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[Herald Interview] Lee Jung-jae returns as invincible fighter

Actor talks about his 20-year career and his new action flick ‘Big Match’

Model-turned-actor Lee Jung-jae has worked in TV and film for many years. 

Lee instantly became a household name when he starred in the 1994 campus TV drama “Feelings.” In 1995, his impressive supporting role as a silent, devoted bodyguard in the sensational TV drama “Sandglass” turned him into a national heartthrob. Boosted by his success on the small screen, his 1999 film “City of the Rising Sun,” with costar Jung Woo-sung ― who has become one of Lee’s best friends ― earned him a best actor award and critical acclaim.

Two decades have passed and Lee is again at the white-hot center of a hit, enjoying his second heyday.

His recent films have been both critical and box-office hits. “The Thieves” (2012) joined the coveted 10 million viewer club, while “New World” (2013) and “The Face Reader” (2013) attracted 4.6 million and 9 million viewers, respectively. 
Actor Lee Jung-jae poses before an interview with The Korea Herald in Seoul on Monday. (Hohohobeach)
Actor Lee Jung-jae poses before an interview with The Korea Herald in Seoul on Monday. (Hohohobeach)

Riding nonstop success, he returns this time as professional mixed martial arts fighter Choi Ik-ho, who runs for his life in the new action flick “Big Match,” directed by Choi Ho.

In an interview with The Korea Herald on Monday, the 41-year-old actor admitted that his age was an important factor when he chose the physically intense film.

“I realized I might not get a chance to play such a hardcore athletic role in the future,” said Lee.

Lee trained every day for six months before the start of shooting and continued the laborious workouts for five months during the filming, including training with professional fighters. “For about a year, I would wake up in the morning, eat, work out, eat, work out and go to bed. That would be my routine.”

He denied that he is always as fit as people assume.

“That is not true. I always have to watch what I eat and work out all the time, which can be quite painful.”

“Especially, since my role was a professional fighter, my body had to resemble them, which required intense training,” said the actor. “And at this age, my body is not the same.”

“It is a given that actors do have a responsibility to work hard for their roles,” said Lee. “But it is not always as easy as it sounds.”

During the training, Lee tore his rotator cuff and could not move his arms for a while. Doctors told him to get surgery immediately and withdraw from the film.

But he decided to continue because he didn’t want all the training and painful exertion to go to waste.

The 112-minute film showcases his head-to-toe endeavor from beginning to end as he fervently rolls, jumps and smacks people along the way.

In “Big Match,” Ik-ho becomes a game marker inside a special game designed by a genius named Ace (Shin Ha-kyun), for the wealthiest high-stake gamblers to wager huge sums of money. Ik-ho is forced to play this brutal real-time high-tech game when his brother (Lee Sung-min) disappears one day. He then receives mysterious instructions from Ace.

Along with the stomach-knotting suspense that runs from the beginning to the end, there are flashes of slapstick humor and Ik-ho’s series of foolhardy decisions evokes laughter, though Lee confesses that he finds comedic acting very difficult.

“Some people are naturally talented at making people laugh, but I am not one of them,” said Lee. “Even when I was acting some scenes, I questioned my ability several times.”

But Lee believes humor is an important aspect of Korean action films: “The Korean action (genre is) usually set in a familiar stage, loaded with smart plot twists and humor, and that is what makes it unique.”

Despite his nonstop success on the screen, the actor admits that he has fallen into career slumps from time to time, which have lasted for three to four years.

Around 2005, after starring in the film “Typhoon,” Lee was hungry for more masculine roles. “But the scripts I received were far from the roles I had wanted. So I didn’t take them and missed out on some good roles. And then I realized time just slipped by.”

Then, the actor recognized that waiting around for good work to arrive won’t necessarily solve the problem. “I had to abstain from my desire and try out for every opportunity,” he said.

Among those opportunities, he grabbed “The Housemaid” in 2010, which was a sensational hit, going on to compete for the highest prize at the Cannes Film Festival in 2010. The film helped Lee get back on his feet again.

“Now when I choose films, I trust my instinct and follow my heart.” said Lee. “If I can feel something from a written script, acting comes easier to express my feelings, and I can relate to the story and focus better.”

“With this film, I just want people to have fun and laugh a lot, and see a more friendly and relaxed side of me,” said Lee.

“Big Match” opened in theaters Wednesday.

By Ahn Sung-mi (
Korea Herald Youtube