Jung Woo-sung has probably read this interview: Actor known for honesty takes any and all feedback in constant effort to improve
The 47-year-old actor made his debut in 1994 with the movie “Beat,” receiving a rookie award at the 1996 Baeksang Awards. Twenty-three years later, he took home the Grand Prize at the 2019 Baeksang Awards on May 1, the most prestigious award any Korean actor could dream of.
Not only is he now one of the most recognized actors in the film industry, Jung is considered to be quite possibly the only actor who speaks his mind on sensitive social issues - especially Korea’s response to refugees.
Jung started working as an honorary ambassador for the United Nations’ Refugee Agency, the UNHCR, the first Korean to do so, and has since visited different refugee camps and donated 50 million won ($43,000) of his own money to related charities every year. This year, he visited Kutupalong Refugee Camp in Myanmar in May.
“If somebody says, ‘I feel like actor Jung Woo-sung could try a little more,’ then I take that opinion very seriously and try to think how I could improve,” said Jung. “It’s similar on the refugee issue. If I say something, people say something else, then I try to take their criticism in a reasonable way. Whichever side you’re on, you can’t get people to listen to you if you’re just being groundless and stubborn.”
Jung is said to be one of the most handsome actors in Korea, another thing he is quite happy talking about. Whenever reporters or fellow celebrities ask him what it feels like to be so good-looking, he says it feels “good and fresh.”
“I got asked that question so many times, and so I just answer it jokingly - I thought I was being very clever about it,” he said. “But I don’t believe that people can be scored on their looks. Everyone’s judgment will be subjective. Everybody shines in some way - actors just get more chances to show different sides of themselves than other people. I think that’s the reason why I’m lucky to have this job.”
Jung sat down with the Ilgan Sports, an affiliate of the Korea JoongAng Daily, a month after the Baeksang Awards. The following are edited excerpts of the interview in which the actor discussed film, life and society.
Q. You were honored by the 55th Baeksang Awards this year. Were you expecting it?
A. No. Honestly, not a bit. I knew that I was nominated for best actor, so that was the only thing I was hoping for. You know, when you get nominated, you get your hopes up.
When they called out Lee Sung-min, I was thinking, “I’ll go home quietly tonight, with just a glass of soju before I go.” I was feeling fine about it. Plus, [actor] Kim Hye-ja’s acceptance speech was so engaging and awesome. And so when they called out my name, I was shocked.
You’ve been in the film industry for so long that everyone, including your colleagues and fans, were happy for you when you received the award. How do you feel about their reactions?
Maybe I kept them waiting too long for this!
So many people have been watching the awards show, which I’m really grateful for. I think liking someone and being liked back takes trust. But at the same time, I don’t want to be trapped inside a frame that says, “You’ve done this. People look up to you in this way so you have to be like this.” I feel responsible in some ways, but I don’t want to be obsessed with anything. At the end of the day, all I can do is present you with good work and act.
People have started to view you in different ways. And as much support as you get, a lot of people criticize you, too. How do you feel about that?
I’m not lying when I say that I monitor every single reaction. I read articles, comments and even videos - I try not to miss out on anything.
Just seeing good things is not what I want. I think development comes when I take in different perspectives. But I feel sorry for those who attack me as a person without any reason, touch my personal life or have strong prejudice against me.
It’s highly likely that people who attack me without a proper reason feels some kind of deficiency in that way.
So does that mean you take real criticism on board?
Sure, I don’t shun it. In fact, I think back at myself. If somebody says that I could improve in a certain way after seeing my work, I try to think about why I made them feel like that and go back to the reason. I don’t want people to feel the same negativity from me.
The refugee issue is on the same level. If, when I speak my voice on matters like these, I get reasonable opposing views, then I take them. Whichever way you go, being ungrounded gives you no credibility.
If you want to speak your mind on something, you need to have solid reason to persuade other people. I think the discussions that we’re seeing these days are all a part of that.
More people have become interested in social issues, and you get so much feedback instantaneously. Have you felt that?
I wish people would become just that little bit more flexible with each other. Right now, we’re so rigid and it feels like we’re becoming less tolerant. Why not look a little to the sides, up and down, and see the whole picture, rather than just seeing the small part that’s right in front of your eyes?
Some rookie directors, when they’re filming, just look at the monitor with the sides of their eyes blocked with their hands. They would be able to feel the whole set if they took a step back, but they just don’t have the time to think about that. They try to find all their solutions within the monitor, regardless of the kind of problems. They’re trapped inside their thoughts and the monitor, then get angry at themselves for not solving anything.
Is there anything else you’ve learned?
You need to be polite to each other, whether you’re close to each other or not. When you see elderly people, they have had a lot of problems that occurred within their relationships, like guaranteeing someone’s debt and then running away. The moment they say, “You couldn’t do this little thing for me?” that’s when things start to fall apart.
It’s the same thing with dating violence or things like spy cams (and taking unwanted videos). Outrageous things happen when you ignore basic good manners in your relationships with people. It’s a downright crime, which should be punished accordingly. People take it as part of the gender controversy because women are often the victims, but it’s a bigger social issue that needs to be righted.
As an actor, everyone knows you’re handsome. Do you agree?
I actually didn’t know that what I said on a TV program would last this long. Honestly, I’ve been asked that question so many times. I said that [I know] because I didn’t really want to talk about it anymore, as a joke. I didn’t think it would be remembered for this long. Maybe I hit the right spot (laughs). But anyway, I’m making appropriate remarks now, but it’s not the best comment to get.
Is it because you have other standards of beauty?
I actually don’t believe that people can be told apart by their looks. If you make a statement on someone’s looks, then it’s inevitably subjective. But everybody shines in some way.
Actors just get to show that to more people on more occasions - which is a reason why I believe that it is a blessed job. Actors like Won Bin and Zo In-sung get called handsome everyday, but they could have just been the “good-looking next-door neighbor” if they didn’t become actors. The same goes for me, too. And maybe, I could have dated other people a bit more freely (laughs).
You have a lot of goals in mind, even directing your own movie. But what’s your goal as a person?
I want to be someone that people can look up to. Someone that younger actors can look up to, or younger people can look up to. I want to leave good footsteps behind for people to follow.
BY CHO YEON-GYEONG [firstname.lastname@example.org]