Yoo’s Cues: Teo Yoo shot to fame with his nuanced performance in Past Lives, but the extrovert within him awaits

By Joseff Musa
Apr 10, 2024

In the realm of entertainment, success stories are often shaped by talent, perseverance and a touch of fate. Teo Yoo’s rise has captivated audiences worldwide, a Korean actor raised in Germany who defied the odds to break into the international film industry. From humble beginnings to global sensation, his journey is an inspiring tale of passion, determination and unwavering belief in one’s dreams.

Yoo’s touching performance as a man doubting his destiny in the critically acclaimed film, Past Lives, cast him into an unexpected spotlight. The movie premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January last year, won Best Feature at the Gotham Independent Film Awards, and was a Best Picture nominee at this year’s Oscars.

“It’s still a bit surreal as Love to Hate You was my first leading role in a Korean TV show and Past Lives was the first time I was the lead of an American feature film,” says the 42-year-old actor of 2023. “Being able to showcase the diversity of my work to the public has been exciting.”

Teo’s breakthrough came with a role that would define his career and eventually solidify his place among the finest actors of this generation. First casted in an independent film, his portrayal of a complex character captivated audiences and critics alike. The film’s success propelled Teo into the international spotlight, earning him accolades and paving the way for a myriad of opportunities.

Chosen path

This year, he promises audiences will see a different side of him. “I don’t even feel like I have scratched the surface of my potential. It is always hard to answer this question [of what challenge is coming next] because as an actor, we are not choosing what we want to do. We are getting chosen. So it is hard to tell what comes next. But I can tell you that I want to show a more colourful and extroverted variety of my character in the future.”

Born Kim Chi-hun in Cologne, Germany, in 1981, to South Korean immigrants, Teo Yoo was supposed to train as a physical therapist, but pursuing acting studies at the Lee Strasberg Theatre & Film Institute in New York and then the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London changed his mind.

His career began in the mid-2000s with a few small roles in Korean films. Having relocated to Seoul, he clocked up appearances in a couple of international productions – Seoul Searching (2015) and the Russian rock movie Leto (2018), both of which took him to the Cannes Film Festival.

Breaking free

As the son of a coal miner who moved to Germany as part of a labour scheme, Yoo doesn’t waste time dwelling on regret and has never been afraid to take chances. “Personally, I believe that an individual can adapt anywhere and still find a reason and a purpose to feel that they belong in said circumstance,” he says. “I also believe that it even heightens a sense of belonging due to the purposeful nature of becoming invested in the new environment.”

Heart felt

Past Lives, Yoo’s most significant career highlight to date, is an endless love story, even if it lacks the genre’s typical elements. Written and directed by Celine Song, it follows two childhood friends as they grow older, become adults and go in separate directions. It crosses boundaries, time, relationship, and even lifetimes, and arouses emotions so deeply that yearning looks are the greatest way for the two protagonists, Hae Sun (Yoo) and Nora (Russian Doll and The Morning Show star Greta Lee), to express themselves rather than words.

The story’s origins lie in the Korean idea of inyeon, which holds that two individuals are meant to cross paths because of their ties from past lifetimes. Even though the couple’s relationship is intense and powerful, first-time director Song manages to make it seem real and relatable. And Yoo and Lee persuade us that it’s true.

“The cultural belief system of inyeon helped to construct the emotional elements of the character in this particular movie,” he says, adding: “I don’t really reminisce too much about my life. But sometimes I do like to think about it as a form of an imaginative exercise, as the construct of ‘what if’ is such a Western idea. In contrast, the core concept of inyeon allows me to just be.”

A happy ending?

Warning: A bit of a spoiler. Past Lives is a romance, even if the majority of the people who have watched it don’t feel that way by the end. However, without giving too much away, Yoo insists: “Looking at it from my character’s perspective, it’s not an ending. It’s just maybe a beginning. So it’s definitely a romance.”

His Oscars 2024 red carpet moment was a touching one tinged with sadness. Yoo wore a turtle pin, and when asked by the press he revealed the layers of meaning behind his accessory choice – it symbolised his late tortoise, Momo.

“Okay, so my pet tortoise passed away last year and I had him for 10 years. I’m gonna grieve for a while,” he announced, while smiling but close to tearing up. Yoo’s vulnerability, in real life or reel life, is what makes him very likeable.

Yoo says he was “in tears for about three days” after his pet’s death. “I was so dramatic. You know, it’s like that moment you have with your pet where you’re like, ‘Oh my god. Life is over.’ And then you remove yourself at the same time as an actor and you look at the situation and you think, ‘Oh my god, this is so dramatic and comical.’”

Driven by talent, dedication and relentless pursuit of artistic excellence, Yoo has proven that with hard work and determination dreams can indeed become reality. His success story continues to unfold, leaving audiences eagerly anticipating his next endeavour and celebrating the indomitable spirit of a true artist.