Ji Chang Wook is an actor who is leading the Hallyu wave. The dramas that he have starred in as the lead were highly popular not just in Korea, but also in China and Japan. This is a rare instance where even his name is like a brand. But he is still a distance away from a grand title like “Hallyu star”. He is just a man who lives each day to the fullest.
Working as a reporter, one gets to meet many famous people. Among them, there are those whose real selves look exactly like how they are on screen, there are those who aren’t as good in reality; and in rare cases, there are those who are much better in reality. Ji Chang Wook belongs to the latter. He is so human and charming that he makes you wonder if he was such a fine person. Our meeting with Ji Chang Wook took place immediately after a CF photo shoot for a Chinese apparel brand. It was a long and tiring shoot that lasted more than six hours, and he came here without rest after arriving in Korea last night. We sat down for a chat with him who looked tired till the point of collapse.
You look tired. I am tired. I arrived in Korea late last night, and wasn’t able to take a proper rest because I came straight here for this photo shoot.
Will you rest a little after this photo shoot is over? No. I will head to the practice room immediately. I need to go for an ensemble practice with the band to prepare for my Japan fan meeting. Once that is over, I will head back to Shanghai for drama filming again. Thinking about it, the schedule is really a killer (laughs).
People yearn for a life like that of famous personalities, but that isn’t exactly the case too. It involves a great amount of labour. But even so, I feel fortunate because I am doing work that I love. Looking at those around me, there are many friends who still cannot find work that they like to do. Though it is regrettable and understandable. I am extremely busy because of my schedule, but even though it is tiring, I am able to endure because I am doing work that I like.
Why did you want to become an actor? Don’t most students study mindlessly without a goal in mind, without even knowing why they are studying? I was such a student too. I studied hard because I was told that I have to study, but studying became too boring at some point in time. The thought of having to do such boring studies again when I enter university made me very frustrated. At that time, the thought of becoming an actor suddenly came to mind. It seemed interesting and grand, and I would probably earn lots of money too. Acting looked easy to me back then (laughs). It seemed like I just needed to memorise my lines and speak naturally. I thought I would be able to do a good job if I became an actor too. In my third year of high school, I suddenly applied for the theatre and film course. I changed my career path.
You parents must have objected. My dad passed away early, so I was raised by my mother alone. My mother was strongly against it of course. All she wanted was for me to study hard and graduate from university after four years, get a job and lead an ordinary life. She probably wondered why I had to have these strange thoughts after getting to my third year of high school. Although she had strong objections, she couldn’t do anything about it.
It must’ve been hard to defy your mother’s words. Most sons feel a great sense of responsibility. I always had such thoughts when I was young. I wanted to quickly grow up into an adult and protect my mother. If I could earn money and grow stronger, I would probably be able to protect my mother from bad people. I often thought that way.
You probably couldn’t even go astray during your growing years. I didn’t have any adolescence. Our family situation was poor, and I had a strong sense that I couldn’t afford to disappoint my mother. Looking at my mother who was having a hard time, I thought ‘the only way I can make a living is to study hard’. During my schooling years, I wasn’t a model student, but I was just an ordinary student who went to school.
It must’ve been hard because you only started to learn acting proper after going to university. Students in the theatre and film course usually decide on their course of study very early right? It was only after I entered university that I really understood what it meant to be tiring. It was very difficult to get used to school. The seniors had very strict discipline, and the time required to spend in school was longer than that in high school. I joined the theatre and film course because I disliked studying, but there was so much to study. I also felt inferior because there were many classmates who were naturally talented and passionate. It’s not like I had a huge determination to go into acting. So I also seriously thought of giving up halfway.
You must have skipped classes often. Yes (laughs). Of course, I could force myself to attend but my heart wasn’t there. I spent one year doing part-time jobs. I regained some of my senses while doing that. I entered this school after going against my mum, and yet I ended up like this. I felt ashamed. But I happened to follow my senior to the set of an indie film and the director decided to cast me after seeing me. It was my first debut. It was a movie called Sleeping Beauty; I filmed that everyday for one month and received 500,000 won (laughs).
The pay for leads in indie films must have been fixed. I heard that it’s also 500,000 won these days (laugh) Really? But it was really fun. I felt the joy of acting for the first time. I often went to the set to look around even when there was no filming. I was able to say to my mother or friends, “I’m going to film a movie!”
Even then, you still found your own path and worked hard to live your life. As I had mentioned, our family situation wasn’t good then so even paying the enrolment fee was difficult. Moreover, do I pay school fees only when I go to school? There are also transportation and eating expenses, and I need a drink too. It was a time where money was really scary. It was a situation that demanded me to take a leave of absence even when I didn’t want to, and I needed to earn money quickly in order to survive. I was that desperate. Meanwhile, I got to act in a movie and small musical, so I made my debut relatively faster.
Musicals are of a different world from movies right? It was a musical which I rehearsed for two months but only performed for one week, and that was when I was greatly shocked. I realised that I really had no knowledge of the basics of acting, and I heard all the insults I would get in this lifetime. At this moment, my senior’s advice which I thought useless when I was studying came to mind. I thought acting was easy, but it was not the case at all. All these (perceptions) were broken as I learnt how to act.
I’m not sure if people think that Ji Chang Wook had an easy time making his way to where he is today. Because there must’ve been many people who saw you for the first time when you starred as the lead in “Smile Donghae”. I didn’t have it easy, but I think I was lucky. I didn’t live my life as an unknown actor for 20 years like some people. I failed countless times in auditions, but this is the case for most of my peers.
You made your (TV) debut in a daily drama. There is a considerable wall between daily dramas and mini series for actors, but you overcame it well? It’s true. “Healer” was my first mini series. It is not easy for my peers to move from daily dramas to mini series. I was even envious of friends who debuted in mini series. Because they looked good for some reason. But if I think of it now, acting in daily dramas was very helpful to me. My range of acting became wider and I was able to gain a lot of experience.
That’s because you did well yourself. I struggled persistently. Last time, I would only stay at home two days before filming. Because it seemed like I would miss out something if I ventured out of the house. I couldn’t even act and I had a useless inferiority complex (laughs).
The you back then has become a Hallyu star now. You have 4 million followers on Weibo alone. You also have a large fan base in Japan. There are that many people who are keeping their eyes on you. Although it’s the same for other artistes too, there is definitely a burden on my conduct. I’m cautious of my every word and action.
There must be many times where you feel empty when filming overseas for such a long period of time, so what offers you comfort? Having positive mind control is the basic. Because your perspective changes depending on the kind of mindset you have. And I often read manga. It’s to the point that I dream of making my own manga book store one day (laughs). The most favourite is “Naruto”. While reading this manga, I seriously thought about the meaning of friendship and life. I especially like the character Lee. Although he is unable to keep up with the main character no matter how hard he tries, he is a character who acknowledges his own inadequacy and knows how to make sacrifices. There’s also “Slam Dunk”. My favourite character? Definitely Hanamichi Sakuragi and Hisashi Mitsui (laughs). Isn’t that the obvious choice for men?
You seem to have a manly side in reality too. Earlier, a staff said that you are an actor that has no great difference before and after getting famous. I don’t know, although I try hard not to change, it differs among the people who see me. One of my classmates whom I’m not very close to said this when he suddenly contacted me not long ago. “You don’t even contact me, you have changed a lot.” So I asked back, “When have we even contacted each other?” I’ve remained the same, but the environment around me has changed. It’s also not possible for me to be nice to everyone. The words “you’ve changed” is relative right?
Just like the taxes that famous personalities have to pay. I’m not saying that I won’t pay taxes. But doesn’t it hurt if I pay too much tax? Furthermore, I do not think of myself as a very famous star. I will definitely become arrogant if I become more famous next time (laughs).
There are some actors who cannot imagine themselves leading another kind of life besides that of an actor. But you seem like the kind who would be able to do well even if not as an actor. You have a healthy image.I think so too. I would probably do well even if I worked in an ordinary company. Maybe because I had a hard time growing up, so I’m able to adjust well no matter where I go. If I couldn’t succeed as an actor, I would have graduated from college, found a job, and live an ordinary life. It’s not true that I can’t imagine myself leading a life without acting.
It seemed like just a couple of days ago when you were singing “Almost Thirty” in the musical “The Days”. In reality, you’ve already turned 30. Do you have a sense of your age? A special thing about an actor’s job is that you don’t really sense your age. Because no one asks you how old you are (laughs). You become numb to it instead.
But even then, your image seems to be somewhat similar to what you dreamt of when you first started acting. During the time when I was only playing minor roles, I was envious of my seniors who starred as leads. It seemed like there would be nothing to worry about once you got to that kind of status. But once I got to play the lead, my worries increased. I always feel pressured when acting, and there are also many other things to worry about too.
There will be more worries when you get to forty (laughs). Seems like it (laughs).
There’s still the issue of enlistment. Are you feeling anxious? Honestly, I don’t think much about it. My mindset is that I just have to go when it’s time to go. I’m expecting to enlist next year, but I’m more curious about who I will meet rather than feeling anxious about it. I hope to meet more unique people.
But the celebrity unit has been dissolved so you now have to undergo military training just like the rest. When I enlist, I won’t be the same age as them, but 10 years older than them. I have some hope of becoming younger when I hang out with them instead (laughs). I think I will have a very good time there.
A two-year period without any work can be fatal to an actor. Everything that you’ve gained up till now can fade away like bubbles. Of course, it’s not true that I’m not worried at all. But I don’t think there’s any job without stress or dangers. Even ordinary office workers will also receive this kind of stress. I do not think of myself as special. I only hope that I can always be a person who is better than how I am right now. Even the interview that I’m doing now, or the army life that I will experience in the future, I believe all these will be part of the process of me becoming more mature. I think the most important thing is to live each day to the fullest.
Are you going to the practice room now? That’s right. I will practise with the band then leave for China immediately.
It was such a short time. Is there anything that you’ll regret not doing in Korea before leaving? My motorcycle has been left idle because of my overseas activities. I ought to start the engine and ride it at least once, but I don’t think I can. That is the most regretful.
Translated from Korean to English by Gabby. Please do not edit, repost or reproduce the translation.
Credit: Noblesse Men