For South Korean actors, being successful in their homeland is a huge feat, given the competitive nature of the industry, but few take it to the next step: Hollywood. After all, Hollywood is a different ball game all together, and having a good grasp of English is important for anyone looking to make it on the scene.
South Korean actors Rain and Lee Byung Hun are testament to this, when they picked up English for their roles in Ninja Assassin and G.I. Joe: Retaliation respectively.
Joining their ranks is Gang Dong Won, who is polishing his English and open to learning surfing for his role in disaster movie Tsunami L.A.
The South Korean actor insists on doing this interview in English, even though he says it makes him “pretty nervous”.
He says slowly in Korean-accented English: “My English is not so good yet. I was thinking maybe it is better to just do this interview in Korean, but I can’t run away from English forever. So I decided, let’s go.”
Perhaps, his determination to do this in English is his way of prepping for his Hollywood debut next year, when he will have a leading role in the film Tsunami L.A., alongside rising actor Jordan Barrett.
The disaster drama, to be directed by Con Air (1997) director Simon West, is about a massive tidal wave that hits Los Angeles and causes mass destruction.
Gang, who plays a surfer, says he did not hesitate to accept the role offer.
“Many people from our generation would probably have good memories of Simon West’s Con Air,” says the 37-year-old bachelor. “I enjoyed reading this script and I think it is a rare opportunity to make an international debut with a leading role.”
While the actor may be a newbie in Hollywood, he is an A-list star in South Korea. He started out as a model during his university days, when he was spotted on the streets by a modelling agent.
He got his first taste of acting in 2000, when he was cast in Korean singer Jung Sung Mo’s music video, I Swear, in which he portrayed a cool, leather-clad gangster. He enjoyed the experience so much that he started taking acting lessons.
In 2003, he made his television debut with two drama series – playing a countryside doctor in Country Princess and then the son of a rich man in 1% Of Anything.
He got his breakthrough role a year later, in the teenage romance film, Temptation Of Wolves, in which he played a popular high school student. The role made him an instant heart-throb among young female fans in South Korea and the region.
He has since starred in more than 20 films, some of which have become huge box-office hits in South Korea. The supernatural thriller The Priests (2015), for example, in which he played a deacon, opened at No. 1 at the Korean box office and sold more than 5.4 million tickets.
He has also won several acting awards, including Best Actor at the 30th Korean Association of Film Critics Awards in 2010 for playing a North Korean spy in Secret Reunion (2010).
He says: “There is still a lot I want to do in my acting career. I hope to become one of the greatest actors, ever.”
YOU HAVE VISITED SINGAPORE SEVERAL TIMES NOW, SOMETIMES FOR WORK AND SOMETIMES FOR LEISURE. WHAT IS YOUR IMPRESSION OF THE COUNTRY?
The food is good here and the country is so clean. Also, the people are so kind. I think most people in South-east Asia are very kind.
WHEN DID YOU START LEARNING ENGLISH?
We learnt English in school, but I was more serious about studying it a few years ago. I started by reading children’s English books, first with books for two-year-olds. When I reached the middle school level, I found it quite difficult. So maybe you can say that I am failing middle school English (laughs).
YOU PLAY A SURFER IN TSUNAMI L.A. DID YOU LEARN HOW TO SURF FOR REAL?
I haven’t started shooting yet, but if the movie requires me to shoot scenes while surfing, I will learn it. I’ve tried surfing before twice on my own, but I’m not good at it.
WHEN DID YOU REALISE YOU WANTED TO ACT FOR A LIVING?
From my very first acting lesson, I knew that acting had to be my job. The only thing I could think about was my character. The acting coach and other students were all in front of me, but all I could think about was my character and how to best portray him.
HOW DO YOU KEEP YOUR PASSION FOR ACTING ALIVE?
I am actually the type of person who gets bored really easily. So what I do is I change up my projects as much as possible. Every few months, I try to do a new project and every single movie that I’ve done, I try to take on very different characters. So I have never felt bored in acting.
HOW DO YOU PICK YOUR PROJECTS?
The script is important, of course, but I also tend to see who is behind the project. I always like to go and meet the director of the movie before I accept a role, so that I can discuss the project with him first. When I see how passionate a director is about a movie, it makes me excited to want to work with him.
YOU ARE GOOD FRIENDS WITH ACTOR KIM WOO BIN, 28, WHO WAS DIAGNOSED LAST YEAR WITH NASOPHARYNX CANCER, A RARE HEAD AND NECK CANCER. HAVE YOU BEEN IN TOUCH WITH HIM?
Yes, I have. He is recovering and doing well. I got to know him when we filmed Master (2016). He was so kind and we got along well.
HOW WOULD YOU LIKE TO BE REMEMBERED?
As one of the greatest actors ever. And I really hope to reach a bigger market in Asia too. So even if I’m making mostly Korean-language movies, I hope that people from Singapore, China and Japan will watch them and enjoy my performances.
Image: Lianhe Zaobao
Text: Lianhe Zaobao, translated by Yip Wai Yee / The Straits Times / June 2018
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For more stories on Korean celebs, read 10 Korean Male Celebs You Didn’t Know Could Speak English Fluently and 8 Things You Didn’t Know About Gong Yoo.