To Ji Chang Wook, ‘Empress Ki’ was a drama akin to a long marathon where he had to control his pace with long breaths. The life of this actor, who improves with sincerity and perseverance instead of innate talent, is a drama in itself.
Ji Chang Wook, who debuted at the age of 20 and is now living his twenties as an actor, lives his life focusing on each and every scenery that passes him rather than on speed or records. Each time a show ends, he is satisfied and thankful that people remember him by his character’s name. After Empress Ki ended, he became known to people as “Ji Chang Wook“ and also became a topic of discussion, but he is not too excited about it and is able to laugh calmly instead. He is not an actor who became famous with only one show, and neither is he an actor who only did one show. Having high esteem but not arrogant; enjoying the present but uncertain about the future – this is the mental attitude of Ji Chang Wook. Till now, there are also many dramas being written and added to the life of Ji Chang Wook. Looking at Ji Chang Wook’s smile, we now know that a person who understands what sadness is will be able to laugh better.
You seem busier after the drama ended. You held a fan meeting in Japan not too long ago and you also have many CFs.
I’m busy and also thankful at the same time.
Which of your works do your Japanese fans like the most?
There’s an equal number of fans who have seen Smile Donghae, Warrior Baek Dong Soo, Five Fingers, Bachelor Vegetable Store etc, and they like them, likewise for Empress Ki.
You did very well in your studies during your school years, but you suddenly switched to study a course on film and theatre in your third year of high school. Do you still remember the audition you had to do to enter college?
Haha. I took tests at three different schools but only one accepted me. On the day of the audition, a paper script of some sort was given to me on the spot. I looked at it and interpreted and acted according to my own style. I also had to show my special abilities in a separate test.
Besides acting, there are also other methods to release your emotions. Why did you choose to be an actor? Why acting?
I vaguely thought that actors seemed to enjoy themselves. It looked easy.
It looked easy?
They also seemed to earn a lot of money… (laughs). I didn’t know anything and had no sense of reality. In my eyes, actors only looked glamorous.
In other interviews, you described your schooling days as the “dark days of your life”… (laughs)
I thought I would be able to drink, sleep late and play every day if I went to university, but university life was even more intensive than college. I even thought it would be alright if I didn’t study anymore, but the homework for plays in theatre history…
Did you work hard?
I didn’t (laughs). This was different from what I initially thought. Because I had to study with friends who had systematically learned about acting since young, I couldn’t even compare to them. Their views about studying acting also seemed much deeper than mine. That’s why I wasn’t able to adapt initially. But even then, it was not possible for me to quit, because this was a choice that I was so persistent on and I even quarrelled with my mum over it. It hurt my pride somewhat and I didn’t know anything then either, so I still had a vague thought that this would be interesting. While following my seniors around, I began filming short films. That was very interesting.
It seems like you wanted to go to the set immediately.
Yes. I ran around at film sets for almost a year, and luckily, I got casted for an independent film and immediately after filming, I even passed an audition at Daehangno (*Seoul’s equivalent of Broadway) and I got to act on stage. But while working on those projects, I received all the worst kinds of insults I could ever get.
Because you weren’t properly prepared?
That’s right. They said I couldn’t act. The words that the director said then are still etched in my mind. “We are people who receive money and put up a performance, this is not a school for you to learn acting.” Thinking back now, he was right, those words.
You thought acting was easy, but once you started, it didn’t seem as easy?
It didn’t turn out as how I wanted it to be. I couldn’t seem to express according to what I had in mind. I was lucky to debut early. I didn’t know anything and all I had was courage.
You started acting on a blank slate. How did you cope on set?
At that time, I haven’t established any philosophy or whatsoever about acting, I was in a state where I didn’t even know what acting was and I would get butterflies in my stomach when I stood in front of the camera. After roughly memorising the script, I wouldn’t be able to recall any of it in front of the camera. My whole body would be trembling. I memorised and practised the script to the extent that if someone were to tap me suddenly, I would automatically rattle off all my lines. I would even recite my lines in my sleep… But after obsessing so much over the script, this didn’t seem like acting either, I was merely reciting whatever I had memorised. I received a lot of scolding from the director at the film set. Although I ventured out early to the set without being prepared, I got to meet many good seniors while working on projects. I learned by watching the seniors act from the side, and slowly, I realised what it meant to be acting.
Aren’t there also actors who seem to be naturally talented at acting? Do you feel inferior with regards to this?
That’s why in the process, I did consider seriously whether I should quit or not. During Smile Donghae, my acting didn’t go the way I wanted and it seemed too much for me. I thought I really had no talent or skill in this area and wondered why I couldn’t act well like others. It was tiring.
You had such thoughts while you were playing the first title role in your life?
The viewership ratings were great and the show also went well, but personally, it was very tiring. I made it all the way there with the belief that I just needed to work hard, but even then, I was continuously doubtful about myself. Back then, I really disliked everything about myself. I even wondered if I would I be able to continue as an actor. At that time, I thought I had done my best on the show or in analysing the role, but I soon realised that was very superficial. I didn’t know there was a way to go deeper than that.
You did what you thought was your best back then, but in fact, that was not truly your best right?
Seems like it.
If you think about yourself now 10 years later, you will probably think the same way. (Laughs) While being caught in a web of shifting back and forth like a roller coaster between comparing yourself and feeling satisfied, is there any project that has reduced your insecurities and strengthened your belief in yourself?
I matured a lot as an actor while filming Bachelor Vegetable Store. My previous shows before that had very high viewership ratings, so that seemed like a pressure on myself. But the viewership ratings for ‘Bachelor Vegetable Store’ turned out to be around 1%. I was scared initially. I thought no one would want to find me for work anymore. In fact, if the viewership ratings are bad, the actors will also feel discouraged. Even if you roughly film the show, no one is going to watch it anyway, and this spells trouble once you start to have such thoughts. At some point in time, I was becoming like that. As the show went on with each episode, I lowered my expectations of viewership ratings, and I thought about the responsibility and sense of duty that an actor has to bear for the show.
So that was how it was. You seemed to enjoy acting in ‘Empress Ki’.
The filming schedule gave me no choice but to take short naps, but time was too precious so I analysed the script and did my preparation. I was delighted as much as I had prepared for my role. Acting was still difficult and I couldn’t act as well as what I had in mind. But I am now able to think. If my mind would go blank like a white sheet of paper when I stood in front of the camera last time, I am now able to think and analyse, and I will work hard to express that.
After experiencing the taste of acting, you should have more freedom now to some extent. Eventually, all the shows you have done were part of a training process.
It will be the same even in the future. Rather than being greedy about the show or role, I want to work hard on roles that I can take responsibility for and perform well.
Korean-English translation and magazine scans by Gabby.
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