Gaksital may be over, but the hit drama has left dramaland a few stars richer, namely its two leads, Joo-won and Park Ki-woong. Not that neither were stars before, but I think it’s safe to say this drama has taken them one step further, graduating them into bona fide leading men status. Both actors have been the subject of numerous interviews (and I mean a TON) since Gaksital wrapped two weeks ago, and the following is a collection of several interviews featuring Joo-won (Park Ki-woong interviews forthcoming).
Joo-won has had a rather meteoric rise to fame, considering that his first drama was a mere two years ago. Here’s how one article introduces him:
He doesn’t know failure. He debuted on television with 2010’s Baker King Kim Tak-gu. He had previously made his debut in musicals in 2006 and drew notice for his strong acting skills and good looks, but it was after he made his television debut that he gained name value.
I’d say it was Ojakkyo Brothers that really put him on the map, giving him a leading man arc even though he was just one of a sprawling cast with numerous storylines. But even with his popularity at that point, he was still new and untried enough that giving him the Gaksital’s hero role was a bit of a question mark. Now with three smash drama hits on his resumé (and one variety hit), Joo-won’s built something of a reputation as a “ratings sure thing”: Baker King hit 45.3% ratings nationwide, Ojakkyo Brothers hit 36.3%, and Gakistal reached 22.9%.
He admitted, “To be honest, after I was cast I felt a ton of pressure. The production budget for one, and also, it was my first time headlining. Every time I ran into someone who knew me they would say, ‘You have to do a good job.’ I felt the pressure. I was smiling on the outside, but inside I was burning up with anxiety [Laughs]. It was especially the case during the time when we were filming but hadn’t broadcast yet. If it’s on TV I can watch how I turned out, but before then I had no way of knowing how well I did or what the response would be. I consulted with those around me to see how I was doing. In the end, I did feel I was lacking a lot of times but I also gained a lot of confidence. I felt, ‘Ah, I can do it.’ I felt it with my previous dramas in Baker King and Ojakkyo Brothers, but in this one I felt I was maturing.”
About the ratings hit(s): “Another success? I don’t know the reason myself. [Laughs] The one thing I know for sure is that luck was on my side. I enjoyed acting [in Gaksital] because the script was interesting, and I got to work with many excellent sunbae-nims and teachers on the show. Rather than Gaksital’s success being because of me, I think it was that there were so many good actors that viewers could trust in.”
The drama spanned six months of shooting, which began on March 1: “[Park] Ki-woong hyung and [Jin] Sae-yeon joined filming near the end of April, but I started in March. Since I began earlier, I had more time than the other actors, in both the acting and action aspects.”
On the downside, that cut into his sleep. We all know the perils of dramaland, especially when you’re the title character. Not to mention this drama’s numerous action scenes, period setting, and emotional intensity. Not a walk in the park.
Joo-won said, “Not being able to sleep was the hardest thing. I barely slept at all, to such an extent that the very word sleep felt like a luxury. Thinking on it now, what amazes me is that I could memorize my dialogue and act under those circumstances. I worked so madly that it’s a wonder that filming completed without incident. After staying up several nights in a row, I would repeat to myself, ‘Let’s get it together,’ and on top of that I had to show the conflict between Gaksital being the hero and Lee Kang-to’s bad side, and deliberating over various isues made me feel like my head would burst. [Laughs]”
The character of Lee Kang-to was, as we can imagine, a complicated one given the extremes of emotion he covers and the amount he changes over the course of the show. Joo-won describes putting a lot of thought into how to create the character and make him his own, and “dog” was what he landed on. It’s the word he was called by the Koreans, for being a lapdog of the Japanese.
“I deliberated a lot over it. In the drama, Kang-to shouts a lot, and I thought a lot over how he would regulate the outbursts. If it were a real situation a person might shout without thinking about it, but in a drama, I thought it might make viewers uncomfortable to watch. There were a lot of those shouting scenes, and when they ended my hands and feet would be numb. I filmed them till I felt drained. I didn’t calculate or arrange my facial expressions, I just entered that scenario and let it all out.”
The show had a number of memorable scenes, and lots of those were of the anguished variety, and it’s unsurprising to hear that the crying scenes really made Joo-won cry. When asked which scenes stay with him, he said all of them.
“If I had to choose just three, it would be when I cried against hyung’s (Shin Hyun-joon) back, when my mother died, and when Mok Dan was shot. It’s horrible just to think of those times. I could really relate to the situation where I cried against Hyun-joong hyung’s back, and the emotion naturally rose up, of wondering how I’d go on. Lee Kang-to was like that. I could relate personality to the feeling, where people see him as a bad person although he’s working and earning money for his family.”
He continued, “When those scenes were over, they would linger in my mind. It wasn’t just acting, but me shedding real tears in those scenes, and I felt in tune with those emotions.”
“In the scene in front of the grave, I was really sobbing there alone, beating my chest, and it truly felt like my heart was ripping. Before we began filming, I was crouched there in front of the two graves [Mom and Hyung], and I had that feeling of having lost everything.”
The show was set against the backdrop of the Japanese Occupation in the 1930s and the underground independence movement to reclaim the country. The character of Gaksital—a “hero of the people”—became something of a symbol for those real-life figures, and there was naturally some burden on the actors and the production to do history justice.
Joo-won explained studying history for the role: “I tried to understand what it was like in that era. Since I didn’t live then I couldn’t experience it directly, but through the script I tried to know and learn. But it was very painful. It was a history lesson. I’d also done a lot of studying on my own about the Japanese occupation before beginning on Gaksital. So in acting in this, I could feel a lot in an indirect way. I couldn’t experience life directly, but I tried very hard to try to feel it.”
Aside from the nationalism spurred by Gaksital’s storylines, which included comfort women, Joo-won also took a trip to the controversy-mired Dokdo on an episode of 1N2D, which got him called a patriotic actor by some.
“Calling me ‘patriotic actor’ is a burdensome title. Not just me, but all the actors. I didn’t make any conscious effort to show that image in my drama or variety shows. Actually, when took on Gaksital the thought never occurred to me that it might be ‘anti-Japan.’ I just looked at the project and chose it because it was a good one. I hear that a lot of Hallyu actors declined this drama because they thought it would be anti-Japanese, but I don’t think they lack patriotism for not acting in Gaksital. Every Korean citizen has a sense of patriotism. And all our actors love our country.”
He added that the same burden applies to calling him a “ratings man,” which he isn’t ready to be labeled. Gaksital did manage to best some A-list Hallyu stars despite its “non-headliner” cast; competitor dramas Ghost and I Do, I Do, both of which boasted top names (So Ji-sub, Kim Sun-ah), never caught up to Gaksital, which took first place in the ratings.
It must be hard to imagine disappointment given his drama history, but it seems he tries to remember that those high numbers can always change: “My next drama might come in second place, or have ratings so low that people don’t even know I’m doing a drama.”
Joo-won was brought on to the second season of 1 Night 2 Days at roughly the same time he began filming Gaksital. The variety program had been hugely popular in its first season, but I think it’s safe to say that the idea of a new(-ish) cast with a new PD had some skeptical.
He said, “To be honest, I didn’t feel pressure about going on 1N2D. If there was any pressure at all, it was about my role and character. At first, I worried, ‘My hyungs are all doing well, but why am I removed?’ It isn’t that I don’t have any worries now, but these days I just try to enjoy myself. Before the show, aside from Tae-woong hyung I wasn’t familiar with the others, but I’ve become a lot closer to Seung-woo hyung and Tae-hyun hyung. Now that I’ve gotten to know them, I see that they’re all open-hearted people. When their dongsaeng uses aegyo, they find it cute. [Laughs] That’s why I just hug my hyungs and get closer to them. Haha.”
Aside from that, there’s the question of logistics: 1N2D shoots every other weekend, and that means he filmed the variety program concurrently with filming Gaksital.
He admitted, “It was really difficult physically. [Laughs] But it’s so much fun to go to 1N2D. I have fun. Shooting the drama is tough on stamina, but when shooting 1N2D I spend the whole day laughing, seeing good things, eating tasty things [though that streak is hilariously over]. It’s work, but I consider it a break. So when I returned from shooting 1N2D, it would give me energy and helped in the drama. It may have been hard physically, but mentally it was a big help.”
Joo-won added, “If it were a different type of variety program I wouldn’t have been able to do it, but I feel I can with 1N2D. In regular life, you wouldn’t have the opportunity for seven guys to together and travel the whole country. But I get to travel to nice places, eat the specialties, see the culture, and have good experiences. 1N2D is a program that helps me a lot on a personal level.”
There are other benefits: “The age range of my fanbase has expanded considerably, and for some reason if feels like I’ve become an idol. There are 3- and 4-year-old little kids who see me and run away.”
Ha, but is that because you’re so famous, or because they’re afraid you’ll catch them and torture them? I guess that’s the strange dichotomy of being Joo-won.
Regarding the ending of the drama [SPOILERS AHEAD, YOU ARE WARNED]:
Joo-won said, “It was saddening that everyone died, but the last scene was really awesome. What’s disappointing is that when we shot the last scene, it had been raining heavily. It was too bad that we would wait for the rain to stop, then shoot, but you could say it was also the best, most impressive scene. Everyone came out wearing gaksitals to march for independence. Perhaps you might feel that in the moment it was a futile gesture, but the meaning of it was extraordinary.”
“Although I did study before the show, while filming I came to think a lot about our country and our people’s pain and suffering. [The show] tried to take what we knew from books and draw them out. It gave me a chance to really study the sadness and patriotism of our people in a historical way.”
“I learned on the acting front as well, and learned how to express my opinions. There’s the director who has his opinions on my character, but I gained confidence in how to assert my opinion. And as a lead actor, I also learned how to lead the staff and other actors.”
What about a continuation of the story? [MORE SPOILERS AHEAD.]
“If there were a Season 2, I want to do it. For one, [ongoing] series aren’t common in Korea. But Park Ki-woong hyung and Jin Sae-yeon died, so they wouldn’t be able to do it, which is sad.”
But for now, Joo-won is looking for new drama. There’s nothing concrete, but he does want to do a romantic comedy.
He said, “Of the characters I’ve played so far, a lot of them haven’t been my age. I’d like to do something sweet suiting a mid-twentysomething. A character who doesn’t get stained with blood, haha. They say romantic comedies are the most difficult, and I’d really like to give it a try.”
And we’d love to see it.
- 1 Night 2 Days: Episode 404
- Gaksital: Episode 28 (Final)
- Behind the scenes of Gaksital in all its aegyo-riffic glory
- Joo-won offered Level 7 Civil Servant remake
- Gaksital (Bridal Mask): Episode 1
- Joo Won takes the lead in Bridal Mask
- Ojakkyo Brothers: Series Wrap-up
- Ojakkyo Brothers: Halftime report
- Ojakkyo Brothers: An Introduction