There have been several discussions on this site about this topic, so I found the following article pretty timely. I both agree and disagree with the points outlined below, but regardless of my personal take on the matter, I’m certain there is enough room for convincing arguments on both sides of the issue…
“Who’s to blame when characters are criticized?”… “Incomprehensible” lead characters, damaged dramas
“I can’t understand my character myself, so how can I act in a way that viewers would sympathize? It’s disappointment upon disappointment.”
This is the confession of Ryu Shi-won, who was thrown into confusion at his incomprehensible character in SBS’s Style, which ended on September 20. With twenty years of acting experience, he found his character’s sudden changes difficult to handle. And it’s not just with Ryu Shi-won. Jung Il-woo, who is currently appearing in KBS’s My Fair Lady, expressed disappointment for similar reasons.
Recently there have been several cases of actors lodging complaints of characters they cannot embrace fully, most of whom are lead actors, some of whom can be seen now. In the past, if these remarks were said, they would have come after the drama wrapped filming, but these days they are referenced even as the drama currently airs.
These are not just passing problems, but are statements on the industry. In the past, these issues would have been hushed up, but now they have begun to come out. It’s an indication that self-examination is needed amongst the production environment that used to cover up these matters.
Characters keep the drama moving, and when they become impossible to understand, a drama loses its direction. So what is the problem with these incomprehensible characters?
Kim Hye-soo and Ryu Shi-won (Style)
“Who are these main characters lost in confusion?”
Examples are increasing of actors who reveal dissatisfaction about their characters. These actors share a common opinion that a character who cannot be understood makes it impossible to focus on the acting. Ryu Shi-won, Jung Il-woo, and Lee Da-hae are three examples.
On September 20, Ryu Shi-won wrote his thoughts frankly regarding his frustration with his character on Style‘s homepage. He said, “Normally, I adapt to a character in a drama within the first four episodes, but this time I couldn’t. Every time the new script would come out, I found it difficult to adapt to unbelievable situations and dialogue.”
Before him, Jung Il-woo spoke about his own problems with his character on the 18th, at the open set day for My Fair Lady. He said, “I cannot understand the role of Tae-yoon. In the first part, he was very appealing but now he’s just too perfect. The drama is unfolding very quickly, and I feel confused because I’m unable to find a clear way to express the character.”
A similar case arose last year as well, with Lee Da-hae of MBC’s East of Eden. Via her homepage, Lee said, “At some point, I started to feel guilty about my acting. I worried a lot because I couldn’t understand Hye-rin, so how could I make the viewers sympathize with her?” Following this, she dropped out of the drama.
Moon Chae-won and Jung Il-woo (My Fair Lady)
“What’s the reason for these incomprehensible characters?”
Acting ability is about the ability to get into character. Included in this is an actor’s need to express diverse characters effectively and a need for a supportive environment in which the actor can display that kind of acting. However, the recent instances are a far ways from this scenario. What is the environment like for these actors who find their characters so confounding that they are unable to act properly?
The biggest reason is the vast number of dramas and the Korean system of real-time production. The reality of this system means live shoots and last-minute scripts, as well as altering plot development to follow viewer responses. The inevitable result is that characters who appear onscreen are different from those in the initial synopsis, which causes actors to modify their emotions and their acting late in the game.
Thus actors are bound to feel dissatisfaction. This is the reason why Ryu Shi-won’s character, who was so appealing in the synopsis, came out so lukewarm in the drama, and why Lee Da-hae criticized her role, which diminished in importance compared to the drama’s earlier episodes.
But the problem does not lie only with the production system. The actor is also a factor when characters go bad. One can say that this is a problem when actors lack sufficient imagination to understand their character. Jung Il-woo’s case falls under this area. His character is a relatively easy one who doesn’t have huge differences from his synopsis description. It’s not easy to understand why this is so difficult for him. Shifting the problem from oneself to the character evades one’s responsibility as the actor.
Lee Da-hae (East of Eden)
“Who’s at fault for these character criticisms?”
These negative character appraisals keep coming. Furthermore, speaking such words while broadcasts are ongoing can’t help but be detrimental to the drama. When they are particularly harsh, they can give rise to needless misunderstandings and internal conflict as well.
When an actor is embarrassed of his/her own drama, it’s hardly possible for viewers to enjoy watching. Dramas where actors haven’t been able to get into character have received low ratings and bad reviews. If that happens, it’s up to the plot and characters to move according to viewers’ demands. In the end, the drama gets caught up in a vicious cycle as it follows its audience’s responses.
As a result, it’s the drama, the actors, and viewers who are all hurt by this. Cultural critic Lee Moon-won says, “You have to think about how many viewers will be able to understand these criticisms about a confusing character. Disregarding whether there are that many difficult characters in Korean dramas, it’s self-destructive to let these kinds of critiques come out.”
In the end, it’s about a sense of responsibility. In order to resolve these complaints, it is important to cultivate a sense of mutual responsibility and thoughtfulness. Producers must aim for high quality in the directing and scripts, following the drama’s plan rather than chasing time or viewer ratings. The same goes for actors. They must have a sense of ownership of the drama and be able to put in intense efforts to throw themselves into character fully.
All right, here is my take:
The article has a point that actors speaking out about their characters do not help the drama production team. True.
However, the drama production team isn’t the only one involved here. And I think the actors are allowed to watch out for themselves in such situations as much as they should respect their jobs.
By which I mean: I think it’s rather narrow-minded to assert that there’s only one reason an actor would express these kinds of thoughts, and that reason is some kind of bratty impulse to complain. Yes, each actor (and others not named here) could have chosen better ways to confess their thoughts. However, I think there’s something to be said for letting the audience in on the truth, when we’re already halfway there to guessing it anyway. I actually LIKE hearing actors speak frankly, because often everything that is presented to the public is so polished and spun that it comes out so falsely polite. I want to know that there are real people at work here, and not just drones who repeat bland, “safe” commentary provided to them by managers and producers and PR.
I may have thought Lee Da-hae was rash for dropping out of East of Eden instead of sticking with it when it was almost done — but at least now I know she has standards, and that she thought about her character in a way that wasn’t apparent through what we saw onscreen. Same with Jung Il-woo — he probably could have waited to say his piece, and I’m sure he knew he might get some flack for answering the reporters’ questions honestly — but I get the sense he felt dissatisfied with putting out work he’s unhappy with. He may have felt the impulse to let people know, “I know this guy makes no sense. I’m sorry,” rather than saying nothing and having people think he was happy with his portrayal. (I can’t speak about Ryu Shi-won since I stopped watching Style, but I can see how an acting veteran would be sorely disappointed in a nonsensical character when he has managed to avoid such a scenario for most of his long career.)
There may be an element of that Korean sense of community and inclusiveness at play as well. As in, that collective mentality of “Stick together and don’t betray the inner problems to the outside.” In this case, the drama production is the collective “we” and the public is the “other,” and talking frankly about the weaknesses of the in-group feels unseemly. As an American, I tend to think that as long as the actors stick with their jobs and do the best they can, they’re allowed to think of their own careers too, and act in ways to protect their own interests. (This is why I was disappointed with Lee Da-hae, because I think that although she had every right to be upset with her character, I’d wished she stuck it out rather than dropping out suddenly while the drama was still airing.)
Via Sports Seoul
- Jung Il-woo is confused with his character
- My Fair Lady: Episode 1
- Jung Il-woo seeks acting advice
- Style: Episode 1
- More cast members to leave Eden following Lee Da-hae
- Lee Da-hae: Simply tired, or irresponsible actress?