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[Herald Interview] The many shades of Lee Jung-jae

Icon of urban sophistication dons rags in new film, constantly in search of different characters

Actor Lee Jung-jae has come to symbolize the sleek, sophisticated modern male in Korean cinema. But in his most recent film “Warriors of the Dawn,” directed by Jeong Yoon-chul, Lee sheds his usual slim-fitting suit for rags, dirt and disheveled hair.

“Appearances are important for viewers,” Lee said at an interview Thursday at a cafe in Palpan-dong in central Seoul. “Then, only afterwards, are viewers able to feel the emotion of scenes.”

Lee plays To-woo, the rugged leader of proxy soldiers that existed in the Joseon era. In order to provide for their families, the soldiers would receive money from noblemen to go to war on their behalf, often dying in the process.

The film is set during the 1592 Imjin War between Joseon Kingdom and Japan. King Seonjo flees to the Ming Empire, and his son Prince Gwanghae is left to lead the royal court alone. The responsibility of protecting and guiding the young heir befalls on To-woo.

As he is for most of his roles, Lee was meticulous and detail-oriented in his approach, he said. He lowered his voice to a growl, and tried to put fear in his eyes.

“I wanted him to look like he would defeat anyone at war, but his eyes to be shaking with fear,” he said. 

Actor Lee Jung-jae poses for a photo before an interview in Palpan-dong, Seoul, Thursday. (Hohoho Beach)
Actor Lee Jung-jae poses for a photo before an interview in Palpan-dong, Seoul, Thursday. (Hohoho Beach)

Now 44, the actor’s passion for his craft is often eclipsed by his urbane exterior. But Lee has tackled a wide spectrum of roles over the years since being catapulted to popularity through the 1995 drama series “Sandclock,” playing the stoic bodyguard Jae-hee who guards the woman he loves from afar. Reports say that at the time, viewers would send ardent letters to the show’s broadcaster SBS, begging writers not to kill off the character, such was Lee’s popularity.

He went on to embody diverse characters -- a vivacious cat burglar in “The Thieves” (2012), a chilling warrior captain in “The Face Reader” (2013), a morally torn undercover officer in “New World” (2013) and a cunning villain in “Assassination” (2015).

“I work harder than people think to show very different sides (of myself) in each project,” said Lee. “There is so much preparation that goes in that viewers don’t directly see.

“I think most actors probably prefer characters that seem like challenges,” said Lee. “It’s a fun process searching for what is hidden (in the character) and what I can show.” 

"Warriors of the Dawn" (CJ Entertainment)

Last year, Lee set up an actors’ management agency with his longtime friend and fellow actor Jung Woo-sung, called Artist Company.

“It’s like a study group,” he said. “Actors get together and talk about scripts they’ve read. It’s a fun office.”

Despite his enthusiasm, Lee is yet to feel confident about his own capabilities.

“I wish I were a more skilled actor,” he answered when asked what worries him most.

At the same time, he believes hard work can make up for raw talent.

“I think people who work hard at their job are eventually headed for the right place, acting-wise,” he said. “If you do something for long enough, that little bit of talent you have might grow.”

“Warriors of the Dawn” will hit local theaters on May 31 and US theaters on June 16.

By Rumy Doo (