The romanticist in “Empress Ki” who was an imagination of youth. In the drama, Ji Chang Wook was a healthy youth who was always bright and lovable. However, the person we met in reality is an intricate, realistic person who says that one cannot live on dreams alone, and one cannot live his whole life loving one person only.
If we were to describe the current Ji Chang Wook with a colour, it would definitely be the refreshing colour of blue. If you examine his filmography, from Song Mi Poong, a bright repeat student and youngest son in his debut drama “My Too Perfect Sons,” to the warm youth Han Tae Yang in “Bachelor Vegetable Store” who dreamt of opening a vegetable store that brings the most warmth to people, most of his roles were honest and hardworking characters who are worthy of appearing in a “Bacchus” CF (*Bacchus is a brand of vitamin drink famous for its award-winning CFs that feature ordinary people and heart-warming stories). Even just looking at the descriptions of his characters such as “beautiful like a chiselled chestnut (Song Mi Poong)’ and “one who brings warmth like his name (Han Tae Yang)”, they are straight-laced and do not feel realistic. The defining role was Donghae, “the cool and fresh guy with a smile like dongchimi (*a type of kimchi)” that he played in the daily drama “Smile Donghae.” With ratings close to 40%, it was through this drama that Ji Chang Wook became engraved in the minds of the people as “Donghae.” In “Five Fingers,” his previous drama before “Empress Ki”, he played Yoo In Ha, the antagonist who bore feelings of inferiority and conspired against his stepbrother. But even then, he was still “Donghae,” the image of youth.
“That was the first time that I felt the power of the media. From that time onwards, everyone called me ‘Donghae’ instead of ‘Ji Chang Wook’ and probably thought of me as Donghae. A drama turning out successful is a very good thing, but I knew it could also be poisonous to an actor. Honestly, I was uneasy. It seemed like my own self had disappeared. I’m not a bright or hardworking person to that extent, so it is scary to see everyone think of me that way.” After earning success through a daily drama, most actors who are better known as their character’s name instead of their actual name will try to take on a shocking transformation. However, instead of trying to make a forced transformation, he opted for a more natural progression. “My acting career did not come to an end after ‘Smile Donghae’ as my only piece of work. I thought that, one day, people will eventually watch my acting and not only see me as the character, but also see me as who I am. I tried not to be too worried when people call me ‘Donghae’, and even now when people call me ‘the Yuan emperor’ as I walk along the street, I just smile. It seems that everything will just fade away.”
Seeing this side of him, Ta Hwan in “Empress Ki” seemed like a character that was fated to be his. From a bungling emperor who gradually changes into one with dignity and power, and also one with a personality that is both mischievous and manly, this was a character that allowed actor Ji Chang Wook to show the various faces of himself. “For an actor, will there ever be another character as good as this one? Now we are almost halfway through the series. The Ta Hwan in the beginning and the current Ta Hwan are very different. He was childish but also showed his ardent and pure feelings to Seung Nyang at the same time; although he was immature, he also had a heroic side. He was a very 3-dimensional lad. He will gradually become more like an emperor in the future, and I’m really looking forward to that. ”
Truthfully, Ta Hwan is a “romantic who knows nothing besides Ki Seung Nyang.” When he mistakenly thought Seung Nyang was dead, he became diagnosed with aphasia. Determined not to appear weak in front of her, he also decided to fight against the real holder of authority, El Temur. Even though he knew she had feelings for another man, instead of appearing cool, he expressed his jealousy openly and begged her to remain by his side; an emperor who was pure and lovable. “I think such a person who is able to love unconditionally does not exist in real life. That’s why it’s a drama. Be it the person being loved or the person who loves another, honestly, loving just one woman your whole life is just a fantasy. How much must one be in love in order to do that? I also wish to love like that for once. Guys also have this kind of fantasy and that makes it more interesting. I’m incapable of doing so, yet Ta Hwan is able to love like that. Even though she has feelings for another person, he still begs her to look at him and says that to her endlessly. As for me, I won’t be able to do that for more than two or three times (laughs).”
Although he is acting as a dramatic Ta Hwan, the real Ji Chang Wook in reality is a man who stands with his two feet on the ground. “Everyone’s like that, you cannot live on just dreams alone. Even when you behave without thinking, there are also times where you wish to be cool-headed. Even when one is smiling, is that person really smiling because of happiness? Although a flower looks beautiful, do you feel that way because it is truly beautiful, or is it a beauty enforced through learning? I sometimes have thoughts like these.” His complex sense of realism is also present in his acting. “The ideal is unattainable. No matter how hard I try, I will never be able to truly become Ta Hwan. Because of that, I thought a lot about how he lived his life and how he grew up. I would try to find similar aspects, past experiences or emotions between Ta Hwan and me, then amplify them. Although some may say that I have completely emptied myself and filled myself with the character, I think I am unable to get rid of myself completely. I am Ji Chang Wook. It’s not possible for Ji Chang Wook to disappear right? ”
While talking to him, with this kind of cold view, one wonders if he has the potential to last a long time as an actor. Be it the solemn weight that comes with the word “actor” or the philosophy of acting, he does not make a fuss about these. Rather, he believes that acting is also a kind of “labour” and that living as an actor in this country is not essentially any different from other kinds of jobs or lifestyle. “I think actors are also just like ordinary people who work in an office. I’m just someone who has a job that requires acting. The only thing that is special to me is the fact that I’m working in a field that I like. When my friends ask me what I am doing tomorrow, I tell them ‘I have work’ instead of ‘I’ll be filming’. This is work because I’ve started to receive a pay. When it becomes a job, then you have to become a pro.”
During his school days, the reason why he, who had nothing outstanding to show, suddenly decided to study film and theatre was nothing grand nor borne out of great ambitions. Simply because he did not have the confidence to live even after studying his whole life, he decided to follow his heart and chose the path of an actor. “I wish I could say that I wanted to act after watching a certain movie or because I felt touched after watching a certain actor. But I really chose to study film and theatre without knowing anything. Without knowing better, in the eyes of an ordinary high school student, actors and celebrities seem to be able to earn money easily and are famous, which makes that life look appealing. When you see the celebrities that always appear on TV, they get to laugh and hang out with pretty female stars and everything they earn seem to be in the tens of millions (laughs). But once I really entered that course, I realise that it’s not the paradise I had imagined. I ended up wandering around and did not go to school for a year. Acting turned out to be just another kind of study, and to an ordinary high school student like me, my course mates who were doing remarkable stuff seemed nuts to me.”
Although he was isolated from the rest and inevitably had clashes with others, such events help one to grow as a human. Ji Chang Wook eventually learnt how to work with those “strange people”. In fact, he got famous for his diligence. Looking at his filmography, from the 160-episode “Smile Donghae,” to 50-episode “Empress Ki,” to the 29-episode “Warrior Baek Dong Soo,” these were all long productions. “It’s like running a marathon sometimes. There were times when I felt irritated and tired. I would feel like blowing up even when someone bothered me a little, so I think I ended up acting like a robot at some point in time. I would just memorise my lines, and you can just tap my shoulder and I would regurgitate everything, that kind of feeling? It is a job that I like, but at some point in time, I wondered how I became like that. Instead, I now know how to adjust my pace and I’ve come to understand the joy of meeting and working with people who have various tastes. It’s also interesting being able to work with people who have lived their lives differently from my own, and getting to meet people who share the same values as me is especially welcoming. Because we get to work hard together, we also feel like comrades (laughs). ”
He has been working continuously without rest during the past 4 years since his debut. He continues with another drama once a drama ends, and when he’s not on the TV screen, he is standing on stage performing in musicals like “The Days” and “Jack the Ripper”. The only time he rested was during the six months after “Bachelor Vegetable Store.” With such a packed schedule, he has his own way of separating his personal life from work. “When work gets too busy, there are times when I feel like my emotions have dried up and cannot be used anymore. In times like that, I use my own method of continuously finding ways to replenish my emotions. Emotionally-moving things out of the ordinary that I feel while drinking coffee, while singing or while looking at the sky. That’s why I enjoy deviating from routine. It doesn’t have to be anything remarkable, but it could be simply drinking a different kind of coffee from usual, or going home via another route. During my break, there was once when I decided to head alone to Busan on impulse at dawn. Because I left so suddenly, I slept and washed up at rest stops (laughs). Even when I arrived at Busan, I didn’t do much.” Be it at work or during his personal time, he does not try to make changes intentionally, nor does he try to reveal more or hide it. He who once drew attention because of a photo of him taking the public transport, has not sought to hide his face when walking along the streets, and neither is he the kind who uses social media to show off his talents. “On the streets, I do eat ddeokbokki (*spicy rice cakes) and just walk around. I don’t think I have to purposely live my life differently or in any special way just because I’m a celebrity. After all, acting is a job that involves portraying different kinds of people, and the moment you isolate yourself from others, your career is finished. Rather, you have to mix around with people all the more.”
Ji Chang Wook is quiet but speaks his mind. Most typical male actors in their twenties are sensitive, and behave likewise towards the issue of army enlistment. Especially since there was gossip that his accident last year was a deliberate attempt to avoid enlistment, this is an issue that he has to be more cautious about. “Fortunately, I was not seriously hurt, but I was really shocked that people could have such thoughts after seeing me in an accident. I will be enlisting in the army soon, but I can’t bring myself to say that I will happily serve in the army as a South Korean man filled with loyalty for my country. Who would ever say that he wants to join the army? You join the army simply because you have to so.” Although he speaks softly throughout the interview, the fact that he expresses his thoughts confidently makes me think he is an actor with a clear mind of his own. As he continues to put on and show many different faces, in a job as an actor who listens to people’s “comments,” aren’t self-confidence and a sense of balance equally important as talent? “If one does not wish to be swayed by comments and criticisms, having confidence in acting is sufficient, and in order to do that, one needs to accumulate a lot of experience. If I know that I haven’t done a good job, I will be swayed by other people. If I am confident that I’m the one who has put in the most effort into studying my character and knows best about my character, I will be able to listen to what people say and make a clear judgement on what is right or wrong. Although I do not wish to ignore or deceive the public, I do not wish to let myself be swayed by them either. Therein lies the sense of duty and pride of an actor.”
Translated from Korean to English by Gabby.
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Article first published in March 2014.