Exclusive Interview with Actor Lee Jung-jae

Article by Kevin young
Photo credit Xue Liang

South Korea’s prominent actor, Lee Jung-jae was a special guest to the 2014 NYAFF. His past films that are being screened consist of the romantic drama Il Mare, the mafia crime thriller New World, and the historic drama The Face Reader.

Lee initially didn’t intend on going into acting. He once thought about becoming an architect. By a stroke of luck he was scouted to become a model while he was working at a cafe during his younger years and since then has played over 35 on screen roles for both television and feature film audiences. His long career has gifted him with over 14 acting awards in Korea. Lee being one of Korea’s most talented and humble actors sat down with us for to talk about his screened films and his future.

How do you prepare for roles?

I think what I try to do is always look for something to do. The audience is always looking for something new. And with each role I play there has to be newness and naturalness. So at home what I do is try different ways of portraying something. I am constantly trying to find that balance between newness and naturalness. An example is in my upcoming film Assassination. It’s scheduled to film in August until next January but of course I have already read the screen play and memorized it, even during the short time that I’m spending here in New York. I’m constantly thinking about the role and trying to come up ideas of how to do such and such line in a different way. So its not one of those things I can tell you I do this to prepare and it worked. Really the only answer is you have to try a lot of different ways.

Can you talk more about your upcoming film, Assassination?

So this film Assassination is projected to open next summer. It’s a blockbuster film. It’s costing a lot to make this movie right now! It’s about the independence resistance movement of the Korean people. The setting of this movie spans from the 1910 to 1940s.

What type of character are you going to play in Assassination?

I think the whole picture of the character is really classified the day you see it on screen when the movie opens. The character at this stage is still being developed so I can’t really say. One thing for sure is that this character will inspire a lot of people.

Are there any actors or directors that you would like to work with outside of Korea? And would you ever consider starring in an American film, given the rise of Asian actors in American films?

There are so many. There are so many amazing directors and actors outside of Korea. If I’m lucky enough to be given a role or an opportunity to work with these people regardless of how big or small the role is I will. I have the desire and mindset to work with them and to have fun. For starring in an American film I guess I’ll think about it if I get an offer. I am totally willing to consider such an opportunity provided that the role offered to me is something I feel that I could do a really good job on. And I am always willing anytime.

How does it feel to be attending sold out screenings of your films in New York?

Americans here are probably not too familiar with Korean movies yet. I think it’s important to let the American audience know about Korean films little by little. I think Korean movies are doing quite well right now overseas. Although you can say compared to K-pop they’re is more work that can be done in the Korean movie industry. But I believe there will come a day when Korean films will be as successful overseas as K-pop is. As long as there are people around like the ones here at the NYAFF, that try and work hard to introduce and promote Korean films to the American audiences and beyond, I firmly believe that there will be a day when Korean movies become very successful overseas especially in America. I think Korean movies are doing the slow but steady progression.

What attracted you to play the roles of the films that are currently being screened at the festival?

In Il Mare at that time it presented a very new approach to a romantic movie. So when I decided to do Il Mare I think I was more convinced by the new approach to filmmaking rather than the character. As for New World, the conflict that the character experiences between two choices and having two different sides was very attractive to me. The type of discipline that the character Ja-Sung had to have was attractive to me too. As for The Face Reader, of all the scripts I have read the character of Prince Su-yang, presented the most powerful and impressive complexity.

What are your thoughts on your film, The Face Reader?

I actually think out of all the Korean movies that are screening at the festival, the one movie that could really introduce and tell different aspects of Korean culture would be this movie. I really don’t think there would be any problems for the American audiences to get and understand what happens in this movie. Because in America and the English speaking world, I expect that the audiences are familiar with stories of desire or greed or of wanting to become a king. These things are common in Shakespeare’s plays and I think the audiences would be really familiar with the type of story.

In both The Face Reader and New World you play villainous characters. Was it hard to play these roles?

I mean the difficulties were not because the characters were villains I would even say that at times playing villain is even easier. I find both villains and romantic characters both fun to play.

You worked with Song Ji-hyo in New World and Jun Ji-hyun in Il Mare. Can you talk about your experiences working with them?

Song Ji-hyo’s appearance was very short so it was hard to engage with her too much. But there’s a scene where she’s inside a drum barrel. Before shooting that scene she had just come back from her variety show, Runningman. Coming from that show she was physically exhausted but she still gave it her best. I worked on Il Mare such a long time ago. Jun Ji-hyun was 20 at the time. She was very famous already at the time. Does it give you an idea of what kind of girl she is? Being 20, incredibly famous and popular at the time. (laughs).

In New World you also worked with the renowned actor Choi Min-sik from the Korean classic film Old Boy. What was it like working with him?

He’s not as scary as he seems. In person he’s very fun. He doesn’t stay still even for a moment. He’s very entertaining. He’s a big jokester on set. I also got the role of Ja-Sung because of him.

When the news first broke that New World was being made a lot of movie insiders in Korea were concerned because the crime movies Infernal Affairs and The Departed were really big hits in Korea as well. So that was when it got a lot of movie insiders worried saying there’s another movie from Korea that has similar story lines and characters. But you know Choi Min-sik from the getgo said let’s do this movie. Choi Min-sik then gave me a call after that and said why don’t you shoot a movie with me? So I have to tell you I was also a bit worried. But then I realized that an actor who I looked up too so much was so confident and behind this project that’s when I realized I said okay I’ll give it a go lets try this.

Any advice to aspiring actors?

Acting is not difficult. You shouldn’t think of it as something difficult. It’s something anyone can do. You don’t have to be good looking to be a star if you keep trying you can become one.

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