Lee Jun-ki: On army, acting, and Arang
With his drama Arang and the Magistrate wrapped, lead star Lee Jun-ki has been keeping busy by giving lots of interviews. And I mean tons. He’s everywhere!
Since Arang was his first project out of military service, naturally this is a common thread in all of the interviews. Lee Jun-ki explained why he picked it, which was one of the first scripts he saw in the consideration process: “It was a pretty unusual drama, and I wondered whether it would seem improbable, or perhaps childish. Would this ‘fairy-tale-like drama’ connect in today’s grim, urgent world? At first, I considered it with indifference. But amazingly, it kept catching my eye. The plot was really fresh and imaginative, and I couldn’t put the script down.”
His attention kept wandering that way, “like I was being drawn by fate.” So he took it on, thinking it could work: “As I filmed, my expectations and desires grew.”
Lee had a hand in shaping his character; he explained how it was his idea to make Eun-oh more of an action star: “At the outset, Eun-oh didn’t have much of an action bent, and I suggested giving him more of that. But after coming back from the army, I found it harder to tackle action shoots. My speed was much slower, and the kicks were harder… That’s why I participated directly in the action direction, because I know my body’s condition better than anybody. I had to do action that I knew my body could handle in order for them to be effective with the audience.”
I found the world and conflicts of Arang inventive and fresh, but the ratings remained stuck in second place. It was up against some stiff competitors, with Gaksital and Nice Guy drawing the bulk of the numbers, and over the course of its run Arang averaged a rating of 12.8%.
That seems a respectable number given the hype of its rivals, but it’s true that low-teens numbers weren’t as high as they’d have liked. Lee said that as a result, he monitored the drama even more closely to see which scenes spoke to audiences more, analyzing the information. Outwardly, he took a more cheerful attitude on set; it’s the responsibility of the stars to set the tone for the production, after all.
He admitted that everyone did feel the disappointment with their ratings, with lots of sighs about how all drama ratings are so low these days. He was grateful, however, that at least they didn’t decrease, given today’s climate where it’s not unheard of for ratings to nosedive into single digits overnight.
He reasoned, “I was able to make more connections by meeting Kwon Oh-joong [Dol-swe] and an actress like Shin Mina, who was professional and threw herself into everything. I could taste what it felt to act. We weren’t able to meet all the expectations in the beginning, but being praised so much about my acting gave me a lot of encouragement.”
It’s interesting that what he felt restricted by is exactly the reason I loved Eun-oh’s character, and found Lee Jun-ki much more appealing than I’d ever found before. He said, “It would be a lie to say there weren’t things about the drama that were disappointing. Because Eun-oh is a gruff type of magistrate, he’s not a very fun personality. As an actor, it was fun to play Yong in Iljimae with his heodang feel. That allows you to act out a wide range of expressions. But the director told me not to act out a lot. I thought that however gruff Eun-oh was, he still has a personality so I started changing his way of speaking and his actions.”
I’m thankful the director had him dial it down, because Eun-oh’s simmering intensity gave the show its pathos, I felt. In fact, the reason I’ve bumped up against Lee in the past was his tendency to overdo the emotion, so it’s a great thing to have a director who knows just how to draw out what you do so well, but stop you short of excess.
Another aspect he felt was disappointing was the reduced romantic-melo angle. He said, “At first I thought it was a romance drama. I’d assured reporters and fans that this time I’d be able to show a real romance…”
But as we know, the drama spent a lot of its focus on the supernatural storyline. “Others felt frustrated as well. As an actor, I tried hard to pour the emotion and love into my acting through the end.”
Frankly, I liked the show’s plot development better the way it was, as opposed to a stronger romantic angle. I wonder whether this is a difference between approaching the drama as an actor versus as a viewer. Lee seems to be eager to immerse himself into roles, and enjoys the process of acting to a palpable degree. So perhaps to him the restraint felt limiting; to me, I loved the result, which felt controlled and in control.
Asked whether he’d consider turning to a conventional melo to fill that disappointment, he said he’s still too young for that: “I was drawn to the drama because it seemed like it would be a moving, ardent love story, but to date I hadn’t considered doing a traditional melodrama. I didn’t have a particular desire for serious melo acting. I’m more drawn to doing dramas that show a lot of different aspects. I’ve begun to feel the fun in doing romances just now, so maybe things will change once I’ve hit my mid-thirties and put on a more masculine air.”
That makes sense, considering his resumé, most of which have a pretty strong mixing of genres and styles. King and the Clown, Iljimae, Time Between Dog and Wolf… He finds it fortunate that he seems to suit sageuk, considering that there’s an elevated chance of success (generally speaking) for sageuk projects that offsets the increased level of difficulty in doing them.
From the very start, Lee was labeled as a “pretty boy” or even “womanly actor,” given his features and probably also his cross-dressing role as Gong-gil in King and the Clown. And okay, there were also his anime haircuts and styling back in the day. (So pretty, but in a vaguely non-human way like something computer-generated out of Final Fantasy.) That role was career-defining for him, and earned him heaps of notice and praise; he explained being driven “to do roles that are more adventurous than safe” because he wanted to test himself.
On the flip-side of that coin, it also fixed that one image of him into everyone’s minds. “In order to overcome the image, I’m trying to build up faith in me as an actor. With each project, I try to change a little. In the end if I can’t deliver that faith in my acting, my image will just become more fixed.”
For example, he credited 2007’s Time Between Dog and Wolf, where he played an NIS agent, with allowing him to shake off the Gong-gil mold. “It was the drama that broke the stereotype that I might not be able to act as any character other than Gong-gil. Since the transformation was vast, it was able to pull down that wall. Rather than thinking of breaking those ideas, it made me think that working hard could make it happen. The public knew me as feminine, but that’s not at all true. That’s why acting as Gong-gil was the most difficult for me. Director Lee Jun-ik told me not to speak, so at the time if you see interviews I don’t say a word. Haha.”
He’d like to play a king someday, he said: “I’d like to play Sejong in Tree With Deep Roots, but at my age I don’t think the audiences would be able to relate. I’m still lacking in experience. I want to give it a try when I’ve matured more. It may not happen soon, but I think I could show that side. The role I most want to try is of Yeonsangun [the Joseon king portrayed in King and the Clown].”
How did you feel before your army release?
“Starting a week before, I couldn’t sleep. The head office said that they expected fans to crowd the area and began making preparations to handle it a week in advance. To myself, I thought, ‘I will have lost a lot of popularity. Will I be set up for a big humiliation?’ I’m glad I went right to work after my release. I felt such pressure, but I was emotionally satisfied and gained confidence.
What has changed from before you served in the military?
“At first, the Actor Lee Jun-ki, Person Lee Jun-ki, and Serviceman Lee Jun-ki kept clashing with each other. And so, I threw myself into army life to an extreme degree. In the evenings when watching TV, my heart would pound as I thought, ‘That’s where I should be…’ I learned how to let that go, and to accept reality. Before the army, I couldn’t drink in open spaces, and I kept my distance from women in case of scandals. I realized, ‘I’d really gone overboard.'”
How was life in the army? How did you spend the time?
“At first, it was difficult to get used to it. I wasn’t used to living in this kind of environment with a gathering of such different people, and every day things would happen that I couldn’t have even imagined might happen, which was confusing. It got better after about three weeks. If anything, I tend to work hard so I immersed myself in it. I did well in shooting and physical fitness, so I was fourth place out of two thousand.”
While you’ve been in the army, you’ve entered your thirties.
“As an actor, it’s not a bad thing to get meaning out of things year by year. My range of roles has expanded, too. When I look at the popular 20-something actors these days like Kim Soo-hyun, Song Joong-ki, Lee Min-ho, and Jang Geun-seok, I think, ‘I don’t think I was that good at that age… they’re good.’ I think we’ll be able to see my Arang co-star Yeon Woo-jin-sshi shine, too.”
How does it feel to return after two years?
“The director and other actors helped me a lot. But I felt uneasy at the thought, ‘I’m the only one changed.’ Thankfully I’m the type of personality to approach others first, so I adapted quickly. I like getting friendly with others quickly.”
If you had to give Arang and the Magistrate a score, what would it be?
“I don’t feel I have the right to give it a score. It was a drama that gave me a lot of worries and pressure, but thankfully the end result was not bad. I’m satisfied. I worried whether I was ready to come out into the cold public and be evaluated, but fans and viewers had a lot of good things to say, so I gained confidence.”
I hear you were the mood-maker on set.
“I’m the type who can’t stay still and acts silly. I would butt in a lot and the staff even asked, ‘Aren’t you tired yet?’ People tell me they expect me to be uptight and feminine, but I’m the complete opposite.”
How was it working with Shin Mina?
“It was good. To be honest, I did worry a lot at the beginning. Arang and the Magistrate was my first time meeting Shin Mina, and from the first day her preconceived idea of me was shattered. I thought she’d be difficult to get to know, so I acted sillier and funnier on our first meeting to break that awkwardness. But she said, ‘Jun-ki-sshi, I’m sorry but if you keep acting this way it’ll be too uncomfortable.’ So I figured that was the wrong tactic and took it slower. [Laughs] Later after we’d become friendly, I found she’s a really good person. Normally actresses tend to only want to show you their pretty sides, and take pains to keep up a refined image, but Shin Mina didn’t have any of that and was easygoing.”
“From our first meeting and through filming, she took a positive approach. Arang isn’t an easy character to play. She has to roll around getting dirty and falling down; it requires her to give up on maintaining her appearance. If she sets out trying to look pretty, the character gets annoying. Mina is strong-minded, so she was a big support and helped me a lot. As an actor, she’s my sunbae.”
“I felt that there was a reason that Mina’s so well-loved. She knows her own weaknesses and tries to improve. I made efforts to become friends with her. Later on as we jelled more with our characters we became more comfortable with each other, and when the script came out late we would discuss among ourselves and work it out together. I’ve seen Mina in a lot of her dramas, but also with her glamorous CF image and wondered whether she’d be very conscious of her body, but she would act very boldly. It was quite fascinating to see that fierce side to her.”
This year, there have been two films to surpass the 10 million tickets mark. How does that make you feel? [The Thieves and Gwanghae, the Man Who Became King.]
“It makes me feel ambitious. Envious. When The King and the Clown passed 10 million tickets back in 2005 it was an uncommon thing, but these days it seems that happens frequently. [Laughs] I’ll have to film a movie soon too.”
The ‘Lee Jun-ki fandom’ seems quite unusual.
“They’re my pride. Before I left for the army, the fandom was unrivaled but these days I think other actors also have large fandoms. Haha. The fandom is faster with news than the office, and they gather information in a large database, so it automatically corrects itself to omit errors. My fandom requests, ‘Please don’t use botox to get rid of age winkles. Don’t do anything to your face. Having wrinkles adds depth to the range of your facial expressions.’ and things like that.”
Do your fans influence which projects you choose?
“For projects, I think of them on my own. I tend to put on a strong act — in the army the person who gave me the hardest moments was myself. I want to do my next project quickly, but before that I’ll have an overseas fanmeeting and a new album as well. I have plans for a photo collection, and I have a lot of ideas, with the concept of showing a masculine vibe now that I’ve come back as a 30-year-old.”
What about dating?
“My response to this question is always the same. Even if I have a girlfriend, I’d say I didn’t, and if I don’t have one I also say I don’t. I have no plans to have a public relationship. Before marrying, I don’t want to let it be known. If everyone knows, it’s difficult for that love to come to fruition.”
Are you good at managing your private life?
“I think so. I don’t go out that much, for one. In the past I wouldn’t drink unless I was in a [private] room, or go to drinking parties with women present. If there were personal events with alcohol present I’d go with my manager. I was really careful. Although these days I don’t do all that. I’ve even signed autographs for fans while drinking in an open location.”
Do you have actors you consider your rivals?
“No. These days there are so many wonderful and good-looking actors, but it’s hard to pick one as a ‘rival.’ What’s for sure is that this year feels like it was kicked off by Kim Soo-hyun, and closed by Song Joong-ki. And Jang Geun-seok is cleaning up in the Hallyu department.”
Asked about his popularity abroad, he said, “I am active overseas, but I’m always asked by reporters about what I consider the downside to being a Hallyu star, and that often takes the wind out of my sails. So I have to get a solid grip on my bearings. Because in that country, people might see a Hallyu star and think, ‘They’re just here to make money. They don’t know gratitude.'”
He seems to be itching to get back to work; just four days after Arang ended, he was reviewing scripts for his next project. He admitted, “Being alone is the most difficult. If I’m by myself, I’m cut off from the energy I receive from others, and it feels like I’m shut in. I tend to feel a lot of loneliness. It was for the first time in the army that I could turn off the TV and go to sleep. When I’m at home, if I turn off the TV I feel a sense of fear.”
So what will he show in the future? He answered, “Mentally, I’m in a good place right now. I’ve come back from the army, and I’m taking in this feeling of the lifted burden. Without losing my stride or my focus, I want to be an actor representative of Korea, an actor who shows his potential. An actor you trust in…”
- Time Between Dog and Wolf: A review
- Behind the scenes of Arang and the Magistrate
- Dramabeans Podcast #14, Part 2
- Arang and the Magistrate: Episode 1
- Introduction to the mythical world of Arang and the Magistrate
- More promos and character stills from Arang
- Lee Jun-ki’s first post-army photo shoot
- Lee Jun-ki begins his military service
- Hero: Episodes 1-2