[Herald Interview] Jung Woo-sung, from idol to gentleman to man of convictions

By Rumy Doo
  • Published : Jan 19, 2017 - 16:59
  • Updated : Jan 19, 2017 - 18:46
To most Korean moviegoers and fellow actors, Jung Woo-sung is best known for his role in Kim Sung-su’s 1997 gangster film “Beat.” He plays a teenager who drops out of high school -- something Jung also did in real life, due to his family’s poverty and his desire to pursue an acting career -- and is forced into the world of gangsters.

Jung is often referred to as “the celebrity’s celebrity” here. Many actors who debuted in later years, including Hyun Bin and Park Hae-jin, confessed to having idolized him and plastering their walls with still shots from the film, featuring Jung on a motorcycle or nonchalantly lighting a cigarette.

To viewers, he was an icon of tempestuous, James Dean-esque youth, an image which evolved into one symbolizing gentlemanly style throughout his 24-year career. 

But most recently, the actor, now 43, has been receiving the spotlight for his political convictions.

In last year’s “Asura: The City of Madness,” screened at the Toronto International Film Festival, Jung portrays a detective who goes corrupt to earn money for his hospitalized wife. In “The King,” which opened in local theaters Wednesday, he plays the ruthless politician Han Gang-sik who controls the country through wealth and scheming.

For Jung, these roles are a way to “raise awareness of the wrongs in our society,” he said at an interview Thursday at a cafe in Samcheong-dong, Seoul. 

Jung Woo-sung poses for a photo before a press interview on Thursday. (Artist Company)

In recent months, Jung has openly criticized the alleged political corruption in the Park Geun-hye administration, currently being investigated for abuse of authority, among other charges. He is reportedly included in the government’s alleged “black list” of celebrities.

“When I was younger, I would choose roles based on my personal tendencies,” said Jung. “As I grow older, I think about what films mean to me and what kind of role model I want to be to junior actors and society. So I think a lot about what the message is.”

Preparing to play the greed-driven politician, Jung pondered how he could “destroy” his character while portraying him, and over “those who throw away their conscience in their jobs ... and what kind of temptation those people face,” he said.

“Anyone can make twisted choices,” said Jung. “But that doesn’t mean it should be acceptable. So I wanted to destroy him.” 

Jung Woo-sung poses for a photo before a press interview on Thursday. (Artist Company)

“The King,” directed by Han Jae-rim (“The Face Reader,” 2013), is one of the many political thrillers crowding Korean theaters recently. One distinguishing factor, said Jung, is that it adopts “the perspective of those in power at the top and (explores) their motivations,” while other films tend to stand in the shoes of the downtrodden.

“I imagined these characters would have initially started out with a sense of duty and pride. But human beings can change according to their environment, and their principles can change when they’re not paying attention.”

After more than two decades in his field, Jung described acting as an “inconvenient job.” He pointed out the irony of having to delve into people’s emotions while largely being cut off from them.

“Inside the movie, we show the beauty of a moment, the drama of an event,” said Jung. “But off the set, many things are limited for the actor. We’re inevitably isolated from the society.”

When asked what kind of efforts he makes to hold onto his principles, Jung replied that “it starts with the most basic of things.”

“When someone talks bad about another person, don’t join in. When you get up in the morning, making your bed can determine how the whole day will go,” he said.

Ultimately, Jung concluded, the most important value for him is “respect for others.”

By Rumy Doo (doo@heraldcorp.com)