It was early 2007 when I first met Jung ll-woo. He was playing Lee Yoon-ho, the troublemaker high-school student in MBC sitcom "High Kick". He was actually a freshman in college but he, who looked better in his on-screen school uniform and captured the hearts of female fans around the country with his bright smile, said few words and was a little shy, as if he was not used to the sudden spotlight. Two more years passed. During that time, Jung Il-woo stepped down from taking on teen heartthrob roles and appeared as one of many stars in the omnibus film "My Love" and came back as Iljimae in MBC's "Iljimae Returns", which went into production six months prior to airing. Time flies by fast, but Jung Il-woo doesn't rush in his steps. What is he thinking and what has he learned, from being a boy who became a top star at 20 and growing up be a 23-year-old young man? This is the very reason I wanted to meet Jung Il-woo, who has matured quite a bit through "Iljimae Returns". And the Jung Il-woo that I met again was shy no more.
10: Your voice sounds better than before.
Jung Il-woo (Jung): Thank you. (laugh) My voice did change. The character of Iljimae is very cold and composed so it seems to have also changed while rehearsing. It’ll probably change again in my next role.
Jung: I’m shooting the 23rd episode. We have a lot of on-location shoots, so a few days ago I was in Gwang-yang and I think I’ll be going to Wando one more time. Gangwon-do, Jeolla-do, Gyeongsang-do… there is no place that we haven’t been to in the country. We do a lot of shooting in the mountains, so we turn off our mobile phones often because it doesn’t work anyway. When we can’t drive a car into the mountains, I carry an equipment too and we climb the mountains to shoot. (laugh)
10: “Returns” started shooting last summer. How was your first meeting with director Hwang In-roe?
Jung: He asked me a lot of personal questions. Things like how I was doing, what my family was like.
Jung: I didn’t sign a contract but I had been preparing for that role for about four months. I was going to play a short track skater, so I skated for seven hours every day.
Jung: If it takes female skating champions eight seconds to do one lap, I got about ten seconds.
10: Then you must have felt like you wasted all that practice when deciding to do “Iljimae Returns” instead of “Triple”.
Jung: Not really. I think when you do something, you’ll be able to use it someday. It was a good experience.
10: Director Kim Byung-wook of “High Kick”, Lee Yoon-jung of “Triple”, Hwang In-roe of “Returns” -- they are all top directors in their fields. You have worked with many good directors. How do you feel about them from your first-hand experience?
Jung: First of all, what they have in common is that they are all short-tempered. And they’re kind of explosive too. (laugh) But as far as work is concerned, all three are the best and they are really great people.
10: Before you started shooting, did you read the comic books “Iljimae” which is the basis for “Iljimae Returns”?
Jung: Of course I did. The first time I read it, I focused on the character and then I focused on the story. After reading it, I felt that Iljimae is a hero but he wasn’t born a hero. He goes through so many difficult and miserable experiences as a man, and he feels a lot and changes through those experiences. I don’t think a hero becomes a hero in an instant.
Jung: It was July 23, 2008. We were shooting in Dan-yang and it was a scene where Iljimae is training martial arts with his master during the Ching Dynasty. It really rained a lot that day but the director forced us to shoot all day. It was trouble, from day one. (laugh)
10: Director Hwang is pretty strict and requires a certain level of acting from the actors. How does he bring that out on set?
Jung: He gets angry. He says, “Do it right!” (laugh) But I found out later that he doesn’t get angry with women. (laugh) In the beginning, he said that Iljimae, not Jung Il-woo, has to come out so I worried a lot about that. For example, he told me not to laugh on set and not to make loud noises when I got hurt, things like that. And I took in all of that literally and tried to become Iljimae. So director Hwang doesn’t get angry often these days. He doesn’t give me many instructions either, just general stuff like, ‘Try doing it like this’.
10: But the character of Iljimae is incredibly complicated and unique. It must have been hard to understand because the character is so unique and impossible to copy off from anyone else.
Jung: That was the hardest thing. The director tells me not to laugh sometimes and to laugh sometimes. And even when I’m supposed to laugh, when it has to be subtle, he tells me to laugh ‘ambiguously’. (laugh) I think it took up to 13 to 14 episodes to establish the character’s identity. But when I think about it, Iljimae was not a hero from the start but he changes as he goes through a lot of confusion and experiences. So I think I’m growing with the drama as well.
10: The drama has a lot of action scenes. What was it like to play a master who had mastered all the martial arts from three countries -- Korea, China and Japan?
Jung: I had learned hapgido in the past and I went through basic physical strength training for a month before we started shooting. I worked out for seven hours daily, including running 7 kilometers every day. I love to exercise so the action scenes weren’t that hard to do, except when I didn’t get much sleep or had to stay up all night. The wire actions were actually fun.
10: The melodrama between Iljimae and Weol-hee (played by Yoon Jin-seo) is as important as the action. How do you think Iljimae feels about Weol-hee?
Jung: Like it is in the original comic books, I think the woman that Iljimae loves is his first love Dal-yi who was killed by the government. To be blunt about Iljimae, maybe he was just playing with Weol-hee. (laugh) That is the only explanation I have. He was with Weol-hee for several years, but when he wants to see her, he comes to talk, hang around and leaves. Then he talks about marriage and takes it back. He abandons Weol-hee somewhere and doesn’t come back. Really, he’s a bad guy. (laugh) So that’s why Weol-hee even attempts suicide. The director says Iljimae likes Weol-hee, but I don’t think he does. Um, that is.. He does like her but I don’t think he loves here. But it’s a unique characteristic of the drama where the feelings don’t flow from one extreme to the other. I think the director wants it that way too. The situations may be dramatic but it doesn’t hit rock bottom.
10: One of the most important subject matters in the original story is Iljimae’s disguise as a woman. I wondered how it was going to be shown in the drama. What was it like playing a gi-saeng?
Jung: It was just acting so it was okay, but it was extremely difficult wearing a woman’s han-bok. The skirt strings are tightened very firmly around the chest area so that hurt, and it was uncomfortable wearing the big wig. Even the makeup took over an hour. It was a once-in-a-lifetime, painful experience. (laugh)
10: You looked pretty good as long as it was a full shot. Of course, standing 6 foot in height would have been rare for a woman or a man during the Chosun Dynasty. (laugh)
Jung: The full shot looked bad, no matter how hard I tried to look pretty. I was worried that people would be turned off by it if I looked too unattractive, but the response was like ‘Hmm, better than I thought’. So that was a relief.
Photographer : Chae ki-won email@example.com
Reporter : Choi Ji-Eun firstname.lastname@example.org
Editor : Lynn Kim email@example.com, Lee Ji-Hye firstname.lastname@example.org
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