It isn’t hard to find yourself rooting for Gorya Thitara Jundee, the spunky, independent student fighting school bullies, struggling to fit in in a class-conscious elite academy, and navigating teenage romance in the lakorn F4 Thailand: Boys Over Flowers. She’s vulnerable, sensitive and sweet, but when cornered, she doesn’t back down, choosing instead to fight her way out.
And you’d be hard pressed to distinguish the character Gorya from her actor, Tontawan Tantivejakul, also professionally known as Tu Tontawan, if you met the latter in person. The spirited 22-year- old university student is the latest to take on the role that’s a Thai interpretation of Tsukushi Makino, the female protagonist of Hana Yori Dango, or Boys Over Flowers. Since it was first published in 1992, the long-running Japanese shōjo manga has spawned numerous anime and live-action adaptations, including television series localised in Taiwan, Japan, South Korea, China, and now Thailand.
An Asia-wide sensation that was among the top streamed shows in the first quarter of 2022 on streaming provider Viu, F4 Thailand: Boys Over Flowers cemented the celebrity status of the quartet that portrays the notorious F4 gang of posh and dashing schoolyard tyrants, introduced audiences the world over to the newcomer Tu, and transformed its lead actors into the darlings of global fashion houses and commercial brands.
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Given Hana Yori Dango’s massive popularity across Asia, the franchise and the role of its female lead were well known to Tu before she even stepped in front of the camera. “I thought that Gorya was a strong, considerate but also vulnerable teenager. Her character and story drew me in substantially,” she recounts. “I have no specific reasons for taking any role. Most of the time, I [rely on] my feelings. This happens when I read the synopsis and information about the characters. I would feel the attraction of that particular role and want to know it better.”
But despite the recognition of F4 Thailand: Boys Over Flowers’ source material and preceding remakes, Tu harboured no particular expectations of its reception when the 16-part series aired in Thailand, from December 2021 to April 2022. “I didn’t [hope for] much, only that audiences would enjoy the show and my acting,” she says. “My goal was accomplished. After I learnt of the feedback on the series, I felt so happy and had more enthusiasm to work better on other projects.”
“All the hardship and weariness I felt throughout the filming process was gone.”
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Adding to the stakes of her F4 Thailand: Boys Over Flowers role was the fact that Tu was making her acting debut opposite some of the hottest names in Thai entertainment today, such as Win Metawin Opas-iamkajorn and Bright Vachirawit Chivaaree, the two stars of the boys’ love franchise 2gether, who are popularly known collectively as BrightWin. But Tu says that she tried to turn pressure into a source of power. “Absolutely, when you work with famous actors, people will keep their eyes on you. There is a lot of pressure on how your performance will turn out. I had been working hard and doing my homework on how to [inhabit] the character of Gorya,” she says. “But with that pressure, there was also love and good intentions sent from the other actors’ fans to me, which I truly appreciated.”
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Tu Tontawan From F4 To The Future
Following the finale of F4 Thailand: Boys Over Flowers, Tu has sought to diversify the projects she works on—her acting credits since then comprise an episode in the romance anthology series Magic of Zero; 10 Years Ticket, a dramatic series that premiered last December; and a cameo in the new fantasy series Midnight Museum, a smaller role she took up because she’s concurrently pursuing dentistry. Tu is also serious about improving her range. “I would like to try every role that is different from what I’ve taken up in the past,” she explains. “Most of all, I would want to play a rebellious character or a [troubled] girl who finds herself against the world.”
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Though her own older brother is the actor and musician Ton Tonhon Tantivejakul, Tu had never seriously considered being an actor until the role of Gorya came along. “After I took the role, it felt like I came out of my comfort zone. I feel so much fun and [energy] with my work,” Tu reveals. “So my goal as an actor, for now, is to be happy with every opportunity and enjoy my life every day.”
The exacting nature of the entertainment industry is precisely what Tu finds so irresistible about it. “In the past, I disliked doing unfamiliar things, but since I [embarked on] this path, I got a lot of opportunities to do different tasks,” she explains. “After I [accomplish them], I feel great and improved, so now I would like to try many more things that challenge my ability and capacity.”
But fulfilling her university commitments means relegating acting to whatever spare time she has, along with other pursuits of hers, from photography (she posts her moody casual snaps on Instagram @tuprefersyouwithgrain) to K-pop (the bio of the NCT, Exo and Red Velvet stan’s Twitter account @tontawan_t reads “WARNING! 99% fangirling content”, while the cover image proclaims her adoration for NCT’s Jisung.) Tu isn’t oblivious to the demands of pursuing two taxing goals at once, and calls balancing school and acting effectively while finding time to sleep the most challenging thing. “To pursue both, I must sacrifice something to make it work,” she says ruefully, “like my hang-out time with friends or my own leisure time.”
But when Tu makes up her mind about something, she sticks to her guns—even in her youth, she lobbied successfully to quit the tennis sessions and piano lessons she didn’t enjoy. “What makes me certain is that I quite respect my feelings. I will not force myself to do things that I don’t like or have a feeling for,” she says. “Once I make my choice, I will make sure that there are no regrets afterwards, because I have made the right choice under the circumstances.”
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And now that she has become a household name in Thailand and beyond so quickly—“More people recognise me in daily life, so I feel obliged to be more aware and responsible for my actions,” she muses—Tu has no reservations about stepping into maturity in such a public fashion. “I feel so blessed. I feel that my life is full of love and support from people from different cultures and countries. It was a remarkable life experience I had never imagined and would never forget,” she says.
“I’m certain that I will grow up to be a strong and compassionate adult surrounded by the love of my fans.”
PHOTOGRAPHED BY NARUEBES VADVAREE
CREATIVE DIRECTION BY IZWAN ABDULLAH
STYLED BY GREGORY WOO
HAIR PROMYA BANGPONG
MAKEUP SAPSIRI SIRIWONG
PRODUCER MANFRED LU
SET DESIGN YUKON BOONPRASART
PHOTOGRAPHER’S ASSISTANTS POOMIN WONGSING, WIROON WUTTIPHONGDECHA, SANPASIRI CHAOSAOWPA
PRODUCTION ASSISTANT HIDDENCOMBOS