It’s not a stretch to think that God spent a lot of time on this one, even within the South Korean realm where actors and idols are distinguished both by their craft and by their beauty. And it’s easy to typecast Ji Chang-Wook given such irrefutable good looks. His lead role as a skater in the 2010 romance drama Smile Again first put him on the map, but it was his emotive agility as the eccentric prince and emperor in Empress Ki a few years later that sealed his reputation as a versatile and skilled actor.
Ever since, Ji has become the marquee name in acting. We’ve seen him as a reclusive courier-for-hire in Healer, a vengeful bodyguard in The K2 and an unapproachable prosecutor in Suspicious Partner, moving through action flicks, thrillers, dramas, period pieces and rom coms with metamorphic ease over the decade he’s been in the business. Yet being able to leave new imprints on his audience is still his pursuit, and perhaps the linchpin to his success. Fresh from his role as a convenience store manager in 2020’s Backstreet Rookie, the actor talks to ELLE Singapore about his start in theatre before crossing over to TV, his technique for embodying different characters and the pressure of outperforming one’s own stellar repertoire.
Tell us about your younger self. What were some of your interests, and what put you on the path to acting?
I liked exercising when I was young. I loved football and was always running around. During my middle to high school days, I was just a normal student and spent my time studying for exams. I didn’t know what I liked or which path I should choose; I selected my path based on my results just like any other student did. Then one day when I was in my senior year, I had a sudden thought that acting could be fun, and that was the first time I actually had a goal in mind: to major in theatre. Ever since then, my goal was to be a good actor.
You first debuted in a musical, and naturally moved into movies and dramas after — how did that happen? As you sing as well, did the thought of being a singer ever cross your mind?
How I first started in musicals was because I needed money. I worked part- time jobs as a waiter in cafes when I was a student. Back then I was a theatre major and I wanted to do something that was related to it in order to gain more experience, so I searched the web and for the first time ever, went for an audition. One thing led to another.
When I was 21 years old, I took part in an independent film and it premiered at the Independent Film Awards. I got signed, and that’s how I went on to appear on television. I went for countless auditions and failed every single one of them. After doing tens of auditions, I managed to get my first role in the drama My Too Perfect Sons.
I’ve never thought of becoming a singer. I’m not as talented as singers are, although I loved singing so much that I did think of studying further to progress to become a musical actor — but never a singer.
How did you feel when you first heard that you were cast in the main role of Smile Again, and did the love you received from it help you gain confidence as an actor?
The audition for this drama was really tough. I had four to five meetings with the director. I’m sure they had concerns about casting a rookie actor as the main character, so they only decided after several rounds of meetings. I felt the immense pressure of playing the main role and was really worried, and there was so much going on, but I was ecstatic at the same time. It was so hectic while I prepared for it that there was hardly any time left for me to worry.
The success of Smile Again actually made me more anxious for my next production. I was still very lacking, but the viewer rating was so high it made me concerned as to what I should do next and in general, it made me super anxious. I became so anxious because I received so much love when I wasn’t ready at all.
All your productions have received praise and love. From the production and script to the directing, what do you think impacts the outcome the most?
All the aspects are equally important. A production doesn’t perform well if it only has a good script and the same goes for the other aspects. Be it dramas, movies or theatre, they are only made possible because all these aspects are fused together to make it work. Through every production that I take part in, it becomes more apparent that only doing well individually does not matter. When I was younger, I always thought that the production would perform well as long as I do my part well, but it’s about teamwork. I think the cooperation of everyone guarantees success. As an actor, I worry the most about my character, my role in the whole production, and the tone and manner of the work — because I am learning. Understanding the director and having chemistry with the other actors are also important.
Your filmography for the past 10 years shows that you’ve been building up your career by consistently taking on good productions, as well as showing that you’re a quality actor. Does this give you more pressure when embarking on a new production now?
I can’t help but to feel pressured. It was all about sustaining when I was younger. I had to repay my family’s debts and give my mother an allowance. So, if the main goal back then was financial sustainability, then now it is about leaving my mark as an actor. I definitely put in more thought and consideration and hence my past films become a source of pressure, because I have to show an even better side of myself, better acting and new things.
What excites you the most when you enter a new production?
The thought that I get to show new sides of myself, or when I discover a side of me that I didn’t know I had. Working with someone new is really exciting. On the other hand, there are also concerns as to whether I’ll be able to do a good job with someone new, or if we will be able to work well together. Doing things for the first time is always an exciting and nervous experience.
In your latest drama Backstreet Rookie, you were able to express numerous different characters — what was the journey to achieving that like for you? Additionally, was there another actor who left a strong impression on you?
Rather than thinking about it myself, I discuss with the other actors and the production teams and that helps a lot. If I think about how I’m going to do it myself, there’s always going to be a certain limit, so I find that it’s better to ask those around me for suggestions. Kim Sun-Young, who acted as my mother in Backstreet Rookie left such a deep impression on me as an actor and I enjoyed working with her. I think she stimulated my acting emotionally, and that was very satisfying. We did play jokes on each other and worked well together. I will be so happy if I’m able to act like her; that’s the impression she left on me.
You’ve acted across many genres, from action to romance comedy. How do you usually go about finding the humanity in the characters you play prior to filming?
I tend to look at the script for the character’s background; his personal preference, family environment, family relationships, and what choices he makes when thrown into situations. I “make” the character after studying all these, but because I can’t actually become him, I try to [incorporate] each character into my own thought process. The process for every production is different. There are times I deliberately damage my body or take extra care of my body when I study for a role. It really differs.
Was there one that took you a long time to study?
It’s difficult to pick on a past character specifically but I would say my role in Empress Ki… Firstly, it was an ancient period piece and my character’s personality was quite unusual, but as the filming duration was long I think the character was developed and built up throughout the whole filming process. At the end, the character felt complete. For The K2, I had to work out and prepare for all the action scenes, so that naturally took longer.
Do you enjoy playing characters with a similar or dissimilar personality to you?
I like both. For example, if the character is similar to me, it is more comfortable for me to act it out because it is easier to sympathise, and the more I read the script the more I sympathise, adding to the fun. It’s simpler and more comfortable, as I can just express how I really felt reading the script. But taking on a role that’s different from me is a fun process too, whereby I actually create the character. It’s exciting to show a new side of me or perform actions I would never do. In a way, it’s sort of self-satisfactory.
Are there any sides of you which fans have yet to see but you’d love to show?
I always want to show them various sides of me. Come to think of it now, I don’t think I’ve shown irritated and angry sides of myself; neither have I played an antagonist before. There are certain roles my fans and the audience would prefer, but I believe that it will be new and exciting to show different sides of me through acting.
If the main goal back then was financial stability, then now it is about leaving my mark as an actor.Ji Chang Wook
Coat, $9,800, by ERMENEGILDO ZEGNA. Photo: Hong Jang-Hyun
What is it about a script that hooks you in?
There are a few aspects, but it really differs depending on my physical and emotional situations. Sometimes I choose a script because I’m able to emotionally connect and sympathise with either the action, character or the content and the message it’s trying to convey, and that can win my heart.
Your career is now a decade long and you’ve consistently been working. What pushes you and motivates you?
It’s still fun. Working in productions and acting is still fun for me, in that I am able to experience and do things that Ji Chang Wook could never accomplish in his normal daily life. It’s refreshing and the whole process is always fun.
How do you usually spend your time when you’re resting? Have there been new hobbies that you’ve picked up over the last few months while we’ve all been staying home?
I usually meet my friends to eat, have coffee or a drink, and also ride my motorbike on my days off, but because of the coronavirus, I’m always at home now. Once in a while I’ll ride my motorbike or work out — I don’t do hobbies or trendy stuff.
What’s the next goal you want to achieve as an actor? Are you still waiting for a new challenge?
I want to keep doing well. I want to make even better productions. As an actor I want to do meaningful productions, and I also want to show better acting. It’s always been the same goals. I think I still have a long way to go. As just Ji Chang Wook, I want to be able to live my life more freely and be happy. There’s still a lot I haven’t been able to show; there are still many productions that I want to do. In a way, every production is a new challenge to me.
This story originally appeared on ELLE Singapore’s October 2020 issue.