The Korea Herald


[Herald Interview] Nothing fazes Byun Joong-hee, who began acting at 64

By Kim Da-sol

Published : April 12, 2023 - 15:31

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Byun Joong-hee (INDIESTORY) Byun Joong-hee (INDIESTORY)

For Byun Joong-hee, who taught science at a Seoul boys’ middle school for 39 years, November is an especially nostalgic time. It was when her teachers’ drama troupe would put on its annual performance.

“I began acting by joining a small group of teachers who performed in plays for fun. But after my first performance, my lips were dry and I felt like my mouth was full of sand, even after drinking water. I came back home and the thought came to me while doing the dishes -- I need to become an actor,” the 71-year-old told The Korea Herald in Seoul on April 7.

For 60 years, Byun has focused on what was given to her. She is not the type of person who plans ahead -- she just accepted what was placed in front of her.

“To me, my experience as a teacher, meeting students, struggling to take care of my mother-in-law, I don’t want to let go of any of it. All these experiences are fertile soil for my acting,” she added.

Byun made her screen debut in 2016 in “Passing Over the Hill,” a short independent film, and a few years later, she won an award at the Seoul Independent Film Festival for her lead role in “Silver Delivery” (2020). In the film, Byun plays Jung-sook, a 70-year-old woman who works as a subway courier. Discovering that she has carried an illegal bankbook related to a crime, she burns it.

“I did not know what I was doing, although people said that I did a great job. All I did was star in ... Kim Na-yeon’s graduation work and change up my lines a bit to make them more natural for a woman in her 70s,”said Byun.

She takes her time flipping through the pages of the script and digests each line to make it her own, sometimes changing them into her own language, Byun explained.

She worked in a similar way for director Choi Chang-hwan’s latest project “The Layover,” where Byun appears as Eun-sil, a sick mother who spends the night at a hotel with her daughter You-jin after their flights to New York are canceled. Always thinking about her son, Byun compares him to the character of You-jin, who underwent surgery in secret so as to not worry her mother.

Byun Joong-hee from “The Layover” (INDIESTORY) Byun Joong-hee from “The Layover” (INDIESTORY)

“Director Choi wanted me and actor Kang Jin-ah to really look like a mother and daughter and ordered us to spend at least three nights together to get to know each other,” Byun said. Practicing her lines with Kang, Byun felt that the conversation did not feel like one that a mother and a daughter would have, she recalled. “It needed to be more casual, so I suggested to the director that I say the lines in my own language and he liked it,” she said.

After starring in actor Son Suk-ku’s directorial debut indie film “Unframed -- Rebroadcast,” released on local over-the-top platform Watcha last year, Byun said she got more casting calls.

“I really appreciate director Son for that. Thanks to the good director, I was super busy last year. But I did not just focus on appearing in new types of projects like season 2 of the SBS series “Taxi Driver.” I also took part in indie films. I worked with a mindset that the more you appear in various projects, the more you will learn,” Byun said, adding that dramas, films and OTT projects all have different energies but that it is only in indie films that she feels she is playing an active part.

“I see myself as a flower that has bloomed in its 60s. So I have nothing to worry about, compared to flowers that bloom in their younger days. I accept what’s given to me and I let go of what’s not given to me,” said Byun.

"It may sound less realistic, but that’s what is most important in one’s life as well as in acting,” she said.

“The Layover” starring Byun Joong-hee opened in local theaters on March 29.