Park Bo-gum should have taken the longer route. The smell of warm food and freshly brewed coffee from a ballroom – where lunch is being served – wafts across the hotel hallway as he makes his way to a private room for our interview.
“I am so hungry right now,” Park sheepishly confesses in halting English when he finally settles on the empty chair across, a pout on his boyish face as he rubs his stomach.
The South Korean actor tussles with memory as he tries to tell me, through a translator, about a regional skewered grilled meat dish.
“Ah yes, that’s right!” the 23-year-old Park exclaims, his round eyes widening in glee. “I really want to eat some satay now.”
The Seoul native was in Kuala Lumpur for a fan meeting as part of his Asian tour. He had just wrapped up a hectic press conference prior to this interview. And once our session was done, he was whisked away to exchange pleasantries with sponsors of the event.
If the guy was exhausted, his bubbly demeanour showed otherwise.
“I’m just very thankful to be here,” Park said. “I am grateful for all the moments that I have, and I’m moving forward one step at a time to the future.”
If anything, there’s really no better time than the present for the young star. Park is at the peak of fame – and there are no signs of him slowing down.
To date, he has appeared in a range of roles in both television and film. His tenure as a co-host on popular music programme Music Bank made him the cool kid among young fans. Meanwhile, his many supporting K-drama roles sweep older women off their feet.
It’s worth noting that the Myongji University undergraduate’s breakout role came in 2015, a mere four years after his entertainment debut. His portrayal of a genius board game player in the nostalgia-tinged Reply 1988 made him a household name. Since then, the actor became a much sought-after talent.
He’s been hailed as the next generation hallyu (Korean wave) star and more recently, the immense popularity of Park’s leading role in the Joseon Dynasty period drama Love In The Moonlight garnered him the title “Nation’s Crown Prince”.
When I remind him that he’s also known as the “Nation’s Son-In-Law”, a guarded look briefly flashes across his otherwise cheery face. “It’s a kind of responsibility to have those titles,” he shrugs, “and since those reputations were given through the trust and love of my fans, I really need to look after those expectations. I just try to stay focused and show the goodness in me to people.”
That desire to live up to the public’s expectations of him is, in part, spurred by the fact that Park found success at a relatively young age. And he owes it to the steady fan base that has rallied behind him.
The actor’s meteoric rise could be regarded as a rarity in the hyper-competitive South Korean entertainment scene. To put things in perspective, entertainers in the republic often struggle through the early years to make a name for themselves in the industry.
“So far, I haven’t encountered any particular moments that are hard to deal with,” Park offers, referring to a question about the hardships he might have faced in carving an acting career.
That doesn’t mean that he is resting on his laurels.
“It’s not the moment yet for me to enjoy my time as an actor,” he says passionately, “and as the time goes by, I feel that I need to push myself harder to pay back for all the good fortune that I have received.”
In person, Park doesn’t quite whip up the kind of star presence one would often associate with top acts. He enters the room without any frills or fuss.
At the start of our interview, the actor even made the blunder of sitting on a plain-looking chair designated for the translator (his publicist had reserved a posh-looking armchair for him).
But it’s this sort of charming boy-next-door persona, coupled with an emotionally vulnerable disposition, that has made Park an unassuming acting force to be reckoned with.
Fans cherish his sentimentality. He’s been known for breaking down during public appearances on some occasions.
“It’s just that I appreciate all the little things in life. If I can help it, I would try my best to hold back my tears,” Park says when asked what tugs at his heartstrings. Then again, those waterworks might have something to do with his sad past.
A Reply 1988 audition tape – which was shown during an episode of the travel programme Youth Over Flowers: Africa, that Park participated in earlier this year – unveiled details about the actor’s sad past.
“In fourth grade, my mother passed away,” he had revealed then, unable to hold back emotions as he rehearsed a conversation between a son and mother.
Fast forward to the present day, and Park says he tries to let bygones be bygones.
“It’s because I know I cannot turn back time no matter what. So, instead of regretting or thinking about the past, it’s much better to just move on,” he offers, without specifically mentioning his family background.
In moving on, Park is revelling in the many opportunities he gets as an actor. He gushes about the exciting experiences he has enjoyed through his professional engagements. Reply 1988 taught him how to play Go, the abstract strategy board game. He got to explore a whole new continent on Youth Over Flowers: Africa, while Love In The Moonlight allowed him to pick up horse riding.
When asked what other roles he would consider tackling, the actor replies: “There are a lot more challenges I look forward to. So, I’m really open to anything at this point.”
“What would you recommend?” he casually asks, sitting up eagerly to hear the reply.
“Oh, superhero? That’s actually a good idea. Most superhero characters we see these days are from foreign countries. I would like to play a superhero that shows off Korean power,” he says with a laugh.
All jokes aside though, Park confesses he’s still trying to get used to the attention he has been getting.
“There are two sides to this. On the one hand, I’m very grateful for all the love I have received, I really do. It’s just that my private life is not as private as before.
“When I’m not in front of the camera, I’m just like any other normal person. I’m a student. I eat when I’m stressed. Eating is a routine I cannot leave out in a day. “I’m someone who likes to take public transport but it’s hard for me to do that now.”
Park stresses that he’s not complaining, though. It’s a small price to pay to forge a career in entertainment, he reckons.
“Ultimately, I want to be a good person and spread happiness through my acting. If I don’t forget to be appreciative and thankful, then that would be the most important thing that I’ll ever achieve,” he says with a warm smile as he prepares to leave for his next appointment.
“Thank you for doing this interview with me,” he says and bows deeply, before exiting through the same hallway he came from earlier.
The smell of tantalising culinary creations lingers outside, threatening to whet Park’s appetite once more. But work beckons, so satay just has to wait.