Actor Sang-Heon Lee embodies the present perfect tense of homecoming

From Seoul to Los Angeles, there’s no stopping Sang-Heon Lee from fully embracing the complexities of culture, identity, and coming home.

Charmaine Tan

| September 23, 2023
Sang-heon Lee. Photo: Men’s Folio

When Netflix dropped XO, Kitty (2023) — a spin-off series of author Jenny Han’s To All The Boys trilogy — earlier this year, all eyes were on Sang-Heon Lee.

He was cast to play the male protagonist’s best friend, Minho — your archetypal icy, inheritance-rich, genetically-blessed snob of the school.

Yet what this role gave Sang-Heon was the perfect entrance into two of the most prominent screens at present — that of Hollywood and South Korea — along with a whole host of newly christened Minho fans from the streaming service’s global audience.

Maybe the way Minho turned out to be an unexpected love rival for the show’s titular character is why the gradual softening of his thorny personality warmed viewers up to Sang-Heon’s impressive acting chops.

This was after all, his acting debut on any screen. A debut that also included a chance to work with his real-life sister, Gia Kim, on the same set; an instance that rarely happens, if ever.

Beyond the surface compatibility of Minho, Sang-Heon and his character’s list of similarities go on for quite a bit. While his TikTok presence explains part of the magnetism — a Los Angeles-and-Seoul-based Korean who speaks with a British accent is virtually clickbait in and of itself — the main draw comes from a life mostly lived abroad, hailing from Seoul but having spent his formative years in Hong Kong, and later in the UK — just like Minho.

The colours he paints with in his craft taps on a long history of manoeuvring intercultural friendships and the often labyrinthine customs of engaging with multiple cultures at once, his infinitely expanding world giving the actor the privilege to constantly navigate and re-establish his sense of self, and where that comes from.

Last month, Men’s Folio visited the star in his birthplace to chat about that process so far, journeying with him through his first moments in front of the camera, through his best memories post XO, Kitty and finally of life in Seoul, all while going on a physical drive through the various neighbourhoods of the megalopolis.

As if visiting a friend’s house for a coffee, we slow it down with Sang-Heon for a dip into what makes the world of a third culture kid spin, reassessing his relationship with his home, or wherever that may be.

Sang-heon Lee
Cardigan, Curated Parade; Pants, Kenzo; ICON loafer shoes, PEDRO. Photo: Men’s Folio

Studio in Hongdae, 2.16pm

Sang-Heon talks about his early career in front of the camera

What was your first encounter with a professional studio setting like?

I remember it was my when I was doing modelling in Korea. I remember. Most studios in Korea seem to be all white for some reason, and equipped with furnitures. I think that always reminds me of the first studio I was in. I can’t remember what gig it was. Maybe modelling. Maybe skincare. I can’t remember.

But do you remember how you felt then?

I mean, I was very nervous. I didn’t know what I was doing exactly. But at the same time, the people there were happy. The producers, the photographer, they were happy with it. So I just thought okay, so this is how you do it. And then after that, I just naturally became quite comfortable with it.

How about right now?

I get nervous sometimes. But now I’m comfortable. I think I’m in my zone.

What usually gets you in the zone?

Music, as well as coffee or tea. I prefer green tea before the shoot, and then coffee during the day when I get tired. But also people smiling — that makes a difference.

Sang-heon Lee
Jacket, Lepere via E( )PTY Seoul; Pants, Stand Studio via E( )PTY Seoul; ICON sneakers, PEDRO. Photo: Men’s Folio

Studio in Hongdae, 4.08pm

Sang-Heon on the music he listens to

You mentioned music, and you set a specific playlist before the shoot began. How did you curate this playlist?

I have a playlist called “Photoshoot”, and that playlist also kind of helps me throughout the day if I need like a little boost of energy. Or like if I want to be in a party vibe. So it’s all the songs that make me feel very, very confident. If that’s how I put it.

How about your music taste in general?

I tend to usually listen to something chill. My favourite artist is Mac Miller. But really, what I listen to depends on my mood. I have different playlists on my Spotify with different names, like “Thoughts”, “Shower”, “Daily”, “Chill”, “Gym” and even “Hype”.

What if you had to do more serious things like read scripts? What do you listen to then?

I don’t listen to any songs when I read scripts. I just keep reading it and focusing on what is around it. I think even for auditions or whatnot. I try not to memorise the lines too much, because then it will stick, and I’ll just end up doing something that might not be the most spontaneous or natural for the character. I just try to read around my dialogues and lines. Then I will try to understand what the script and storyline is about.

Sang-heon Lee
Vest, Sandro; Pants, H&M; ICON backpack, ICON sneakers, all PEDRO. Photo: Men’s Folio

Itaewon, 5.22pm

Sang-Heon on his decision to pursue acting

What was your first ever audition like?

My first ever audition tape was actually about my previous show that I did. I thought it was really fun and natural for me to play that character. There were different characters that I could have played. But obviously, I just chose that specific role because I read the character description and felt like I could play him. That’s why I ended up with him.

When did you know that acting was your thing?

I chose acting because I love watching films. We had a career counsellor in my high school days, and she asked about what I wanted to study in university, what I would like to do for my job in the future. I said dance, to which she replied, No. Sure, that’s one way to step on my dreams. (Laughs) But then she asked me what else I loved to do. I love watching films. Then she was like, Oh, you can be a film critic.

But back then I had this vision where all the people around me would somehow hate their jobs from what they chose, especially if it was based on what they loved.

So I was like, okay, maybe I don’t want to lose the joy of watching films, and I thought, I’ll just be the guy in the film or the series instead. That way I could still enjoy watching the series of films. And that was like in Year 12 or 13, I think. So that was the time when I put my foot down and decided to pursue acting.

Sang-heon Lee
Shirt, Curated Parade; Pants, Stand Studio via E( )PTY Seoul; ICON sneakers, PEDRO; Gloves, Stylist’s Own. Photo: Men’s Folio

Itaewon, 7,25pm

Sang-Heon looks back on his favourite memories of “XO, Kitty”

What were some of your favourite moments post production of the show?

I think it was good to reunite with the whole cast again, back in LA. And then also, I think just the warm and genuine, positive comments around me, from my friends, my family, coworkers, my colleagues. Everyone said that they loved the show, enjoyed my character. Especially with the fans. Every time a foreigner approached me with this beaming smile and their cute little eyes, it really makes my day. I think that really helps me get through the day.

On a scale of one to ten, how similar are you to Minho?

I would say I’m about a four or five. Quite half-half, really. I played that role as if it was the sort of person I wanted to become, or wanted to be when I was younger. So I would say that was me when I was young, except with more confidence. I wasn’t so confident back then. Maybe that’s why I wanted to play my character that way, because I imagined myself if I was confident that this was how I would have acted.

I can’t deny that Minho is me. We’re both related obviously, because I believe how well an actor plays a character depends on how much of himself he puts into the character. Like little bits of those characteristics come from me too, so no matter what it is, like percentage wise, 2%, 3%, 10% or 50%; that is still me. Those characteristics were a part of me.

Shirt, Curated Parade; Gloves, Stylist’s Own. Photo: Men’s Folio

Dongjak Bridge, 9.18pm

Sang-Heon on daily life in and memories of Seoul

If you were to look outside the window on the car, what is the first thing you notice?

The people. I like to do the people watching thing, especially on a nice day. I would go outside to a nice park, grab a cup of iced Americano as they always do here in Korea.

What draws you to a person first?

Clothes. Usually, people in Korea tend to dress really nicely. But it’s the summer now so it’s a bit too hot right now to dress nice. Koreans do tend to dress nice no matter the weather since fashion is first.

How would you paint a picture of daily life in Seoul?

I think it’s like any other city out there. You would always see a lot of people on the streets. But here, they will be walking faster than normal. Everything’s so fast paced in Korea. You’ll also see a lot of tall buildings. But at the same time, every city out there like Hong Kong, Tokyo, Singapore, Korea, Japan, are quite similar. They are all big cities.

Jacket, R.SHEMISTE; Pants, MCM Worldwide; ICON tote bag, ICON loafer shoes, all PEDRO. Photo: Men’s Folio

What is your earliest memory of Seoul?

When I was really young, I remember an incident when I was at my grandma’s place, and we went outside to play in the playground. That playground itself is very specific. I remember there was sand on the ground, a slide and see-saws. I broke my arm that day because I fell from the slide, somehow. I was supposed to slide down, but I don’t know what I was thinking, and sort of fell from the top of the slide, facedown onto the sandy floor. That was my first memory of Korea.

What about your favourite sight of Seoul? What do you like the most about Seoul?

The smell of Seoul. The air. When I land at the airport, it smells like home. That’s what I love about here the most.

But obviously, Korean food too. I love Korean food. And easy access, with taxis and buses that go everywhere. Seoul is a very tight city. Everything is everywhere. And you can access it pretty well.

Sang-heon Lee
Jacket, R.SHEMISTE; Pants, MCM Worldwide; ICON tote bag, ICON loafer shoes, all PEDRO. Photo: Men’s Folio

What’s your favourite secret of Seoul?

I think you’ll be surprised how many things you can do in Seoul. I mean, there’s a lot of art galleries, little pop up exhibitions. I think there’s loads of those. It could be individual. It could be well-known, or it could be a chain.

Surprisingly, I would say a lot of stuff in Korea is free. Like if you go someplace like an exhibition to go to. Mostly it’s free. Or if you see this event on Instagram or something. Everything’s very social. I might be wrong. I haven’t been to these new exhibitions recently.

There’s also a lot of these really cute and unique cafes where it’s been like open for years. The menu will be like the most individual menu you’ve ever seen, or sometimes the cafes will be in these random and out-of-place buildings, where you will last expect a cafe can be. There’s really a lot of these hidden everywhere in Seoul — it’s really satisfying to find one. And a good one at that.

Jacket, sweater, pants; all Sandro; ICON tote bag, ICON loafer shoes, all PEDRO. Photo: Men’s Folio

Gyeongbokgung, Gwanghwamun, 11.39pm

Sang-Heon on where and what home is to him

What then does the word home mean to you?

Home means somewhere where I can be me, be safe and able not care about insecurities. Be free. So if I call place home, then I’m basically in a sound place and safe environment. In that way, I am in the most comfortable state.

Has moving around different countries changed that?

I’m not gonna lie, it was really hard for me to choose which places or what country felt like home when I was younger. I would think about things like if I even had a long term friend? Or would I be able to stay in a place long enough to call that country home? Now that I think about it, every place that I went and every place I had memories with, are all home. I have my childhood in Hong Kong, I grew up there. Korea, I was born here. So in that way, I guess I have two homes. Korea and Hong Kong.

Creative Director | Izwan Abdullah
Photography | Ju Hyunwoo
Creative Direction & Production | Daniel Teo
Styling | Manfred Lu
Interview | Charmaine Tan
Grooming & Hair | Jin Juhee
Videography | Kim Kkam
Visual direction | Kim Suhyeon
Photography Assistant | Kim Sungbin

This article originally appeared on Men’s Folio.


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