Welcome to another Seoulbeats Exchange! This week, we take a break from idols and idol groups to instead look into one of the many activities they partake in at some point in their idol career: acting.

While there have been idols who have acted in film, like miss A‘s Suzy in Introduction to Architecture and Big Bang‘s T.O.P and Seungri with 19, it is much more common to see idols appear in K-dramas, which have shorter shooting schedules that allow for other activities to be squeezed into an idol’s schedule. Idols have been popping up in dramas for years, and 2012 is no different: so far, half of SNSD and T-ara respectively have starred in, are starring in, or will star in dramas, while members of other girl groups and boy bands have also forayed onto the small screen. In fact, there are two dramas featuring idols that are currently on air: SBSSM-sponsered To The Beautiful You and cable channel TvN‘s Answer Me 1997. With such a pronounced idol presence in dramaland right now, what better time to look at the idols who take on the small screen? Salima, Bethany and Amy give their thoughts below:

1a) Are there any distinct differences that can be noticed between idols and actors–or could these qualities be equally applicable to both camps?

Salima: In regards to how they are perceived by the outside world, yes there are differences. I actually learned this from watching Running Man. Whenever guests come on Running Man, there’s a difference in how the main cast reacts to them. They become fanboys when SNSD shows up, or geek out during idol specials. But when an actor stops by, there’s a bit more respect. Part of it is because of age, of course. But another is because actors are regarded as special–their acting talent is something that takes hard work and dedication to attain. In a sense, it’s easy to become an idol. You can fake your way through it. It’s much more difficult to become an actor. You don’t have a group to fall back on–just yourself. I think that when an actor is really, really good, they have the respect of people in the entertainment business.

Bethany: becoming an actor after having firmly established an idol career is kind of like having a secondary career tacked onto their first. Therefore, it’s easy for me to see that there are many idols out there who don’t take acting as seriously as professional actors because they know they have something to fall back on. For example, Yunho and Changmin both sucked majorly in their respective dramas, but there really wasn’t that much negative damage done to their careers because they’re already so firmly established as idols. If they had been up-and-coming actors, however, I guarantee you that they would have fallen off the radar immediately.

Amy: I think they’re applicable to both camps, the only difference is that I think the leash on idols is way tighter than that on actors. Actors generally spit out the same PR-friendly lines in front of the cameras too, but I think there’s less a frenzied following in their careers. It seems like their fanbases are in general older and more mature than idols’ fans, hence the behavioral differences.

1b) Recently, T-ara’s Eunjung was ousted from her drama role in the fallout from her group’s recent scandal: would events have unfolded the same way had it been a career actress in Eunjung’s position (i.e.- embroiled in a scandal)?

Salima: Let’s compare Eunjung’s situation with Han Ye-seul‘s. The latter got caught up in a scandal after leaving the set of Spy Myung-wol and invoking the ire of Shinhwa fans who felt she’d ruined Eric‘s comeback to K-dramas. As a full-time actress, Han Ye-seul doesn’t have much else to fall back on. She’s not an idol with a wealth of albums loved by fans. She doesn’t appear on too many variety shows. She pretty much only has acting. Fans were quick to demonize her and cast her off as the woman who ruined Spy Myung-wol. And she will, for the most part, always be associated for being difficult on set. On the other hand, Eunjung has fans who love her music, her appearances on variety shows, and her acting in dramas. If she has a scandal, fans will be more willing to forgive her because they love her for other things. And even if people don’t want to buy T-ara’s music anymore (which won’t happen), she still has other avenues as an individual to explore.

Bethany: I’ve always found the differences between idol scandals and actor/actress scandals interesting. It seems that idol scandals get much more coverage because a group is regarded as one single unit, whereas an actress or actor is rarely constantly linked with other individuals. Thus, when scandals occur, less people seem to get dragged into the mess. Perhaps it is because there aren’t hordes of fans who stalk actors and actresses 24/7, thus leading to more privacy for them (seriously, count the number of idol couples who are publicly dating and compare that with the number of actor/actress couples who are publicly dating). When scandals do break loose, they sizzle out quite quickly. Therefore I don’t think a professional actress would have been dropped from the position if she was embroiled in a scandal that wasn’t of incredible gravity.

Amy: I think actresses would have been dropped for less, and this scandal got way out of hand because of how popular T-ara is to the general public.

2. Would you agree that idols are “seasonal” actors, in that they only tend to pop up in dramas around promotion time? Also, a drama is a longer-term commitment than most other promotional activities, and maintaining both musical and drama commitments takes a toll on idol-actors: Would idols be able to take on acting jobs in between promotions instead of in conjunction with them?

Salima: I don’t think that idols are seasonal actors. They act in K-dramas because 1) it’s going to keep them relevant, 2) they want to branch out into other modes of entertainment lest they become swallowed by obscurity, 3) they really enjoy doing it! Of course, some of it has to do with promotions but not much. Sulli and Minho aren’t promoting anything with their groups but they’re still doing To the Beautiful You. They have time to kill and this drama seems to be the best way to expand their chops and keep their names out there.

Amy: It does seem true that idols take on dramas while their groups are simultaneously promoting, but that’s the name of the game, isn’t it? To stay relevant while their group activities have the public’s attention? I think the more “serious” idol actors are starting to integrate themselves into the drama landscape even outside of their group’s musical promotions (like Uee) but in general, idols’ forays into dramas do seem to happen at the same time as music promotions.

Bethany: I do think that there are some idol actors and actresses out there who only appear on shows around promotion time, but there are others that seem to take acting more seriously than their idol careers. For example, Eunjung is relatively respected as an idol actress and I feel like she also enjoys it. I’ve found that idols acting around promotional periods tend to take on minor roles in dramas in order for their schedules to work, whereas more serious idol actors such as Kim Hyun-joong prefer to act when their group is not promoting because it allows them to take on lead roles. So in answer to the second part of that question, it really depends on the idol actor or actress’s skill level and preference on roles.

3. Who, in your opinion, are idols who have successfully crossed over into dramas, or who have the potential to continue acting after their singing career is over?

Amy: I think GOD‘s Yoon Kye-sang and Shinhwa’s Eric are the ancestors of the idol-turning-into-actors game and they’ve done well in their acting careers, particularly Yoon Kye-sang, who is just as good, if not better, than some of his actual actor peers who started out as actors. As for actors/actresses who I see having potential, I think A Pink‘s Eunji and Seo In-gook are going to do some serious damage after Answer Me 1997 wraps up.

Salima: The first three people who come to mind are Eric, Lee Seung-gi, and Rain hands down. I actually didn’t know these guys were singers when I’d watched them in dramas. Eric has no issues playing intense roles that could possibly ruin his image: just watch Que Sera Sera or the infamously controversial bed scene in last year’s Spy Myung-wol. He pulls off funny, brooding, and joyous very well. Lee Seung-gi seems like the sweetest guy in the world but pulls off the bratty, spoiled jerk in almost all of his roles with flying colors! But he’s still able to grasp the sympathy of the viewers once he gets those big eyes to cry at the drop of a dime. And Rain has some of the best comedic timing I’ve ever had the pleasure of watching. He’s not afraid to make funny faces or generally look ugly just to get his acting point across. And looking ugly isn’t something a lot of idols are capable of doing.

When I think of idols who can continue acting after their singing careers are over, these are the first three I think of.

Bethany: Lee Seung-gi all the way, Salima! I have yet to watch a drama of his that I did not enjoy. I also admit grudgingly that Yoochun comes to mind immediately when I think about idols who have established themselves as semi-respectable actors, even if I haven’t really enjoyed any of his dramas. Jaejoong isn’t bad either, but his performances are still a bit lacking. T.O.P is okay, but he could also improve.

4. Do you think there are more advantages to being an idol actor, or disadvantages?

Salima: Absolutely there are more advantages to being an idol actor! First of all, they get roles that should go to newcomers who have been exclusively trained for acting. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve watched an idol’s acting and thought to myself, “You know, I would love this drama so much better if this idol wasn’t ruining it.” You can’t just pigeon-hole an idol into a role when it doesn’t fit them.

The other advantage that bothers me is when an idol does a terrible job in a drama and the fans say, “Well, if it wasn’t for him/her, this drama wouldn’t have the high ratings it does!” That’s still not an excuse for being a terrible actor. In addition, idol actors get a pass for being mediocre. In fact, when they’re mediocre, they’re considered tremendous! I remember watching Yoochun in Sunkyunkwan Scandal and thinking that he was terribly stiff and boring. A lot of viewers thought he was just superb for an idol. But stiff and boring shouldn’t be the standard for what we expect of our actors, even if they are idols. Idols like Yoochun, Jaejoong, and Jessica should not be winning awards for their mediocre performances just because they’re idols who are “trying their best.”

Amy: Actors and actresses who are just starting out — usually the ones that lose out on roles to idols — they don’t have a backup plan except to audition for the next drama or acting gig that’s available to them. As for disadvantages, yes maybe there are going to be critics who aren’t happy about their acting, but at the end of the day for idols what they get out of acting is a win/win for them.

Bethany: A huge advantage that successful idol actors enjoy is the elongation of their career. Let’s face it: being an idol does not last all that long. With so many younger, talented idol groups being churned out by entertainment companies all over the place, older idol groups do have expiration dates. If a member of a group can successfully make the transition to acting, they can stay in the entertainment biz for a much longer time than members who have not.

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I agree that idols do not always promote at the same time as filming a drama, but the two are usually close together; as Amy said, the increase in relevancy that accompanies a comeback does aid idols in getting picked up for dramas, which intend to translate it into a larger viewership. In return, idols are able to expose themselves to a wider audience, and if all goes well, gain new fans.

Idols who go into acting do seem to have many advantages available to them. While “career” actors benefit from the prestige that comes with the title as well as a fan following covering a very wide demographic (taking on different projects can get them different fans), an idol actor’s own fanbase would usually be more intense, and idols would be able to draw on the wider K-pop fan community, who may be more familiar with them than your average Korean person, for support as well. Using this great support as leverage, idols are, as my fellow colleagues have stated above, able to take on roles in dramas, and even receive awards, more acting roles and generally a second life in the entertainment industry (as Bethany stated). Sure, they’ll miss out on the critics’ praise and being called by their full name rather than just their first (“Ham Eun-jung” vs. “Eunjung”), but if being taken seriously as an actor is not one of the priorities of an idol actor, then they are easily able to carry on and make a living from dramas without much worry–as long as their fanbase remains largely intact. Otherwise they essentially become bankrupt and soon out of a job.

Though you never know, some idols may be able to find their true calling as a thespian rather than in idoldom–at least they have the opportunity to find out.

What are your thoughts on idols in dramas? Who’s your favourite idol actor/actress? Share your thoughts below!

(KBS, MBC, nanigo@multiply.com, SBS, TvN)