Sang Heon Lee

21 August 2023

Photography Monroe Alvarez
Fashion Alvin Stillwell
Interview David Gillespie
Grooming Omayma Ramzy
Production Trevor Person

Energy cannot be created or destroyed just as time cannot be accelerated or reversed. Yet, for actor Sang Heon Lee, the racecourse of his life has transformed faster than he could have imagined.

Every day we’re edging deeper into a virtual reality, a game-like simulation where our realities become computerised, and our lives televised for digitalised eyes to scrutinise. It’s easy to get caught in the interweb, but Sang Heon knows how to keep his head in gear and his feet on the ground. His career is only just past the start line, but it’s his candid nature and journey to the mark that is truly defining. Sitting down in the passenger seat alongside the XO, Kitty and Gran Turismo actor, he takes me on a drive from past to present, passing the time-trials and tribulations along the way. Sang Heon is not really one to pump the brakes; In our conversation, refreshingly, he doesn’t hold anything back. He seeks to represent all sides of himself - his dislikes as much as his likes.

As he reflects on his youth, he paints pictures that are both abundant in hues and bereft of colour - a genuine, in-depth picture. Photographer, Monroe Alvarez, captures these contrasts in a spectrum of colour and curiosity, an actor new to the game, but firmly in a lane of his own. The joy of moving to different countries during his childhood; magnetised by diverse cultures, his travel has nurtured the person he is today. Nevertheless, amidst the golden days, there were moments tinged with sombre shades as he told me of the challenges of adjusting to a life far from what was once familiar. However, for Sang Heon, the shadows never dim the brilliance of his determination. Now, as he reminisces, he firmly believes that those hardships fuelled his ardour to chase his dreams and embrace the path of becoming an actor. He is also not one to look back and regret the road behind. For Sang Heon, stress can rarely catch up to happiness in its simplest form.

I frequently contemplate the experience of fame abruptly descending upon someone, but for Sang Heon, his defining "I made it" moment came after traversing a more gradual path. Following his studies in England and fulfilling military service obligations back in South Korea, he entered the television scene alongside his sister Gia Kim in the beloved Netflix series, XO, Kitty. Rapidly becoming a fan favourite, he solidified his reputation in the industry. Now, admirers can delve into the genuine essence of Sang Heon beyond the screen, discovering the person he truly is on the inside. Despite his incredible success, Sang Heon remains unchanged; a man locked in the moment, but focused on the path ahead. His career marks a single stride into the journey ahead, yet it is this path that shapes the actor for who he is at heart. Just like Jann Mardenborough [real life Gran Turismo Academy winner], Sang Heon had a dream and turned it into a reality, and we’ll be watching eagerly from the stands.

'Gran Turismo' is in cinemas on August 25th.

Editors’ note: SAG-AFTRA members are currently on strike. As part of the strike, union actors are not promoting their film and TV projects. Please note that this interview and photoshoot were completed prior to the strike.

Imagine we’re travelling up in an elevator together. You have 30 seconds to describe yourself, what would you say?
If I had to sum it up, this is how I usually start when I need to introduce myself real quick; I'd be like, "Hey, nice to meet you! I'm Sang Heon Lee, Korean-born, grew up in Hong Kong, had some experience in the UK, and now I'm an actor." Quick, easy and simple.

We often live on autopilot and days pass us by. For you, everything has been a whirlwind since XO, Kitty. Congratulations on getting a second season! What’s one thing you’re grateful for today?
I have to say, I'm really grateful for everything I've achieved up to this point. It's like, seriously, David, I've been working hard to make this happen. My goal was to reach this position before hitting 30, and I've had that goal since I was 25. Now I'm 27, and looking back, I'm just like, wow, I actually made it happen way quicker than expected. My target was 30, but here I am, just 27. It's three years ahead of my plan! So now I'm thinking, what's next? These days, I'm trying to evaluate what I've accomplished.

It's still kind of hard to believe, you know? Whenever a fan, friend, or family member comes up to me and says, "Oh my gosh, look at you blow up!" I'm like, "Whoa, I know, right?" Some of them are really nice about it, saying they knew I'd make it big, but it happened so fast. No matter what, I'm always grateful for everything that's happened so far. It feels a bit unreal, to be honest.

In that same headspace of slowing down and taking the moment in, I saw in another interview that one of your favourite songs is “Merry Go Round of Life” from Howl’s Moving Castle. I feel like anyone who listens to it pictures different scenery and stages of life. What do you tend to picture or think of when you listen to that song?
Oh, for sure! That's totally one of my absolute favourite songs to jam to. My taste in music is pretty wide, you know? I'm into everything from rock and hip hop to house, techno, and classical stuff. But this song, ‘Merry Go Round of Life’, really hits differently for me. It's my go-to when life gets crazy busy, you know? Whenever things get super hectic, I find myself turning to classical tunes to chill out and clear my head.

This particular song has this calming effect on me, man. It makes me feel happy and carefree, like I can just close my eyes and think, hey, no matter what's going on, it'll all come full circle. If I'm feeling down, I know it won't last forever, and happiness will come back around like a merry-go-round. And even when things are great, I remind myself not to get too hung up on it because everything's always changing. The good times will come back around too! So yeah, this song is like my sanity-saver, keeping me in a positive and spiritual mindset, you know? It's just one of those special tunes that speaks to my soul.

Is there a song that defines where you are mentally at this moment in time?
It doesn't exactly match what's on my mind or what I'm dealing with right now - but anyway, I've been listening to LANY a lot recently, and from all of his songs, "Malibu Nights" is the one I really like. I always play it at the end of the day to unwind and chill out.

The songs I've been into lately totally depend on my mood. But these days, I'm trying to go for more calming and soothing tunes. It's been crazy busy and hectic for the past two and a half months, ever since I was in LA from April to the end of June. So now that I'm back in Korea, all I want is to be more relaxed. I'm back home with my family and hanging out with friends. So naturally, I find myself listening to more mellow stuff, even if it's hip hop or something that's just laid-back and chill.

What took you to LA?
I spent about two months in LA mainly because of the XO, Kitty premiere. It was packed with photoshoots, interviews, and all sorts of stuff, you know? Plus, I really wanted to catch up with my whole team - my publicist, managers, agents, and all those folk. It was cool to have face-to-face meetings with different people while I was there.

You’re set to make your film debut in Gran Turismo, based on a racing simulation video game by Playstation and inspired by the true story of Jann Mardenborough. Are you a gamer at all?
It’s crazy how things turned out. So in the film, they chose me to be the Korean gamer character, but I’ve gotta admit, I’m not really into gaming. Back in the day, yeah, I used to play a few computer games when I was young, and in university, the boys and I would get together to play stuff like COD zombies on PlayStation. It was a blast, no doubt. But after I came to Korea for military service right after university, and then started my modelling and acting career here, I kind of drifted away from gaming. It just naturally happened. I found the outside world more interesting than staying cooped up inside playing games. If I'm not outside, I'd probably be watching films instead. That's pretty much how it goes for me now.

Since the film is based around bringing a game into reality, if you could bring anything virtual or imaginary into reality, what would it be?
Hear me out, I have this wild idea that popped into my head out of nowhere. I was thinking, what if the world wasn't so divided by countries? Like, what if everything was all together, like one giant landmass or something? Sounds crazy, right? I mean, sure, there'd still be oceans and all, but what if all the countries were connected somehow? Imagine how insanely connected we'd be!

I can't help but wonder, would life be way easier and more convenient? We could just hop on a quick flight to see our friends and family, and they wouldn't be far away at all. Just imagining the world as this super interconnected place - it's a fun idea to ponder.

Editor’s Note: We love the enthusiasm, but Sang Heon is unfortunately about 300 million years behind, as this is called “Pangea” historically. At least that means his idea isn’t so wild though, right?

Can you give us a snippet into your role in Gran Turismo?
Yeah, totally! So the movie is based on a true story, which is my favourite kind of film. It's about this guy who's super into racing games, specifically Gran Turismo. In the game, they have this tournament where players compete to win a ticket to this epic academy called GT Academy, short for Gran Turismo Academy. So all these gamers from all over the world come to the academy and go head-to-head, trying to become legit racers.

Now, the craziest part is that Jann Mardenborough, who the film is based on, actually became a race car driver! It's mind-blowing, dude. Like, starting as a gamer on a PlayStation console and then training to become an actual racer, like, physically and mentally preparing for the race – that's seriously impressive stuff! I'm blown away by that. So, yeah, I was one of those gamers who came from all over the world to the academy. And in the film, I played the role of a Korean gamer. It was such a cool experience, man.

You feature alongside some incredible names including Orlando Bloom and David Harbour. What was it like working with some of Hollywood's biggest names?
I was just grateful to be on that film set, you know? It was my second gig, and I felt super lucky to be there. The best part was witnessing David Harbour and Orlando Bloom doing their thing live and up close. It was so interesting to see how they rehearsed and warmed up, and when the cameras started rolling, man, they were just phenomenal. I learned a ton from being on that set.

The cast was amazing too. We all became really good friends, even off-camera. It showed me that no matter how challenging the work can be, having the right people around makes it so much fun. And that's exactly what happened with us. Sure, it was tough at times, sometimes we'd be on set, ready to go, but then get called off because of scheduling issues and all that. It wasn't always smooth sailing. But hey, it's part of the gig, right? Sometimes things don't go as planned.

In the end, I remember this quote that stuck with me: "Be water, my friend." It's from Bruce Lee. It means adapting to whatever comes your way, and that's how I approached the whole experience.

Your career has really taken off in such a short period of time, have you had your ‘I’ve made it’ moment yet?
When I debuted in XO, Kitty, things really blew up. My Instagram, my socials, everything just skyrocketed. At first, I didn't think it would affect me that much, you know? When I hit 1 million, 2 million followers, I was like, Eh, it's cool, but I'm still just me, you know? Nothing's really changed around me.

But then, it hit me for real when fans from all over the world started recognising me on the streets of LA and New York. I'd be going to a restaurant, a cafe, or even just a bar, and people would come up to me, asking for photos. It was like, Whoa, this is actually happening!

I mean, I kind of knew it was coming in a way. Darren [Barnet], one of the close friends I made from Gran Turismo, showed me the ropes because he had a similar experience with Never Have I Ever on Netflix. And others from the cast also gave me advice; They’d say, "Hey, when you meet fans, be prepared, man." I would say, "Yeah, yeah, sure, thanks for the tips." But deep down, I'm a bit of a sceptical person, you know? So part of me was thinking, Well, we'll see if it really happens.

But, it did happen. And you know what? I'm grateful that I was in a good position to handle it all. I'm making decisions and dealing with everything that comes my way. And I’ve gotta say, not much has changed in who I am. I still love food, hanging out with friends, getting a good night's sleep, and watching films – that's all still the same. But yeah, I can't deny that it definitely got real, in a big way.

I was watching a podcast interview and your sister was saying how she struggled so much internally with imposter syndrome on the set of XO, Kitty. When you started, what was your internal monologue saying?
Well, to be honest, I hadn't even heard about this syndrome until I got to LA. Sure, there were moments when I thought, "Am I really prepared for this? Do I deserve to be here?" But those moments were rare and fleeting. I'd quickly snap out of it and tell myself, "Wake the heck up! You're on set, man. This is your job, and you've worked hard to be here. Show them you belong!" That's when I'd naturally switch gears and be like, "Let's do this! Let's work!" I didn't dwell on that feeling. I just thought, Nah, forget it. It won't help. Just keep grinding, stay focused, and keep moving forward. So, honestly, that imposter syndrome wasn't really a thing for me. I was all about staying motivated and proving myself on set.

You’ve previously described Min Ho, your character in XO, Kitty, as hiding behind a mask because he struggles to express his emotions. Do you have an emotional outlet when you’re having a tough day?
I'm the kind of person who's pretty expressive with my words and thoughts. If I feel something, I usually say it straight up. Of course, I try to be polite and all, but I can also read the room and know when to hold back. There are times when I keep quiet in the moment but later let it out. For me, this way of expressing myself freely helps me maintain a stress-free environment. But that's just one small factor. The biggest thing is doing what I love. It might sound simple, but not a lot of people are really doing it, which is kind of sad, you know?

I find joy in going climbing. It's like my escape, where I can clear my thoughts. When I'm on the climbing wall, it's like being at the gym, focused solely on the workout and the climb. I spend five or six hours there, and during that time, all the stress and worries just fade away. After a good climbing session, it's time for one of my true passions: food! I absolutely love eating good food, especially Korean barbecue or something meaty to refuel my body after a workout. It's the simple things, you know, that bring me happiness – working out, eating great food, and hanging out with good friends.

And then there's watching films, another thing I've loved since I was young. Just sitting back and enjoying a good movie – that brings me so much joy too. So, the bottom line is, do what you love, and happiness will naturally follow. When you're happy, stress just doesn't stand a chance. It's that simple, really.

I love climbing too! What kind of climbing do you do, bouldering? High rope?
So far, I've tried bouldering both indoors and outdoors, but I haven't had the chance to do high rope or speed climbing yet. Speed climbing doesn't really appeal to me because it seems like an easy way to get injured unless you're aiming to be a professional climber. However, I'm definitely interested in giving top rope or high rope climbing a shot. It's a whole different experience from bouldering, requiring more stamina and endurance. So, that's definitely on my to-do list for the future.

You’ve lived in a few different places around the world. How has your culturally diverse upbringing influenced your artistic identity, if at all?
Well, you know, growing up and travelling to different places really expanded my perspective. It opened up cultural doors for me, and that got me interested in all kinds of films and series from different countries. Whether it's French films, Japanese anime, Korean films, Hollywood, Bollywood, or Italian films, I'm into it all. And thanks to my upbringing, I've been reading subtitles my whole life, so it's not unfamiliar to me at all.

Having the opportunity to travel around the world when I was a kid, thanks to my mum and dad, really broadened my horizons. Going to an international school during middle school and high school further emphasised how vast the world is. I'm grateful for that because it means I now have more choices and chances to travel and experience different cultures with my friends.

As for university, I gotta be real with you, David. The drama and acting courses in Northampton were great, but it didn't get me to where I am. But you know what did help me? Living life, man. It might sound corny, but it's true. Experiencing life in all its messy, beautiful ways really shaped me and my acting career. In university, I fell in love, did all that crazy student shit that students do – all those things taught me so much.

You can't really know the feeling of going out with your buddies and then getting some late-night kebabs unless you've actually experienced it, you know? And I've been through all those normal life things like attending middle school, high school, university, and even military service. It's given me a solid foundation before I started my acting career, and I'm so grateful for that. Living life to the fullest has definitely helped shape me into who I am now and has been a significant boost for my acting journey.

You spent 2 years completing military service back in South Korea, right? Looking back, what was that experience like for you?
Okay, I have to be honest, man - military service, for the most part, felt like a pretty sad experience to me. Spending two years of my life like that, I can't help but think I could've done something better with that time. But hey, we had to attend this mandatory service because it's the law in our country, you know? Honestly, during those two years, I didn't really learn all that much. It felt more like being in boot camp, you know? If I were to describe it, I'd say it's like that book "Lord of the Flies." Have you seen or read it? It's a bunch of kids stuck in a freaking camp, trying to figure out how to be adults. That's the reality of it, man. It's a whole process of growing up and learning how to handle adult responsibilities. Now that it's done, I can look back and just see it as a part of life's journey.

Since the release of XO, Kitty, your social media following has skyrocketed and you now have over 3 million followers. Do you ever struggle with so many eyes on you?
When it comes to social media, I've definitely become more cautious about what I post on my stories or in general. It's pretty obvious, I think. But you know what? I'm genuinely amazed and grateful for all the love and attention that people show me on social media. So, in a way, it motivates me to share better content and give my fans a glimpse into my life and what's going on with me. I'm just really glad I can do that for them.

Another thing is, when I meet fans on the streets, I never say no to taking a photo with them. It's important to me that they feel welcome to approach me. I mean, I get it, I totally understand that feeling of being hesitant to approach someone you admire. If I ever saw Brad Pitt, I might be like, Whoa, can I even approach the guy? So, I don't want my fans to feel that way around me.

When fans come up to me, I see their courage, and I really respect that. So, I always try to greet them with a happy smile because they always come at me with such enthusiasm and excitement. It's really heartwarming to see. So, for me, it's always a joyous moment when I meet my fans.

You’ve said in interviews before that you feel like you’ve gained fans as Min Ho, but not necessarily as yourself. Do you feel like social media is a means for you to sort of let people get closer to you as Sang Heon?
Well, you know, as an actor, I noticed that a lot of people loved my character, not just me as a person. But that's alright, because as an actor, I always try my best to show my true self and be genuine in interviews or on my socials. I want people to see different sides of me – the good, the bad, and everything in between. I mean, I'm just a human being, you know? I'm not just an actor. So, I love sharing things that I enjoy, things that I'm passionate about, and even things that I don't like. I really hope that my fans see the real me, Sang Heon Lee, not just the character they know. This is who I am. This is how I live my life. And I'm never shy about sharing my experiences, my likes, and my dislikes with them. I just want them to know the genuine me. That's what it's all about.

Your social media bio says “Life is either a daring adventure or nothing at all.” In what parts of your life do you feel most daring? Is there a part of your life that you wish to be more daring and adventurous in?
I think my bio is pretty interesting. I got inspired to write it after watching this YouTube channel called "Yes Theory." Those videos really made me realise that we shouldn't take each day for granted. Every morning when we wake up, it's like winning a million dollars, just by having the opportunity to live another day. That thought really stuck with me, and that's why I included it in my bio.

Whenever I read it, it reminds me not to get too comfortable with what I'm doing. I always try to step out of my comfort zone and do something new and challenging. It keeps me thinking, Hey, there's more to explore and experience out there. It's a great motivator for me to work harder, so I can travel more and have more adventures. I mean, come on, who doesn't love a good adventure, right? Seeing new places, trying new foods, meeting new people - it's all part of the thrill.

Having that bio in place helps me break free from a boring routine. I mean, sure, I might want a simple life, but I never want it to be dull. It keeps my life interesting and reminds me to embrace every day with enthusiasm and curiosity.

If you look back into your past, what’s one memory that stands out from your childhood that you’re happy to share?
During my childhood, one positive aspect was the opportunity to move around different countries, all thanks to my dad's job. He used to work as an architect for Honda Constructions, which led us to places like Hong Kong, Singapore, and more. Living such an international life, attending international schools, and meeting different people, those memories are incredibly precious to me. They shaped who I am today, and I wouldn't trade them for anything.

On the flip side, I'm not afraid to admit that I experienced bullying as a kid, especially during my time in a Korean school when I returned to Korea for a while. I didn't speak Korean fluently, and they labelled me as a foreigner, which was ironic because I'm actually Korean. I mostly spoke English at the time. Now, I don't believe that everyone needs to go through bad experiences to grow, but for me, facing those challenges made me stronger and more resilient. It ignited a fighting spirit in me, where I told myself that I would prove my worth and show what I'm capable of. That determination has stayed with me, and it's what keeps me motivated and positive.

Looking back, I'm grateful for all that happened in my past because it has shaped who I am today. It transformed me into a person who's more focused on growth and being motivated, rather than dwelling on the negatives. I have no regrets, and I wouldn't change a thing because my past has brought me to where I am now.

We’re nearly halfway through the year, what are your hopes for the rest of 2023?
I guess right now, I'm not entirely sure what I'm hoping for, but I'm definitely feeling excited about the future. In two to three years from now, I'll be able to look back and compare what I've achieved at this moment with what I've accomplished then. Hopefully, my future self will be saying, "Wow, look at all that I've done!" You know, that kind of feeling.

As for my aspirations, work-wise, I'm hoping for more opportunities in the film and series industry, both in Hollywood and South Korea. It'd be great to take on more projects and keep growing in my career. And as a person, I hope I won't change too much. I want to stay happy, keep doing what I love, and maintain my sanity in this crazy world. It's all about staying true to myself.

To be honest, my hopes aren't that different from what most people wish for. It's about finding success and fulfilment in my career, enjoying time with friends and family, and pursuing the things that make me happy. I guess in the end, I'm just hoping for a good life, much like everyone else.

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above left: Sang wears vintage cardigan and trousers by Phillip Lim
above right: Sang wears jacket by Shalaj, vintage t-shirt and shorts by Tommy Hilfiger

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above left: Sang wears jacket by Shalaj, vintage t-shirt, shorts by Tommy Hilfiger and socks by Adidas
above right: Sang wears vintage cardigan, t-shirt by Topman and trousers by Phillip Lim

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above left: outfit as before
above right: Sang wears shirt by Isabel Marant, jeans by Zara and trainers by Balenciaga

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above left: Sang wears shirt by Isabel Marant, jeans by Zara, trainers by Balenciaga and sunglasses by Paradigm
above right: Sang wears vintage cardigan, t-shirt by Topman, trousers by Phillip Lim and trainers by Nike

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above: Sang wears jumper and blazer by Jack Victor

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above left: Sang wears vintage t-shirt, shorts by Tommy Hilfiger, trainers by Vagabond and socks by Adidas
above right: Sang wears shirt by Topman and and trousers by APC

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above left: outfit as before
above right: Sang wears shirt by Burberry and trousers by APC

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above: Sang wears shirt by Burberry, trousers by APC and trainers by Nike

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