Jung Il-woo talks about acting, fame, and the future
(…and yes, also his buddy Lee Min-ho.)
Many interviews of celebrities tend to focus on the same topics and therefore feel kind of interchangeable — actors are coached in polite responses and you end up getting a lot of careful, generic comments like, “It was a pleasure working with the director” or “Thank you for your support, I promise to try my best to bring you better work in the future.” Or they’ll talk about their “ideal woman” (or man) and list off some hobbies.
But I like it best when they talk about their work, as this following interview does with Jung Il-woo, star of the currently airing Return of Iljimae, which is a drama I am loving. It’s particularly interesting to take a look at Jung because he has managed to leapfrog, it seems almost overnight, from a lightweight teen idol into a budding serious actor, which I find curious and fascinating. This interviewer shares the same eagerness to get behind that abrupt transition.
Jung Il-woo: “Both Iljimae and I are
maturing out of chaotic events”
Published March 17, 2009 // From 10asia.co.kr
In early 2007, when I [interviewer Choi Ji-eun] first met Jung Il-woo, he was the rebellious high school student Lee Yun-ho in the MBC sitcom Unstoppable High Kick [거침없이 하이킥]. Though he was a first-year university student, his high school uniform seemed to suit him better, his pure smile captured the hearts of the nation’s females, and, perhaps unused to the spotlight shining on him, he was a little reticent and seemed shy. Two years went by.
During that time, Jung Il-woo stepped down as a teen star and took one of the roles among many leads in the omnibus film My Love [내 사랑], and returned as Iljimae in the MBC drama Return of Iljimae [돌아온 일지매], on which he spent more than six months filming in advance. Time goes by quickly, but Jung Il-woo’s steps are not hasty. What are the thoughts of this 23-year-old young man, who became a top star as a 20-year-old youth, and what has he learned? That was the reason I wanted to meet Jung Il-woo again, who had become an adult so suddenly through Return of Iljimae. And this time, the Jung Il-woo I met was no longer bashful.
SONG OF THE DAY
Return of Iljimae OST – “마지막 영웅” (Last Hero) by Shin Min-chul (of T-Max) [ Download ]
“I just grab some equipment and climb the mountain to go shoot”
It seems as though your voice has matured in that time.
Jung Il-woo: Thank you. [Laughs] My voice has changed. Because the character of Iljimae is very cool and calm, I’d been practicing adjusting my tone to suit him, and my voice changed unintentionally. I wonder if it’ll change again in my next project as I try to adapt to that character.
I understand that Return of Iljimae is heading toward its ending. How are things progressing?
We’re filming Episode 23. There are a lot of location shoots — we’ve been to Gwangyang, and I think we’re going once more to Wan-do. Gangwondo, Jeollado, Kyungsangdo… We’ve been all over the country. Because I can’t get cell phone reception when we’re shooting deep in the mountains, there are many times I’ve just turned it off entirely, and when we get to mountain paths that won’t permit cars, I just grab some equipment and climb the mountain to go shoot. [Laughs]
Filming began on Return of Iljimae last summer. How was your first encounter with director Hwang In-roi?
He asked a lot of personal questions, like how I spend my time these days, or how my family is.
Until that point, you had been preparing for director Lee Yoon-jung’s drama Triple.
Although I hadn’t signed a contract, I had been preparing for about four months. I was cast as a short-track speed skater, so I had been training seven hours a day.
It must have been intensive training. Did you record fast times? [Laughs]
Women national athletes record one lap around the rink in about 8 seconds. I skated about a 10-second lap.
Considering that, it must seem such a waste for all the training you put into Triple when you took on Return of Iljimae instead.
Not necessarily. I think of it as something that may come in handy some day. It was a good experience.
“I don’t think becoming a hero is something that happens in one moment”
High Kick‘s Kim Byung-wook, Triple‘s Lee Yoon-jung, Return of Iljimae‘s Hwang In-roi… They’re all the top in their field. It seems you’ve been fortunate in meeting many talented directors. How do you feel about that?
To start with, all three share a somewhat short-tempered personality. They’re passionate and slightly quick-tempered. [Laughs] But when it comes to work, the three are at the top of their field, and really good people.
Did you read the original Iljimae comic before filming Return of Iljimae?
Of course I did. The first time, it was to get a sense of the character, then again to get a sense of the plot. As I read, I thought that although Iljimae is a hero, he wasn’t one from the moment of his birth. As a person, he’s pitiable and he’d undergone many misfortunes, but still he felt and changed a lot. I don’t think becoming a hero is something that happens in one moment.
Do you remember the first day of filming?
It was last year, July 23. We shot in Danyang, and the scene was of Iljimae training in the martial arts with his instructor, as part of his childhood years in China. It rained a lot that day, but the director just kept going, so we filmed all day. The suffering began from the very start. [Laughs]
Director Hwang In-roi is rather strict, and demands a certain level of acting from his actors. How did he draw that out while on the set?
He gets angry, saying, “Get it together!” [Laughs] But I discovered later that he doesn’t lose his temper with women. [Laughs] Particularly in the first portion, he told me to act not as Jung Il-woo but as Iljimae, which worried me a lot. In other words, that included not laughing while on set, or that if I hurt myself I shouldn’t make a big deal of it, but I took it literally and worked hard to become Iljimae. But lately, he doesn’t get angry much. He doesn’t give many instructions either; overall, he just says, “Try it like that.”
The character of Iljimae is extremely complicated and unique, and it’s not someone you can portray by following someone else’s example. He must be a somewhat difficult character to understand.
That was the biggest source of difficulty. Sometimes the director would tell me not to smile, sometimes he’d tell me to smile. But even then he would say to smile delicately, or “noncommittally.” [Laughs] Therefore, I think Iljimae was in the process of developing his character through episodes 13 or 14. Thinking about it, Iljimae wasn’t a hero from the start. He went through chaos and confusion and his character changed along the way, so I think I matured along with the drama.
“Iljimae is a bad guy to Wol-hee”
The drama contains a lot of action scenes. How was it, acting while incorporating martial arts from Korea, China, and Japan?
I practiced a bit of hapkido in the past, and prior to beginning filming, I spent a month in physical training. I trained seven hours per day, which included a 7 km run. Perhaps it’s because I enjoy exercise, but aside from when we had to work through the night without sleep, the action scenes themselves weren’t that difficult, and it was fun doing the wire work.
The drama between Iljimae and Wol-hee (Yoon Jin-seo) is just as important as the action scenes — what do you think of the emotions between them?
It was like that in the original comic too, but I think the woman Iljimae loves is his first love Dal-yi, who was beheaded and killed. To put it in a negative light, Iljimae may just be toying around with Wol-hee. [Laughs] That’s how I have to see it. Even after spending a few years together with Wol-hee, he talks with her when he’s lonely but then leaves, he brings up marriage but pushes that aside, suddenly shuts her away somewhere and doesn’t return. He’s a real jerk. [Laughs] That’s why Wol-hee even attempts suicide. The director says that Iljimae does like Wol-hee, but I don’t think so. Um, well… he does like her, but I don’t think it’s love. However, our drama is distinctive for not playing out those feelings in an extreme way, and I think that’s what the director wants. Even when the situation is dramatic, we don’t go to extremes.
In the original, one extremely significant part is the matter of Iljimae dressing in women’s clothing. I was very curious to see how the drama would play this out, and it turned out to be as a gisaeng*. [*female entertainer]
Acting is acting, so that part was fine, but wearing the woman’s hanbok itself was really difficult. The skirt tie runs across the chest and was pulled so tight that it was painful, the headpiece was heavy and uncomfortable, and the makeup took more than an hour. It’s an experience I wouldn’t ever want to do again. [Laughs]
When you weren’t shown full-body, it looked surprisingly good on you, although I’m sure it was rare in Joseon times for a woman to be 184 cm tall. [Laughs]
No matter how prettily we filmed it, there was no way we could avoid full-body shots. I was worried that it would ruin the effect if it looked that unattractive, but I was relieved that the response was, “It looks better than I expected.”
“In place of that cloud-like popularity that disappeared,
I gained more ambition for acting…”
As you enter the later part of the drama and Iljimae has become a skilled master, you said you’d have more leeway in showing his character. How are things now?
I feel somewhat stable. Actually, yesterday I was acting in a scene with Park Geun-hyung seonsangnim [teacher], who plays [evil minister] Kim Ja-jeom. He’s a really good actor and I’d heard he’s also pretty stern, so I had been pretty worried. The script had come out a while ago, so I had rehearsed that scene starting two months ago, and I even went to [veteran actor] Lee Soon-jae, who’d taught me a lot in my High Kick days, to ask him for a favor to get advice from him. But yesterday, Park Geun-hyung treated me so well, and we rehearsed fifty times. He went over each detail with me, one by one, and encouraged me saying that it was fine if I made mistakes and NGs. I was so thankful to him.
“When I go to the filming location, I forget about ratings numbers”
Your image as Yun-ho in High Kick gave the impression that you enjoyed playing around, but it seems you’re closer to being a hard worker.
When I’m working, I tend to immerse myself in only that project. That way I don’t feel regret or disappointment once it’s over, so when it’s time to work, I like to put everything into that.
If you’ve changed at all through doing Return of Iljimae, what is it?
I think I understand now what acting is. That doesn’t mean that I’ve become a good actor, but that I’ve come to see what acting is, and to think of how things should be expressed. It’s not like I thought in the past, that it was enough to just read the script and memorize the dialogue perfectly. You have to become the character. The key isn’t to memorize the words, but to know what the most important point of that scene is. Actually, in the beginning of Return of Iljimae, I was determined to do well and put a lot of effort into memorizing every bit of dialogue, but Park Geun-hyung gave me the advice, “That way isn’t effective. If you focus on the most important lines, you’ll find it much easier.” Also, he said that if I speak the dialogue more slowly, it can come across less youthful, so I shouldn’t do that. In this way, learning from from Lee Soon-jae and Park Geun-hyung, actor-to-actor, is a different thing from learning in the director-to-actor relationship between me and Director Hwang.
As the main actor heading a drama, did you feel any pressure about things like audience ratings?
To be honest, I didn’t. Since we filmed for seven months before we aired, I’d forgotten about that. I was surprised that the ratings came back higher than expected for the first episode, but when I saw it on television, the pressure I felt was because of the many aspects of my acting that needed to be improved. Also, after the broadcast of the first episode, I talked on the phone with the director, who told me, “Don’t feel burdened if the ratings come out well, or feel depressed if they come out low. We will do what we do. We can make a drama that we will enjoy.” That’s why these days, even though ratings aren’t high, I forget about them when I arrive on the shooting location.
I heard that one of the things you discussed when you first met director Hwang In-roi was popularity.
After High Kick ended, seeing how all that popularity disappeared in one moment, like a cloud, I did go through a bit of a hard time. But it was my choice to take some time off instead of working, so I thought to myself, “If popularity can go up, it can also come down.” That’s why I told him, “I’ve decided to not be attached to popularity. If the project is good and I do my job well, it can always rise again.”
“I tell [Lee] Min-ho to enjoy the immense popularity of Boys Before Flowers”
Looking back now, your popularity in your High Kick days really was tremendous. What memories remain with you now?
It’s like a dream. [Laughs] When I was on High Kick, shooting was busy and my schedule was full, so I couldn’t really feel it that much. I could get a feel for my popularity when going out to eat and people recognized me, and also when I went to Chonan to shoot the music video for “오죽했으면” [by ballad singer Gu Jung-hyun] and saw that people had totally crowded the road. But it was so hectic that I couldn’t enjoy the situation, and I was a little confused whether it was High Kick‘s Yun-ho or me that they liked. Of course, I think it was really great that I got to experience that once. I don’t particularly miss it.
Your close friend Lee Min-ho is experiencing a similar thing with his role in KBS’s Boys Before Flowers. As the sunbae [senior] who experienced this first, what do you tell him?
When you develop popularity, things happen to you that you’d never thought of before, and sometimes Min-ho asks little things like, “What am I supposed to do in this situation?” But actually, that’s something I asked Min-ho back when I was doing High Kick. [Laughs] I just tell him to enjoy this now. Also, all of his actions are going to attract notice, so it’s a good idea to be careful. Naturally, Min-ho’s already doing pretty well with that. Right now, I want to congratulate him as a friend, and in the future, I think we can spur each other on in healthy competition. More than anything, it’s a huge support to have a friend to be able to talk with in difficult times.
As you continue acting and become more famous, what do you think you gain and lose?
There are a few things from my time on High Kick. For one, I had no personal time and couldn’t go about freely. But now, those things don’t bother me. This is my life because this is what I’ve chosen, and therefore I don’t think of it as having lost anything.
As an actor, what do you think are your weak points?
In the past, it was my enunciation. When I was doing High Kick, I was pretty bad at articulation, and I worked hard to correct it. I still get hung up on it a few times now, but it’s much better than it was then. Now what I strive for is to have a diverse range of facial expressions. Truthfully, Iljimae doesn’t have a lot of different expressions, but even the one phrase “looking coldly” can reveal many different subtle emotions. Because acting is an art through which you express one’s truth, I want to be able to convey more emotions, whether it’s through a facial expression or a look in the eye. Although I think I’ll need to age more to attain more force. [Laughs]
“I really don’t think acting is something that can be done halfheartedly”
If that’s the case, do you have something you’re grateful for, something you were born with that helps in acting? [Laughs]
Um… I don’t think so. It’s because acting isn’t something to judge based on doing any one thing well or badly; it’s based on how well you can embody and express the character you’ve taken on. Really, I don’t think acting is something that can be done halfheartedly.
What’s the hardest thing you’ve had to do in your life?
I’m sure there are a lot of things, but I don’t keep them bottled inside. There are a lot of instances that seemed truly dark and painful at the time, but once I passed that point, they became nothing. When I’m working, the work is what troubles me, and when I’m not working, I’m troubled because I’m not working. [Laughs]
When you’ve been working, have you ever felt afraid of something, or lonely?
I have. I did back with High Kick and I do now. Even when I’m working on a project, I have had times when I sank into a slump and felt extremely lonely. But those things work out eventually with time. At some point, there’s a definite turning point. And if it doesn’t appear, I seek it out. I’d felt a little depressed the past few days, but after acting with Park Geun-hyung, my feelings have suddenly improved. I try to relieve stress in ways like that.
Compared to two years ago when you were Yun-ho in High Kick, do you see yourself or your future more clearly?
Not clearly, but my attitude toward work has become somewhat more relaxed. In the past, for instance, I would be impatient when choosing projects, and if what I saw right in front of me didn’t appeal to me, I didn’t do it. But now, I’d like to take a more thoughtful approach to my work and the decisions I make. Also, when making a decision, I should put my feelings first. If I end up working on something I don’t 100% want to do, the results won’t be good. Because Return of Iljimae is a project I wanted to do so badly, I’m working that much harder.
Much farther down the line, what kind of project do you think Return of Iljimae will mean to you?
It’s a project that helped me realize a lot of things, as both an actor and as a person.