Holding it Actual with Jung Ryeo-Gained
Jung Ryeo-won as captured the hearts of viewers at home and abroad with her smile and her talent, but the South Korean actress wants to be known for more than just that. She sits down with Prestige for her first-ever English-language interview and the most honest conversation she’s had yet.
Photography Shin Sun Hye
Celebrity Stylist Lee Yun Mi, Ko Jeong Eun
Styling and Project Management Alex Loong
Hair Lee Sun Chul @Soosoo
Makeup Noh Han Gyeol
Photography Assistants Kim Min Seok, Kwon So Hyun, Baek Bi Oh
Coordinators Park Sang Suk, Kwon O Sung
Korean pop music these days is filled with English lyrics, but turn the clock back 18 years and it was unusual for any songs or dramas to have more than a cursory phrase or two in a foreign language. This is what makes the scene between Jung Ryeo-won and Daniel Henney in My Name is Kim Sam-soon all the more memorable – the actress, who was raised in Australia, and American-born Henney have an entire scene in English. They were supporting characters in the drama, but audiences around the world shipped them.
My Name is Kim Sam-soon ended up becoming one of the greatest Korean dramas of all time. Kim Sun-a was already a huge star, and it propelled then-newcomers Hyun Bin, Henney and Jung to stratospheric stardom. The show’s incredible success came as a surprise to everyone working on it, and Jung herself reveals what a nerve-wracking experience she had on the show.
“It was my first mini-series ever,” she says. “I’ve shot other dramas before, short ones, but My Name is Kim Sam-soon was my first mini-series and I didn’t have that headspace, and I was so scared. I didn’t want to make mistakes or burden my fellow actors, so thinking back, I had a great time, but I was also just constantly nervous.”
In fact, she adds, the entire cast was nervous because they were all so new to it. “We didn’t know what the expectations were, but I guess we pulled it off. Kim Sun-a was such a great actress and so amazing, and I learned a lot from her. And Hyun Bin and Daniel Henney … everybody was a big help. I was very lucky to have worked with them.”
When Jung first stepped into entertainment, she started out in a girl band but quit soon after to focus solely on acting. Growing up, Jung says she never had any real dreams about becoming anything until she tried acting. “Some people are blessed and when they’re young they already know what they want to do,” she says. “I didn’t really have a dream until I was acting in a morning series in 2002. I was 22, and
I was like, ‘Man, I really like this! Gosh!’ It was the only thing that made me feel alive.”
There was once a time when Jung reportedly almost gave up her career for love. We broach the subject tentatively, but Jung was extremely open about the experience and about the advice her own mother gave her on television: “We can’t beg for love.”
“I snapped out of it when I heard that from my mum,” Jung shares candidly. “It took me three years to get out of that love and I’m no longer a beggar for love. But yes, I think it has its side effects. You become more cynical. If you’re not a hopeless romantic, you’re a cynical lover. So maybe I’ll fall for someone but I won’t say it out loud now.”
She laughs, mostly at herself, and continues, “I’ll tell myself, ‘You’re not in love, you’re just… it’s just the situation. Everything seems good right now but it may not be! So don’t be fooled by the …’” she struggles to find the right word and confers with her translator. “Bun-wigi. The mood! Yes!”
She laughs hard at this. “Don’t be fooled by the bun-wigi. It’s not the guy, it’s the bun-wigi!”
To Jung, now 42, her career is everything these days. She has a mantra she repeats to herself just before the cameras start rolling. “I love my job,” she’ll whisper to herself and throw herself into her work. “I think acting will be my first priority until the day I die,” she says. “As I get older I may not be as busy or as active as I used to be, and I find acting more precious because of that and I’m more thankful because of that.”
Jung’s latest role is in the film Woman in a White Car, a thriller mystery that takes place in a snowy rural town in South Korea. The trailer for the movie opens with a clearly distraught and frazzled-looking Jung, whose character – Do-kyung – cradles a blood-soaked woman and is screaming for help. Acting alongside her is detective Hyun-ju, played by Lee Jung-eun of Parasite fame, who finds flaws in all the witness accounts and discovers that the unconscious woman that Do-kyung brought in isn’t her sister, as she claims. It’s a classic Rashomon intrigue, brought to life on screen by the magnetic performances of both Jung, who is refreshingly raw and unpredictable, and Lee, who’s stellar as a competent yet conflicted policewoman trying to piece together the mystery at hand.
In fact, the role of Do-kyung seems quite unlike Jung’s usual repertoire of romantic comedies and legal dramas. Audiences have loved her turn as charismatic prosecutors on dramas such as Witch at Court, and fawned over her chemistry with fellow co-stars in the delightful Bubble Gum and Wok of Love.
But the actress gleefully claims, “I love thrillers.” She just never found the right partners and the right script before Woman in a White Car came along. “I was always kind of timid and scared about being challenged in a project like this, because I didn’t know if I could pull off the acting. But this time, I knew it would be OK, because the director and the staff were close friends of mine and I knew I’d be comfortable with them when I heard about the project,” says Jung. “And then when I read the script, Do-kyung had various sides to her, which I liked. She wasn’t one-sided – she had wildly different personas and was quite colourful. So I thought it would be a good challenge for me to do this when, especially, I’m around people I trust. It was great and I loved it.”
The film, which was voted the Best International Feature at the San Diego Film Festival in 2022, was directed by newcomer Christine Ko. It was Ko’s directorial debut, and it also marked the first time Jung had worked with a female director and an almost all-women cast. But it was because of this that she felt protected and welcomed, and it gave her the space to give in to the character, as different as she is to the real Jung.
Playing a schizophrenic patient wasn’t more challenging than any other character she’s embodied before. According to Jung, all roles come with their challenges. Shooting Woman in a White Car was just a different kind of challenge, as she was filming the web series May It Please The Court concurrently. “I was a lawyer one day and a schizophrenic the next day. There were days when I’m like, “Where am I?” That was the only thing, but the character itself wasn’t too difficult.”
The vastly different plot, the sets and the make-up helped her transition from Do-kyung one day to Noh Chak-hee the next. “Do-kyung was in trainers and rags, and Chak-hee wore Chanel suits and heels. Do-kyung had dirt on her face and hands, and Chak-hee had full-on make-up. So that helped me a lot. The environments were so different.”
What’s harder, in fact, is when a character is almost a mirror-image of herself. “I think Kim Haeng-ah from Bubble Gum was the closest to my own personality, and I had a hard time interacting because it felt like I was seeing my face every day,” she confesses.
“I like to play characters who are totally the opposite of me, because back then,” she pauses, trying to find her words, “I didn’t really like who I was, so I didn’t want to show the real me. I always wanted to
show someone totally different, someone elegant, straightforward and assertive, you know, like a powerful career woman. I wanted to play that because I’m not that. I’m a huge softie and I’m playful and curious, and I don’t know why but I didn’t like that about myself. So I enjoyed hiding myself in the shell of another character.”
But Jung plays these characters so well. She was outspoken and fearless as a prosecutor in the legal drama Witch at Court, for which actor Yoon Hyun-min quips, when prompted at an awards show to describe his co-star, that “the only thing that’s similar is that they’re pretty.” And the differences? “Prosecutor Ma Ideum is a strong and ambitious woman,” he tells the awards host. “I think that’s different
from how she actually is.” To which Jung, stifling her laughter to his left, replies, “He’s right.”
But maybe Yoon didn’t quite fully grasp how powerful his co-star could be. Jung won the award for Top Excellence in Acting that same night at the KBS Drama Awards in 2017 for her portrayal of the unstoppable Ma Ideum in Witch at Court. And in her acceptance speech, she was unstoppable herself. Uncharacteristically compared with most thank-you speeches, Jung took her chance on the stage to shine a light on sex crimes, which her character takes on in the show.
Emotional yet determined, Jung told the audience, “The drama Witch at Court covered sex crimes, which is a pretty heavy subject. It’s common, like the flu, but the victims are hidden. Through this drama, we hope that stricter laws will be enacted to punish those who have committed such crimes and give courage to the victims that they can speak out. The truth is, many victims of sexual crimes rarely speak up for themselves because they feel ashamed. I hope our drama gives them comfort. With that goal in mind, our staff members and all the actors worked really hard on this drama.”
Witch at Court changed Jung completely and gave her a new purpose. Her drama had just been released a few months before Me Too erupted in the United States and she quickly became an advocate in Korea for the movement.
“I wasn’t always interested, or aware,” Jung says. “But whenever I turned on the TV and heard about these sexual harassment cases, it was always the small voices that were fading away in the background that caught my attention. And so I became interested in the topic. The role I played in the drama was also sexually harassed and while reading the script and memorising my lines, I really felt what the victims were feeling and I got really engaged to the role. It changed me.”
The laws in Korea surrounding sex crimes are still complex. Many victims would rather not report them to the police for fear of being shamed in public trials – and even when they do find the courage to do so, often those who are convicted receive sentences that seem far too lenient for the crimes they committed.
It’s a situation that still infuriates Jung. “It’s like a guilt trip and they make you feel like a victim,” she says. “What I really want is for there to be a simpler process for the victims to come forward and tell their story without asking them to go back again and again into the painful memories.”
After Witch at Court, Jung developed a penchant for legal dramas, and to bring up issues that might have been buried in the past. “In real life, there are a lot of problems or crimes that remain unsolved and are left as mysteries,” she explains. “But in dramas, we can write a solution for them, or highlight incidents that have been forgotten. I can act it out, and feel like justice could be made through drama, when in real life it’s not always possible. So I like to talk about things that are unjust. I like to talk about things on behalf of people who don’t have a voice.”
It’s where she sees the next step of her career. Jung has great support from her company H & Entertainment, which has agreed to look into filming rights to books she’s interested in and stories she wants to bring to the world. In a book she’s currently engrossed in, themed around survival, the characters are dealt cards but have to act in the opposite way to what the cards say. “It’s an interesting premise,” says Jung. “So I want to look into turning that story into a film.”
But with all the emotionally consuming dramas she’s just wrapped up, her next project is a more light-hearted one, focusing on the daily life of two ordinary friends who live together. There’s no slated release date yet as it’s still in its infancy.
Jung would like to make movies and television series on all the most pertinent topics – issues she finds important, which include animal rights, sexual trafficking and labour rights. It’s a fine balance between entertainment and activism that she’s trying to achieve.
“I like stories based on real events, but they can often be a bit too heavy, especially considering that people who come home from work want to turn on the TV and watch something entertaining,” she says. “My ultimate goal is to gain trust from the audience by giving them stories that are enjoyable, I want people to watch my dramas because they’ve seen and loved my previous work. And then, at the end of the day, I want to highlight these unheard, untold stories that I think should be told. I’ll never stop looking for those stories. But for now, I’m gaining the audience’s trust.”
And trust in Jung we will.
(Header image: Jung Ryeo-won wears Alexander McQueen.)
Source: Prestige Online