were to be reborn, I will not go back and will choose this path again.” Everything including this line, the numbers, each prop, and stage elements were perfect. On the day I watched it, everyone in the audience cried so much that their masks were wet from tears. I remember leaving the theatre with such happiness and emotions that exceeded whatever I expected before I went in.

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ESQ: There were many people in the audience crying loudly on the day I watched it as well. I didn’t want to make a sound, so I clenched my fists like Zo Insung (in the drama Something Happened in Bali). They weren’t tears that emphasised sadness though. They were tears of intense happiness. I enjoyed the show.

PBG: That’s so true. You can hear Namwon’s voice as he sincerely expressed his love to Jungbun despite not remembering anything. This might be a spoiler, but the moment the word “cupcake” is mentioned, the audience realises Sunhee’s true identity.

ESQ: The audience actually knew it before that. But it didn’t matter, we just enjoyed it.

PBG: I’m glad. It makes me so happy to hear that.

ESQ: I’m also surprised that Let Me Fly is playing in such a small theatre with only 300 seats. It’s not every day that we get to see one of Korea’s top drama actors dancing and singing like that. I’m curious about what made you decide to accept this role.

PBG: Productions like this usually cast multiple actors for a role so that they can take turns. As I mentioned earlier, when Shin Jaebum invited me to watch the show last year, Oh Euishik and Kim Jihyun were also playing Namwon. When I met them backstage, they half-jokingly said, “Bo-gum, let’s do this show together next time and bring it to a bigger theatre!” I think that played a big part in my decision to accept the role. I told them at the time that I’d be waiting for the call. I heard that the producers had no intention of casting me, but Jaebum persuaded them to just try reaching out to me. My seniors and batchmates were cheering me on, so I had no reason to turn down the role.

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ESQ: Your timing was great. I heard that original Korean musicals and theatre productions were badly hit during, and even after, the Covid shutdowns. At a time like this, staging Let Me Fly and having a superstar like Park Bo-gum in the lead role can bring life back to Daehakro.

PBG: That it’s an original Korean production was the main reason I took the role. I wanted to share the emotions I felt when I watched the show last year. If my being cast can help promote this production to not only Korean fans, but international fans as well, I’d be so thankful.

ESQ: When I watched the show, there were many fans who seemed like they were from North America or Southeast Asia. What’s interesting was that when I went to buy a programme at the merchandise booth, there was a foreigner in front of me who said “Give me one of everything you have.” They must have really liked the show since they wanted to buy everything.

PBG: Really? I had no idea. That makes me so happy!

ESQ: The show I watched had Lee Hyunghoon playing the older Namwon, Hong Jihee as Jungbun, and Bang Jinhee as Sunhee, and the chemistry between them on stage was just remarkable. I can’t imagine that it’s easy achieving the right chemistry, especially when all four characters are played by three different actors. Kudos to them. They made it look and feel so believable.

PBG: That is why I can confidently say that no matter which actors you watch, they all bring their own charm to each of the shows, and they are all great. I also feel a different excitement when I’m on stage with different actors. You are showering me with so much praise that I think I’ll do really well for tonight’s performance.

ESQ: You’re going to perform tonight after this interview?

PBG: Yes. It’s going to be with Kim Dobin, Choi Soojin and Na Hana tonight.

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ESQ: When will Let Me Fly be staged in a large theatre?

PBG: Large theatre... I don’t think it’s time for that yet. The small theatre right now is great. It feels intimate. Expanding to a mid-sized theatre might work, but a large theatre... At the end of the day, that decision is not mine to make. It depends on the production company.

ESQ: That is true. There’s a charm to small theatres because we can see the stage from a closer proximity, and it does feel more intimate.

PBG: That’s right. That is also what I like about this production. I can see and feel the immediate reaction from the audience. Of course, I can’t see their faces or expressions from the stage, but I can feel how engaged the audience is. It truly feels like we’re communicating with the audience because I can feel it when they burst into tears. This is my debut on a theatrical stage, so it’s my first time experiencing this sort of energy.

I mentioned earlier that Jaebum was my classmate from the musical theatre department in college, but I was usually just working behind the scenes as the director or music director.

ESQ: That’s amazing! I was just thinking to myself that you must have had lots of practice since you majored in musical theatre in college. As I look again at your characters Choi Taek in Reply 1988 and Lee Yeong in Love in the Moonlight... those don’t seem like they could dance, and yet you just brought them into action. You were great. You were also great at aegyo (acting cute) with your “bbuing”.

PBG: Not at all! I was getting lots of help from the people around me for the dancing and the singing, so all I really had to do was follow their directions and suggestions. Actually, the aegyo scene came about because we were trying to figure out how to make the characters for young Namwon and older Namwon be more cohesive. Each of the cast members has different charms. So, when you watched Lee Hyunghoon’s older Namwon that day, I had to add more to my acting to match his bubblier version of the character.

ESQ: I didn’t know you had to think of that as well.

PBG: That’s what makes it fun. (laughs) I spoke with and practised a lot with the other actors playing the younger Namwon.

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ESQ: What was the process like for you during practice? It must not have been easy planning your schedule.

PBG: This is the first musical production that I’m involved in, and one that I love as well. As I practised every day, my desire to put on the best performance grew. After filming for my drama, I would always head straight to the studio to practise late into the night with our choreographer. All the other actors in this show helped me a lot. They stayed late so that we could clean up specific scenes. But the interesting thing is that my footsteps felt light on the way to the studio, and I enjoyed it so much. I was the youngest in this production, so I was just a student to everyone else. Everyone there was my teacher. Especially Shin Jaebum and Na Hana, who taught me the best way to project my voice. I didn’t know how loud I should be, or what’s the best method to deliver my lines since it was my first time on stage. Ah! Especially in the scene with the mirrored choreography, where older Namwon and younger Namwon faced each other and danced as though looking into a mirror. We put in a lot of effort for that scene because all three of us felt that we needed to be as perfect as possible.

ESQ: I remember the scene because it seemed like a mime show. It was perfect!

PBG: Although we should also pay attention to the other scenes, we focused a lot on that particular scene, even right down to the timing of our eyes blinking. We paid so much attention to our breaths, our steps and each movement of our fingers while practising.

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ESQ: You’ve mentioned in interviews that you had dreamt of being a singer when you were younger. As I watched you in this show, I didn’t think you meant that as being an idol singer.

PBG: That’s right. I wanted to be a singer-songwriter. I played piano as a kid, so I wanted to comfort others and spread joy through the songs I wrote. Back when I used to audition for entertainment companies, there were not many male contestants who sang while playing the keyboard.

ESQ: You’re right. There weren’t many who could play the keyboard. You were good enough to play one of Lee Seungcheol’s songs on the keyboard for a TV show. This musical plays from September to December, and by the time this interview is published, you would have played this character over 10 times. Is there anything that has changed for you since the first time?

PBG: I also thought that things might become routine as time went by, but every time I perform with a different actor, I experience a new chemistry between us, and I feel new emotions each time. That is why I think this is such a great production. Despite playing the same show, the same character with the same lines, and everything is repeated, it always feels new with every show. Even when I think, “The emotions won’t get to me today,” I end up getting absorbed into the performance and sometimes get overwhelmed by emotions. That’s what makes this so very interesting for me. I’m experiencing things I don’t feel when I do movies or dramas.

ESQ: From the sounds of it, it’s almost as though you’re a first-time jazz improvisation musician.

PBG: That’s exactly what it feels like. Jazz musicians might be looking at a music sheet with the same chords, but they create music by communicating with one another through their emotions. Taking turns to act with different actors fits into that definition of jamming, and there’s a unique joy to it. There’s a term for the delight that musicians feel when they click together during a session, but I suddenly can’t remember it. For example, when someone improvises on stage and I immediately pick up on it and make the scene work, I feel so happy because I knew I was focused on the scene.

ESQ: The image of musicians performing on stage at a jazz club for the first time comes to mind.

PBG: (laughs) You can say that.

ESQ: But why have you been hiding your singing talents all this while?

PBG: I don’t sing well at all. Oh dear, please don’t say that. It’s just that I enjoy it, and the other musical actors are teaching me a lot, so I’m improving slowly.

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ESQ: What’s the drama you’re currently filming?

PBG: I’m filming a Netflix drama called You’ve Done Well. The screenplay was written by Lim Sangchun (who also wrote Fight for My Way and When the Camelia Blooms), and directed by Kim Wonseok who also directed Misaeng, Signal, and My Mister.

ESQ: There’s no information available online for this drama yet. Can you tell us more about the character you’re playing?

PBG: All I can tell you is that the character is strong as steel and unwavering like an old tree.

ESQ: I’ve always seen you as a youthful star, which is a charm that’s emphasised in the dramas Boyfriend, Love in the Moonlight, and Record of Youth. But through this musical, it feels like you’ve expanded your range.

PBG: I could say that taking this role was a conscious decision to expand my career and roles. I do want to try new genres and characters that I’ve never done before.

ESQ: You’re also waiting for the release of your upcoming movie Wonderland, right? I’ve been telling people for three years now that I’m looking forward to it.

PBG: Wonderland is a thought-provoking movie. It’ll make you think about what is considered precious in value. I actually haven’t seen how they’re piecing the movie together, and we haven’t even done the preview for it yet. I’m also waiting for it to be released. It’ll be a fun watch. I felt it when we were filming.

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ESQ: I personally want to see you play a serious character that doesn’t smile at all.

PBG: Ah! I know what you mean. Like my character in the movie Seo Bok right?

ESQ: Maybe something a little colder and more terrifying than that.

PBG: As I’ve mentioned earlier, I want to expand the types of characters I play through works that I want to recommend to others. While the characters are important, being able to confidently tell people “This is a really good story,” is more important to me. I want to build my career with projects that I’d even want to recommend to my future kids. I want to be an actor who people have faith in and can say, “Park Bo-gum’s work is great.”

ESQ: Wow! There aren’t many actors with such a filmography. Even if they had acted well, there will be times when the story itself isn’t all that great.

PBG: It’s just something I’m hoping for.

ESQ: I’m curious about Park Bo-gum as a person. You’ve always played characters who are polite, kind and considerate. Even people who’ve worked with you said the same about you. But what is your biggest desire in the depths of your heart?

PBG: Eating.

ESQ: Really? That’s great! I was worried you’d say something like “My desire for acting.”

PBG: I adore good food. There are so many different cuisines in the world that I want to try, and I really enjoy having a good hearty meal. When filming schedules are gruelling, I often don’t have time to eat proper meals. When that happens, I get late night cravings once I get home. I know I shouldn’t eat late at night but I really can’t help it sometimes.

ESQ: Oh, I’m always craving for carbs after 10pm. Like chapaghetti (black bean paste instant noodles).

PBG: Exactly. I should resist those temptations, but there’s so much I want to eat in this world. People who work out can relate: I just crave proteins. It doesn’t matter if it’s pork or beef, I crave different proteins every day. My manager also works out, so we binge on proteins together. I recently had nurungji (scorched rice) ginseng chicken, and I loved it.

ESQ: Nurungji ginseng chicken is the perfect food. It’s interesting that you have this simple side to you as well.

PBG: I’m lucky to be able to enjoy so much delicious food lately, but that’s the first thing that came to mind. There are times when my face puffs up after eating something the night before filming. As an actor, I always regret when that happens.

ESQ: You don’t drink, right?

PBG: I don’t usually drink, but I do enjoy a couple of drinks with friends occasionally. I have never tried soju though.

ESQ: What? Not even once?

PBG: Unbelievable, but it’s true. I’ve never had soju before. I’ve tried sweeter alcohols, but never soju. People who can drink a few bottles of it at a time amaze me.

Suit and shirt, CELINE HOMME
Coat, jacket, shirt, trousers and boots, CELINE HOMME

ESQ: Besides work, how do you usually spend your time? Do you devote it on a hobby, maybe?

PBG: Lately, it’s singing practice.

ESQ: But singing is part of your work. Doesn’t count.

PBG: That’s true, but I’ve honestly never thought of doing musicals, movies, dramas or business travels as work.

ESQ: Oh, stop being so impossibly perfect. (laughs)

PBG: I realised very early on that if I think of it as work, at some point, it becomes something I have to do and I’d start getting stressed about it. Being able to do what I love is happiness in itself and is a huge blessing to me. Even after getting on board this musical, I enjoyed the songs so much that I thought to myself, “Wow, I really should sing these amazing songs well,” and that stopped me from feeling like practice is work.

ESQ: Looking at you while you talk about this, I can feel your sincere happiness and joy. As a fellow professional, I’m envious.

PBG: Really? Even for music, I only listen to numbers from Let Me Fly these days.

ESQ: How was the photoshoot with Celine?

PBG: I’m excited to be able to show a side of me that I’ve never shown before through this shoot with Celine and Esquire. It was fun. To me, fashion photo shoots are like playing a character. My hairstyle, make-up, outfits, and even my expressions and poses come together to create a new character. I really enjoyed it. The pieces from the Winter season this time look great too.

ESQ: Is there an outfit that stood out to you?

PBG: I loved all the coats, especially the ones with Celine’s signature patterns.

Photography: Mok Jungwook
Styling: Kim E Joo
Fashion Editor: Yun Woonghee
Features Editor: Park Sehoi
Hair: Ji Kyoungmi
Make-up: Lee Young
Production: Jang Homin
Assistant: Song Chaeyeon
Art Design: Kim Daesup
Translation: Astrid Ja’afarino

Jumper and trousers, RALPH LAUREN PURPLE LABEL

This is not a promo for a TV show or film.

Features with actors are usually about film or TV projects but the current strikes in Hollywood may inevitably be putting the kibosh on many future cover stories. Daniel Wu can’t talk about his recent media productions but he can talk about everything else, even the strikes and why they’re occurring.

“It’s a repeat of what happened on Spotify several years ago,” Wu says. Just before he jumped onto our Zoom interview, he was organising his residual checks. For all the projects that he had worked on, the shows that are on streaming pay pennies on the dollar. “You put your music on Spotify and you get a penny for 1,000 plays. The creator gets almost nothing back for their content. Musicians can make that money back by touring but not actors. There are no other avenues for us to earn a living except when we make films or TV shows. That’s what is at stake at the moment, hence the strikes.”

It’s a complicated affair and it’ll take more than a cover story to break it all down but here it is, in a nutshell: the Writers Guild of America (WGA)—a union that represents screenwriters working in Hollywood—is striking because residual deals from streaming platforms (Netflix, Apple TV+, Disney+) are below acceptable living wages. There’s also the contention about the use of AI to replace writers.

The WGA strike coincided with the Screen Actors Guild and American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA) strike. Again, this is due to unfair streaming residuals and the replication of their likeness without compensation via AI. These combined strikes have postponed this year’s Emmys; productions for, both current and future projects, were shuttered; films and TV shows that were already made were adjourned to later dates. Todd Holmes, an entertainment industry management professor at Cal State Northridge, based his calculation on the last WGA strike in 2007 and estimated that it might cause a USD3 billion dent in California’s economy.

While Wu may not be vocal on his social media platform (“I don’t talk about too much about the strikes on IG because everyone else has already said what’s needed to be said.”) but he is very much a union man.

“I’m totally for the strike, even though it’s a bummer that we can’t work now. But this is too important for the whole industry to shape what the future is going to be for everyone.”

With the ongoing strikes, you’d think that Wu would have loads of downtime.

You’d be wrong.

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Before the pandemic took a stranglehold on the world, the actor, Sung Kung—he of the resurrected Han from Fast and the Furious franchise—Brendan McGrath and Wu formed Student Driver. It’s a lifestyle brand that hypes all the positives of car culture; a tongue-in-cheek take on the student drivers in America—recognisable by the yellow caution sticker on the back of their cars. It’s a jab at the noob-ness of a tire tyro but it’s also the label’s philosophy that no matter how experienced or good you are, you’re always learning. That essentially, you are a student.

Kang and Wu realised that they could leverage their celebrity to promote Student Driver. “It wasn’t for any narcissistic reason,” Wu quickly adds. “If you look at our IG accounts, we’re trying to show what we’re into and what we’re passionate about. We wanted to inspire people and use Student Driver as a place to gather like-minded people.

"You put your music on Spotify and you get a penny for 1,000 plays. The creator gets almost nothing back for their content. Musicians can make that money back by touring but not actors. There are no
other avenues for us to earn a living except when we make films or TV shows. That's what is at stake at the moment, hence the strikes."

It became a meeting place for car enthusiasts from all over; a crossroads where racers mingle with designers, mechanics and the like. “Student Driver became much bigger than just selling stuff,” Wu says. “It became a community where we are learning from one another.”

Wu always wanted to have his own line of merch but there was never a compelling reason for him to do so. He didn’t want to see things happen for the sake of it happening.

Take his only directorial project. Titled, The Heavenly Kings, it was a mockumentary about the Cantopop industry in Hong Kong. But it wasn’t enough to cover a fictional band for the film, it had to feel real. So, Wu created a fake boyband called ALIVE with Terence Yin, Andrew Lin and Conroy Chan. For the next 18 months, Wu orchestrated press tours, live shows and even released an EP, all the while directing the film.

No one, aside from the main cast and close collaborators, knew about the project. Not even the press, a majority that felt betrayed when the truth was disclosed after the film’s release. For their efforts, The Heavenly Kings garnered Wu a Best New Director award at the 26th Hong Kong Film Awards.

“I think directing is one of my strengths,” says Wu. “I think that came from my architecture background; I look at the bigger picture instead of just focusing on one part as an actor.”

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Celebrity and being an actor are often mistakenly conflated. One can lead to the other but each occupies their own space. Wu never set out to be a celebrity but he never set out to be an actor either. In 1997, he travelled to Hong Kong, wanting to witness the country’s handover to China. At his sister’s suggestion, Wu took up modelling and months later, the director Yonfan saw Wu in a clothing ad and wanted him to star in his film, Bishonen.

Have you ever loved something so much that you don’t want to ruin it by interacting with it? That was Wu’s reasoning for turning down the role. “I love movies so much that I don’t want to screw it up with my acting.” 

But Yonfa pursued and eroded Wu’s apprehension. Bishonen afforded many liberties to Wu in film and TV. With an impressive oeuvre of films under his belt, Wu still finds the fame that comes with being an actor strange. 

That’s why he still keeps in touch with his best friend Ian Urban. Since 12, Wu and Urban have been thick as thieves. “He was a big part of my formative years,” Wu says. “Keeping him and people like him in my life, helps me stay grounded. Reminds me of where I came from.”

Urban and Wu lived in the same area so they carpooled to school. They took Spanish (and were failing it as well). They were heavily into the arts. Urban was the reason why Wu got into cars and racing. 

That love for cars abated when Wu moved to Hong Kong. The country was never conducive to racing and vehicles were expensive to begin with. “Can you imagine modifying them on top of it?” Wu asks. “And modding is technically illegal there.”

When he returned to the US, the first thing Wu did was tap on Urban, who was a driving coach for the Audi Club, and another family friend, who was an instructor for another track day events group. 

They would head to track day events, where Wu would learn how to race on the track. He adapted to it quickly. For the five years that he was back in the States, he did as many track days as he could. Eventually, he climbed to the top 10 per cent of fastest racers on the track.

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In the Bay Area, Wu shared a garage with Urban where they built and worked on cars. Down from where they are, is Patrick Ottis Co. that restores vintage Ferraris. Wu and Urban would pass by the garage all the time but they were afraid to enter, “because the cars in there are worth millions, right?” Wu says.

“One day, we were walking by their garage and Tazio [Patrick’s son] was out front and said hi.” They started talking and he gave them a tour of the place. A friendship bloomed over their shared interest in building cars and endless hours at the race track. That soon morphed into a mentorship when Wu learnt to race professionally. Eventually, they embarked on their first endurance racing programme. Committed to a whole season, their first race was a two-hour race at Sonoma Raceway. The next was a night race at Buttonwillow Raceway Park. As soon as darkness blanketed the sky, Wu freaked out. But as he acclimated to the conditions, Wu managed to place third. “The moment I stepped out, I felt this happiness of finishing and not crashing.”

"When I first met him, he was 48 or 49. That was 22 years ago. And now he's 70. To me, the time that my wife and I have been together doesn't seem that long. It zips by. The last 10 years that my daughter has grown, that has gone real fast too."

He credits it to his martial arts training, which he still practises three days a week. Wu likens racing to being on a film set. “The director could be screaming at somebody, things are going slow, they are losing light... You can’t pay attention to that.” He frames it as “finding that calm”. When night falls and the dust kicks up to obstruct your vision, stick to the technique, stay calm and trust yourself to get through the chaos.

For the NASA (National Auto Sport Association) Utah Sunchaser race, Wu had to compete in an LMP3 model, a car that he hadn’t raced the night before. Starting at 6pm, the six-hour race runs until midnight. When Wu was in the driver’s seat, he discovered the headlights were aimed to the right... but all their turns were to the left. He couldn’t see the bends so sometimes he’d swerve too late or too early; driving his car off the track.

It’s almost enough for anyone to throw in the towel but Wu knew his team depended on him. Win or lose, he needed to shake to do better.

Hoodie, STUDENT DRIVER. Trousers, RALPH LAUREN PURPLE LABEL

If racing on the track is fast, living a life is quicker. Especially, when death is present at the periphery. Wu’s near-death experience with a burst appendix in 2019 was a “wake-up call to live in the moment”. Years later, when he was at his father-in-law’s 70th birthday party, “I did a mental calculation,” Wu says, “when I first met him, he was 48 or 49. That was 22 years ago. And now he’s 70. To me, the time that my wife and I have been together doesn’t seem that long. It zips by. The last 10 years that my daughter has grown, that has gone real fast too.”

That’s why he’s not working as much as he used to. He allocates a certain amount of time per year for work and spends the rest of his time on the things that matter.

Both his parents have passed. Wu posted an image of his father, opining that he would have been 94 this year. I mentioned that he’s almost a spitting image of his dad. “Hopefully my hair stays longer than his,” Wu says jokingly. “I think he went bald in his 20s, so right now, I think I’m doing okay in that department.”

Other than their looks, they also shared a common passion for a fancy family car.

In 1988, Wu’s dad retired and as a gift to himself, decided to purchase a Porsche 911. This felt truly odd to the 14-year-old Wu, as his dad had never been interested in cars and for the frugal family living in Berkeley suburbs, that was an absolute extravagance.

At the car dealership, his dad gave Wu carte blanche to pick out a hue for the exterior (“I picked the weirdest colour because that’s the kind of person I am.”) and Wu asked if they could add a whale-tail spoiler (“A regular 911 doesn’t come with a tail but a 911 Turbo does.”). His dad acquiesced to both suggestions.

The Porsche became a thing that father and son would talk about often. While his dad rarely drove it—and if he did, it was only on the weekends and within speed limits, the car rides spent with him were moments to connect. This experience also cemented his passion for cars.

Currently, the Porsche sits in the Petersen Automotive Museum in LA to coincide with Porsche’s 75th anniversary exhibition. “He kept the car really clean,” Wu says. “Even when I took it over 10 years ago, it still looked brand new.” But the automobile on display will be far better purposed when Wu takes it back and takes it out for a drive. “It’s a nice way to memorialise and think about my dad.”

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During Covid, when his daughter, Raven, was in primary one, Wu had to oversee her home distance learning. She was enrolled in a Chinese immersion class and Wu underestimated how little she had absorbed from the module than he originally hoped. “I got a little angry and said, how come you don’t know that? As the words came out of my mouth, I could hear my dad’s voice.”

Wu had to pull back, assess the situation with Raven and figure out the right way to go about it. “Having a kid made me re-evaluate how to strike a balance between how I was raised and how I need to raise her. I’m still stern but I usually edit the first thing that comes to mind and try to say them in a better way.

“I don’t want my kid to be scared of me. I don’t want her to be afraid to talk to me, to ask me for advice. My relationship with my dad was better later in life but in my younger days, I’ve never confided in him about anything.”

It’s being judged by his father’s standards that halted Wu from being open. He didn’t think he would understand. Even when Wu started acting, his dad would ask when was he going to get a real job.

"I'm not an expert and I've never tried to present otherwise, which is why I have an issue with people saying, oh, your life is perfect, blah blah… No, I make mistakes everyday. Things that I could be better at and that includes being a father. I'm trying my best. You're not successful all the time but you try to be better."

It wasn’t until many years later that his dad visited and stayed at a 12-hour shoot where Wu was. At the end of his set, his dad patted Wu on the shoulder and simply said, “You work really hard.”

“That was huge to me,” Wu says. “He was finally accepting what I do.” For Wu, parenthood is a progression. “I’d do what my dad never did: apologise. I’ll tell my daughter what I just said was a little too much. I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to make you upset.” His kid might not grow into the person he expects her to be but that’s something that Wu says he has to deal with.

“I’m not an expert and I’ve never tried to present otherwise, which is why I have an issue with people saying, oh, your life is perfect, blah blah… No, I make mistakes every day. Things that I could be better at and that includes being a father. I’m trying my best. You’re not successful all the time but you try to be better.”

Which is such a refreshing thing to hear from a celebrity or actor, whatever. That as a parent, I’m painted less of a monster, and that the world is more forgiving. We have no idea where the finish line is. All of us, on this road of life, trying to get to our destinations; headlights in the dust and darkness.

We may never reach that stage of enlightenment. But we are alive and there is always the prospect of learning from our pasts.

Hoodie, STUDENT DRIVER

Photography: Kigon Kwak
Fashion Direction: Asri Jasman
Art Direction: Joan Tai
Styling: Jungle Lin

Producer: Yu Guoran at APEX Communications
Production Assistant: Lu Jiang
Executive Producer / Casting Director: Even Yu at APEX Communications
Grooming: David Cox
Lighting Assistant: Kim Minju

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