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Born in Seoul, transplanted to Canada at age 11, and returned to Seoul at age 21, Choi Wooshik toiled for 6 years as a familiar face in Korean dramas and small feature roles.  At a crossroads in his career, Choi gave his all to star in the haunting, heartbreaking SET ME FREE, which not only won him the Busan International Film Festival Actor of the Year, and the prestigious Blue Dragon awards, it also gained him a place in the incredible international cast of Director Bong Joon-hoís OKJA, as a rebellious avatar for Bongís message to todayís youth.

In his first overseas interview, Choi told me about his days on the OKJA set, working with US stars, Steven Yeun and Paul Dano, and the possibility of future western projects.

Dig it!

 

OKJA

Choi Wooshik

 

The Lady Miz Diva:  Please tell us how you came to OKJA?

Choi Wooshik:  There was this movie called SET ME FREE.  It happened to be that one of Director Bongís assistants said, ďOh, there is this guy who played in SET ME FREE.  This guy does a lot of dramas.Ē  But Director Bong doesnít really watch dramas, so the assistant kind of introduced me to him, telling him about SET ME FREE, and that he would love it, and asking him to watch it and maybe bring me in to audition.  Then he watched SET ME FREE and he called me right after.

The thing was, that Kim, the truck driver, had to speak English, but at the time when they called me, they didnít really know that I had lived in Canada for years, so it was like, ďOh my God, you speak English?  Thatís so cool.  Thatís perfect!Ē

 

LMD:  Tell us about the filming OKJA.  What was your preparation like?  How many days were you on set?

CW:  In preproduction, we had about two months of preparing the hair, the costumes, and rehearsing our acting.  For other movies, two months of preproduction, well, yeah, I get it, but for me, I had such a short period of acting scenes, but I still had two months preparing it.  Bong was so detailed; he wants perfectly detailed acting.  Actually, I think it was actually more than two months, without acting; we just had to prepare our appearances for two months.  On set, I think I had 15 days of shooting.  It was a short scene, but the whole scene that I had was involved in the action and the visual effects.  I did have one day of shooting in Vancouver, so I think it was actually 16 days.

 

LMD:  When you read the script, what was it about your character, Kim, the truck driver, that stood out to you?

CW:  It was working with Bong, the chance to work with him.  It was also the opportunity to work with an international crew.  I heard that the camera director would be Darius Khondji.  It was like I had to do this, I was really sure.

 

LMD:  Director Bong seems to be someone who appreciates collaboration and what artists can bring to the table.  Is there anything you brought to the character that wasnít there before?

CW:  At first I thought that Kim was just a guy who learned English in Korea by himself, and then he just wanted to go outside of Korea.  And thatís how I acted it at first, but Bong is so detailed in everything, and he made my character more mysterious seeming.  It helped me a lot.  He wanted Kim to be really specific Ė this mysterious guy.

In the part where I had to speak with Yoon Je-moon, Bong wanted the scene to be really normal looking, but how Bong would view it, so the acting and everything Ė the look on my face and my movements Ė he just gave me a very detailed direction so I could just do it.  It was really fun.

 

LMD:  I feel like in all the political messages throughout OKJA, Kim is sort of his own political or societal message. He seems quite rebellious and not deferential to his superior, or his elder, and doesnít care about the fact that he has a steady job, even though itís so hard for young people to find work in South Korea.  What gives him such confidence to strike out the way he does? 

CW:  I think Kim is Bongís message to every teenager growing up in Korea.  I think he wants young people in their 20s that live in Korea to be passionate people and be more outrageous with dreams.  Kim just wants to be the guy who goes out there, and he does by the end of the movie, right?  Kim is Bongís message to us.

 

LMD:  Please talk about working with the great veteran actor and longtime Bong collaborator, Yoon Je-moon?

CW:  This is my first time working with him.  Heís just so relaxed on the set.  I was so nervous working with the foreign staff, with Bong, working with Darius Khondji and with the Hollywood cast members; but he was just like, ĎIím Yoon Je-moon, and I donít care.  I know I canít act any better, so Iím not really that nervous.í  It was kind of that vibe.  I was shaking.  I was like, ďOh my God.  Thereís Paul Dano. Thereís Steven {Yeun}.  This is great.Ē  But he would say, ďMm, letís just do this and get it over with.Ē {Laughs} Heís so cool.

 

LMD:  Tell us a little bit about your experience working with the Hollywood cast members.  What did you observe and watching them?

CW:  It was a great experience to work with them, but it kind of felt like we had a lot of stuff to do.  {Laughs} Cos when we were shooting the scene where I was talking with Yoon Je-moon, and we were driving Ė we shot that over two hours, just Yoon Je-moon and I.  After that, Paul Dano had maybe five minutes of shooting after us, and while he was acting, that look in his eyes and everything - he just stole the whole scene from us. 

We were acting so hard and just spouting gibberish in Korean and English and trying to be funny, but Paul just looked at us for five seconds and he stole a whole scene from us.  I was like, wow, thatís acting - that look.  I donít know what he was doing, but we had a lot of stuff to do to follow up on that.

I mean, acting, I think the Koreans do have a lot of good sense for acting, but Hollywood is different.  They have this look Ė I donít know quite how to say it, but they are so relaxed and confident.  It was so cool.  It was a really great experience to work with them.

 

LMD:  Some of the things that youíre saying about the difference between you and Mr. Yoon and your impression of Paul Dano and the other Western actors is reminding me of a recent interview I did with Director Kim Jee-woon for MILJUNG/AGE OF SHADOWS, where he talked about how Korean actors tend to over emote or act with a lot of sentimentality.  Do you understand what he means by that?

CW:  At first, when we were acting with the whole the whole Hollywood cast, at that moment I felt like, ĎOh, this is the difference.í  Itís a cultural difference.  Letís just say this is a scene, all right; Koreans will think that this is emotional and the level of emotion will be may be a nine or ten.  A foreign actor will be like, ĎMm, maybe four or five.í  So the whole cultural difference really is different.

Korean actors try to shake the audienceís emotions; they try so hard to express their emotions.  So good actors in Korea, they hide their emotions, like Song Kang-ho.  When he acts, he doesnít show his emotions, and I think people like that.

 

LMD:  So, has the experience of OKJA and working with the western actors, made you think differently about your own acting technique?

CW:  I gained a lot of confidence after that.  As you can hear, my personality is not really cool, so Iím not very confident, but after this experience, I gained a lot of confidence just by looking at the foreign staff working.  Everyone is so professional at their level, right?  But in Korea, because there are culture differences and elders get respect even though theyíre not at the level of getting respect, but they still do because theyíre older than you; sometimes itís really hard to work with Korean staffs because of the culture difference.

 

LMD:  The strong deference to age and status must be very difficult for artists in a field where collaboration can be so key?

CW:  Right.  And I grew up in Canada, also; itís been harder for me.  Working with the foreign staffs in OKJA, it was just perfect.  That world was perfect.  Like, that was what I wanted so much.

And Bong -- inside, I donít think heís Korean {Laughs}.  Heís so chill, heís so relaxed.  He knows how to control actors.  Maybe I looked nervous or maybe I had this ĎHelp meí face, Director Bong just came up to me and he just heard me out so well.  He just talked to me and told me, ďYou donít have to be nervous about everything.Ē  Heís just soÖ  I donít know if I will ever work with Bong again, but he is one of the greatest guys I ever met in Korea.

 

LMD:  Is OKJA perhaps your first step into making more films with international casts?

CW:  I mean, one of my dreams was for me to make the transition to foreign projects, but itís going to be really hard.  Iíd have to grind myself really hard:  Iíd have to change some of my appearance.  I have to work on my presentation, I have to get rid of my Asian accent {Laughs}.

I was talking about this to Steven - heís my hyung now. He knew about that what it meant to be the hyung Ė ďhyungĒ means brother in Korean. He knew about that stuff, and he was so cool with it, and he just told me - because I havenít watched the movie yet - so he came up to me and said ďHyung, you did so good. Your scenes were so funny.Ē Iíve been telling him that I really want to go to the States and pursue my career there. So, he was just telling me about the agencies and management.

It will be really hard work, and Iím ready to do that work, but it will be really hard. There are a lot of Asian actors that are there already, grinding so hard.

 

LMD:  I find your story fascinating because youíre someone originally from South Korea who grew up partially in Canada. What made you decide to pursue acting in Korea instead of in Canada or the US?  

CW:  When I was growing up in Canada, I didnít really want to act.  At first, I wanted to direct theater - that got me into acting.  My family had to go back to Korea for a short period of time, so I followed them.  When I went there, there was a huge international audition for this really big drama, and I thought maybe I will just try it, or whatever, letís just see what will happen.  So I did it and I got in. 

The audition was really internationally big; people were coming from everywhere.  At that time, I was so surprised because I never learned acting, or how to read a script, so I donít really know how, but I got in.  So after that, I worked to study acting and after that, I got into this company, and after that, I did a few auditions and I got into a drama called THE DUO; it was a historical drama.  In the beginning, I did a lot of dramas, and then I did SET ME FREE.  So many people were interested in SET ME FREE and I got really fortunate to receive the Busan Actor of the Year {award}.

 

LMD:  You are represented by JYP Entertainment. From my distant observation, they seem like one of the most welcoming of a more global approach; having artists from outside Korea, or artists who can work outside of Korea.  Is that a correct assessment? Do you feel encouraged by the company to try to make an effort in the west?

CW:  They do want to work globally, but I donít think they know exactly what they have to do.  I donít think they know how to get their artists go to the States.  I donít think JYP has a global agent yet, so they are trying.  They would love to work internationally.  They were very encouraging.

 

LMD:  One of the things I enjoy about your acting is how you totally give yourself over to a role.  Whether itís a comedic character in ROOFTOP PRINCE, FATED TO LOVE YOU, or HOGUíS LOVE, your supporting roles in SECRETLY, GREATLY and TRAIN TO BUSAN, or the haunting, harrowing, starring performance in SET ME FREE; you pull on the skin of your characters and there seems to be no limit to how much you give physically or emotionally. 

When you are creating a character, are you someone who needs to live in the skin of that character, or can you leave the role on the set at the end of the day?

CW:  For that character that I played in SET ME FREE, I had to live as Young-jae for four months.  It was my first time doing really heavy acting.  After that, I was so depressed and I couldnít get out of the role.  It was really new for me to experience that.  When I was acting in SET ME FREE, I think I was really into it for a few months, not a year, but maybe few months.  Iíve only been acting for six or seven years now, so Iím still experiencing new stuff every day.  So, itís really hard for me to say whether a method actor or not, but at that time of SET ME FREE, it was really new for me.

Other acting that I did in roles like ROOFTOP PRINCE, or in other movies, I could just be joyful and just learn on the set, but SET ME FREE got me really depressed and it was definitely new for me.

 

LMD:  SET ME FREEís character Young-jae is very complex.  Heís someone who does awful things, but there are legitimate reasons and motivations, but he still does terrible things.  You have the huge challenge of portraying him so fully that we can see his depths.  Do you have to find a relatable core to the characters you play, even when on the surface, they might not seem so sympathetic?

CW:  To be honest, Young-jae was the type of guy who felt when he was at home, he didnít feel like it was his home.  He would always have to adapt to his environment, all the time.  But, for me, my whole life was kind of like that, because when I moved to Canada, I had to adapt to my environment, I had to make new friends.  And after coming here again, I had to adapt again. 

When I was in Canada, I thought I was awkward and out of place.  When I came here after living in Canada for 10 years and coming back here, it didnít really feel like it was my hometown, at first.  So, in my life, Iíve had to always adapt to a new environment, so I think that was my core similarity to Young-jae.  It helped me a lot to portray Young-jae.

 

LMD:  In the west, itís pretty common for actors to have their own production companies to find and foster their own film projects.  However, after speaking with several actors, I got the impression that actors having production companies does not occur in Korea.  But if you were able to establish your own production company and choose projects for yourself, would you choose to do things in the drama genre?

CW:  You know thereís a whole new types of media content these days, right?  If I had my own production company, I would love to make YouTube films.  Because before, I told you that I really wanted to be a theater director, right?  So every time when I was acting, I always had this dream of being a director, someday.  So I was always thinking about making a short film, or short series that would go streaming on YouTube, or Netflix, or Vimeo.  I was trying to do that, but it involves people, it involves money.  I was just waiting for a chance, but I would love to do that.

 

LMD:  Well, thatís interesting because your film, OKJA is currently embroiled in a controversy in South Korea because it is being released on Netflixís streaming platform.  What is your feeling about it?

CW:  I think the people in the industry right now see streaming as a whole different genre.  I think they need to step it up and think about the future.  At first, when the iPhone came out, people were like, ĎOh, thatís just an iPod with phone ability,í but it was a whole new generation.  People just think that itís new, so they donít really accept it.  But I think maybe in five or 10 years, all movies are going to be net streamed.

 

LMD:  What is coming up next for you?

CW:  Iíve done three movies already.  When I was filming OKJA, I was doing other stuff too.  Iíve done three movies that havenít come out yet, so theyíre coming up.  So right now, Iím filming this movie called STRANGE OBJECT {Literal title: WATER MONSTER}.  You know the movie by Bong Joon-ho called GWEOMUL/THE HOST?  Itís similar to that, but itís a historical Korean setting.  I was just filming that until five this morning.

The first movie that I have coming up is called MARITAL HARMONY with Lee Seung-gi.  Heís in the Army.  He filmed this movie and then he went into the military right away.  That comes out in October in Korea.

The second movie is called YOUR NAME IS ROSE.  That will come out this winter.  Iím not sure of the exact date, yet.

STRANGE OBJECT comes out next summer.  Weíre filming it right now, but it has a lot of CG work.

 

~ The Lady Miz Diva

June 15th, 2017

 

OKJA opens in cinemas and streams on Netflix on June 28th.

 

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Photos  

Stills Courtesy of Netflix

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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